Most of you have likely heard of the devastating earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria this past week. As of today, the death toll is above 30,000. I have been in a sizable earthquake in Central Asia in the past and can only begin to guess the terror and trauma that so many millions have experienced as cement buildings came suddenly crashing down while they slept. Now, as we enter the second week after the earthquake, it’s likely to fade out of the news cycle. However, praying and supporting the relief work going on is just as important as ever.
Send Relief is a trustworthy Christian organization that we have partnered closely with in the past, even for this very thing, providing relief in the aftermath of devastating earthquakes. Financial support through them will get to those in need, through their trusted partners on the ground. I have seen firsthand how their work can result not only in caring for the suffering after a disaster but can also lead to chances for the suffering to also hear the gospel. If you’ve been unsure about where or how to give, consider giving through Send Relief here.
They’ve also listed some pressing prayer needs on their website, which I will list here as well. May God answer these prayers, be merciful to so many who are grieving, and shine the light of the gospel even through this tragedy.
Pray for the millions of people displaced from their homes and sleeping in the streets across Southeast Turkey and Northern Syria. Pray for the people who have no place to go and weathering the cold in search of shelter. Pray that the Lord would be their stronghold in times of trouble (Psalm 9:9).
Three major airports were damaged in the earthquakes, which has severely limited international rescue and relief efforts. Pray that roads and runways would be opened soon so that help can arrive swiftly.
In Syria, the areas impacted were already experiencing severe shortages of food, water, electricity and heat. With over four million internally displaced peoples in the affected region of Syria, the casualties are expected to be great. Pray for the few believers in this area to show the love of Christ to their neighbors.
In Turkey, pray for the local churches and believers to respond as the hands and feet of Christ. Pray for Turks who are feeling lost and hopeless—that the God who Sees would meet them where they’re at and reveal the unending love of Christ.
Pray for one church in Southeast Turkey whose building was destroyed by the earthquake. Praise the Lord that the church is not a building, but the people of God! Pray that God strengthens them as they rebuild and that the body of Christ would grow in numbers and strength.
Once again, here is the link to Send Relief’s website where you can give or access more resources for prayer.
This post is part two in a series on Jesus and the suffering of his people from John 11. You can read part one here, part three here, and part four here.
Jesus explains the Father for us. The eternal Son makes the Father understandable for us. As we mentioned in part one, this interpretive principle is vital for us if we seek to read John 11 and understand what Jesus’ dealings with his friends have to do with us and our own suffering and deaths. We have seen that Jesus said no to the good, faith-filled request of Mary and Martha for the healing of their brother – a request completely in line with Jesus’ character. And so we can know that the Father can also say no to our good faith-filled requests that are consistent with his character.
Today’s point will begin to answer some of the why when God denies our good requests, when he allows his people to experience profound suffering. Specifically, we’ll see in John 11 Jesus’ motive for saying no, and two of his good purposes. It’s not until the end of the story that we’ll be able to reconcile this motive and these purposes with Jesus’ conduct, but they are presented to us at the beginning of the story so that we might know and wrestle with what Jesus says, striving to somehow believe that it is true, even though we can’t yet put the pieces together. The point we will seek to flesh out today is that Jesus says no to good requests because of love, and for the sake of greater glory and faith.
 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.  It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill.  So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”  But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.  So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.  Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.”  The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?”  Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world.  But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.”  After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.”  The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.”  Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep.  Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died,  and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”  So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
John 11:1-16, ESV
Jesus says no to a good request for Lazarus’ healing because of love, and for the sake of greater glory and faith. This is why he lets his dear friend die and Mary and Martha’s world come undone. We see this motive of love and these purposes of glory and increased faith in verses 1-16.
The cause-and-effect grammar of verses 5 and 6 is unmistakable. Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. So, he stays put and lets Lazarus die. Because he loves them, he says no. Because he loves them, he allows their suffering and death. Our own logic and emotions may want to reject this kind of connection, but it is crystal clear in the text, daring us to believe it in spite of everything. Somehow, we will eventually be able to clearly trace Jesus’ conduct toward this family to his love for them. Although at this point, verses 5 and 6 likely serve to make our disorientation worse. “We know he loved them, so why is he treating them like this? How is this possibly consistent with love?”
We also see in this passage how Jesus’ goal through these events, his aims, are greater glory and greater faith. Right away in verse 4, he tells the disciples that Lazarus’ sickness “does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Whatever the enigmatic statement means that Lazarus’ sickness does not lead to death, it is clear that a greater display of the Father and the Son’s glory is going to come because of it. And what follows when the glory of God is displayed? The increased faith of his people. “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe” (11:14-15). Somehow, Lazarus’ death is going to lead to a display of God’s glory, and that glory is going to grow the faith of God’s people who see it and hear about it. These things are so certain in the mind of Jesus that he can even be glad for the coming greater faith of his disciples, as he looks ahead to the end of the story.
