I believe in prayer. I believe in a God who answers prayer. I believe in a God who wants His children to be happy, to live in peace both in the world at large and within the walls of their own homes. I believe in a God who does not like to see His children suffer.
And yet there is suffering at every turn.
I grew up in an active religious family. We went to our LDS church every Sunday. We prayed and read scriptures at home during the week. Scriptures that were full of stories of faith, and miracles, and answered prayers.
The stories that stuck with me were stories like that of Daniel, who was miraculously safe after spending the night in a den full of hungry lions. Or Lazarus, who had died and was brought forth again to life by the Savior of the world. Or Moses, who led an entire people out of slavery and parted the sea to deliver them.
I began to develop the unconscious belief that if I was faithful enough, prayed hard enough, did my best to live and love as Christ, that my life would transpire according to plan and I would be spared major pain.
Miracles do happen. Stories as miraculous as those of Daniel, or Lazarus, or Moses do occur today. But you know what else happens? Unanswered prayers. Sought for miracles that never come to pass. Pain, loss, darkness.
I wish I had spent more time learning how to handle the unanswered parts of my story. I wish I had focused on the fact that before Daniel survived the lion’s den, he was in intense situations and sentenced to death (Daniel 2:10-13), and pressured by peers to make choices he did not believe were right (Daniel 1:8). And before Lazarus was risen from the dead he had suffered through a debilitating (and ultimately fatal) disease. And before Moses delivered the people of Israel he discovered that who he thought he was (a royal son) was not actually his true identity, made the choice to leave the only family he had known and chose to follow God even though it meant directly defying the Pharaoh and accepting the consequences that came along with that. God did not take away the Red Sea, He simply created a way for Moses to get through it. Similarly, He does not take our trials and hardships away, but can provide ways for us to survive the seemingly unsurvivable.
I wish I had recognized that God is good, but that does not mean He will always protect me from pain. That does not mean He will save me from the consequences of my own or other’s choices. It does not mean I will always, or maybe ever in this life, get a miraculous, scripture worthy ending.
I wish I had realized that even Jesus Christ, God’s only Begotten Son, in His moment of deepest agony, whispered a prayer to His Father–a prayer that would remain unanswered.
In Matthew 26 we read, “And he went a little further, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” Even the Savior of the world, in the depths of physical and emotional pain that neither you nor I can fully comprehend, experienced the heartache of unanswered prayer.
But it is what the Savior utters next that teaches us a profound lesson.
“Nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.”
Here is what I want. But if not, I accept Thy will.
Elder Dennis E. Simmons gave a beautiful talk on this concept. He relates the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego. They refused to follow the order of King Nebuchadnezzar to bow before the his golden idol. The angry king threatened to cast them into the fiery furnace if they continued to refuse. These three righteous and faithful young men replied, “If it be so [if you cast us into the furnace] our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us out of thine hand.”
They expressed their complete faith in what God was capable of doing. But in their next words comes the key, the part that I was missing all those years. They continued, “But if not, … we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.”
But. If. Not.
They knew that God was capable of delivering them from death, just as He is capable of delivering each of us from our own fiery furnaces. And they were wise enough to recognize that just because He could deliver them, did not mean that He would.
It is easy to believe God is good when life is good. It is when we get the “no” answer, or the “not right now” answer, or seem to not get an answer at all that it becomes easy to turn our anger towards the heavens.
I felt this so much when my mom was sick. She had hundreds of people fasting and praying for her. There was so much faith spent on her behalf. I knew that she was going to beat her cancer. I knew God loved her, and loved me, and because of that He would not take her from us so young. But she continued to get more and more sick, and eventually she passed away. I had to dig deep into my faith and reevaluate my beliefs about God and His goodness.
I felt this again when my marriage was crumbling before my eyes and I felt like nothing I tried was making it better. Struggling through addiction, praying that things would change, that different choices would be made, and to be disappointed and betrayed time and time again. Questioning my faith became easy. Second guessing my ability to hear and interpret the spirit became a common thread through my thoughts.
I knew God would heal mom, but if not…
I knew God would heal my marriage, but if not…
How we handle the but-if-nots speaks profoundly to how deeply our faith is anchored. Being faithful in times of plenty is one thing. Being faithful in times of famine is quite another.
Elder Simmons closes his talk with the following incredibly powerful quote,
“Our God will deliver us from ridicule and persecution, but if not... Our God will deliver us from sickness and disease, but if not… He will deliver us from loneliness, depression, or fear, but if not…Our God will deliver us from threats, accusations, and insecurity, but if not… He will deliver us from death or impairment of loved ones, but if not…we will have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, knowing that if we do all we can do, we will, in His time and in His way, be delivered and receive all that He has.”
Even if our story is full of seemingly unanswered prayers, even if we never get a miraculous scripture worthy ending, even if we pray and our mom dies anyway, or we have faith, but our child leaves the church anyway, or our husband has an affair, or our finances are always too little and our expenses too high, or any number of challenges we may face, we will, in His time and in His way, be delivered and receive all that He has.
I now recognize that the moments I am on my knees in prayer because my spirit is too tired to rise, are the moments that I have been lifted closest to God. The moments when I can’t breath because the pain is so overwhelming, are the moments God breathes peace to my soul. I have learned that the but-if-not moments in my life have been holy ones. Through those moments, I am sanctified.
God will protect us from pain and heartache.
But if not, He will undoubtedly carry us through the valley as we walk the path of deliverance.