My last post on What the Faith was basically a confession, an admission that sometimes my writing tends to focus on the negative, the confrontational, or the rough edges of my spiritual journey. It felt good. It felt . . . cleansing. Not necessarily “cleansing” in the sense of baptism, but more like the “cleansing” that comes after buying a jug of pepper-, lemon-, acai-water and drinking it to the exclusion of everything else for two whole days. It’s that kind of “cleansing” that means your insides are shiny and clean like a new chrome appliance.
I have something else to confess, though. This blog serves more than its obvious purpose – i.e., to encourage people to waste time on the internet while thinking about Jesus. No, it’s also an outlet through which I practice my writing. Because of this blog, I write somewhere between 2,000 and 2,500 words a week, which is practice I need to be getting. See, I see myself as a bit of an author.
Am I published yet, you didn’t ask? No, I am not yet published – but I’m working on it. In fact, I got an email from an online publisher the other day, rejecting one of my submissions. And I love it to death. It’s the best rejection I’ve ever gotten. In this email, three different members of the website’s editorial staff talk about the little thing that I wrote. They all agreed it was very funny, and it seems like all the things I was trying to make my audience feel were conveyed in my story. And the points that made them reject the story were, to be honest and fair, points that I might have seen as reason to reject the story myself, if I were reading it as an editor. Their suggestions are valid. And if I follow their suggestions, my story will benefit from it.
This reminds me of something Pastor Jay has said to me a couple of times. He said that he often thanks God for prayers that he has made that have gone unanswered. The first time he told me that, I loved it. Let me tell you why.
Prayers of intervention are a sensitive subject for me, and probably for others as well. Even as I ask for intervention – like “God, please help me better handle my money.” “God, please heal my friend’s illness.” “God, please keep this horde of beautiful women from constantly chasing me, my wife is getting angry,” et cetera –
– I often think I’m being selfish and small. God knows what I need. God knows what everyone needs. God loves us. So why am I presuming to ask God for something that he knows I want but hasn’t yet given me? Am I wasting God’s time by asking for stuff that doesn’t matter on a global level? Shouldn’t I be praying for peace on earth, instead of for my friend to land a modeling gig? I only have a certain number of hours a day, and of those hours I spend a shockingly small number of minutes talking to God. Am I wasting them by asking for intersession from him? Then, if I don’t get my prayer answered, the doubts immediately come flooding into the dark, slimy corners of my mind. “Oh boy, that didn’t work out, huh? You’d think God would’ve been pulling for you on this one, wouldn’t you? Almost seems like maybe. . . just maybe. . . there isn’t really someone there hearing those prayers, doesn’t it?”
That voice is a dick.
But sometimes, an unanswered prayer is something to be appreciated. I know that I often ask God for things that I think I need. Sometimes, I think I really need what I’m asking for – not a little bit, but a whole lotta need. And yet, despite how desperately I want my prayer to be answered a certain way, God is consistently able to show much better judgment than I am capable of showing.
Here is an example.
A few weeks ago, I did my first ever fast, and it lasted for 24 hours. A few days later, I decided to fast again. I was feeling disconnected from God at the time, and it seemed like I couldn’t fix it. I wanted to hear from the Big Man on a regular basis, but no matter how hard I tried to “tune in” to him, I was just getting static. Brandi had decided to fast for the three days leading in to New Years day – and I decided that I would fast with her, but not just to bring in the new year in a spiritually-focused way. I decided that I would wrestle with the angel.
“Alright God,” I said as I prayed my most prayingest prayer. “There have been times in my life that You have filled me with the Holy Spirit – when I’ve felt Your touch come from outside of me in a way that was beyond doubt. I need you to do that again. I need you to banish my doubts for good. And so, I am going to fast until I feel Your presence in my heart. From this moment forward, I will only drink water, until the Holy Spirit fills me.”
Seems legit, right? That’s not a crazy thing to say to God. But then it occurred to me that it might sound, to God, like I was putting him to the test. I’ve heard that’s a bad thing, so I prayed again.
“Hey God, just touching base. I wanted to let you know that I’m not saying You have to fill me with the spirit – I am only saying that nothing will answer my need, the place in my head that doubts Your existence, but the Holy Spirit. So. . . not trying to be a dick, but. . . seriously, I won’t eat until the Holy Spirit comes.”
