Strength under Tension
By Dana OlsonBummer. After all, it was the Fourth of July—and instead of sitting at a picnic table eating a burger, I was sitting on an exam table in the heart hospital’s ER, waiting. For weeks I had noticed odd symptoms. Previous tests had shown nothing (or so I thought). But now, after my heartbeat went from “marching band snare drum” to “funky jazz drum solo,” I landed on this bench, awaiting results from high-tech picture-taking. The young ER doctor looked perplexed as he entered. “Tell me about this mass on your spleen.” “I don’t know anything about my spleen,” I replied, stunned. Apparently previous testing had shown an obvious abnormality, but I had not been notified due to office error. Uncertainty followed. My “busy pastor” schedule was cleared, more tests conducted, consultations held. Multiple diagnoses were considered as I alternated between my own bed at home and a woefully inadequate hospital bed. Finally, a fuzzy picture became clear: non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma cancer and an extensive blood clot. My life changed dramatically.
Prayer LessonsIn the three years since, many have asked what I learned from hearing the C word, going through surgery, and experiencing rapid hair loss. It’s taken a while to figure that out. I preached two out of every three Sundays during chemo. My hair loss presented no great challenge. I spent lots of time in a big chair and special bed—both purchased by caring friends. Mostly, I tried to keep going, day by day, but with extra rest. I took my meds—and still do. One hymn I’d sung from my youth meant the world to me. I sang it to myself again and again: Jesus, I am resting, resting In the joy of what Thou art; I am finding out the greatness Of Thy loving heart.1 The time to build up your “faith bank account” is today. Don’t wait until trials come. While facing a threatening diagnosis, relational breakdown, profound disappointment, disillusioning failure, or devastating loss, the withdrawals come fast and furious. You will need to have banked faith to draw upon. Here are truths to help you prepare: 1. God is in control. You can trust Him. That doesn’t mean circumstances always turn out well. Life isn’t like the smiling, late-night TV preacher who offers health and wealth. Cancer can kill. Life presents an extensive variety of hurts and heartaches. To deny that is to deny sin’s profound impact on humanity. Jesus says, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Our God is Lord of heaven and earth. He holds the future. He makes all grace abound to you, whatever the circumstance—in life and death, in joy and sorrow, in pain and pleasure. 2. God sees. In Genesis 22, the gospel comes alive on a mountain at Moriah. Abraham obeys the Lord and takes his beloved son Isaac and prepares to offer him to the Lord. But the Lord intervenes. God provides a ram as a substitute for Isaac, and Abraham names that place “The Lord will provide” (v. 14)—in Hebrew, Jehovah Jireh, which means, literally, “God sees.” The passage is a neon sign pointing ahead to Jesus, the divine Substitute who died on the cross in our place. God sees you in your heartache. He sees your suffering. And when God sees, He provides. His provision comes in expected and unexpected ways. The God who sees you in your distress might send a wave of Holy Spirit comfort, or an old friend to sit with you, or a passage of Scripture to point you to hope, or someone from your church who shows up with your favorite meal. He might send a job offer, a check from an old friend, or a bag of groceries. God might send a counselor, a favorite uncle, a neighbor, or a stranger. Watch how He faithfully provides. 3. God cares. I’m no fisherman, but I know that effectiveness requires learning to cast the line into the water. Similarly, in our suffering, God tells us, “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). This marvelous verse’s context reminds us that such humbling of ourselves (v. 6) requires vigilant watchfulness (v. 8). We dare not give in to the devil’s scheme, tempting us to despair and turn our backs on our heavenly Father. Instead, we press in to Him. We call upon Him. We pray earnestly. We cast and keep casting! Why? Because God cares. He showed His merciful care for us by sending His Son to be our Savior, Redeemer, and Friend. He continues showing believers that loving care every day, for His Spirit dwells in us and is our Comforter. The cynic says, “God doesn’t care about you.” The cross screams otherwise. 4. God prepares. Suffering is a kind of preparatory school. God is preparing us for Himself. And He is preparing a place for us to spend eternity with Him. This is our hope in suffering: “If I go [and He has gone] and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (John 14:3, brackets added). For us to be with God requires holiness. Our holiness requires the divine washing by Christ’s precious blood, followed by the divine surgery transforming us from the inside out to be God’s holy people. The whole process is the great grace-work of justification (in a moment) and sanctification (over a lifetime). Suffering is part of God’s sculpting work in our sanctification. But the destination—the very presence of God Himself—is worth every bit of the suffering.
Prayer StrategySo why and how can we pray with confidence in the midst of painful suffering?
- Because God is in control, let your prayer be filled with praise and adoration to the One who alone is God: “Hallowed be your name.” Let your prayer reflect your sweet submission to your Father in heaven. “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (see Matt. 6:9–13).
- Because God sees, and when He sees He provides, ask God for the daily bread of His sustaining grace, whatever that might be. Jesus asked Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” (see Mark 10:46–52). We have a wonderful privilege to answer Jesus’ question, praying, “Father, here’s what I long for You to do for me.”Keep in mind, the answer will not always come quickly. Often God wants to work in us through the waiting! But if we trust Him for His timing—and if we stay patient—we will see His hand and His heart in due time.
- Because God cares, keep casting! From the midst of pain, don’t be afraid to honestly tell the Lord what is on your heart. Any burden can be transferred from our broken hearts to His broad, strong shoulders. As you cast your cares upon Him, remember that the committed believer’s greatest desire is always this: that Jesus Christ be magnified. Paul reminds us, “Do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).What seems like silence to us may in fact be God’s strategic timing, using our suffering for His glory in some remarkable way we don’t see now. In my case, I believe my cancer and complications were tools in God’s hand, working powerfully in me and in our church. We are taking steps of faith today that I believe are answers to heart cries during my illness.We too easily focus only on ourselves. God’s agenda is far larger and more complex. Nevertheless, from your suffering, don’t stop casting! One more cast may yield the big fish of God’s awesome answer to your prayer.
- Because God is preparing you and preparing a place for you, pray with hope. Hope is faith applied to the future. When you trust God today to do mighty things that will last forever, that is hope! When you pray big, expansive prayers that will be finally answered in the new heavens and new earth, that is hope-filled praying. When you pray, knowing that the final outcome will arrive with the return of Christ, that is hope on its knees.