Notice here the genuine complexity of Jesus’ emotions, an important theme in this story. He is able to hold both gladness and sorrow for his friends, sovereignty and grief. His love for his friends would have meant genuine grief at the news of Lazarus’ sickness and the knowledge of his death. We see this grief spill over later in the chapter. Yet at the same time that he knows his dear friend has died he is able to be glad for the sake of his disciples, as he keeps in mind the glory and faith that is coming through this tragedy. Jesus holds these emotions in tension at the same time, and because of his humanity we can understand how this might be possible. Who hasn’t felt profound grief at the same time as gladness at seeing a friend or relative give a courageous eulogy at the funeral of a loved one? We are crushed by the loss, and yet we are also profoundly glad for what that loss has drawn out of the one speaking up front. We see this kind of authentic complexity in Jesus’ affections in this story and it helps us – because we want to deny God that same kind of authentic complexity in the midst of our own suffering. “He can’t truly be loving and sovereign at the same time, his love must be a sham.” But Jesus in John 11 confronts us with another reality, a truer window into the heart of God when we suffer.
But can we say from the rest of scripture that this is indeed true of God? Does God really allow suffering because of his love for his people and for the sake of greater glory and faith? Here I am reminded of Genesis 50, and Joseph’s response to his brothers when they fear he will take his revenge on them for the great suffering they inflicted on him in their youth. But Joseph’s response is one that acknowledges the good purposes of God in his suffering. “‘As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.’ Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them” (Gen 50:19-21). Joseph responds kindly to his brothers because he has seen God’s kindness in his past slavery and imprisonment. God was working life for countless others through his pain and loss. This kind of sovereign love reveals God’s glory, and that revealed glory changes hearts, infusing them with faith and kindness toward others.
The difference between Joseph and where we find ourselves in John 11 and so often in our own suffering is that he is looking back at the beautiful threads of God’s motive and purposes revealed in history. We, on the other hand, are still in the dark, called to believe in Jesus’ love and working greater glory and faith when we can’t yet see how that can possibly make sense. This kind of position is the sort of crucible that proves genuine faith. It’s easy to believe when we see it. But when everything in our experience screams that God cannot possibly be good in this situation, when we strain our eyes of faith and can’t see anything good, that is when Jesus’ promises – and our faith in them – matter most.
I remember the pre-baptism conversation the men in our church-plant had with Hank*, a former Mullah in training from a city well-known for its Islamic radicals. In the previous months, Hank’s wife had abandoned him when she’d learned of his faith in Jesus. This had been disastrous for Hank on many fronts, a massive blow that he was still reeling from even as he shared his testimony with us that evening. Afterward, each of the believing men present had a chance to ask Hank questions about his faith or to offer encouragement. When it was my turn to share, I encouraged Hank from 2nd Corinthians 4, that our suffering as believers is resulting in an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. I desperately wanted Hank to know that every bit of his suffering was known by God and counted, somehow, for an increase of eternal glory. His wife’s abandoning him and the wreckage that ensued was not meaningless, nor was it God punishing him. Even if we never see the pieces fully come together in this life, one day we would see the love, the glory, and the faith that God was working in it all along. I hoped that, for Hank, this truth might help him to hold on to his new faith in the midst of great loss.
We don’t have to be able to trace the specific threads of God’s purposes in our suffering to know what he is ultimately up to. We see in John 11 that Jesus allows his friends’ suffering and death somehow because of his love for them, and that through it he is somehow working greater glory and greater faith. And that somehow, clung to in the disorienting fog of suffering like the tiniest bit of light, may make all the difference for a suffering saint.
This post is part one in a series on Jesus and the suffering of his people from John 11. Here you can read parts two, three, and four.
When it comes to the problem of evil and a theology of suffering, there is no text I have turned to more often that John chapter eleven. This post is the first of a series where I hope to mine some of the riches of this text, one point per each post. Well, really, it will be two points per post, because for this text to apply to personal or universal suffering, we must keep an initial point constantly before us. That point is one of the main themes of John’s gospel, namely that “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:18).
Essentially, this point means that Jesus explains the Father for us, he makes him understandable. He translates him for us so that our limited human brains and senses can understand and know him truly, though not completely. Why do we need help understanding God? Because he is so different from us and therefore so hard for us to comprehend. Everything else in existence that we interact with had a beginning. God was there before the beginning. Everything else is limited in its scale and presence. God is everywhere present, at the same time. Everything else has at least the capacity for evil. God is pure goodness and holiness. On top of all of it, we cannot in this age see God with our physical eyes and touch him with our hands. So yes, there is a need for a translator, someone who can explain and model God for us in ways and at a scale that we can comprehend. This is one of the reasons the eternal son became a human, so that he might become this crucial, necessary exegete of what God is really like. When we hear Jesus speak and see him act in the gospels, we are hearing and seeing things that are not just true of Jesus in the first century, we are hearing and seeing things that communicate the eternal nature of God himself.
This point is what makes Jesus’ conduct in John 11 relevant to our personal suffering, and the suffering of the entire creation. The problem of evil is huge, cosmic in its scope. It is difficult to grapple with, and on a scale that involves billions of humans throughout all time and history. If only we could have a story where God as a human character interacts with the suffering of a few friends – then we might be able to have some handles for how his sovereignty and love, our brokenness and faith, and the reality of evil and death truly intersect. That’s where John 11 comes in. Remember, Jesus explains the Father to us. So his interactions with his disciples and the family of the ill, later dead, later resurrected Lazarus show us what God is truly doing when his people suffer. Because we can see how he loved Lazarus and his family, we can also see how he loves us. And that gives us clues about how he also loves his entire created universe.
