As I shared previously, my wife’s recovery from her cardiac arrest has been amazing and reflection-inducing. Hundreds of us (even some complete strangers) prayed for her full recovery. All indications are that she will fully recover despite the odds against her on several fronts. Indeed several of the staff have openly called her situation a miracle; an answer to prayer.
But not everybody gets what they pray for. When we spent a few days in the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit at the hospital we saw, first hand, the sobering reality that not all stories have happy endings. We saw two families say goodbye to loved ones, and two more families that appeared to be on the brink of farewells. While we rejoiced, many others on that unit mourned and openly wept.
I’m pretty sure many of those families prayed like we did. God said yes to Denise. God said no to them.
Some time ago I was called on to speak at a church where the pastor and his family had recently buried their child; roughly a year and a half old. She was born with serious health issues and they were told that she would only live a few weeks or months, but she lasted a year and a half. Despite what the doctors told them I’m sure prayers were offered for some kind of miracle that would give her a long life and health.
But God said no.
Indeed countless other examples of human tragedy could easily be offered up. Perhaps you even have such a story. An abusive or unfaithful spouse that you pray will change their ways. Employment that is so desperately needed yet never to be found. Health problems. Relational breakdowns. Let’s get really morbid and consider murders, genocides, torture, modern-day sexual slavery, aborted babies, serial killers, terrorists and so much more. We pray for a different world. We beg. We plead. We get on our knees and weep in the hope that God will fix everything. Or if not everything, at least our specific situation.
But God says no.
Let this hit a little closer to home for a minute. Denise’s dad died of heart complications when she was roughly 2 years old. As an interesting sub-plot on this entire drama of our lives the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit that Denise was being treated on is the exact same unit her dad was initially treated on. I am certain that countless prayers were offered up for his return to health over the course of time that his life slowly slipped away. In fact, when he died he was roughly the same age that Denise, his daughter, is now. He left behind a wife and two kids with another on the way. Denise would have left behind a husband and two kids. Many people begged God for his life as they begged for Denise’s life.
But God said no. What are we to make of that?
The mystery of why God allows the world to remain in its imperfect state, and why he sometimes answers our prayers in ways we that we desperately wish he would not have answered them are serious questions and worth wrestling with. But that is not the subject I want to take a look at today. I want to consider why we pray when we know that God will not always answer our prayers in the way we would prefer. I want to consider it by way of analogy.
When Denise was found unconscious by her co-workers they called 9-1-1 and were told to begin CPR. Suppose they knew the statistics associated with cardiac arrests. When a person has a cardiac arrest outside of a hospital the odds of their recovery, even if given all the best treatment, is roughly 5-7%. That’s only about 1 in 20 people who will recover from a cardiac arrest if you give them CPR until the paramedics arrive with a defibrillator (as in Denise’s case). 19 times out of 20 they will die anyway, no matter how much effort you put in, how sincere you are in your efforts or how perfect your technique is.
Those are some pretty lousy odds. Given those odds of success would a reasonable person who sees somebody with a cardiac arrest just shrug their shoulders and walk by with the mindset, “oh well, CPR almost certainly wouldn’t have helped them?” Even in the face of discouragingly low odds of success people begin CPR anyway; at least those with half an ounce of humanity in them do. We do so because we know that, even if CPR fails, there is at least a chance of success and if CPR is not administered then death 100% certain. The only hope for recovery in the face of a cardiac arrest is CPR and a defibrillator, even if that hope is a faint and distant hope. So we begin CPR because we are focused on the hope, not on the likelihood of success.
Should we not approach God in a similar manner? We ask God for a miracle because we know he is the only one capable of providing the miracle we ask for, whether he chooses to provide it or not. Even though we are aware that he might say “no” to our plea, and even if the odds of him saying “yes” are astonishingly low, we ought to ask anyway. We ought to ask with all the sincerity, dedication and effort that Denise’s co-workers put into the CPR they gave her. They did not do CPR because they knew it would work, they did CPR because they knew it was the only action that could possibly work. They didn’t know it would work, they hoped it might work. Similarly we pray with the greatest sincerity and dedication, and we boldly ask for the greatest and most shocking possible outcome, not because we know ahead of time that God will provide a miracle, but because if there is going to be a miracle it will come from him. We hope in him whether he answers or not.
CPR is just a physical act performed on a physical body. It has no will or consciousness. It neither knows the victim nor cares about them. God, on the other hand, is personal. He has a will. He understands and loves the person lying unconscious on the ground. As the Bible reminds us, God is a loving father who delights to give us what we ask for (Matthew 7:7-11). Though he will not always give us what we pray for – sometimes he has a bigger picture in mind that precludes this particular miracle or that one – it is his preference to give us a long and fulfilled life with which to honour and serve him. It is his preference to surprise us with the miraculous. If we have hope enough to attempt the impersonal and merely physical act of CPR, given the incredibly low odds of success, why would we not ask our conscious, personal and loving God to intervene in our situations with the most glorious and astonishing of miracles? How much more powerful is he than mere CPR?
One Bible story that has been very relevant to me during this entire episode has been the story of David losing his son (2 Samuel 12:1-23). In this story David is told that God is going to kill his son and also the reason why; David’s sin. Despite knowing God’s plan, and despite knowing the reason behind God’s plan, David prays with far more dedication and sincerity than I would dare guess that any of us have ever prayed in our lives. When we pray we do not know what God’s plans are. When David prayed he did know God’s plans and he begged God to change his plans. In David’s case God went ahead with his plans and gave David “no” for an answer. But what has always struck me about that story is David’s dedication to asking God anyway, knowing full well that his request is almost 100% guaranteed to be declined. He didn’t just ask, he starved himself for a week and lay in the dirt as a sign of his recognition of his place before God and his sinful nature.
How many of us would pray like that when we do not know God’s plan, never mind when we are praying that God would change his plans? David puts me to shame, no question about it!
Furthermore, when God did finalize his “no” David did not curse him or walk away from the Faith; he went up to the temple and worshipped. I doubt he was singing glad songs about how God always makes him happy (we have too many songs like that these days!) but he approached God with an attitude of profound worship nonetheless. Do we have so much integrity that our Faith will stand firm even if God does not give us everything we want and ask for? Will we continue to worship God when he refuses to play Santa Claus? Or will we take the approach of Job’s wife, “Curse God and die!” (Job 2:9)
I am humbled and delighted that hundreds of people (I am not exaggerating; it was hundreds) asked God for a miracle for Denise. Though I am painfully aware that he does often say “no” he decided to say “yes” this time. Even if many people live with disappointment when God answers “no” (my wife’s family being one of them when Denise’s dad died many years ago) surely we can celebrate when he does say “yes” and surely we ought to ask for a miracle even when he will almost certainly say “no.” David prayed for “yes” when he was told ahead of time that God would say “no.” We should be so bold! We ask, not because we are confident that he will give us what we want, but because if there is going to be a miracle he’s the only means by which it could happen.
When we pray, go big or go home!