When I was young in the faith, it seemed as though my prayers made a straight b-line to the Father and he answered them accordingly. It showed me that he really hears and cares. But more important, that this Christian thing was real. Not only that, but there were the extras, you know the things you just didn’t expect that came out of the blue. Sure there were bumps and trials, but God had a way of showing his faithfulness in an apparent and expeditious way.
Of course, I believed by faith that Jesus was alive, seated at the right hand of the Father, making intercession for me. I believed it because that’s what I read in the Bible and heard in sermons. But there’s nothing like actually experiencing the delight of answered prayers with something that comes through just at the right time. And the extras are even better.
But as I’ve grown in the faith a funny thing happened. The trials have grown longer. Prayers don’t immediately get answered. Disappointments set in. Failures occur. What you want, you don’t always get. In fact, I have discovered that you can receive the opposite of what you are hoping and praying for. Compound this with the greater awareness of sin and brokenness, when stuff you didn’t even realize was an issue comes to light.
The reason is simple. Our story is playing out in context of God’s grand redemptive plan. To be clear, when I say redemptive, I don’t just mean being saved from our sins, though it does include that. But I mean the drama that is unfolding at God’s sovereign hand where he directs according to his plans in the extraordinary intricate way he interacts with his creation until the day he brings everything into consummation of his kingdom.
In that redemptive plan, he is molding and shaping his children into the image of his dear Son. As new creations, we come with baggage – something endemic in our human nature that wants to rule and seek self-satisfaction that turns us myopically inward. It’s been my experience both personally and observationally, that God will chip away at objects of our affections in which we have placed our hope in our trust for identity and significance. He wants to purge the hindrances that keep us from experiencing the riches of his love. He wants for us to experience the fullness of life in him.
And we also have scriptural support for this sanctification process. The writer of Hebrews says that Jesus is the author and perfecter of our faith (12:1) and then explains how that involves the discipline of the Father;
And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? ‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.’ It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is creating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline. If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Heb. 12:5-11)
While discipline can be punitive, it doesn’t necessarily mean that. It is formative and for our Christian walk, transformative. But it sucks and it hurts, especially when enduring extended trials that drag on for years, unanswered prayers, disappointments and failures. and the removal of things (or people) that we would rather have in our lives. There’s a part of you that just wants to give up.
And this is the challenge of maturing faith. When you recognize that God will not answer that prayer according to how you wanted, or let that business die or that loss to occur, or allow that person to walk out of your life, or remove the safety of consistent employment, and so on. You can get tempered into believing that he might not necessarily come through because of the disciplinary process.
This makes prayer challenging also. The child-like, innocent faith of the early years where you just knew God would come through gives way to doubt. It’s not that you doubt God’s goodness or faithfulness (although that can be a factor also). But after so many disappointments and failures, you wonder if your prayers are in vein. “Will you do this Lord?” becomes a nagging question. The Lord will have his way.
Now, don’t get me wrong. This is not a statement of defeat but an observation. I’m not advocating to just throw our hands in the air and give up. Not at all. Keep praying, keep seeking, keep knocking. Keep bowing the knee to Christ and trusting in him. There is no other place to go, as Jesus told Peter in John 6:66-69. I just think we need to be honest about what happens when you’ve gone through the disciplinary process for a bit and realize that thinking God won’t let it get any worse, sometimes it does. I like what Wendy Alsup says here When God Takes You on a Detour;
Never, ever in Scripture is faith portrayed as a steady positive climb. It’s portrayed as mountains and valleys, raging rivers and dry deserts. He leads us by still waters where we can drink deeply. But it is in preparation for walking through the valley of the shadow of death. His instruction to remember is key for surviving the drought and enduring through the valleys.
But she rightly acknowledges that the bare and desperate times are a cause to remember God’s faithfulness. Surely, these times challenge and test our faith as it should. It shows what is in our heart and that exposure eventually produces fruit. But in that doubt and confusion, we can rest in the promises that God sees and knows, even when we don’t.