My granddaughter is 10 months old, and she is perfect. Having raised two sons, nothing prepared us for a granddaughter. She is beautiful and more precious than I can put into words. When my son called last Thursday to say that she was running 103 degrees fever and they were taking her to the doctor, nothing else mattered until we heard that she would be o.k. It turned out to be an ear infection, the bane of a baby’s existence, but it could have been far more serious. We prayed for her to be well until she was.
Tragically, in 25 years of pastoring Janet and I have known so many families whose prayers were not answered in the same way. Babies who were stillborn or died as infants; teenagers who died in accidents or took their lives; young parents who never lived to watch their children grow up. Every day’s news disappoints someone. Some Christians were excited about last Tuesday’s election, while others were grieved. Many of us prayed for Brittany Maynard not to commit suicide, but she did. We all know what it’s like to wonder why God has not done what we prayed for him to do.
In a series on life’s ultimate questions, let’s ask today: what do you do when you’re disappointed by God?
Understand the problem
This is not a small issue. In my study of atheism over the years, I have found suffering to be the single greatest objection to belief in an all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful God. Atheist Sam Harris says that the existence of a single suffering child anywhere in the universe calls into question the existence of a loving God. Christopher Hitchens, one of the best-known atheists of his day, lost his mother to suicide when he was a young man and never forgave God.
My father was a Sunday school teacher before he fought in World War II and never went to church again. He could not reconcile the suffering he witnessed with belief in a God of power and love.
All through Scripture we find the same problem. Job’s sufferings are legendary; Moses was so discouraged that he asked God to take his life; Jonah was furious with God for not judging the Ninevites and their persecutions of the Jewish people; Jesus cried from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Philip Yancey wrote a bestseller titled, Disappointment With God. Any of us could have written that book. Where has God disappointed you lately?
Choose the best response
So, what do we do? From Paul’s experience, let’s consider four lessons.
First, don’t blame God for a broken world.
Paul referred to his suffering as a “thorn in the flesh,” but does not tell us what he means. Clearly, he and his readers knew what he meant, but we are left to speculate. One option is that he was facing a physical problem. He had done mission work in Galatia, modern-day Turkey, where malaria was common. He might have suffered from epilepsy. Many think that he was dealing with eye problems: he told the Galatians, “See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand” (6:11) and said of them, “I testify to you that, if possible, you would have gouged out your eyes and given them to me” (4:15).
If your thorn in the flesh is physical, know that such suffering is not God’s fault. He created a perfect world, but our sin corrupted his creation. My granddaughter’s ear infection was Adam’s fault, not hers. When my father gave me my first car, a 1967 Mercury Cougar, he specifically showed me how to check the oil. Unfortunately, I began checking the transmission fluid by mistake, and ruined the engine. That was not his fault, or the car manufacturer’s.
When we suffer because we live in a fallen world, let’s not blame God.
Second, don’t blame God for misused freedom.
Some think Paul’s thorn in the flesh was persecution at the hands of the “Judaizers.” This was a group of Jewish Christians who believed that Gentiles had to become Jews to become Christians. Wherever Paul went, they followed behind and corrupted the work he had done.
If your thorn in the flesh is caused by misused freedom, whether yours or someone else’s, don’t blame God.
Third, ask God to intervene.
Whatever the source of your suffering, pray for the Lord to help, protect, or heal. Paul prayed three times, continuing to intercede. Jesus told us to “ask and it will be given to you” (Matthew 7:7)–the Greek means to “ask and keep on asking.” If your thorn in the flesh is the result of your misused freedom, ask God to forgive you, cleanse you, and restore you. If it is the result of a fallen world, ask God to intervene with protection and grace.
All through his public ministry, we find Jesus intervening to reverse the consequences of the fall. He healed lepers, cast out demons, and raised the dead. But his healing was in response to the prayers of those in need. A leper came to him for healing; a nobleman came to him to ask his help for a servant who was ill; Lazarus’ sisters asked for his help with their brother. Scripture says that we have not because we ask not (James 4:2). John Wesley believed that God does nothing except in answer to prayer.
Last, trust God to redeem.
Paul prayed for God to remove his thorn in the flesh, but God did not give him what he asked. However, he gave the apostle something greater: “He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (v. 9).
When we pray, God gives us what we ask or whatever is best. He may heal our bodies, or he may help us live with our suffering and draw closer to Jesus. He may calm the storm, or he may let the storm rage and calm his child. Paul learned to say, “when I am weak, then I am strong” (v. 10). You will learn to the say the same.
So, what is your thorn in the flesh? Where has God disappointed you most recently? Don’t blame him for a fallen world or misused freedom. Ask him to intervene, and trust that he will either remove your thorn or redeem it.
God always gives his best to those who leave the choice with him.