By Cory Wessman —
I suffer from a condition I call “prayer shell shock.” While ascribing complete control of all life events to God, I have tended towards an overly fatalistic view of life and, relatedly, a passive view of prayer. In general, I do not pray in anticipation of the biblical promises that God will listen to and act upon our prayers for our benefit and for His glory. Particularly after our own significant suffering—the sudden death of our infant son Micah in 2009—I have tended to downplay the applicability of prayer. I have reasoned that if God is sovereign, what good comes from prayer, if God’s purposes will be achieved regardless of what I do?
On the morning of Friday, November 30, 2018, I began my day by praying through Psalm 34. Just two days earlier, my wife Heather had received an unexpected breast cancer diagnosis. That morning, I prayed that just as God had delivered David from Saul and the Philistines, God would deliver Heather from cancer.
“I sought the Lord, and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears. Those who look to him are radiant, and their faces shall never be ashamed. This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him and saved him out of all his troubles” Psalm 34:4-6.
But rather than immediately answering prayer, God seemed to “double down” on our suffering. As I was closing my Bible that morning, my phone rang. “It’s your brother, Scott,” my father said. “He’s had some sort of heart attack and we don’t know if he’s going to make it.” He reported that my younger brother had been found unresponsive by his wife in bed in the middle of the night. She had administered CPR on Scott, and when the first responders arrived at their suburban Chicago residence, they had to use shock pads to restart his heart. Scott was rushed to a hospital and placed in a medically-induced coma. As of that morning, we didn’t know the cause of the heart issues, how long he had gone without oxygen, whether he would retain any brain function, and whether he would recover from his coma.
Heather and I rushed to Chicago to be with my family. Once there, all I could see were the similarities between Scott’s situation and my son Micah’s death 10 years ago. I struggled to trust that God would answer our prayer in a manner different than He did with Micah. The circumstances surrounding Micah’s accident and subsequent death and Scott’s comatose state appeared to be completely random and unexpected. Micah and Scott were both perfectly healthy then stopped breathing and were taken by ambulance to a hospital where each of them was hooked up to ventilator. When we removed the ventilator from Micah in July of 2009, he had no brain activity and he died. As I arrived to see my brother in that same state, I wondered if I would suffer the double grief of seeing both a son and a brother die in substantially similar fashion. I knew only death from oxygen loss; why should we expect anything else here?
But God answered my prayers, and the prayers of so many others, in providing healing to both Scott and Heather. By noon of Saturday, December 1 ,Scott exhibited signs of brain function as he was taken out of the medically-induced coma. Since that time, Scott’s health has gradually improved, and he has even returned to work. In mid-January, Heather went through a double mastectomy and, with the prayer and logistical support of many RBC families, has experienced a good recovery. In mid-February, Heather and I met with an oncologistwho reported Heather as being completely cancer-free!
As I consider my own passive view of prayer in light of these recent events, I have meditated on three principles:
God Changes Us Through Prayer. First, God uses the trials uniquely designed for each of us, and our resulting struggles in prayer, to change our hearts. Paul prayed that the Colossian church would " …be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” Colossians 1:9-10. As a creature stuck in time and space, we don’t how a particular trial will end. But as we struggle in prayer, God teaches us about Himself. Those lessons are useful not only for our present circumstances, but for future sufferings as well. While it is true that God does not need my prayers, God uses my prayers to make me more like Him.
In my case, God purposefully created a set of circumstances for my brother so similar to the circumstances surrounding my son’s death ten years ago that there could be no mistake—He is indeed Lord of all, and He can, if He chooses, answer all of our prayers. God allowed me to struggle with brain waves, breathing machines, and comas to teach me that He is, ultimately, claiming victory over all of our circumstances. Through prayer, I leverage the lessons learned from past sufferings for current and future sufferings so that I can increase in my knowledge of who God is and wisely walk in trusting reliance upon Him.
Earthly Victory. Second, God calls us to pray for earthly victory. In Psalm 54, David prays, “O God, save me by your name, and vindicate me by your might…Behold, God is my helper; the Lord is the upholder of my life. For he has delivered me from every trouble, and my eye has looked in triumph on my enemies” (11, 4, 7). David sought the Lord’s hand to gloat over his enemieswith his own eyes during his earthly lifetime. He relied upon God’s promises to him as the basis to believe that God would give himearthly victory. Just as God provided David harrowing escapes from Saul, the King of Gath, and the Philistines, so also God provided Scott with a narrow escape from death. Rather than a c’estla vie, live-and-let-live, passive approach to what might happen to us, we can follow David’s example and pray bold prayers. We know that God can work through heart treatments, double mastectomies, and thousands of other ways to answer our prayers for earthly victories.
Ultimate Victory. Third, we pray because even if we do not receive the earthly victories we seek, we are assured that God will work for our ultimate victory. On the night before his crucifixion, Jesus prayed fervently for deliverance from the impending torture and death that was upon him. In praying as he did, Jesus assured us that it is indeed appropriate to ask God for relief from pain, avoidance of grief, or release from other difficult earthly circumstances. We can come to God in prayer just as we are without any spiritual facade.
We pray in humble expectancy of results because, whether God chooses to fulfill His promises to us now or later, we are all prosperity preachers in the long-run. We exchange the prospect of ongoing earthly suffering for the certainty of long-term victory. The eternal victory over sin that Christ secured for us gives us the right to ask God for reprieve from the physical maladies of sin, whether it be cancer, sickness, divorce or financial poverty. Like David, we ought to pray in expectancy of a certain result and continue to return to the source of our strength, even when we don’t receive the answer we seek.
Through David’s words in Psalm 34, God promises that “those who look to him are radiant,” and “their faces shall never be ashamed” (34:5). As Jesus was beaten and then died on that wooden cross, his physical features were the exact opposite of those in Psalm 34. Jesus’ face at the time was most assuredly not “radiant.” Yet God ultimately came through on the promise of Psalm 34:5, just as He does with all His promises. According to Hebrews 1:3, Jesus’ face is now, and shall forever be, the “radiance of God’s glory.” God’s answer to Jesus’ prayer accomplished nothing short of the salvation of all the redeemed.
During our earthly lifetimes, we might experience cancer cells, breathing tubes, heart attacks, poor family relationships and lonely nights. While I will not have all of my prayers answered in the manner that I desire, I pray that I am able to leverage the recent answers to our prayers for the health of my wife and brother into an active prayer struggle with God. In each of our earthly prayer victories is a placeholder for the ultimate redemption of all past earthly sufferings, and the victory we will ultimately experience over sin and death.