Entering into John 11 then, the first point we’ll focus on is that Jesus says no to a good, faith-filled request.
 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.  It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill.  So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”  But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.  So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.  Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.”
John 11:17, ESV
The family of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha are close friends with Jesus. The text even says that he loves them. So this indirect request for healing, “he whom you love is ill,” is not coming from an enemy or even a seeker, but from loving friends. There is no cynical sign-seeking going on here. Add to this that it is a request utterly consistent with Jesus’ conduct up to that point. Everywhere else where the gospel writers record a request for healing, Jesus grants it, even when it’s a healing from a distance. Mary and Martha therefore have every reason to believe that Jesus will say yes and will heal their brother. So they reach out in good faith, knowing that he is able to do this. This is a very good request, stemming from love, faith, and sound knowledge of Jesus’ character.
Yet Jesus says no. It is an indirect, Middle-Eastern-style no. He doesn’t reply. He merely stays where he is another two days. Silence and absence. This is a good request effectively denied, a refusal to heal Lazarus, and therefore a permitting of his death when Jesus could have stopped it. For those who knew Jesus then, and for any reading the gospels now, this should cause some serious disorientation. What is going on here? This is not the Jesus we know and love. This seems cruel and heartless. When 1) he has the power to heal and 2) healing is consistent with his good character, why has he not done it? The text of John 11 will help us navigate this disorientation. For today, it is enough to slow down and take in the fact that Jesus sometimes says no to good, faith-filled requests that for the life of us seem to be according to his will.
I had a very close friend while growing up in Melanesia. We became friends in fifth grade and regularly spent time together through all the years that followed. In high school, this friend became like a spiritual brother to me. We attended discipleship groups together, prayed together, confessed sin to one another, and stayed up late on sleepovers talking about spiritual things. Then in 11th grade his father, a missionary and Bible translator, was caught with STDs. A double life of sexual sin was eventually exposed, meaning my close friend’s family was forced to return to the US. Their departure was heart-breaking for me and many others. I had made a vow seven years previous to no longer cry, but at that airport I could no longer keep the tears back, and I wept on my friend’s shoulders. Several years later this same friend was staying with my family over the summer as we attended different Christian colleges. His behavior had us concerned. He no longer seemed interested in the things of the Spirit that had bonded us so closely in high school. Eventually it came out that he was living a secret homosexual lifestyle, and about to go public with it. After much prayer that God would grant my dear friend repentance,we sat at the kitchen table one summer night. I pleaded with him to not give up the superior joy of following Jesus for the lesser pleasures of a homosexual lifestyle. I tried to reason with him from scripture. “I’m sorry,” he responded, “I’ve just never seen the joy of following Jesus match the kind of happiness I am experiencing as a gay man.” I was crushed. God had said no to my prayers for my friend’s repentance, who proceeded to plunge headlong into a homosexual lifestyle. Fifteen years later, God is still saying no to my good, faith-filled requests for my friend.
Sometimes, God will say no to our good requests. How can he do this and still be consistent with his character? Why would he not show his power when we know that he is able? John 11 will help us navigate these tensions. For now, it is enough to note that Jesus says no to the healing of Lazarus. And Jesus reveals the Father, which means that God will, at times, deny our faithful requests.
We must know this about our God so that when it happens to us, the natural disorientation that results will not shipwreck our faith. Having this category is crucial when our experience has thus far been an unbroken chain of answered prayer for a certain request. When multiple other couples have now been healed of infertility, why is it not working for us? When I have always before been provided with timely employment, why am I now out of a job and unable to pay these bills? My last three unbelieving friends came to faith after sustained prayer, so why has this one now cut me off? We also need to know this truth of God’s no for when other believers want to turn promises that will ultimately come true in the end into promises that they insist will come true in our own preferred timelines. When these promises don’t come about in our lives, these other Christians may try to claim that it’s actually our motives or our faith – or lack thereof – that is the culprit.
But we must have a category for God saying no, even when our requests are good, faith-filled, and according to his character. We see Jesus doing this very thing with Mary and Martha. When this happens, the reason is not some flaw in our asking. No, when God says no in these situations – like John 11 – there is something much deeper going on.
The country of Iran continues to experience widespread protests as the population vents its anger against the national government. Hundreds of protesters have been killed and thousands arrested. One Iranian friend told me that last week the truckers joined in, staging a nationwide strike and effectively crippling the country for days. The Iranian Church is in desperate need of our prayers to know how to navigate this season wisely. Like all Christians in every age, they live in the tension between the Romans 13 truth that every government is ordained by God and the Romans 13 tension that the God-ordained role of government is to punish evil and reward those who do good. There is some point at which a government that does the opposite – rewards evil and punishes those who do good – has ceased to be a legitimate government at all. But when is that point? This question has been the cause of countless debates of political theology among Christians for thousands of years. This tension has the potential to cause deep divisions in Iranian churches and between believers. At the same time, Iranians remain one of the most receptive people groups to the gospel in Central Asia.