Again, that seems reasonable to me. So I launched into this fast, drinking only water, eating nothing. And every time I got overwhelmingly hungry, I would touch base with God again – “Hey Lord, howsit goin’? I’m feeling great, but please send the Spirit whenever you want me to eat. Amen.” I stuck to this fast like a boss. When I made my kid a PB&J, if I got PB or J on my fingers, I would wash my hands instead of licking it off. That’s how dedicated I was to this fast.
As the fasting continued, a funny thing started to happen. I started to get impressions from God – several times, in fact. One day, for instance, I was just touching base with God while I showered, when it occurred to me that I was being really unfair to Brandi about a couple of things, lately. In fact, I’d been doing some unfair stuff for years, and in that shower, as I prayed to God, it occurred to me that I was being a crappy crapface, had been for a long time, and that I should stop. So I finished my shower, talked to Brandi, and apologized for all the unfair stuff I have been doing to her for the past eight years. She seemed moved, and she asked why I brought it up now.
“I dunno,” I shrugged, “it just seemed like God told me about it. Just now, in the shower.”
And similar things happened several times, during my fast. It was like my ability to hear God was amplified by the amount of stuff I was willing to give up for him. It was really cool.
And yet, I never felt that warm, electrical tingle I get sometimes – the one I always equate with the Holy Spirit. Usually, when I feel the Spirit come over me, my chest fills up with warmth and the hair on my arms stands up. Sometimes I’ll feel light, like I weigh next to nothing and a breeze could carry me away. That’s the sort of thing I was expecting – in fact, that’s the sort of thing I was specifically praying for. That sensation always seems to come from outside of me, and that’s what I was asking God for – something I could not doubt came from an external source.
Three days into the fast, I was a little distraught. Brandi came into the room and saw me with tears running down my face, and she immediately went into damage control mode. We talked, and I confessed that I felt horrible that God wasn’t answering my prayer – I asked for a specific thing, I told him very clearly that I wouldn’t eat again until I felt it, and God was, for some reason, ignoring me.
Brandi looked confused.
“But. . . haven’t you been hearing God better than ever these past three days?”
I had to grudgingly admit that was true.
“Then. . . why are you upset?”
I was upset, I patiently explained, because until God sent the Holy Spirit to give me the Warm Chest Tingly Arms Thing, I couldn’t eat. It had been three days of only water. I was hungry, man. And God didn’t care! Was I going to starve?
And then my doubts came to the forefront in a real, vocal way. I started saying everything that I was afraid might be true. What if God didn’t care about me? What if God wasn’t real? What if I had only imagined all those times in my life, when I thought I’d felt the Holy Spirit? What if that was just something I tricked myself into thinking?
After that outburst, our conversation got quiet for a bit. Brandi crawled into bed with me and we just held each other quietly for a while. Eventually, though, something I had said in my distress came back to me.
What if I had imagined the Holy Spirit, all those times before?
Even in my existential crisis, that seemed like a funny question to ask. Wasn’t the reason I asked God to send the Spirit specifically so that I couldn’t doubt it? Wasn’t that kind of the point? “If you don’t send the Spirit, I won’t know it came from outside of me.”
Except now, I was demonstrating the truth of the matter – yeah, I can doubt basically anything. Nothing is doubt-proof for me. When I’m in a moment of conflict, it is entirely possible for me to believe that I am capable of imagining anything. If God had sent the Holy Spirit to me, as I’d asked, that would not have stopped me from questioning whether or not it was real, on some day in the future when my faith was being tested.
I had asked for something stupid.
At that moment, I felt that voice of God, the one I’d been hearing more clearly in the past three days than ever before, tell me, “Go ahead and eat tomorrow.”
The next morning, Sunday the first of the 2012, Brandi and I took communion at Hillside Church. It was the first thing we’d eaten in three and a half days. Then we went to a local Mexican restaurant and destroyed it.
I’ve since learned the value in a well-timed rejection. I’ve learned to trust that God’s experience, perspective, and wisdom are far greater than mine. Like the editors who told me that they loved my story but it wasn’t quite ready for publication, God rejects my prayers for valid reasons. And if I’m listening, he offers some pretty insightful feedback, as well.
What about you guys? Have you ever prayed for something you fiercely wanted, didn’t get it, and later came to be really grateful for that? Has God ever done the best thing possible for you by ignoring everything you said? I’d love to hear some stories.