I had a conversation with a pastor friend the other day about intercessory prayer. Don’t get excited, I don’t know what it’s all about or how it “works” either. To quote another friend of mine, my batting average is pretty low in terms of success to request ratio. I do have friends whose success rate does appear higher than mine. In uncanny and specific ways, their prayers seem to have an affect on their world. I can say that I pray more than I used to, and I think prayer does more than make me a more attentive person. It’s more than just thinking good thoughts. But, honestly, it’s a mystery to me.
Yesterday, I was blogging about the pandemic and the assurance of God’s presence in our suffering given Jesus’ own suffering on the cross. And this problem of prayer came back around. There is no guarantee that Christ’s presence on the cross will make a material difference on the circumstances of a person’s suffering. And when it’s suffering we’re talking about, “spiritual” victories don’t count for that much. I’d rather skip the upgrade in character and have the suffering come to an end.
I always lead in conversations like this with Jesus’ own words, “it rains on the just and unjust alike.” God’s not sitting back picking winners in life, collecting prayer tokens and awarding prizes. Christians aren’t exempt from the Coronavirus or the “invisible hand” of the market (sounds like a principality and power to me) that determines whether or not you get to keep your job or your health insurance. I’m also convinced that while some suffering is wasteful and useless, other suffering is noble and gives meaning to life. So why would Christians think they are immune?
I also consider that too often our views of God’s sovereignty are just wrong. God is not sovereign over creation in the sense of control or micromanagement. There is not a proximate divine cause for everything in life. God would order the world, not through control (like the Gentiles do), but through self-giving love which refuses to lord it over anything. So, the question of God’s presence in any given circumstance is as complex and mysterious as love.
Still, why do some people experience suffering as God’s forsakenness and others as God’s abiding presence? I’m convinced it’s not because of their theology or the strength of their faith. And I should add at this point that I’ve seen remarkable things, remarkable answers to prayer and instantaneous healing. And I’ve seen prayerful, godly people wither on the vine of suffering.
Yesterday, however, a new angle of perspective hit me as I pondered all of this. It may be old ground for others, but for me it was a fresh perspective. I think I’m right, but I might not be. I don’t even know if it’s mature enough reflection to say it well. But I think it has promise, so here goes.
Christ is the location of God’s response to the trouble of the world. God may be any number of places in the world, but with regard to the world’s trouble, God is where Christ is. And we know Christ in relation to the world, primarily in the paradigmatic event of the death and resurrection. There, in Christ, suffering and joy are held together. None of us, individually, are Christ’s presence in the world. Our individual lives are insufficient to encompass the whole experience of Christ in the world. I am not the body of Christ. We are the body of Christ. And collectively, we bear the sorrow and joy of the world as Christ does.
We can’t validate the presence or absence of God in relation to a single human life, neither in the experience of abject sorrow or unbridled joy. We can’t say to the one who rejoices, “here is the evidence of God’s presence in your life,” just as we can’t say to the sufferer, “you have been abandoned by God.” Instead, we bear all things together as a community, as the body of Christ in the world. The blessing is not in the joy or the sorrow, but in being “in Christ.” And I don’t mean this in a “I get to go to heaven in the end” kind of way. The blessing is the way of life we learn in Christ that holds the entire world together in the love of God, which is ours in Christ Jesus. We do not live to ourselves or die to ourselves, but we live and die for him who died and was raised for us (2 Cor 5). The only blessing is learning to live this way in the wide presence of God in Christ, where we learn to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice.
One last thought for now. This is not simply a way of brave resignation to whatever comes our way in life. Resurrection says that life always overcomes death. We want suffering alleviated. We should pray for it without ceasing, every single time. And we should live to alleviate where we can. We want to celebrate life and give ourselves to the things that are life-giving. But God does not woo us through reward, but through love. And his love is demonstrated to us and to the world by being present to us in the most abject of circumstances. So, we long for the day when God will be all in all, and we give ourselves now to the well being of others as a testimony to the resurrection. But together, we also live as a sign of God’s suffering presence in the world, in Christ, in the body of Christ broken for the world, in sorrow and in joy. To him be glory in the church.