It’s been a year now since my aunt passed away. I can still smell the smell of the hospice bed and see the look in her eyes as my mom, my sister, and I held her hand in some of her final hours. I remember the sound of her gurgling lungs as they filled up with fluid. It was gut wrenching. I don’t think I’ve ever prayed so hard for someone to be healed. But it didn’t happen. Not on this side of heaven anyway. When I got the call that it was over and she had passed, I don’t remember ever feeling so helpless, so very small. She still had so much life to live and we were all supposed to have more time with her. I had prayed so fervently, but that was it. She was gone.
As pastors, we are asked to pray with people all the time and we have seen so many miracles and answered prayers, but we have also seen them not answered the way we hoped. It’s not that I was new to these things, it’s that my aunt’s passing felt so personal. And it’s not that I hadn’t experienced significant personal loss or disappointment before, it’s just that she was such a special person to me and I had so much hope that she was going to be healed. But now she was gone. And so was my hope. And now what?
What do you do when your prayers aren’t answered? When you open yourself up and have faith, but it doesn’t work out? When she isn’t healed? Or when a friend’s spouse passes away? Or when they have another miscarriage? Or they just can’t seem to kick the addiction? What do you do when it ends in divorce, even though things felt so hopeful? What do you do when their kid is sick? When a family member takes his own life? When the cancer doesn’t go away? … These are all things we have walked with people in, but after my aunt’s passing asking myself these questions felt different. All I could think was, “Now what? What do I do now?’
I decided I had to let the pain and disappointment run its course. I was mad. I asked God all of my questions without holding back. I remember yelling and throwing my fists up at Him in frustration, knowing He could handle it. WHY God? Why wouldn’t you answer this prayer when you’ve answered so many others? Why are some people healed and not others? Obviously, I still don’t have answers to those questions. If I did, I would be God.
For those first few weeks after her passing, I felt all the feelings: anger, sadness, depression, hopelessness, and frustration. The path of grief was running its course and I knew I needed to engage with it.
I let myself really feel the pain of it all. I cried until there were no more tears and then finally, I sat and stared at the wall and wondered what was next.
I began to see light. When you are grieving or suffering, it’s hard to see good around you, but you see what you are looking for. So, I decided I was going to begin to look for light. I intentionally set out to look for beauty and hope, even though I wasn’t feeling hopeful. I held onto any sliver of goodness I could find: the laughter of my kids, the kindness of a stranger at the grocery store… I was storing it up as a reminder to myself that there is goodness all around. It’s almost as if light is brighter when you are sitting in darkness. Suddenly, the kindness, generosity, and warmth of others seemed more meaningful.
I had a choice to make. I could open my eyes to the immense amount of light in the midst of darkness, or I could allow the darkness to consume. I had to ruthlessly search for light and hope. And when I did, I found God there. God had been there all along. I felt abandoned by God, but in fact He was WITH ME and was there to comfort me in the midst of the pain. No matter how big or how small the prayer, God doesn’t abandon us when our prayers aren’t answered. In the stripping down and in the pain, God is actually there with us, and there is just something so profound in that.
The pain changed me. Disappointment and heartache can make us bitter and angry, or it can make us more compassionate and give us insight into one another’s lives. After my aunt’s passing, I began to feel softer. I felt edges being slowly sanded down.
Pain can develop in us an empathy and understanding that we could never have had otherwise. It cannot be explained, but there is a wisdom that comes through suffering. It can bring humility like nothing else can. I am NOT saying that God allows horrible things to happen just so that He can make us wiser, kinder, or more empathetic, but I have seen with my own eyes time and time again how God can take the worst situations and make them into something beautiful. Beauty out of ashes. New life from tears of heartache. Spring after winter.
Hope came after my aunt’s passing. I found hope in the fact that even Jesus knew disappointment. He knows what it feels like to lose those He loves, to be betrayed and have things not work out, and to lose even His own life. I found hope that while we live in such a broken world where not every prayer is answered as we desire and where things are not as God intends, God is still redeeming this world now and I believe WE, His people, are His plan for that redemption. And finally, I found a renewed hope that one day He will finish His restoration and every tear will be dried and every injustice set right.
If your prayers haven’t been answered and you are in sitting in the grief or disappointment of things not working out as you had hoped, know this: You are not alone. God has not abandoned you. While everything cannot be explained, God is right by your side and longs to give you comfort and peace. You are not forgotten, and what is broken and in need of healing, if not healed now, will one day be made whole when Jesus comes back to finish what he started. The scriptures say we “grieve, but not as those without hope.” So, have hope dear friends. This is not the end. Whatever you are going through does not have the final say.