Two families of five live side by side. The families are good friends and are active in the same church. A tornado strikes their town and, among other devastation, destroys the one family’s house and kills two of the family members. The house next door suffers a small amount of damage but no one is seriously hurt. An unusual scenario, for sure, but not at all impossible.
The survivors of the families live together in the intact house for a while, until the funerals are over and the uprooted family moves. The members of the relatively untouched home feel uncomfortable about thanking God for his protection, especially in the presence of the other family. Why was the other family not protected? How are they to think of God’s protection for some but not for others?
This issue leads to such doubt and confusion in the “safe” family that they stop thanking God for their protection from the tornado. They continue, however, praying for encouragement and provision for their former neighbors and their other neighbors who were also affected.
Should they avoid thanking God about the tornado crisis? If so, what do they do about the exhortation to be “always giving thanks to God the Father for everything”? If not, how do they word their prayers of thanksgiving in light of their neighbors’ tragedies?
The same kind of tension would arise if the safe family, arriving home just after the tornado and seeing their house intact, said to one another, “God is good!” Was he not good to the neighbors who lost lives and property? Would he not have been good if the safe house were totally destroyed?
This issue is one aspect of a much larger question: why does God allow harmful things to come to people? Why is there evil and suffering in the world if God,, who governs this world, is all-mighty, all-wise, and all-good? It is not my intention here to explore this ages-old question, but to focus specifically on how we word our prayers and remarks in such instances as those described above.
I believe it is helpful for us to think about the words we are using. The psalmists used words, the apostle Paul used words, and Jesus used words. Their words are written down in the scriptures, encouraging us to concentrate on just what it is for which we are praying, and, specifically for which we are giving thanks.
It does not seem to be honoring to God if we choose to withhold prayers of thanksgiving in certain situations. As indicated above, after the apostle Paul speaks of being filled with the Spirit, he adds that one aspect of the Spirit’s fullness is “always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:20). In I Thessalonians Paul writes: “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (5:16-18). And in his letter to the Philippian church, Paul exhorts God’s people to “not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (4:6).
It helps me to distinguish between my prayers in/for my own personal situation, and praying for others in difficulty. In some trials I have personally thanked God both in and for the situation, even praising God for the current terminal rejection of my transplanted heart. (I admit, however, concerning my heart failure and transplant vasculopathy, that I find it much easier to thank God in my ongoing illness than for it.) I have also thanked God for (not just in) equipment failure, interruptions, and the difficulty of preparing a certain sermon (or blog). James 1:2-4 and Romans 5:3-5, which speak of rejoicing in sufferings, are becoming more real and more comforting to me the longer I live. I can say (in my better moments) “you are good, Lord; you are wise; I rest in you, Lord,” when difficulties come upon me. I know that—if I respond with humility and trust—God is conforming me to the image of his Son, and leading me to deeper joy and satisfaction than I can ever produce on my own.
How do I pray, however, for my neighbors, either out loud or in my mind? I do not feel comfortable thanking God (audibly or privately) for my neighbors’ disaster. We are to “weep with those who weep.” I can, though, praise God in the situation because he is always reaching out to hurting people, he is wise and compassionate, and he is able to work all things for good in the lives of those who love him. I have experienced this God! But I do not want to “push” my prayers or thanksgivings on to hurting people. I can pray for and with them, but they alone must praise God directly and offer their requests specifically as they recover from the shock of the situation.
It is crucial to remind ourselves that God remains God no matter what circumstances he allows in our lives, or in our neighbors’ lives. We don’t just thank God when our home is spared or our car just missed being involved in a terrible crash. If the thought “God is good,” comes to us in such situations, we need to be thanking God for being God—for being who he is all the time. He is always gracious and loving, whether or not we can see these attributes in the midst of a crisis. His perfections remain, even as circumstances change. Our God is a good God—always.
One final thought: our God is a mysterious God. No matter how carefully we analyze situations, examine the scriptures, and probe the nature of God, we must always bow in the presence of Mystery. We word our prayers as best we can, but we rest ultimately in the sovereign wisdom and compassionate guidance of God. “His ways are not our ways, and his thoughts are not our thoughts.”