For my friend and sometime Director, Father Carlos Lopez, OSB, upon the occasion of the 12th year of his ordination:
“Lucy, you gotta lot of ‘splainin to do!” – Desi Arnez, I Love Lucy
Many of us from my generation, or my parents’ generation, are familiar with the ground-breaking television sitcom I Love Lucy. While every episode would change, there was one overriding and central theme: Lucy would make a mess and Desi and his friends would struggle to extract Lucy from the mess she had made. She, indeed, had a lot of explaining to do.
I think that God has a lot of explaining to do. Granted, God likely does not care what I think on this matter. Granted, as well, God IS God and I am not. However, if we are honest, all of us are not always pleased with how God appears to be addressing the aching needs of this world. In fact, quite likely, many of us would like to call God to account for His actions. If Job can do it, so can we! (But, of course, we must also be willing to hear what God says in response.)
Although our questions and consternations may revolve around a number of important themes, no theme is more poignant, pressing or painful than that of healing. What makes this issue so very painful is not, simply, that it impacts neighbors, friends, family and us. These DO cause us a great deal of heartache, but this is not the primary reason for the pain. Rather, especially for the Christian, the deeper reason for our pain is because God seems to promise healing in Holy Writ BUT DOES NOT ALWAYS PROVIDE HEALING. This is what is most disturbing!
For years I have been wrestling with God about this issue. Likely I will continue to wrestle with God about this issue. The vast majority of my ministerial life has intersected with people who are in deep and abiding pain. I am absolutely convinced that Jesus Christ is the answer to all of our heartache. I am absolutely certain that the Bible provides the Christian with “all things pertaining to life and godliness.” I am equally convinced that, in spite of my best intentions and devoted study, God’s plans are far beyond my ability to understand– and this applies in all areas, including healing.
So how are we to make sense of what we perceive to be God’s promise of healing and the (at times) apparent lack of healing that we so often experience? Shall we comfort ourselves with Dispensationalist, Charis-maniac, and Eschatological platitudes? Shall we assert that God DID do those things in the Bible but, now that we have Holy Writ, God no longer works miracles? Shall we berate those in need, or ourselves, for a lack of faith? Shall we embrace the pie-in-the-sky in the bye-and-bye expectation of God’s future and full healing?
To be sure, some of these platitudes DO bear some weight. I actually DO expect full and future healing when our Lord Jesus Christ comes to right all wrong and dry every tear. But, in the meantime, people still struggle, suffer, and die. Christian people! What shall be said? How shall we respond?
Let me, in spite limitations inherent to a devotional article, provide a biblical answer that has somewhat satisfied my profound disappointment in God. It is found in the “Lord’s Prayer,” the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, the Pater Noster. This pattern and process of prayer offers some profound insights into the priorities of God regarding healing– as well as insights about a great many other things. What does it teach us?
God is the Father of every believer in His Son Jesus Christ. God, as Father, loves and cares for us. As God, He holds “the whole world in His hands” as Mahalia Jackson has so soulfully sung. But God is not just MY Father, he is OUR Father. And, as OUR Father, MY healing and YOUR healing may not be His highest priority. St. Paul’s eye ailment served the best interest of God’s Church. The perpetual exile of St. Athanasius made the man and molded a theology. Spurgeon’s depression made him a great preacher. Phillips’ emotional turmoil, properly submitted to God, made him a great translator. Our pain may be for the “perfection” of our brother or sister in Christ. Like Christ, on some small level, our pain and suffering (properly navigated) may have salvific and sanctifying impact on another person. Was it without purpose that Mother Teresa suffered the absence of God’s sensed presence for almost the entire fifty years she labored in India? Her quiet suffering impacted the entire world.
