Why hasn’t God answered me?

Probably one of the things I struggle the most with God about is his timing, particularly why he doesn’t line his timetable up with mine.

Have you ever prayed like this? Lord, I’ve asked you to do something, and I’m pretty sure it’s consistent with your will, so I don’t understand why you don’t just go ahead and do it. Why make me wait?

Up till now he hasn’t given me the clear explanation I’ve asked for, and I’ve never been certain that I actually sped him up at all, but it never hurts to ask.

Maybe you can relate. Maybe you asked him to fix your marriage—after all, he wants you to have a happy marriage, right?—but you and the spouse are barely hanging on.

Maybe you asked him to soften your child’s rebellious heart—he doesn’t like obstinance, right?—but the kid you love so much is still loving life in that far country of disobedience.

Maybe you asked him to kill those cancer cells, fix that heart muscle, or do whatever needs to be done to that miserable autoimmune disorder—he doesn’t like sickness, right?—but the last checkup showed that God either isn’t listening or he’s waiting or he said no . . . again.

By the way, if any of this sounds like faithless whining, read a couple of Psalms—God’s okay with our pouring out our frustrations. He’s big enough to take it.

So how do we respond?

One tact is to put some pious-sounding phrase on it and pretend like that deals with the problem. God’s time is not our time, just trust in the Lord, all things work together for good, and so on.

I know all those are true, but sometimes I’d like something a little more concrete, a little more real, something that actually makes sense of what’s going on right now.

Here’s one possible answer, but be forewarned—it doesn’t make the problem go away, and believing it doesn’t necessarily mean God’s going to fix your deal by this time next Saturday.

Sometimes God puts us in difficult situations and then makes us wait to teach us something he wants us to learn.

That can be a difficult pill to swallow.

But think about it. He told Abraham he would be the father of thousands, then he closed Sarah’s womb while decades passed.

He let Joseph’s brothers betray and sell him, then let Potiphar’s wife falsely accuse him, then let him languish in prison for years.

He kept Hannah from having any children and blessed her husband’s other wife with multiple children, leaving Hannah drowning in despair.

And why?

It wasn’t because God intended to ignore Abraham’s prayers in the desert, Joseph’s cries from prison, or Hannah’s tearful requests in the small hours of the night.

That wasn’t it, because God eventually gave Abraham a son, got Joseph out of jail, and gave Hannah a little boy named Samuel.

But he waited and waited and waited . . . then answered. Why?

Maybe this isn’t earth-shattering, but I think this is it: God wants to teach us to trust him—a lesson we learn best in the schoolhouse called struggle.

When stuff’s going our way, we’re slow learners. We get complacent, self-centered, lazy. We look down, not up. We focus on us, not him. We live in the kingdom of me and mine.

When the sun is shining, we don’t learn the lesson we most need to learn.

But then the clouds gather, the wind blows, the rains fall.

And we look up. And learn to trust the One who controls the storm.

This is probably one of the hardest lessons God teaches us, but it’s also one of his most important.

When you’re crying and praying and begging, don’t think God’s turned his back. He’s right where he’s always been, and he cares. In fact, his love might be the reason he hasn’t answered yet.

But what he most wants for us is what’s best for us—which is to learn to look up and not down. And to trust that he’s loving and sovereign and will get it right. Just maybe not as quickly as we’d like.

He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:32)

What’s not at stake in this year’s presidential election

We’re here again. It seems like only yesterday when we were anxiously awaiting the 2012 election, and now we’re already debating, caucusing, accusing, and posturing for the next one. It’s going to be a long nine months. If you don’t like politics, it might be a good time to sign out of Facebook and log back on in about a year.

I want to say this is the most interesting presidential race I’ve ever witnessed—after all, The Donald is running!—but I say that every four years. It is fascinating, though, as it always is. Look at my record, one guy says. I’ll fix this country. But the other candidate shudders at the thought of her opponent sitting in the Oval Office. If you vote him in, we might as well move to Bangladesh.

Here’s a caveat: I’m not in the crowd that argues for Christians to disengage from the political process, though I’m sympathetic to their view. I still believe that we can be salt and light at the ballot box. I also don’t think we should just retreat to our little communes and sing Kum ba ya as the world spirals downward. God put us here to live, love, laugh, and light. Especially light.

Having said that, we Christians ought to state emphatically that the future of God’s kingdom doesn’t depend on who’s elected on November 8. I know you already know that, but I’d like to ask you to think about it again, and also make a commitment to let it show through in what you say and how you say it between now and the election, as well as how you act when your candidate wins or loses.

