It's the Christmas season and for people around the world it becomes a busy time of year. For some it's a time of great joy. For some a time of great sadness and depression. But for most it becomes just a time of busyness. In the mix of this, as there is at least a little more focus on Christ, some Christian groups try to capitalize on the attitudes. I was given a CD in the parking lot of WalMart recently. It had a number of different testimonies on it. There was a time when I liked testimonies but not so much any more. I've met too many people who find testimonies depressing. One particular on this CD is a man who was in the Tenerife airport disaster. A plane was taking off and collided with another which was taxiing. The survivor speaks of the woman who was sitting next to him being covered in fuel and burning. So many people died yet he survived and he credits it to his mother praying. Did no-one else who died have a praying mother? Sometimes I think Christians say praises because it's expected of them, and sometimes it's real gratitude. Praising God should not be circumstantial, but it is quite often. I get it that there are times in everyone's life when they simply do not want to praise God. I'd really rather see that expressed than some fake praise and piety. If my life situation sucks and all I do is praise God, I think it sends the wrong message to unbelievers and believers alike. If my situation sucks and I can admit that I'm unhappy and really don't feel like praising God, but still remain as faithful as possible. That to me is a much better testimony.
I want to tell stories about three different people. While these are indeed real people, the names are changed to protect their anonymity. For the purpose of this text I'll call them Archie, Betty and Jughead. And I'm only focusing on things happening in the recent past. All three are professing Christians and one could see by their lives that this bears out. Archie is a middle aged male who was run over by an angry driver. He spent a lot of time in the hospital and underwent several surgeries. The driver did not have a license or insurance on the vehicle so Archie is on the hook for a significant amount. Archie has a lot of friends, they've been to see him frequently and a local business organized a fund raiser to cover some of his bills. I don't think they covered all of them but I will guess that over 200 people came out. Recently, due to complications, it was determined the best course of action would be to amputate Archie's leg. He's been in good spirits considering all that's happened. Although one doesn't see it directly I believe he's a bit frustrated. Still he stands firm in his faith, trusting God for all things, and glad to simply be alive. And I know that having a lot of people pulling for him is encouraging.
Our second story is about Betty. Betty has a teen daughter who suddenly became sick. It got pretty serious pretty fast and her daughter was hospitalized. The doctors could not determine what was happening, did a lot of tests and at times things were looking bleak. As of this writing things are looking pretty good. Betty also has a lot of friends and church acquaintances, numbering in the hundreds, which have been praying for her and her daughter.
Our last character is Jughead. He too is a middle aged man who's suffered a lot of losses in his life. He's an introvert with few friends. Currently I know he's been struggling with some things for nearly two years. And he too is quite frustrated. The difference though is that Jughead won't put on a fake smile and sing praises, he won't curse God either but if you sincerely ask he will tell you flat-out that he's frustrated.
Now here's where the problems with testimonies comes in. In Betty's case, prayer, or specifically that there was such a large number of people praying is attributed to her daughter's recovery. Yet I know there were also a lot of people praying for Archie when he was first run over. Were there simply not enough? Would another hundred prayers have saved his leg? And what about Jughead? He has few friends, there is no way he could get hundreds, or even fifty people to pray for him. Does this mean that his case is hopeless?
I've had conversations with all of these people, from Archie I get the impression that he's accepted that bad stuff happens and he's just going to deal with it. He doesn't seem to be angry at God but resigned to what it is and still faithful. He's thankful to still be alive and with a little help he'll be able to walk again soon.
Betty is very thankful for her daughter's recovery. And very thankful for the number of people who came or called. In a conversation with her she said that several people called her and said that God had placed it on their heart to pray, or to call. I've heard this a number of times in my life. That God encouraged someone to pray or visit some person with a need. Never experienced it though.
Jughead's problems are such that I can't disclose. Let's just say he wrestles with different things and has been for a number of years. In conversations with Jughead I know there were times when he was in such deep despair that he really wanted anyone to come visit. I know he doesn't like phone calls. He said there was a time, perhaps two years ago, when things were really bad and he just wanted one real friend to sit and talk to. He said that he sat in his living room all alone, speaking to God about stories of people who He supposedly sent to visit others. To call or pray for them. Was there not a single person who God could speak to who could come by and bring encouragement? Jughead said nobody came.
If you ask these three people about prayer and what it does you'll get three different answers. Archie will say it is encouraging to know people are praying, he may or may not believe that the prayers made a difference in his situation. Betty will tell you that prayer changed everything. And Jughead will tell you that praying for him is an exercise in futility or insanity. He said recently that he hasn't really prayed for nearly two years, and although he still has the problems, by not praying he's not as depressed by God not answering. Jughead said once that when you knock on someone's door every day and no-one ever answers, you get tired of knocking. He also asked the question; "If God is sovereign and knows all things, and I tell Him today that I need help with this problem, does He forget tomorrow? Why do I need to tell Him every day? And for how long should I continue with the same prayer? At what point does it become insanity, doing the same thing every day and expecting different results? I don't have an answer, and sadly no-one else does either.
Can we make any determinations of how God works from these stories? On the surface it would appear that the more friends one has who can pray, the odds are better. But then what happens to God's sovereignty? Can a large group of people manipulate God? Or what about how it says in the bible that He is no respecter of persons?
We want formulas. We want an if-then life. If I pray then God does this. But it doesn't work that way.
Should we pray? Certainly. Scripture plainly teaches us to pray. I think sometimes as we pray we actually hear our problems and maybe see them a bit different. I know that many times if one simply talks to another about what's happening it sheds different light. Yet there are no guarantees that prayer will yield what we want.
The take away from this is that we simply don't know why things happen and we can't control God. And to be careful with testimonies. In the recent years I've seen them hurt more than help. Especially when the testimony is offered as a formula to fix something.
The one thing I find in all of these cases that did or would bring comfort is being there. It takes little effort to tell someone that you'll pray for them. In some cases that is comforting, in others it's just words. It takes a little more effort to actually go and make physical contact. Not to pray, not to offer some platitudes, just to be there and say I care about you, enough to actually show up. Do you want to help change someone's life? Just show up.