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The Troubles of the Day: Prayer and Providence in a Broken World

Winter 2006
PAGES 8, 9
[original publication]

"Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own!' (Matthew 6:34)

No one saw that last line coming. In Matthew 6 Jesus lyrically teaches his disciples how to pray. He then goes on to tell his followers again and again, "Do not worry." We are not to fret over food, drink, or clothing. Our heavenly Father knows we need all those things and he will provide them as surely as he feeds the birds and clothes the fields. It is all bracingly hopeful, redolent with a belief in God's providence. When you pull together all of Jesus' words, you arrive at a portrait of calm.

That's why Matthew 6's bottom line is properly startling. In essence what Jesus ends up saying is, "Therefore, don't worry about tomorrow. Just let tomorrow worry about itself. And anyway, my friends, today life is bad enough as it is." This is not expected! After all those sunny promises about God's provision, how can we end with a blunt admission that we are sunk neck-deep in troubles? If anything, you would have expected to hear, "Don't worry about tomorrow because it will be as chock-full of blessing as today is." But no, that's not what Jesus says. He says not to worry about tomorrow because there is plenty of troubling stuff to ponder now.

What a marvelous realist Jesus was! Somehow he was able to pivot from saying, "Trust in the Lord with all your heart," to saying, "Life is often difficult," without missing a beat and without, apparently, seeing any contradiction. Mostly, however, we do have a difficult time holding such things in tension. Life is either good or it's bad; we struggle to wrap our minds around the idea that life can be good even when it is undeniably bad. Jesus encourages ardent trust in our heavenly Father even though he does not deny that the circumstances in which we need to nourish such trust can be tough.

It is an unexpected conclusion and yet hopeful too. Why? Because Jesus tells us that we can seek first the kingdom, pray, and trust our heavenly Father for every good thing even—or maybe especially—on those days when we feel harried and pressed and distracted and troubled by all that vexes us in this sad world of hurricanes, cancer, earthquakes, and war.

For me, this is profoundly good news. If I thought that the only time I could serve God was when absolutely everything in my life was perfect, I'd wonder about when I could ever serve God. If I thought that I could pursue the kingdom only on days when I could devote my attention 110 percent to all things spiritual, I'd wonder if I could ever seek first the kingdom. If I thought that the only way to be certain that I am still in the care of my heavenly Father was when every conceivable need in my life was satisfied to the full, I'd wonder how much God ever cares for me.

Jesus admits that even for the most faithful believer, each day has enough bad stuff as it is, and each of us knows deep in our bones that a truer word was never spoken. The life of disciple-ship and prayer does not take place outside of the hurly-burly everyday nature of our lives but smack within all that occupies us, all that keeps us hopping, and all that makes us sad sometimes. Here is our Lord's gospel at its practical best.

After all, we live profoundly terrestrial, earthy lives and there is no escaping that fact when we pray. We pray from the context of our Monday mornings and our Thursday afternoons, and we pray for the things we need and encounter on those days too. This connection of the earthly to the heavenly distinguishes Christianity from some Eastern traditions. Christian prayer is nearly the opposite of a kind of "transcendental meditation" by which you try to transcend your own thoughts and desires in order to enter some other realm on a plane far above all things typical and mundane. True, we want to meditate and focus on God when we pray . . . but once we are so focused, the "what" of our prayers goes right back to what happened in the office earlier in the day and how we need to make sure we can pay our bills this month. But this is fitting—true prayer is not meant to disconnect you from the world but to help you connect to it at a deeper level.

In Matthew 6 Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray. But before that chapter is finished, Jesus also assures the disciples that even the most prayerful person will still lead a life full of difficult realities. We pray to God because we believe in God's providence—we believe that God can (and routinely does) provide what we need. But the realism of Matthew 6 tells us that for now providence will not spare us from all hurts. There is a lot of comfort in this thought—it is a good thing to know that suffering does not mean we have fallen out of God's care.

But on the other hand, the coexistence of suffering and prayer leaves the Christian faith vulnerable to those who claim that all of life is random, so that you can never definitively know whether a prayer for healing was truly "answered" or whether a given person just got lucky (and so would have been healed whether anyone had prayed or not). If prayer-fulness is not a ticket to a pain-free life—if Christians who pray to be spared from a hurricane can get nailed by that storm the same as people who never pray—then who is to say whether prayer makes a difference? "Prayer changes things," according to an old adage. But many people retort, "Prove it!"

And, of course, we can't. So we pray, "Your will be done," and then chalk up our disappointments in prayer to the inscrutable will of God. "It's not that prayer doesn't work," we say, "but only that we sometimes ask for something contrary to God's wisdom and will." Such a statement is true on its face but can lead to its own difficulties. When a four-year-old is ripped from her mother's arms in the raging waters of a tsunami, who would want to claim this is the will of God? "Your will be done?" Now the questions grow even more acute.

There may well be no end to the asking of such hard questions about prayer. Had we never been invited to pray—if we resigned ourselves to the inscrutable will of God and to the inexplicable blessings and tragedies that come willy-nilly—then many of the Christian faith's tougher questions would dry up. But we have been invited to pray to a God we dare name as our Father. What's more, we believe that this heavenly Father provides for us and for all creatures such that at any given moment we have more for which to be thankful than we know or could name.

And yet the troubles of the day persist. "Each day has enough trouble of its own," Jesus said, and we can be glad he said it. We will never run out of problems, but because Jesus himself admitted this was so, we know that prayer remains thoroughly intertwined with tragedy and hurt. Scripture never promises it will be otherwise. Thus, we pray on. Like the poets who composed the psalms of lament—complaining about God's absence and yet doing so while addressing that absent God—we pray to a God whose providential care we believe even when we cannot figure out why that care seems to go off-duty now and then.

As Frederick Buechner once observed, when you pull together all of the New Testament passages about prayer, it seems that the bottom line is always "Keep at it." Truth is, most people testify that they have no choice. Even those who have been the most bitterly disappointed by prayer in the past find they cannot prevent future prayers from welling up within them. So we keep at it. As Buechner says, "We keep on beating the path to God's door, because the one thing you can be sure of is that down the path when you beat with even your most half-cocked and halting prayer the God you call upon will finally come, and even if he does not bring you the answer you want, he will bring you himself. And maybe at the secret heart of all our prayers that is what we are really praying for."

"Each day has enough trouble of its own," our Lord said. And we reply, "Amen!" But for that same reason we keep on praying, ending even our worst days with a murmured but certain "Amen."

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