God rules in earthly kingdoms. He promotes and deposes, he blesses and thwarts, he gives power and takes it away.

He uses the good and the bad, and sometimes the wicked. He even uses cruel leaders to teach his people the lessons they wouldn’t otherwise learn.

God’s ways are inscrutable, and we sometimes find his choices to be inexplicable. The prophets wrestled with this, often voicing their doubts about the way God worked. How can you use wicked Babylon to punish your chosen people, Lord? Sometimes God answered with silence, and sometimes he answered with “trust me.” I’ve wrestled with God a few times over the people he chose to give power to, but I know he knows better than I do. It’s a good thing God doesn’t always do what I ask him to, you know? Our God is bigger than that, and we wouldn’t want it any other way.

He also uses good rulers. He blessed Israel when David reigned, and good rulers like Josiah and Hezekiah helped the nation to walk more closely with God.

But America isn’t a theocracy, of course, as Israel was. There’s a big distinction between the kingdoms of earth and the Kingdom of God. America has never been and will never be a holy nation or a people for God’s own possession.

That’s the church, God’s elect people whom he’s called to be a light-reflecting community of believers to a dark world. When we get too comfortable down here with the kingdoms of earth, we tend to forget about God’s rule. When we’re pessimistic or optimistic based on who’s living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, we’re focused on the wrong throne.

Sometime late Tuesday evening on November 8, we’ll know who our next President will be. We’ll be happy or sad, excited or discouraged, but we shouldn’t get too ecstatic or too dejected.

That same night two speeches will be given: a concession speech and a victory speech. It might be that the candidate you voted for gives the gracious, we-fought-hard-but-came-up-short speech. He’ll try to hide his disappointment, and he’ll speak optimistically about future political prospects.

But everyone knows what he’s saying—his speaking and campaigning and hand-shaking and baby-kissing didn’t capture enough hearts, so he lost. He concedes.

But don’t let there be a concession speech in your heart or on your lips, because we know something that lots of folks don’t. Our King wasn’t on the ballot, and he doesn’t rule by popular vote.

And to make it even sweeter, he already gave his victory speech, and we’re just waiting for the procession to begin. In the big scheme of things, this election just isn’t a huge deal, so we shouldn’t act like it is.

Jesus took his seat at God’s right hand about 2,000 years ago, and the world will never have an election that changes that.

My fake Yeti

For the last year or two I’ve wanted a Yeti bottle—supposedly the best in the business at keeping hot stuff hot or cold stuff cold—so I put it on my Christmas wish list. On Christmas morning I was excited to open an insulated bottle from my family, but then I noticed that it was a brand I’d never heard of. As it turns out, the Christmas rush had caused local dealers to sell out of the Yeti models, but they had another brand in stock. To tease my family, I started calling it my “fake Yeti”—the kind of bottle you get when you can’t get the real thing. [By the way, I love my “fake Yeti”—it keeps coffee scalding hot for hours—and I think it might be as good or even better than the Yeti I asked for . . .]

Most of the time it doesn’t work like that, though, because offshoots are almost always inferior. The salesman says it’s just as good as the real thing, only cheaper. He’s right about the cheaper but not about the just-as-good. The Gibson guitar knockoff won’t set you back as much, but it won’t play as well either. The lawn mower you bought on the cheap was priced right for a good reason—something you figure out three weeks into mowing season. The same is true for pretty much everything, from the tires you put on your car to the shoes you put on your feet. The real thing is almost always better than the fake thing, which is why the cliché became a cliché: you get what you pay for.

But it’s one thing when we’re talking about coolers or guitars and quite another when we’re thinking about faith. The former might be frustrating, but the latter can be devastating.

Paul gave his understudy Timothy the best compliment ever when he said he knew that the young preacher’s faith was “sincere” (2 Timothy 1:5). The underlying root word literally means unhypocritical. It’s genuine, true, and real. Not a lookalike, not a façade, not an offbrand.

In a sense, there’s no such thing as a knockoff Christian, because an empty faith isn’t faith at all.

When asked what turned them away from Christianity, non-Christians most frequently say it’s the hypocrisy. I think we can respond to that in two ways: we might say that even if it’s true it’s no reason to let them keep you out of the church, and we’d be right but not too helpful.

Or we can look at ourselves and admit that it’s true, or at least truer than we’d like to believe. When Christianity is embedded in a culture—which it is in parts of the world—then churches’ rolls are peppered with cultural Christians. They join a church because that’s what people here do, and joining has all sorts of benefits: a place to find friends, business contacts, or maybe even an attractive girl or guy if you’re in the market.