God is “above” us, and God’s purposes are not always apparent to us. Jim Carey, in the movie Bruce Almighty,found this out the hard way. We are on earth, God is in heaven, and the divide between the two has dynamic impact upon our socio-psycho-pneumatic lives. This “divide” is not always easy to swallow or digest. The best way to understand this is to appreciate that God Himself understood this “divide.” This is why he sent Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, into the world. “Heaven came down, and glory filled my soul,” is what the old hymn says. This is why our Lord instituted the Eucharist. This is why we have Sacraments. One of the few ways to get some understanding about God and His plan, about healing in a broken world, is to consider the incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. Heaven needed to come down in order to lift us up. Christ’s brokenness was and is our blessing. God was not content to simply say the Word, He sent the Word– and this as a costly enterprise.
HALLOWED BE THY NAME.
Who in her or his right mind would pray this prayer? Only the Christian, the person who walks intently and intensely with God, would dare pray such a prayer. This part of the Pater Noster says GOD FIRST. GOD FIRST! God’s name must be hallowed above all things, and, if my struggling, suffering, and death will honor and reverence God’s Name, this must have priority. This is the principle embedded within this petition. This part of the prayer orients EVERY other petition. Should we receive “daily bread?” Only if God’s name is hallowed through it! Should we not be “led into temptation?” Only if God’s Name is hallowed because of it! Our Lord Jesus Christ endured both a lack of bread and a life of temptation so that the Name of God would be hallowed. Years ago I had a friend who was perpetually ill. More frequently than not, my friend would call me for prayer and assistance. I would attend to his needs and always pray for his healing. NO HEALING OCCURRED. This went on for years. Finally, one day I again received a call for help. Again I attended to his needs. Again I prayed. NO HEALING OCCURRED. I was livid! Silently I said this to God as I laid my hand upon this man for healing: “God, if you do not heal X now I am done with you. If you do not heal I will not serve!!” The man was miraculously and immediately healed. I did not understand either then or now why God healed the man on that occasion. All I do know is that HALLOWED BE THY NAME must be my and our first priority. (By the way: DO NOT TRY WHAT I DID!!! It was not and is not wise! It demonstrated the utmost arrogance.)
THY KINGDOM COME / THY WILL BE DONE
This petition reinforces the previous petition. The hallowing of God is the authority animating the Kingdom that has come, is come, and will come. The Kingdom comes because God is honored first above all things. (Even if we refuse, God will be ultimately and eternally honored, praised and glorified!) The Kingdom comes, as we see in Christ, through struggle and suffering. When we ask for healing, when we ask God for any particular grace or gift, is it entirely for THY KINGDOM COME? Is it so that the WILL OF GOD WILL BE DONE? Or, more likely, is it a mixture? Do we want both God’s Kingdom and our convenience? Do we petition God’s will or our wishes? Is prayer simply a means to accomplish our “bucket list,” or are we militantly for GOD, GOD ONLY, GOD’S KINGDOM, GOD’S WILL? God IS concerned about all of our needs. But, from a human perspective on prayer, we must be concerned with, concentrated upon, and committed to, God’s Kingdom and God’s will.
Let’s face it: Some Christians have not and do not receive their daily bread on every occasion. Did the Pre-Constantine martyrs receive their due portion of daily bread? Did the martyrs of the Reformation (BOTH sides of the Protestant and Catholic Reform) receive their daily bread when burned at the stake? Did the Japanese Christian who endured the tortures of 17th century Shogun’s receive their daily bread? And what of Bonhoeffer who was ingloriously hanged, and our Syrian and Egyptian sisters and brothers who are now being crucified? Where is their daily bread? When Jesus said that we should ask for “our daily bread,” he did so with the understanding that this provision was provisional. God first! God’s kingdom first! God’s will first! Are we, spiritually and PRACTICALLY, willing to forgo “daily bread” in order to ensure the will and work of God? If saying “No” to ourselves would say “Yes” to God and others, only God and others, would we pray this prayer? I am reminded of the prayer of St. Thomas More: We should be willing to both pray and be the fulfillment of our prayer.
