God’s Love, Prayer, and Suffering: Preventing bitterness and cultivating hope

Today's guest blogger is Whitney Standlea. You will find more of her writings here. Blessings! 

My mom recently faced some serious medical issues. I love her. Naturally, with great concern I prayed for her and shared her situation with friends so that they might pray as well. Among many other things we prayed that God would heal her or allow treatment to work effectively on her behalf. We do this all the time, and so do you. The majority of prayer requests we hear from others are related to suffering (usually health issues) of some kind. We pray that the surgery will go well, that the cancer won’t come back, that the kids will get better, that Grandma’s hip would heal, that the baby would be moved out of the NICU…

Many people who do not love and follow the Lord Jesus Christ still pray, and pray primarily about these types of requests. They are not on their knees praying for the salvation of the lost, strength to love their enemy, or unity in the church. They are praying that people will get better. Day after day they pray, and some folks get better, some folks get worse, and some folks die. How does this effect a person’s understanding of and response to God?

I believe that how we respond to God’s answers to our prayer for relief from suffering (whether our own suffering, or someone else that we love) rests primarily on our definition of God’s love and the purpose of His sovereignty in our circumstances. Let’s take a look…

Jillian. Her Dad is dying with cancer. She’s a good mom of two kids and she wants them to grow up knowing the dad she loves so much. She and everyone she knows are praying that the treatments work. Jillian has a simple understanding of God’s love: God cares about people and wants them to be happy. He’s there to take care of them, provide for them and love them, as long as they are good people. Jillian is a good person and she prays to God. Jullian assumes that God will care for her, provide for her and give her a good, happy life. If she believes that God’s love means that God is going to do whatever He can to preserve her happiness and well-being, then God most definitely should answer these earnest prayers. What happens when He doesn’t? Jillian would have to conclude one of two things… God really doesn’t love her, or God really wasn’t able to heal her father. So Jullian is left being angry with God for His unloving disposition toward her or disappointed with God because He is weak and powerless.

This is why a clear understanding of God’s love is absolutely essential to responding to trials in life. Let’s fix Jillian’s definition….

 Love is making much of Christ.  Yes. I stole this definition from John Piper.

I think a little quote from C. S. Lewis helps explain: “God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.” We often think of love in terms of making someone happy. If you love your wife, you are going to do things that make her happy: mow the lawn, buy flowers, answer the phone when she calls, say kind words. But if we push happiness to its fullest end we see that the only real happiness and joy is found in God Himself, manifest in the glory of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. [I’m not going to establish this from Scripture in this particular post, although it could be done. I’m assuming you agree with me on this statement for now.] So God, in the truest sense of the word, loves us by relentlessly pursuing glory for Himself and His Son Jesus Christ, knowing that when we see His great glory and rest in Him we will have real joy. For God to settle for anything less than that would be essentially unloving. All in all, God is not about giving us what we think will make us “happy,” but rather giving us what will drive us to Him. This is one of the reasons why, while sovereign over it and able to stop it, God continues to allow the devastating consequences of sin to plague the world with sufferings of various kinds.

Let’s go back to my mom. As she receives treatment, how should I respond if it is ineffective? What should I say to God if I pray for healing, and instead my mother loses her hearing, or her life? As I think of God’s love for me (As I think of how God will make much of Christ to me), I consider Romans 8:25 and following:
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. [I can pray with confidence that my petitions are being presented by the Spirit to the Father, and He is even asking what I know not to ask for on my own behalf. He cares about me, about my mother, and about everything that I am hurting over.]

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. [I know that what I face will CERTAINLY be used by God to work out my good… which is that He would make much of Christ in my life so that I would be more like Christbecause of my trials.]

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 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? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

[Ha! If Christ has justified me, I am certain of God’s love for me. If Christ was raised from the dead, I am certain of God’s sovereign power to exercise that love toward me in any circumstance.]

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Nothing can separate us from the love that God has shown us. Lo, Christ is with us always and God will always be making much of His glorious Son in my life-even if it comes through trials and difficulties and prayers that aren't answered the way I'd like.] (Romans 8:26-39 ESV)