A gracEmail subscriber writes: “Recently my dad died at age 62. A month later, my best friend died at age 37, leaving a widow and a three-year-old daughter. Many Christians in many places were praying for both men to survive and to be healed. It seems like God has an appointed day for our deaths. If so, what good does it do to pray?”
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The question you raise is one of the oldest in recorded human history and also one of the most inexplicable. In a world where evil exists (and death is the ultimate earthly evil because it is both total and final so far as our present bodily existence is concerned), thoughtful people always ask “Why?” For people of faith, the moral question is more serious: “If God is both powerful and good, why does he allow evil?” Your religious questions then follow concerning prayer: “If God answers prayer, why is my prayer unanswered? If my prayer goes unanswered, why bother to pray?”
The biblical book of Job (the narrative of which probably fits chronologically somewhere among the Genesis stories) wrestles with these questions but does not provide any clear answers. Job is a godly man who prays every day for his children. Yet God specifically allows the Adversary to destroy Job’s children, his personal property and his physical and emotional health. Job’s theological friends insist that the solution is simple: God is just, Job has sinned and he is getting what he deserves. Job, who knows that he is pious if not perfect, defends his own innocence before his friends and before God himself and demands an explanation from God.
Eventually God responds to Job with an “Enough already!” and silences the devout questioner with a volley of divine questions that say in effect: “I am God and you are not.” Through it all Job hopes in God, asserting a personal faith that God will vindicate him even beyond death, which will never have the final word. This expression of faith brings the larger story full circle and proves the Adversary wrong who, in the prologue to the book, had alleged that Job would renounce all faith in God under the circumstances which then followed. Although the book of Job does not answer the questions that trouble us now, it provides a larger perspective in which we can trust God despite the present darkness.
The story of Jesus provides even more context for faith under fire. After publicly proclaiming Jesus to be his “beloved Son,” God proceeds to permit Jesus to suffer and die in horrible pain, apparent abandonment and public disgrace. Before the weekend is over, however, God changes forever the way his people view death itself by bringing Jesus back to life in a glorified body belonging to a new and eternal dimension. The faithful Father has vindicated his faithful Son and, by so doing, has demonstrated himself worthy of unwavering trust as the all-powerful and all-loving master over time and eternity. Why pray? Because God invites us to do so and, in ways and for reasons we cannot now comprehend, our prayers sometimes make a difference in what would otherwise happen. Like Job, we trust God in the dark. Because of Jesus, however, a blinding shaft of light has pierced through the darkness, illuminating a path of faith that finally leads to the visible presence of God.