Christianity becomes something that people do because it’s popular or convenient or helpful, but when it loses those traits then they lose it. It’s superficial and expendable, something you can take off and replace like last year’s clothing styles.

So here’s a thought to consider: this is one of the worst problems we face in Christianity today. Sure, there’s the New Atheism movement, the rise of secularism, and lots of other dangerous isms.

But none is as detrimental as the allure of convenient Christianity. It promises a lot and asks little. Give Jesus a little of your time, a little of your effort, a little of your heart. But not too much, because that might be uncomfortable.

What makes it even more devastating is that when people buy into Christianity-lite, they’ve got enough religion to make them feel religious, but not enough Jesus to make them feel convicted.

What about you and me? Is our faith real? Is it all-encompassing? Does it shape what we think, how we talk, what we hope for?

Or is it just another thing on our list?

It’s fine to go ahead and buy the knock-off shoes and the wanna-be top-of-the-line guitar. You might not be able to tell the difference.

But don’t play around with faith—Jesus called us to something bigger than blending in.

What I learned in a hospital room

As a minister I’ve visited hospitals a lot over the years, usually for a surgery or sickness that kept the patient in the hospital for a day or two, maybe longer. Occasionally, though, it’s different. Sometimes people are facing the day that in some sense they’ve always feared.

Last week I went to see a Christian friend whose doctors had said those words that no wife or husband, no son or daughter, no parent or friend ever wants to hear: There’s nothing more we can do. Call the family in. We’ll keep him comfortable.

Even when someone has lived his life as a servant of Jesus—as this friend has—it’s sad. Not for the person who’s going to be with the Lord, but for the ones left behind. The sorrow is tempered by hope, but it’s still sorrow. It still hurts those who love him.

A couple of months back a chaplain at a nearby hospital called and said he had a patient from another state who had just been told by her doctors that she had inoperable cancer. She had no family close by, and her church family was hours away, but she wanted a minister from the Church of Christ to come pray with her. I was torn—I was thankful that praying with her might bring her some comfort, but it was hard to walk into that room.

A few years ago I got a call from someone I didn’t know in another state, and she asked if I would visit a relative of hers who was in a local hospital. I agreed, of course, but when I got to the hospital I realized the situation was more serious than I thought. He was alone in ICU and was in critical condition. I prayed with him, and he seemed to understand what was happening, then he stopped breathing. I summoned the nurses, and they walked in and took over. I didn’t know what to do next—what do you do when in an instant someone steps from this world into eternity?

When you’re in the presence of death your first concern is for the people who are most intimately affected—the person himself, and then his family and close friends. You want to do what you can to comfort them, to bring them peace, to help them feel God’s presence.

But then, inevitably, comes self-reflection. This introspection is natural, I think, and probably part of what the Teacher meant when he wrote, “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart” (Eccl. 7:2). He’s talking about funerals, but ICUs and ERs probably work almost as well.

That day is coming for me, we think. One day my spouse or parent or best friend will be lying in a bed like that one. What will I wish I had done? What will I wish I had said?

And then even closer to home, one day I’ll be lying on that bed. What will matter then? My hobby, my job? My house, my car, my things?

On that day, I won’t think a lot about much of what occupies my thinking now. I won’t fret over the outcome of the football game, the worrisome noise in the SUV, the minor annoyances of life.

But I’ll want to know that I’ve walked with Jesus. Like my friend in ICU, I’ll want to know that I helped the people around me to know the Lord.

I’ll have regrets, but I’ll find peace in knowing that God won’t hold them against me. Jesus put them on his shoulders and carried them up Golgotha’s hill—every thoughtless word, every unkind act, every impure thought. He became my sin so that I might become his sinlessness. He took on my guilt so that I could be clothed in his innocence.

When that day comes for you and me, that’s all that’ll matter—our life with Jesus, and the corollary effects it had on our relationships with others. Then, when we take that first tentative step into the unseen realm, we’ll fall headlong into the arms of the one who showed his love by becoming one of us. The one who tasted an earthly death so we could avoid an eternal one.

Maybe I can paraphrase the Teacher’s words like this: “It’s better to go to an ICU room than to a dining room, because the hospital teaches us what’s most important.”

******

p.s. By the way, the doctors were wrong about my friend last week, and he continues to fight for his life. Pray that God will grant him more years of service in the kingdom. Being with him and his family last week spurred many of these thoughts, but I’m not the only one who has learned from his life—and also from how he and his family have faced this difficult time.