I grew up in a Pentecostal family and culture that said that when something was going wrong or when life was tough, you would “bring it to Jesus in prayer.” I think that approach is right and good.
The next part is a little tricky. What was the expectation after bringing something to Jesus in prayer? My sense was that by bringing my situation to Jesus in prayer, something should happen to make my situation better. And, yes, sometimes, I would feel better, more strengthened and encouraged to face life. Sometimes, my lot did improve. So, again, I am not saying that this expectation is completely inappropriate or wrong.
At other times, however, I did not feel better and it did not seem that my lot improved after bringing something to Jesus in prayer. At least, that is how it all seemed to me. When I experienced this, I wondered a number of things: Why did Jesus not act now like he did previously? Is there something wrong with me? Did I do something wrong?
What I had to learn through these latter experiences was a feature of the Christian life that is very difficult to grasp, and that is:
God does not always respond the way we want; God does not always give us what we think we need; God does not always “show up” in powerful and awesome ways.
Does this mean that God is mean and unfair? No. But what it does mean is that God’s plans and our plans may be different. This is a very hard thing to wrap our minds around, especially when we are talking about suffering, loss, pain, and yes, death. At this point, the prayers of Jesus can prove helpful. His prayer to the Father at the Garden of Gethsemane (“let this cup pass”) and his prayer on the cross (“why have you forsaken me?”) show that even for Jesus, there was a sense of tension related to the means and ways of living out the Father’s will.
As I have wrestled with this very hard lesson, I have looked not only to Scripture but to the history of the church for help, and one of the persons who has helped me tremendously has been St. John of the Cross (1542-1591). John had a hard life, which included being wrongfully imprisoned by no less than church people.
What John came to realize and reflect on in his famous work “The Dark Night” is that the “spiritual highs” we feel in worship and prayer constitute just one part of the Christian life. In fact, these may constitute only the “beginner’s level” of the spiritual life. God’s plans may also involve weaning us from these over time so that we can grow stronger and more mature in our walk. Just like muscles develop through stress and duress, it can be said that humans do, too. We learn and grow more in the hard times than in the easy times. Maybe, just maybe, when we don’t sense God’s presence or hear God’s voice in prayer, this is all God’s process of helping us mature in Christ. Maybe the spiritual dryness and darkness represent ways God is using to help us rely on God more steadily in the ups and downs.
Maybe the spiritual dryness and darkness represents ways God is using to help us rely on God more steadily in the ups and downs.
I know. This is a radical way of thinking. And I realize that in some cases, this approach just does not seem to work. What about those who suffer from chronic conditions? Or those who suffer from mental disease? Can this model work for them? There is a chance that in many such cases, this model is quite inappropriate for many different reasons.
But the model does have some merit because it helps us think differently about God’s presence in our lives than what may come naturally. God, after all, is not in the business of making us “feel good.” God is in the business of healing and transforming us into Christ’s image, and this not simply for our sake but for the sake of the world. And given how serious this work is, it can be demanding.
God, after all, is not in the business of making us “feel good.”
Growth can be tough. As Jesus’ life shows us, doing the Father’s will can be hard. It can lead to bearing a cross. But it is ultimately life-giving to us and those we serve.
Dr. Castelo’s latest book, Pentecostalism as a Christian Mystical Tradition, further engages Pentecostalism with mystical streams of historic Christianity. It can be purchased here: https://www.amazon.com/Pentecostalism-as-Christian-Mystical-Tradition/dp/0802869564