This is a helpful prayer guide that provides good categories by which we can pray for the Iranian people and the Iranian Church in these days.
“The most strategic thing we could do to reach the Muslim world is for every Muslim to simply have a believing friend.” As a nineteen-year-old, I remember hearing the missionary-statesman Greg Livingstone share this insight at a gathering in the Middle East. His point was that the vast majority of Muslims today are living and dying without ever hearing the gospel message and seeing it lived out in the life of a good friend. It wasn’t complicated, Greg encouraged us, so much could change by giving Muslims access to Christian friends who would genuinely love them and tell them about Jesus. The simplicity of this idea gave me courage. Having grown up among tribal animists in Melanesia, I might not be the most skilled in engaging Islam, but by the grace of God, I could be someone’s friend.
Being at the very beginning of my gap year in the middle east, my prayer became that God would grant me one Muslim friend who was open to Jesus. He answered, and gave me that friend in the person of Hama*, the jaded wedding musician with a British accent who would eventually come to faith after many misadventures together – including nearly getting blown up by a car bomb. In my friendship with Hama I learned that the relationally-intense culture of those from that part of the world meant that one close friend was truly all that was needed for full-time ministry. This is because a Middle Easterner or Central Asian almost never comes alone, but with their own large network of relatives and friends. One good friend serves as a gatekeeper to an entire community of those who will be open to getting to know you if you are hanging out with their boy, and who may also be open to getting to know Jesus.
The following year I found myself back in the US to finish up university. After a difficult semester at a Christian college in a very rural area, I transferred to a different school in Louisville, KY, in large part because I knew there was a community of refugees and immigrants from the Muslim world there. Once again, my prayer became, “God, grant me one Muslim friend.”
One day I learned about an international festival taking place at a community center in the part of the city where most refugees were being resettled. I hitched a ride with some other students, excited to see if I could make any helpful connections with the Muslim community.
At some point I found myself at the booth of a local library which offered ESL tutoring to new refugees. Somehow the librarian present found out that during my year in the Middle East I had become conversational in one of the region’s minority languages.
“We need you!” she exclaimed. “We have a newcomer, Asa*, who has almost no English. And he speaks the language you do. Please come and meet him this weekend!” Before I knew it, she had signed me up as a volunteer.
I was elated to hear that there was at least one person in my new city who spoke the same minority language that I’d been studying. Maybe Asa would be the friend that I had been praying for. It certainly seemed like a providential connection.
The next ESL session I showed up at the library and was introduced to the other volunteers. One older couple greeted me happily.
“We heard that you speak Asa’s language! That’s wonderful. So glad you’re here.”
“Thanks, I’m excited to be able to help.”
“We are in such need of volunteers, but we keep getting these dratted Baptists who try to worm their way in to proselytize, can you believe that?” said the husband, squinting his eyes and glancing around the room. “Keep an eye out. Well, have fun!”
This comment caught me off-guard, so I don’t know what happened to the color on this Baptist proselytizer’s face in that moment. But my mouth stayed shut.
Soon I was introduced to Asa, a single man in his late twenties. We hit it off immediately. Not only could we speak the same language, but Asa was from the very same city where I had spent most of my gap year. Before long, we were lost in that particular joy and relief that overtakes two speakers of a common languagge who unexpectedly run into each other in a foreign land.
I learned that Asa was not particularly profiting from this ESL group class (the librarian seemed to have a crush on him) and he earnestly asked me if the two of us could meet separately for English tutoring instead. Between his aversion to the class and the class’s aversion to Baptists, I thought this was a great idea. At the end of the tutoring time we exchanged numbers and proclaimed a barrage of respectful farewells to each other. We both left, mutually elated to have a new friend.
The next couple weeks were just like it would have been with a promising new friendship in the Middle East. Lots of calls, lots of hanging out, lots of chai, cutting up, and talking about all kinds of things. Middle Eastern and Central Asian men love to talk, and the particular Western masculinity that focuses on doing rather than talking is one of many factors that contributes to profound loneliness for most refugees from those regions. We had even begun to have our first spiritual conversations, and to my great excitement, Asa expressed interest in learning more.
This was it, I thought, this was God answering my prayers. Asa was going to be like another Hama for me. I was a busy Bible college student, I couldn’t do a lot. But I could be a good friend to a guy like Asa. I was so encouraged by God’s kindness in providing me with this friendship.
Two and a half weeks after we met, Asa called me.
“Hey A.W., I’m… moving to Boston!”
“Boston? That’s like seventeen hours from here. Why?”
“Well, a friend there said he could get me a job.”
“Can you come by my apartment tomorrow to say goodbye?”
“Sure, I’ll be there.”
The next day I made my way across the city to Asa’s neighborhood, disappointed and feeling a bit misled by God. Things had seemed so providential, so perfect. Why was it turning out this way? Why must I so quickly lose a friend who seemed like he could become a brother?
