The force of this sudden, impetuous virus has left some of us speechless. Watching the number of deaths rise daily by the hundreds in some countries or states has been a painful exercise. Soon enough, new concerns have quickly emerged: fears for our economy, apprehensions over people’s mental health, or simple anxiety over an uncertain future. This pandemic has touched us all in more ways than one. For Christians, the cancellation of in-person worship services has been particularly distressing.
At times, even prayer seems difficult. We want to ask God to fix it, to put an end to this pain, but we know this is his work. In the end, he might answer as he did to the prophet Habakkuk: “Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told” (1:5).
But what is God doing? Are we allowed to ask? Are we allowed to complain?
The Bible is full of honest prayers to God. The Book of Habakkuk starts exactly this way: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear?” (1:2). So do many of the Psalms. In fact, the Psalmist goes as far as asking God to take his hand out of “the fold of [his] garment” in order to deliver his people (Psalm 74:11). “How long?” is a common refrain.
And that’s OK. It’s OK to pour out our cries to God. In fact, he is the proper outlet for our frustrations, doubts, and complaints. The Bible only condemns those that are not directed to God–the sinful murmuring that grows and finds sanction in repetition and the agreement of others.
“You must learn to call,” Martin Luther preached. “Do not sit by yourself or lie on a couch, hanging and shaking your head. Do not destroy yourself with your own thoughts by worrying. Do not strive and struggle to free yourself and do not brood on your wretchedness, suffering and misery. Say to yourself, ‘Come on, you lazy bum; down on your knees, and lift your eyes and hands toward heaven!’”
It’s also OK to feel confused by uncertain situations. When Jehoshaphat, king of Judah, was faced with the news of a huge army marching against him, he could only pray, “We are powerless against this great horde that is coming against us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you” (2 Chronicles 20:12).
I feel the same way most of the time and am grateful I am not in a position where I have to make decisions on a large scale. I just pray that God will give wisdom both to me in my limited area and to our leaders in their weightier decisions, and I keep reminding myself of who God is, and who he is for his people in Christ.
Remember Who God Is
Prayer is weakest when it is detached from a remembrance of who God is. John Calvin said, “There is no faith without God's Word, for of his faithfulness we cannot be convinced, until he has spoken.” God’s creation can tell us of his majesty and power, but only his Word can convince us of his faithfulness toward us in Christ.
That’s why the Psalms are so helpful–whether we read them as prayers or before praying, or both. They remind us of who God is and what he has done for his people. They help us to shift our focus from our dire circumstances to the One who has appointed them for his good purposes. They help us to rest in the knowledge that God is all-powerful, wise, and loving. Even Psalm 88, the “darkest” Psalm in the Bible, is a testimony of the Psalmist’s faith in Yahweh, “God of my salvation.”
The Lord’s Prayer has the same effect, if we reflect on what we are saying. It starts out by pointing our minds to God in both his fatherly love and his majestic and all-powerful being, and helps us to remember that, no matter how uncertain and depressing life on earth might seem, God will see to it that his name be glorified, his kingdom come, and his most perfect will be accomplished with a wisdom we can’t always grasp in our present state. God’s doings are never random, capricious, nor meaningless.
“I keep on staring at the injustice which our country and people are suffering, but I forget that you bring your trials on this earth because you deem this necessary, otherwise, it would not have happened,” said Diet Eman at the start of the Dutch Resistance against the Nazis. “Teach me to see that this is you, who carries everything in your strong hands, then I can even be happy knowing that you are fulfilling your plans.”
What to Ask
Knowing who God is helps us to resize our expectations. While God wants us to be honest with him and remind him of our needs and pain, it’s important to remember that, ultimately, he has not promised to save us from pestilences. He has not promised to keep our pantries full and our bank accounts well-stocked. But he has promised he will always be with us, no matter what, and that all things will work toward our ultimate good.
He has promised he will build his church, even when circumstances prevent it from coming together and the “visible church” seems indiscernible. And he has promised to give his children wisdom and peace of mind, even when they feel terribly lacking in those areas.
Knowing that God works everything according to his perfect plan also helps us to get off the high horses of our cherished convictions and predictions about our present situation and say, with Christ, “Not my will, but yours be done.”
It helps us to stop demanding answers to our questions and to humbly ask God to open our eyes to recognize the hidden realities that are all around us, as Elisha prayed God to do with his doubting servant (2 Kings 6:17–20). We might not visibly see God’s armies encamped around us, but God will give us the necessary faith to believe his Word that tells us they are there and that everything is under his perfect control.
This doesn’t justify a fatalistic or passive attitude. After praying for the comforting perception of God’s sovereign will, Diet Eman went on to risk her life in order to save hundreds of Jews. After admitting his feelings of incompetence and confusion to God, Jehoshaphat went on to win a battle by following God’s directions. And after exhorting Christians to get off their couches to pray, Luther pointed out one of the many benefits of prayer: “[God] wants you to be too weak to bear and overcome such troubles; he wants you to grow strong in him. By His strength he is glorified in you. Out of such experiences people become real Christians.”
The realization of who God is, how perfectly he’s working, and what he has positively promised to do for his children will embolden us to ask for the strength, grace, and wisdom we need in our present circumstances, and to receive them with confidence.