God doesn’t promise us a cushy life. Yes, Jesus says, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light,” (Matthew 11:30) and “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). But that doesn’t translate to individual health, wealth and fun. And so in this season, when we find our physical health, livelihoods, and ability to do entertaining things all in jeopardy at the same time, we can be confident that we are still perfectly held in God’s hands.
In fact, since the time of the early church, Christians have realized that suffering is a pathway to spiritual growth and even to joy … if we let it. We always have a choice. We can allow suffering to make us bitter, resentful and despairing. Or we can lean into the suffering and find in it a connection to the suffering of Christ. Suffering can teach us the grace of surrender, of actually releasing our intense desire to control things that are outside our control. A realistic understanding of ourselves is a huge first step in spiritual growth.
In my own congregation, I am seeing tremendous spiritual growth in this season. In addition to our Sunday morning worship on Facebook Live, we are doing a nightly prayer call on Zoom. During this call we are honest about how we are doing, we support one another, and we pray together for the needs of the world and for our own needs. For many of us, it has become the highlight of our day, an opportunity to connect with one another and with God, and to listen to the voice of the Spirit in new ways. A few years ago Father Richard Rohr, a well-loved Christian teacher, jokingly said that churches should close all their programs for a year and simply teach people to pray. And here we are.
Far from being something we do as a last resort, prayer is deep work for Christians. James 5:16 says that “the prayers of righteous people are powerful and effective.” In the language the Bible was written in, this verse has the connotation that our prayerful specific requests are strong, energetic, and engaged in the work of resistance to the status quo. And also prayer is a mystery. Does it change God’s mind? Maybe (there are some stories in the Bible that include this plot twist). Does it change other people or the outcome of a situation? Sometimes (see previous question). Does it change me? Definitely. Absolutely. Without a doubt.
Whatever else prayer does, it increases my trust in God. When I pray, I’m not only speaking to God; I’m also speaking to myself. And the words we say to ourselves are incredibly powerful. When I hear my own voice inviting God into situations that are beyond my power to change, seeking God’s wisdom, thanking God for the little things that brought me joy and peace today, asking God to take care of my loved ones that I can’t see right now — when I hear myself speaking these words, something shifts in me. When I hear myself affirm my trust in God, I actually do trust God more. I remind myself of what I have chosen to believe and how I am continuing to choose to live.
The world is in a desperate situation right now and the best thing I can do is pray. Help out where you can. Wear your masks and stay home. Stay in touch with your loved ones. Let your legislators know what you want them to do. All of that stuff matters. But prayer matters just as much, or dare I say, even more. It is not a last resort. It’s deep and meaningful work, especially in a season of suffering.
P.S. If you’d like to join our nightly prayer call, send me an email! Everyone’s welcome.