I walked up the creaky wooden stairwell to Asa’s apartment and knocked on the door. Asa opened it and greeted me excitedly. He was packing, he said, and he invited me to come in and have some chai. In the tiny living room were two other refugee men, one tall and lanky, named Farhad*, and another short and energetic, named Reza*. As Asa packed his small bags, we began to converse in his dialect about his plans. Farhad and Reza turned to me with wide eyes.
“How is it that you can speak _____ ?” they asked. Turns out both of them were from other regional unreached people groups and were also conversational in Asa’s language. To see a skinny white boy speaking this language was one of strangest things they had seen in America so far.
Asa handed me a scarf as a farewell gift and insisted that I exchange numbers with Farhad and Reza. “A.W. is my true brother,” he said to his two other guests, in the honorable overstatement so typical of his people. I smiled, wondering how many cultures would extend brotherhood in this way so quickly. For my part, I sent Asa off with the last New Testament I still had in his language.
Asa left for Boston and I didn’t hear from him again for years. Farhad and Reza, on the other hand, started reaching out to me. Eventually, we started meeting up regularly to argue about politics, culture, and how so-and-so’s people group was related to that other guy’s people group. Sure enough, God opened the doors again for gospel conversation, and before long we had a Bible study going that would at its inaugural meeting run afoul of Al Mohler’s security.
We eventually lost Farhad when discussing Jesus’ call to love our enemies. “If Jesus requires me to love them, then I will never follow Jesus!” he raged during the last time he would ever study the Bible with us. Farhad’s people group had suffered genocide and centuries of oppression at the hands of the dominant people group of his country.
Reza, on the other hand, kept coming around. He became a dear friend. And he became a brother in the faith. What I thought God was doing through Asa, he had in store for me with Reza. One friend who was open to learning about Jesus. One friend who would in turn go on to share the gospel with his network, both Middle Eastern Muslims and Kentuckians.
God had answered my prayers in a way I hadn’t expected. It had first involved disappointment. But it had ended in kindness. As ultimately, it always will.
I should like a great lake of finest ale
For the King of kings.
I should like a table of the choicest food
For the family of heaven.
Let the ale be made from the fruits of faith,
And the food be forgiving love.
I should welcome the poor to my feast,
For they are God's children.
I should welcome the sick to my feast,
For they are God's joy.
Let the poor sit with Jesus at the highest place,
And the sick dance with the angels.
God bless the poor,
God bless the sick,
And bless our human race.
God bless our food,
God bless our drink,
All homes, O God, embrace.
-Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, pp. 174-175
This is a prayer associated with Brigid, the abbess of an Irish monastery in the early 500s famous for its hospitality. This prayer reminds me of Lawrence of Rome, who, when asked in the persecution of 258 to surrender the riches of the church to the emperor Valerian, presented the poor, the crippled, and the widows, inviting the emperor to “Come out and see the wondrous riches of God.”
This kind of ancient Christian delight in the poor and the sick strikes me as very different from what I am used to hearing emphasized in my circles. And that makes me curious. Why might that be? What would it look like for us to not just teach a theology of suffering, but to have a culture and language that better reflects the “great reversal” that the New Testament so often speaks of?
In this new year, may our poor also sit with Jesus at the highest place, and our sick also dance with the angels.
Two weeks ago Manuel* sat next to me on the couch, weeping. This semi-secret believer’s brother-in-law had been disappeared by one of the powerful political parties. One week he was an important local official for this same party, the next he was publicly accused by Islamists of misconduct – and summarily disappeared. For two weeks his family had no information about where he was, or even if he was still alive.
I had met this brother-in-law only once. During a particularly stressful intercity move in the fever-heat of August, he had used his connections to get our moving truck through some rival party checkpoints on the road. In the process, he had grilled me rather directly on the nature of my work here, one of the few government officials to press me so hard on my identity that I could feel my face changing color. I answered truthfully regarding my official secular work, and yet also let him know about my personal faith and how, yes, I wouldn’t be here if Jesus hadn’t changed me and given me a heart to serve others. With the help of the alternating shades of my face, I’m pretty sure he figured things out. In spite of this, he helped us – something I was deeply grateful for. Now I learned that he was at least imprisoned, perhaps even dead.
During his visit, Manuel, a respectable local man about ten years my senior, leaned on my shoulder and wept. We read Psalm 23 together, I prayed for him, and I listened as he pleaded with me to do something if at all possible through my political connections, of which I have none. For many local believers the belief runs deep that all Westerners have significant political clout that they could use if they really wanted to. Convincing our local friends that we are merely private citizens of our passport countries and strictly apolitical by choice has proven remarkably difficult. Yes, our home governments might grudgingly intervene if something happened to us – I say grudgingly because they repeatedly warn us not to live in places like this. But we have no such clout as to persuade anyone to intervene on behalf of a local political official who has been abducted, even if we thought such political intervention wise.
