People often say how, if you become a Christian, God will give you peace and joy in your heart. That just makes me wonder where that peace and joy is, and whether I misunderstand what those words mean.
People told me how encouraging it is to keep a prayer diary, because then you don’t just forget what you’ve prayed for, you can tick off all the prayers that have been answered. But after trying it for a while, I just found it discouraging because I could hardly tick anything off. Was I praying wrong? When an open-minded and searching friend asked me ‘Does God really answer your prayers? What prayers has he answered?’, I was embarrassed at how little I could say.
Is there something wrong? Shouldn’t I see answers to prayers, and feel peace and joy?
Of course I can’t believe the idea that God gives prosperous lives to all faithful Christians – that our health and comfort are an indicator of how much He’s blessing us, how much He loves us and how much we please Him. That idea could only survive in our affluent society, and you only have to look at the material poverty of the majority of the world’s Christians to see how ridiculous it is. But I find it easy to slip into believing subconsciously that God’s approval and my relationship to Him is revealed by the way my life is going – whether I’m on a clear and productive path, comfortably settled with a clear purpose, or struggling to keep going.
But what’s the truth? Obviously God doesn’t make our life cushy, and Christians are often hit by tragedies, but surely it doesn’t make no difference whether we live our lives with him or not? So what difference does it make?
One clear answer is that His Holy Spirit is available to give us help and strength, so we can experience God’s help both in our own selves and through other Christians. But God doesn’t just take over the control of our lives, like when you ask a computer officer or someone to teach you how to do something, and they say ‘It’ll be easier if I do it myself’ and can’t be bothered to explain it to you. He wants us to learn and grow and be given responsibility and trust. His help is available, but we have to draw on it as we continue to live out our lives in our own will and with our own mind. As a result, our efforts to live better lives can show very little progress at times, or even go backwards, but at other times we can make good progress with His help.
So that’s one difference that should always apply. But what about external circumstances and events? Does God never intervene in ‘miraculous ways’ that are clearly special? Should our prayer just be about developing better character and allowing the Spirit to work in us, or can we also pray for things to happen? Can we expect God to make our lives better in any sense, or are we called to cope with the effects of this fallen world just like anyone else?
The last thing is obviously important as a testimony to other people – to show that God helps us overcome difficulties and persevere – and to stop us getting too settled in this world and forgetting about Heaven. But there are plenty of examples people testify to of God doing miraculous things or clearly answering prayer, so it’s not simply a matter of waiting for the next life. One point the book ‘Wrestling with God‘ makes is that God’s answers to prayer may be quite different from what we expect or can understand – He chooses what’s best for us with His infinitely higher understanding, and we shouldn’t feel His ears are closed to us if we don’t get what we think is right. Part of faith is learning to trust that He’s there and cares for us beyond a simple ‘I prayed and got what I wanted’ level of evidence.
So if we feel there’s no sign that God’s doing things in/with our life or listening to our prayers, we shouldn’t straight away conclude it’s our fault for not praying right, or being dedicated enough to Him, that He doesn’t care for us, or that it’s stupid to believe He answers prayers and that we should feel embarrassed by the lack of evidence for that. We can continue to pray for what seem to be good things, like people being kept safe or healed, as well as for internal ‘faith and character’ things, but we shouldn’t be discouraged and feel we’re praying wrong if we don’t see what we prayed for. God’s given us what He knows is right, and we can learn from what happens – more about God and ourselves and life – either directly from what we get, or indirectly from how we cope with it.
It’s often said that if we don’t get what we ask for, we should learn from that – but in the sense that we can learn to pray better, less selfishly, more as God wants – ‘He answers our prayers, but only if we ask according to His will’. But I think that a lot of the time, the learning is not about praying better, but about understanding what ‘God answering prayer’ means. We need to learn from what God brings about, the things we face in life.
As for joy and peace, I’ll get on to that later…