“Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
Those words from C. S. Lewis highlight an important aspect of prayer life for most of us (I know, at least in my past, it’s been the case for me): We tend to hear God most clearly when we are in pain, when all seems to be falling apart, or when we are in mortal fear for our lives or the lives of our loved ones.
C. S. Lewis makes a good point, but where I would make a distinction is in the variable of this equation. Lewis’ quote seems to indicate God amplifies the Word through our pain — in other words, the Almighty speaks louder the more we are in pain, or the Almighty even causes pain in order to amplify His voice.
While I agree with the basic premise that God is heard more clearly when things have gone horribly sideways, I think it is us, not God, who are the variable. God’s voice of love and grace is ever-present. But, when things are going as we’d wish, we do not listen as intently for God, choosing to be content that we are the masters of our little corner of the world. God is not whispering in our pleasure. Rather, in our pleasure, we listen less for the guiding, loving voice of our Creator. As things err from pleasure to pain, though, we begin to rely less on ourselves, and listen more intently for the voice of God, which has been there all along. When the defecation truly hits the cooling apparatus, our antennae become acutely attuned to the Almighty.
This became evident to me in 2003, aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt, as we steamed through the Mediterranean toward the opening shots of the war in Iraq. I had lackadaisically attended a couple of worship services in the ship’s small chapel on our transit across the Atlantic. I was one of a handful of people in each service. But, as the war drew nearer, attendance swelled. By the time they started assembling bombs on the hangar deck, and shortly after they taught all 6,000+ of us how to inject ourselves with atropine in the event of a nerve agent attack, the chapel services had been moved to a larger space and doubled in frequency, and still were standing room only. The closer we come to death — whether we are to deliver or receive it — the closer we feel the need for God.
How different would things be in our lives if we learned to have every day, in all our roles and tasks, that level of focus on God that we have in our deeply “Oh crap” moments of life? That question came to mind recently while visiting with a member of our nursing home ministry.
This particular man is wheelchair-bound with a debilitating leg injury. He has had to undergo a number of surgeries, suffers a complex list ailments, and lives daily with a considerable level of suffering. Yet, every time I meet him, he is cheerful, even in recounting the injuries that landed him in a nursing home.
While telling me the familiar tale of this particular injury, he paused, and said: “You know, everybody prays after something bad happens. The key is to learn to pray just as much beforehand.”
It is easy to pray when life has knocked us down a few pegs — when it is painfully obvious we don’t have the strength to carry on without God. The key, though, as my friend at the nursing home pointed out, is to learn to pray just as fervently when all seems easy and pleasurable. In other words, we need to listen to that constant, unwavering voice of God, in all situations, at all times.
This message, of our need to be prayerful, and to be actively listening for God’s response, in all situations, is expressed beautifully in Romans 12:12: “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.”
That is a beautiful verse. It’s one of those pithy snippets of Scripture that lends itself well to memes and key chains. But, as is usually the case, it takes on even deeper meaning when read within its full passage. In this case, that’s Romans 12:9-21, which falls under the chapter subhead “Love in Action”:
9 Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.
17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Being “faithful in prayer” in this context means more than simply listening for God, and certainly more than just listening when times are tough. In this context, prayer is not passive. Prayer begets action. It is truly love in action.
When our neighbor mourns, we mourn with them. When our neighbor is joyful, we rejoice with them. When we are in pain, we open our hearts to the compassion and grace of our neighbor, and of God. We seek out those who are rejected by society. We love through giving and hospitality. We feed our enemies and answer evil with good.
To pray, we must listen. To live prayerfully, we must act. We must listen for the ever-present Word of God, and then, in all circumstances and at all times, pour out ourselves as the living hands and feet of Christ. When we live a life of prayerful action, we live in a connection to God that transcends our ups and downs, speaks above the pain and pleasure of this world. When we live our lives prayerfully, in that connection, we become the megaphone of God, rousing a deaf world to God’s will of love and grace.
O Divine Master, grant us, we pray, the peace and strength to center our lives on you, to live prayerfully, putting love into action, that your will may be done in our lives and in this world, and bring this world ever closer to Your Kingdom, through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.