However, we pray every week during our church plant’s service for the local government officials. We do this to obey scripture, and because incidents like the disappearance of Manuel’s brother-in-law are stark reminders of the sudden danger that stalks almost anyone in this society should they run afoul of the powers that be. So when we gather, we pray for the government and those who wield political power to act justly, to rule wisely, and to serve their people (Micah 6:8, Romans 13:1-7). We pray for this so that the local believers may live quiet, faithful lives and that peace and stability might be granted for the sake of gospel advance (1st Timothy 2:1-4). The local believers are still getting used to this kind of prayer, regularly taking digs at the corrupt governing elite even as we ask who is ready to pray for them. We empathize, but also remind them of how bad Nero was, and then remind ourselves of the same truths when later that day we see the insane political news coming out of the West.
Tonight Manuel visited me again, requesting ahead of time that we sing some worship songs together. When he arrived, he shared the welcome news that his brother-in-law had been released. He’s much skinnier than he was before, bearing evidence of having been beaten, but alive, and back home with his family. I reminded Manuel that God had answered our prayers, and we spent an encouraging time singing together, studying John 15, and praying.
During our conversation, Manuel shared how just before his previous visit he had come very close to doing something dangerous, but suddenly felt redirected to come to our house instead for comfort and counsel. I’m thankful he did, or else he may have been summarily arrested/abducted as well. It makes me wonder how many close calls like this come down to a barely conscious obedience to subtle nudges from the Spirit. And if those nudges and responses would happen if we were not regularly praying for wisdom, and yes, praying for the corrupt local authorities.
Beware what you make fun of. You may someday find yourself having to eat your own words and attitudes – much to the amusement of your observant spouse. There are many things in Christendom I used to judge, things that I ironically now find wise and helpful for my current season of life and ministry. Prayer walking is one of these things.
I don’t know exactly when it became popular to prayer walk in evangelical circles. It first came onto my radar when I was a college student in the late 2000’s. Like many things that have become vogue in missions circles, I felt like I had missed the important initial conversations where everyone hashed things out and demonstrated that this was something biblical, healthy, and strategic. Instead, I started hearing all of the sudden about prayer walking as if it were a long-established Christian tradition that everyone knew how to do. I learned of prayer walking opportunities locally and even short term teams that traveled to other countries mainly to prayer walk the streets. I was a bit skeptical.
Are those people actually praying as they walk? Isn’t that a lot of money being spent on airline tickets for prayer trips when the beauty of prayer is that you don’t have to be geographically present for prayer to be effective? Does prayer walking become an excuse for not sharing the gospel?
Some of these questions still remain. And I still haven’t had that Introduction to Prayer Walking class that everyone else seems to have had. But I have myself stumbled into becoming a prayer walker over this past year. And I have found it remarkably helpful for my spiritual life.
The first step was coming across a one hour prayer plan on The Cripplegate blog. I was intrigued by this practical prayer plan from the 1970’s that I had never heard of. One hour divided up into twelve portions of five minutes, each a different kind of biblical prayer. I knew my prayer life was in need of some fresh structure and vision, so I filed the plan away in hopes of returning to it in the near future.
It was some months before I came back to this plan and decided it was time to actually try it out. As I experimented with it, I tweaked a few of the categories, cutting out some areas that felt like reduplication and adding in some new categories, such as lament. Here are my twelve.
Praise and Worship + honest assessment of my soul.
Waiting on the Lord in silence
Confession of guilt, sin, and shame
Lament, Burdens, and Brokenness
Praise for what’s true + renouncing lies and unbelief
My former prayer life was heavily weighted in favor of petition, intercession, confession, and thanksgiving. This more holistic prayer structure breathed fresh life into my prayer rhythms and gave me a place to put biblical practices that weren’t really taking place elsewhere – things like lament and silence. Sometimes a new structure is all that’s needed to spur encouraging growth.
This prayer hour worked decently well for me when I was trying to do it alone at home, but eventually I had a hard time staying focused. I was also needing to incorporate more physical activity into my day – and learning that I had a woefully underdeveloped theology of the body. Truth be told, for many years I lived as if I was a disembodied spirit, not an embodied creation with a good, but limited physical body. I pushed hard for the sake of ministry, not really believing it was that important to take care of my physical health. Because of realizing all of this, I was chewing on whether or not there were ways to better glorify God with my body, and not merely with my mind and my relationships.
I had other questions. Why is walking with God the language the scriptures uses to describe Adam and Enoch’s spiritual disciplines? And is this only meant to be a metaphor? What effect would moving feet have upon focus and meditation? And what loss would come by not being able to easily write things down? What about the brutal Central Asian summer heat?
Sometime after returning to our region this past autumn, I decided to pull the trigger and try an hour prayer walk. Armed with my recently purchased Fitbit, I set the countdown for five minutes and walked out my front gate of my Central Asian row home.
The first day saw my soul deeply encouraged, and my body more tired than I had expected. My ability to focus with my eyes open and my feet moving was much better than I had expected. This was extra noticeable in the meditation on scripture portion – a fun surprise. Who knew that some degree of physical movement would be highly compatible with gleaning insights from a Bible verse? To be honest, I find I’m better at meditating on a passage when walking than I am when sitting down.
