I’ve been reading through some of my journals from my teen years. I wrote out my prayers back then, and boy, did I pray a lot. In many of those prayers, I have a bunch of names in quotation marks. “Sheree,” “Mark,” “Lullou,” “Connall” … It took me a while to recall who these people were and why they had aliases. Fortunately I wrote a key at the back of one diary listing where I’d seen them. Smart move, teenage me.
They were merely strangers I’d passed, who looked a little lost or lonely. I can remember a few of them, their faces hazy but the scenes still clear. A woman with a buzz-cut sits on a bench at the mall, her eyes puffy and downcast. A cute old man is alone at the discount grocery, probably nearing the end of his life. A twentysomething stands outside his house downtown, smoking while a baby wails inside.
Their expressions spoke of sadness to me, so I prayed for them. That’s pretty precious, right? Little tenderhearted me praying for strangers? Except I didn’t pray for their good, not really, not always. Sometimes, too often, I prayed for them to suffer.
I was very sincere. I was on fire for God, you know, and I wanted everyone to experience that. I wanted them to share in the joy and hope I believe Christianity offers. But my sincerity got muddled. I didn’t care if these people hurt because I was convinced that would force them to Jesus for healing. It was, at best, callous. Fervent, well-meaning, but callous.
* * *
In Christianity, we love a good redemption narrative. It’s a fine thing to love, and it’s the core of our faith: Jesus, his death and resurrection, our transformation. But I wonder if we sometimes get too caught up in the final chapter to recognize the hardship that filled the rest of the book. If we love the dramatic testimony too much; if we become insensitive to everything before “then Jesus changed my life”; if we revel a little in human suffering, because in the end it allegedly glorifies God.
(I wonder, too, if we get caught up in cheap imitations of redemption. So much of evangelical entertainment reduces life to a series of inspirational vignettes, suggesting that breakups, bankruptcy, miscarriages, addiction, depression, and grief are all good things, really, if they lead to conversion — or at least a teachable moment!)
There is some old, dear truth here: That redemption is sweet because of the bitterness preceding it. That dawn seems so much brighter after a moonless night. That bones, once cracked, are all the stronger.
So we search for that story everywhere. We emphasize how broken we were, and juxtapose how much better we are now. What broke us, though? Or who? In my adolescent zeal, I prayed for it to be God.
But people are not bones, and now this idea of God as a breaker makes me ache. He is not Thor, hammering our souls until we notice our wounds. He is not Zeus, thundering down wrath until we recognize his love.
He is not the pain and he is not the storm, and surely he cannot rejoice in them.
* * *
This wasn’t a church-sanctioned activity, this praying for passersby to suffer presently that they might eventually triumph. But I didn’t invent this ex nihilo, either. It came from conversational snippets and systematic theology. It came from the idea of God taking pleasure in a sinner’s demise. It came from the assumption that surely everyone would be better if they were more like me. It came from someone at church, upon hearing of a difficulty or tragedy, saying, “There must be a reason” or, “Well, hopefully this will drive her to the Cross.”
Is that the best our faith has to offer on suffering? A knee-jerk dismissal that ignores present hardship in hopes of some future payoff? It’s a comfortable answer, sure, but is it a good one?
I believe in a God who is there and who works things together for good. But I’m afraid we can let that become an excuse to downplay misfortune, to see a potential dramatic conversion instead of a person in need of compassion, support, or respect.
I am sad how misplaced my ardor was at 14. I wish I’d used it to for kind words and helping hands instead of arrogant prayers. I can’t explain all the nuances of sin and judgement, injustice and tragedy, but the best explanation can’t be “God is on a breaking spree again.” I don’t want people to feel worthless and empty anymore, and I don’t believe God is so cruel and insecure as to want that, either.
Those strangers — Sheree, Mark, Lullou, Connall? Today I pray they are whole.