The Coronavirus crisis has triggered many big questions from our little people. Ruth Jackson takes a look at the questions surrounding unanswered prayer and suffering, reflecting on how the Easter story can bring our young people hope, even in the midst of profound heartache.
Before the COVID-19 crisis, LZ7’s Lindz West spent a lot of time listening to young people and talking to them about things like mental health. He and his team would spend a week in local schools and at the end, invite the young people to a gig where he would share his belief that, as a Christian, he has an enduring hope in the midst of the darkness.
In one school, there was a girl who seemed to hate everything Lindz was saying, but Lindz continued to listen and talk to her. He invited her to his gig, knowing she probably wouldn’t come.
Half way through his gig, Lindz noticed this girl, still completely disengaged, in the crowd. As the evening went on, her body language softened and she ended up in floods of tears.
Lindz was worried he’d said something to offend her and was even more convinced when she told him that he had ruined her plans. When Lindz asked what she meant, the girl said that she had become a Christian that night. She pulled a suicide note out of her pocket and told Lindz she had planned on taking her own life that night, but hearing about God’s love had swiftly put an end to that.
Our English word ‘prayer’ derives from the Latin word ‘precarius’. We pray because life is precarious. We know that only too well at the moment.
Lindz’s story is an amazing answer to prayer, which literally saved that girl’s life, but sadly not every story ends that way.
When I was a teenager, a friend of mine who had been struggling with her mental health tragically took her own life.
In his book How to Pray, Pete Greig identifies three reasons why: God’s world, God’s war and God’s will.
As any child who has studied physics will tell you, there are laws and principles in nature that make the world work the way it does. This might sound obvious, but if God answered every prayer the way we wanted, the world would be a mess – as a trivial example, both teams would end up winning in most football games because there’s bound to be a child praying for each side!
As Pete Greig says: “When a child is trafficked, or a woman is raped, this is not the will of God. This is manifest evil at work.” The Bible reminds us that we are in a battle. The Message version of Ephesians 6:13 says: “Be prepared. You’re up against far more than you can handle on your own.”
Sometimes there are unanswered prayers that neither our children nor we can understand and this is a heart-breaking position to be in. In the midst of this, we need to ask whether the God of the Bible can be trusted and whether he will help us in our pain (see below).
Response activity: Encourage your children to spend a few minutes thinking about some prayers that have been answered.
The picture the Bible presents is that suffering is very real but that it is also very wrong – it is not life as God intended it to be. When humans said no to God, suffering came into our world and things got horribly broken.
Your children may take comfort from the fact that the Bible is full of unanswered prayer: King David and Bathsheba tragically lost their first baby, the disciples couldn’t perform a healing miracle and the apostle Paul constantly battled with his “thorn in the flesh”.
Not even Jesus was exempt. In the Garden of Gethsemane, he prayed to have his suffering taken away from him. Jesus then went on to experience one of the most brutal deaths imaginable.
Children may be familiar with a Bible verse often read at Christmas. The Message version of John 1:14 says: “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighbourhood.” Our God doesn’t stay far away but, in the person of Jesus, came into the mess of this world.
Jesus suffered pain at every possible level: physical, psychological and spiritual. Whether your young people are encountering physical sickness, mental health struggles, or spiritual doubt – Jesus has been there.
The shortest verse in the Bible is “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). One of his best friends dies (Lazarus) and Jesus’ response is exactly what ours would be. He wept.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus’ sweat was like drops of blood. He may have been suffering from a rare medical condition where the capillaries around the sweat glands rupture under extreme distress.
We pray to a God who can be trusted, because Jesus not only knows about but has intimately human emotion.
Response activity: Encourage your children to write, draw or doodle some of their pain or answered prayers. Sprinkle a few drops of water over these and remind your children that God’s heart breaks over their suffering too.
At the heart of the Christian faith is Jesus’ broken body. Jesus went through the ultimate suffering, which is particularly poignant at this difficult time: death.
But doesn’t Jesus' death just add to the pain? No. If we’re suffering because we rebelled against God, something had to be done to put the world right. Because all forgiveness costs something.
Here’s an example which may help children to understand. Recently, some of my friends and I were decorating cheap sunglasses. I was busy pouring superglue all over myself when I heard a scream. Francesca had accidentally stuck sparkly gems on Simeran’s very expensive pair. They were completely ruined. Simeran had to choose whether to forgive Francesca. If she did, Simeran would have to pay for new sunglasses from her own pocket.
Likewise, when God forgives us for messing up, there is a cost that needs to be paid. Something is still broken. Christians believe that Jesus paid the cost we should have paid at the cross and, in return, we receive eternal life (slightly better than new sunglasses!).
Our children still might not understand why our prayers aren’t answered the way we want or why we’re suffering, but at the cross we learn something of God’s character. Here is a God of love who, through Jesus, laid down his own life to restore a relationship that we had broken through our own rebellion.
Response activity: Share an easy to read version of Isaiah 53:3-6 (or ‘Operation No More Tears’ from the Jesus Story Book Bible). Encourage your children to use a red pen to draw a red cross over their unanswered prayers (from response above) and play a song like ‘The cross stands above it all’. Or tell the story behind ‘It is well with my soul’ before playing it.
Jesus’ life and death show us that God is with us in our pain and that he loves us so much he was willing to die for us. But Jesus rising from the dead provides a way out of our suffering.
1 Corinthians 15 tells us that death has been defeated. If Jesus rose again, death is not the end. The cross is not the end of the story.
We recently interviewed Kim Phuc Phan Thi, who was horrifically burnt when four napalm bombs went off near her home in South Vietnam. She told us about her battles with her physical and mental health, but how, in the midst of it all, she somehow managed to find faith in God. When we asked her what she’d want to share with children who are struggling, she said: “There is always hope”.
If this world isn’t as God created it to be, it certainly isn’t how he intends to leave it. Revelation 21:4 says: “God will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.”
If I gave your child a perfect answer, hand written by God, that explained why they were suffering, would that make it hurt any less? I don’t think so.
When a child falls over, we don’t explain why they fell over, we pick them up and hold them. Likewise, Christianity may not give us a perfect answer for why some of our prayers go unanswered, but it does reveal a God who picks them up and holds them close. Who weeps with us, died for us and promises that this pain is not forever.
Ruth Jackson is editor of Premier Youth and Children's Work magazine. Ruth speaks about unanswered prayer in more detail here (34 mins and 40 seconds in)