It’s now been nine months or so that I’ve been seeking to do this almost daily. And I continue to find it good for both soul and body. My current practice is to walk and pray in the bazaar, mixing up the empty streets with the more crowded. Because of the time of year, I try to stay on the shaded sidewalks as much as possible. An hour walk in 110s degrees Fahrenheit (44 degrees Celcius) sun is no joke.
A few practical notes on what each of the twelve sections tends to look like:
Praise and Worship + honest assessment of my soul – This usually starts off sounding like, “I praise you because you are fully alive and the source of life itself… and I do not feel fully alive today.”
Waiting on the Lord in silence – Focusing my mind on the presence of God and on one simple true thought, such as “God is with me” or “I am in Christ.”
Confession of guilt, sin, and shame – Not just sin and guilt, but where am I struggling with shame as well? That also needs to be brought to the cross.
Praying Scripture – This is one of the trickier parts of the prayer walk. Using a Bible app on my phone has been key for this working. But sometimes I will find a spot to sit down so that I can better read scripture and pray it as I do so.
Lament, Burdens, and Brokenness – One of my favorite new additions to my prayer life. It’s a daily chance to bring the things to God that are just hard for me personally (or have been in the past), as well as things like societal sins and tragedies. Five minutes a day of this has been remarkably life-giving.
Intercession – Praying for others.
Petitions – Praying for daily bread and things impossible.
Thanksgiving – Remembering to rejoice in God’s specific and faithful provision.
Song/Poem – A chance to engage my affections with truth put to music or verse, either by singing something myself or by listening to a favorite song.
Contemplation/Meditation – Chewing methodically on a small passage of scripture to see what insights emerge, usually a couple verses at a time as I work through a book.
Listening/Watching – More silence, listening to the sounds of God’s creation and anything else he might impress on soul or mind. Not demanding a certain type of clarity or word. Paying attention to the visible beauty of creation.
Praise for what’s true + renouncing lies and unbelief – A daily chance to recognize the particular lies I’m wrestling with that day, and to apply God’s truth against them. “Lie: I feel like God is disappointed in me. Truth: He delights in me today and for all eternity.”
I decided not to write about this prayer walk rhythm until I had actually done it long enough to know I would stick with it and could vouch for it. Coming up on nine months of this now, I’m happy to commend this prayer structure as one good method among many for carrying out biblical prayers in all their diversity. It’s no silver bullet. You may find prayer walking through a structured hour like this not that helpful for you. But this method has been life-giving for me, so I share it here in hopes that it will be helpful for others also.
We were on a short family getaway, staying three days at a spot where our Central Asian mountains meet a lake. It was early Autumn, still warm enough to swim during the day, but getting chilly at night. The pleasant winds of the fall were coming off the mountains, complementing the September sun which shone off the lake and the yellow-brown mountains. I’ve always loved the feel of fall in this part of the world – brief and subtle though it is. It seems to only last two weeks – a calm golden respite in between the burning summer and the freezing winter.
My wife was seven months pregnant with our third child – and the little guy was facing the wrong direction. He was breech. We were hoping to have the baby in-country, and to have a natural birth, uncommon though that is for most of the local doctors. So we were praying hard for him to turn, as it would too risky to proceed if he stayed head-up. We were also coming close to the deadline by which my wife wouldn’t be allowed to fly, so it was getting a bit urgent.
On the last full day of our time away, I decided it would be fun to do some multitasking. I had fond memories of swimming in this same lake in years past, but on the other side of the mountain from where we were staying. I recalled a place that even felt kind of like a beach. But to find it, we’d have to do some exploring. The multitasking was that we were in need of finding a new baptism spot for our local friends. A dunking was fast approaching, and just like every other time, we found ourselves wishing we had thought more ahead about finding a spot with just the right combination of privacy, publicity, deep enough water, and natural beauty. This particular kind of spot continued to elude us. And while kiddie pools have their own advantages, we were hoping for some better options.
For some reason I majored on the baptism piece when proposing the day’s plans to my wife and forgot to really major on the beach-with-the-kids part. She wasn’t thrilled with our family rest time being taken over in this way, but kept these thoughts mostly to herself. So we started off, winding around the switchbacks of the nearby mountain. After fifteen minutes we made it to the top with its stunning views of the lake and other peaks, then began the descent down again. My wife was already regretting having agreed to this plan. Mountain switchbacks are not particularly compatible with being in the third trimester.
Once we reached the bottom of the mountain, I found a dirt road that looked like it went toward the lakeside. But it dead-ended in a village, with curious goats and village children looking bewildered at our presence there. So we turned around and bumped back down the track toward the main paved road. Once again we found another dirt road that looked promising, but this one also dead-ended, disappearing into a pasture filled with boulders. We stopped to reassess and listened to the lowing of the cows and the grumbling of our children. By this point I could tell the physical discomfort and frustration of my wife at this misadventure was reaching a critical point.
“Let me try just one more road,” I said with a hopeful grimace. We found a gravel road this time that looked much more promising. I turned off the main road, hoping that this artery would be the one that got us to the shore. Then, amid the rumbling and vibrating of the car, we began to rumble ourselves and argue about what exactly we were doing on this misadventure.