FORGIVE US OUR SINS AS…
I have become a master of imprecatory prayer. When I pray imprecatory prayers, bad things happen to bad people. For some years now, I have had occasion to think, and rethink, about this. Some years back I prayed, with faith, for the healing of a loved one. As usual, THEY WERE NOT HEALED. In frustration I cried out to God: “LORD, why are my imprecatory prayers ALWAYS answered and my healing prayers RARELY answered?” The answer, quietly within my heart and mind was this: “The reason, Don, is because you KNOW how to HATE well, but you do not know how to LOVE well.” That hurt! That woke me up! Jesus came to save us from sin (Matthew 1:21). He died for our sins and he was raised for our justification. Salvation is what our Lord’s incarnation, sinless life, suffering, death, and resurrection were all about. This was the cost of forgiveness and freedom. However, which often is our problem, salvation and healing are related. Isaiah the Prophet is quite clear about this. But, in spite of this, we are not always healed in this world. To rectify this problem we need to again turn to Jesus Christ. (Saint Paul, by the way, highlights the same message.) CHRIST SUFFERED AND DIED so that we might know forgiveness and freedom, life and liberation. God in the flesh endured pain for our sake. Are we willing to do the same? If our suffering meant salvation for another person, would we endure the suffering? Saint Paul said that he was willing to be “cut off” for the salvation of the Jewish people (Romans 9). Are we willing to be “cut off” so that others might be “grafted into” the family of God? Saint Paul calls us to the task of “fill[ing] up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ” (Colossians 1:24). Are we willing? Our Roman Catholic family has a far firmer grasp on this principle than most do. Sometimes our suffering can have salvific impact upon the lives of others– IF properly offered up to God on their behalf. Are we willing to serve God’s Kingdom by our suffering?
LEAD US NOT INTO TEMPTATION
Jesus was clearly led into the place of temptation. One of Gospels says “led,” while another tells us that Jesus was “driven” into the wilderness. There Christ confronted and conquered temptation. Our Lord tells us to pray in this way: “Lead us not into temptation.” If he urges us to pray this petition, it must be his full intention to deliver us. And yet, even when we “mortify our bodies” and “flee youthful lusts,” temptation is inherent to life. Temptation, properly addressed, helps us grow up in God. Temptation, properly processed, makes us strong. Many years ago a friend of mine committed suicide. His life was hard, he struggled and suffered, but one day he made one bad decision. He did not intend to kill himself. That was not his plan, but he died. I WAS ANGRY! I RAILED AGAINST HIM IN MY HEART! The reason my reaction was so very pronounced was because I was suffering from the very same emotional problem that he was experiencing. I needed an example of success and victory to encourage me. At that moment I made a decision: No matter how I was tempted, no matter what I had to endure, I would not make such a bad choice. I needed a person to whom I could turn, who would be an example to me at the time of my temptation. If nothing else, I would be the example that my deceased friend could not be. I would suffer through my own socio-psycho-pneumatic temptations so that other people could successfully endure the same. We should pray not to be led into temptation. Such a place is harsh and cruel. Nevertheless, properly addressed, my temptation can be an encouragement to other people. At times our properly processed temptations and hardships can inspire and encourage others to endure.
DELIVER US FROM EVIL
Need I say more? God’s is the “kingdom, power, and glory.” He is God and I am not. He is God and you are not. He is God and we are not. Although I certainly hope and pray for healing, both for myself and for others, I am absolutely sure of this: God is deeply concerned about, and deeply involved in, our lives. He cared so much that he came into this world to suffer and die on our behalf. He cared so much that he sent the Holy Spirit so as to not “leave us as orphans.”
One of the last words Jesus spoke on the cross should serve as a reminder to us: “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?” Christ endured this pain and shame on our behalf. He became a “have not” so that we could “have.” He became poor so that we could become rich. He “became sin for us.” His petitions both in Gethsemane and upon Golgotha were subservient to “Hallowed be Thy Name” and “Thy will be done.” His prayer, with full understanding of what this implies, must be our own. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon us. AMEN.
The Very Rev. Dr. Donald P. Richmond, a widely-published author, is Priest-Oblate with the Reformed Episcopal Church and the Order of Saint Benedict, and is connected to St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo, California.