I’ve been pretty open on this forum about my struggles with anxiety and unwanted thoughts. It is not a fate I would wish on my worst enemy, and it has greatly raised my awareness of, and empathy level for, those who struggle along with me. Over the past ten years, I have had WAY too many experiences and exchanges to share here – with people a lot like me – that have been uplifting, impactful, and inspiring, and have changed me in ways too profound to attempt to describe right now. While I wouldn’t want to do ANY of it again, as “they” (whoever they are) say, I wouldn’t trade any of it, as it has made me the husband, father, pastor and person I am today.
With all of that said, while it was/is going on, I do A LOT of talking to God. Some people might call it praying. Others would call it bargaining. There might even be a few who would call it questioning. I have grown to think of it as “all of the above.” Through it, I try to remind myself of God’s sovereignty, and His love for me, but I often find myself saying things like – “If you ______, then I will/won’t ________.” And when things get really bad, I have, even though I am a pastor, been known to wonder how God could be real if He allows those who follow Him to struggle and suffer with thoughts that seem to be contrary to His truth, and unwanted and uncontrollable by those experiencing them. If that counts as “praying,” then I have done a lot of it.
When people pray, I think it’s fair to say that most of us, ask a question, or ask for something. And when we make that ask, it’s probably also safe to say that we’d really appreciate it if we got some kind of answer. It’s been said that God answers prayers in three ways – Yes, no, and not yet. While I can see and understand the logic behind this line of thinking, I also think it’s a bit rudimentary. To think that the answer to EVERY question that is possibly asked of the Supreme being and Creator of the universe, is capable of being answered with little more than yes or no, is a bit ridiculous. With being all knowing and all powerful as part of His character, I’d hope God could do better than that. And I hope it won’t surprise you to hear, that I think He does.
You see when it comes to God answering our prayers and our questions, I have grown to think that it might be just as important for us to realize HOW God answers. Many of us have been taught, or have grown to learn through Christian tradition that God ONLY answers us by speaking to us through His Word, His Spirit, or His people. If one of those three options doesn’t present itself for our consumption and make itself obvious within an acceptable timeframe of our prayer, then we feel it is safe to assume that God has ignored us, forgotten us, or worse yet, just plain doesn’t care. I think that’s naive and short-sighted. I think God might be, in many situations, playing the long game – and that game requires a different type of response.
One of the most thoughtful and enlightening ideas I have ever experienced in this arena, came surprisingly from a Hollywood motion picture, entitled Evan Almighty. In it, the character of God is played by Morgan Freeman (like, duh!) and He has taken human form of a waiter in a restaurant, to console the wife of Evan Baxter, who in a modern day Noah story, feels that God is calling him to construct an ark. His wife wants to know how she is supposed to be patient and supportive with a man she obviously loves, but is having difficulty believing and putting her trust in. Morgan… I mean God’s answer is quite profound. Here, take a look.
Second only to his amazing ability to make fish and fries appear with that cool twinkling noise, is the waiter’s perspective on God giving people opportunities to grow, and change, and perhaps realize the answers to the questions they’ve been asking. I guess what strikes me the most about it, is this – if we think that God only “answers” us with words from Himself or others, we might miss the OPPORTUNITY to get our answer, because we weren’t even looking for it.
I don’t know about you, but almost every major growth experience I have had in my life has come because of an opportunity I have been given. A chance to do something that challenges me, or makes me uncomfortable, or place my faith, hope and trust in someone or something else. An opportunity to help others, to create something or to fail, and then learn an important lesson from it. For me to think that God is all-knowing and ever-present, but didn’t have His hand in those events would be, well, silly (although I’m tempted to go stronger). God is JUST as capable of using the events of my life to answer me as He is a person or a book – I just have to make sure I’m aware that it might be coming that way.
Many years ago, in the throes of anxiety and thoughts of self harm, I was still pastoring at a large church in the area. For months, I attended services I was supposed to be “ministering at,” just praying and hoping that God would send some sort of sign, some person, or word through the message that would spark a drastic change in my life, my situation, and my heart. I prayed and cried out that He would reveal Himself to me in a real way that was undeniable, so that I could go back to doing His work. After every service, I was tasked with going to the front of the room to pray with those who came up. I hardly felt like doing it, much less did I feel qualified, but number two on my strengths-finder test was “responsibility,” so each weekend, walk up to pray I did.
You almost wouldn’t believe it, but nearly every, single, weekend, someone came to me and asked me to pray for them because “their son was struggling with depression, their sibling had just committed suicide, they were struggling with anxiety and thoughts of self-harm themselves…” the numbers and consistency was mind boggling. I still remember the week I finally realized what was happening, came to the realization that God was using my “opportunity” to show me the answers to my pleas. I was not alone, He was still looking after me, still loving me, and I was still able and qualified to be used by Him. I vividly remember walking out of the building at about 7PM on an overcast and cool May Saturday evening, and staring up at the sky and audibly yelling “Ok, I get it, you can stop sending them now!” He didn’t.
In the years since, I have met SO MANY of those people, as I said earlier. And my experiences – my OPPORTUNITY – has allowed me be who God has asked me to be in those situations. I feel free to talk about my struggles. I feel led to share with people the heartache and doubts that I have faced. I have written many a post (perhaps too many) here on the inter-webs, trying to further the belief and the idea that God cares about those of us who struggle with mental illness, that it’s not a taboo subject to Him, even if some Christians want to steer clear of it, and that there are people, and whole communities of them (of which I believe our church is one), who are willing to have the IMPORTANT and DIFFICULT conversations that surround the “crap ” (yeah I said it), of life. We do not ignore it, but we are not defined by it either. Through our relationship with Jesus and with each other, and by placing our hope in something and someone greater than ourselves – we overcome it. But none of that would’ve happened, if I hadn’t seen that opportunity God was giving me, as His answer to my prayers.
I do not know everyone who will ever read these words. If I am to believe what “they” (I really would like to meet these people) tell me, they will last forever on Al Gore’s internet machines, and so it is possible that many years after I am gone, people I have or will never meet, might still stumble across them. If you are reading them now, I want to say this. I do not or will not know all your problems. I do not know what you are crying out to God for in this moment – and I cannot say for sure how He will answer you. Maybe He will send an angel. Perhaps He will inspire you to turn to a page in the Scriptures. He could even cause someone you know and love to speak words of truth into your life. But maybe, just maybe – while YOU think He is silent and ignoring you – He is answering you through the gift of opportunity. Look for it. Be open to it. Embrace it. Some of the best answers you will ever receive, will come through an experience with God and His people, and they wouldn’t be possible any other way.