As it turns out, I had (not for the first time) managed to synthesize several ideas in my own mind, and forgotten to kindly spell those things out for my wife. She was, understandably, frustrated by what this optional ministry jaunt was turning into. Breakthrough came when she realized that I wasalso really hoping for a special time as a family at this elusive beach, and wasn’t just out on a work task – and after I apologized and owned that I had failed to share as openly as I should have.
Then suddenly she gasped.
“What is it?!” I asked.
My wife’s eyes were wide and she had a curious look on her face.
“I don’t know, I just felt the strangest thing in my stomach… I think the baby turned!”
“Really?!” I asked.
“Yes, I’m pretty sure he just did a flip. I’ve never felt anything quite like that before. Must have been all the bumpy roads! Ha!”
The car continued to shake as we drove along and we began to laugh at ourselves. Of course God would answer our prayer right in a moment where we were feeling significant marital tension, out in the middle of nowhere on a misadventure.
All of the sudden, the road turned and crested a hill, and there below us was a muddy and rocky shore, sloping down toward the water’s edge.
“We found it!” And there was much rejoicing in our by-now-very-dusty SUV.
We proceeded to spend a sweet time together, swimming in the warm water, building castles out of rocks, and getting grossed out at the mud suction that pulled us in halfway up to our knees. Plus we had brought a picnic blanket and chocolate, which makes everything more pleasant. It turned out to be an afternoon full of good memories, after all.
Our third-born did indeed flip around that day, in an answer to prayer. An ultrasound later confirmed this. Though given unforeseen complications, he actually ended up being born through a C-section, an adventure of its own. But those bumpy roads and the baby flipping enabled us to move towards the birth with greater confidence that we were indeed supposed to stay in our country for the delivery, in spite of the unknowns.
We chuckle now as we remember this particular answer to prayer. Our God’s ways of answering his people’s prayers will never cease to amaze – and sometimes, even to amuse.
Last night we read 2nd Peter 3 for our bedtime devotions with our kids. Our brief discussion afterward focused on verse nine, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”
As the passage points out earlier (v. 4), scoffers say that Christ is taking too long to return and therefore that his promise is not trustworthy. Even we believers can be tempted to feel that God is slow to fulfill his promise. So Peter helpfully points out first that time is different for God. “one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years is as one day” (v.8). On the one hand, to God it’s been like a mere two days since Jesus was here on earth. On the other hand it’s been like 728 million years. Clearly, we need to be slow to accuse God of slowness given how little we understand of his existence related to time. In Job-like fashion, we’d be better to put our hand over our mouth here (Job 40:4).
But his second point speaks to God’s motive for his delay. God’s reason for waiting is that he is patient toward his people – “toward you” – and he desires all of them to be saved, that the full number of his sheep throughout history would come into the fold (John 10:16). In this context the any and all in this passage are referring to God’s beloved chosen people, known and set apart for him before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4). God is waiting until every single chosen one, set apart in his heart from all eternity, has had the chance to exist and to repent and believe.
Now, since the first generation of believers, Christians have been praying that Christ return quickly, “Maranatha!” (Rev 22:20). And yet he has not returned. This delay feels slow to us, yet God has over and over again said “No” to these very good prayers. Why? On our account. So that you might live and believe. So that I might live and believe. So that the chosen ones in the unreached people groups of the world with zero current believers might live and believe. I am so glad that God delayed the end of the world so that I could be born and then born again! I am so glad that he has given my children a chance to live and a chance to believe – and likewise for my dear Central Asian friends. He didn’t have to. Yet out the depths of his patience he delayed for us.
2020 has been a brutal year for the world. Even worse years have happened in the course of the last two millennia. Consider how apocalyptic it must have felt to be a Christian living in the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, the communities of Europe later annihilated by the Vikings, the Central Asian and Middle Eastern cities where the Mongols slaughtered every single inhabitant and piled their heads in giant pyramids. It’s said the Tigris ran red from the slaughter. Consider being a believer during the great plagues, chattel slavery, the world wars, or the horrific famines. In light of such suffering, it’s understandable that believers’ prayers would have been full of pleading and struggle. “Why isn’t Christ coming and setting things right? Where is he?”
Their questions had already been answered in the text of 2nd Peter. There are more yet to be gathered. A little American boy in Melanesia needs to be born in the future and to hear the gospel from his parents. His kids need to be born and hear the gospel (one has so far professed faith – pray for the younger two!), their friends in Central Asia like Hama and Tara, Henry, Darius, and others need to be born so that they can also become followers of Jesus. There are tribes and languages and people groups with as yet no gospel witness whatsoever. And yet they too contain a remnant, lost sheep that belong in Jesus’ fold. For their sake others will need to be born, to believe, to be sent, and to preach.
Have we ever thanked God for Christ’s return not happening sooner? Have we thanked him that for our sake he said “No” to all those prayers prayed by faithful suffering saints in previous eras?
We should pray for Christ to return soon. This is a godly and appropriate prayer. And yet if he continues to delay, we should not scratch our heads as to why that is. There are more yet to be gathered in. And the Lord will wait until he has secured every single one of them.