Praying and the Pain of Thorns

Most of us expect prayer to inspire and comfort us. The grandeur of the synagogue, its architectural beauty and music, the peacefulness of the setting – all of these convey the sense that Jewish prayer is about feeling peace. We expect that participating in a service will touch us uniquely and deeply. So when we do not feel that peace, we feel let down.

But if Jewish life is about struggle, we should be suspicious of the assumption that prayer is entirely about peace or comfort. If prayer were designed only to provide comfort, would it contribute to our struggle? Probably not. If prayer were designed only to move and to touch us, if comfort and joy were its only goals, Jewish prayer would actually undermine the difficult effort involved in Jewish spirituality.

-Rabbi Daniel Gordis
“Prayer – Jewish Spirituality and the Struggle to Become” (pp 164-5)
God Was Not In The Fire

This is probably very mysterious to most Christians. Why shouldn’t prayer be about “comfort and joy” instead of struggle? Who wants to struggle with God and with themselves when they are hurt or sick or scared? We want peace when we’re in trouble and praying to God, and we want peace now!

And sometimes, God delivers.

And a lot of times, He doesn’t, at least in the immediate sense of providing instantaneous, overwhelming peace.

Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. –Philippians 4:11-13 (ESV)

Does any of this mean that Paul never contended with God as Jacob contended with the angel (Genesis 32:22-32)? Here’s the answer.

So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. –2 Corinthians 12:7-10 (ESV)

Imagine the conversation (repeat three times):

Paul: Ouch, God! This hurts! Can you please take it away now?

God: No.

Paul: Why not? It’s not like I deserve this. Look at all the good I’ve done in the name of the Moshiach. Half the time, I can’t concentrate because of the pain. Think about how much better I could serve you if I didn’t have this distraction.

God: I’m thinking about how big an ego you’ve got and how much more you’d serve it if you didn’t have to put up with the messenger of Satan I’ve allowed to be jammed into your side.

Paul: That’s not fair.

God: Job said that same thing to me and you know how I answered him.

Paul: I guess I’m stuck for an answer, but it still hurts.

God: It’s not about living without the struggle, it’s about learning to live with it. If you can do that, your message to the disciples among the Goyim will be all the more powerful. You must remember my servant Jacob, as the Goyim will remember my servant Paul.

I have some friends in the Puget Sound area named Joe and Heidi. They’re about my age. They enjoy hiking and photography and they love God. They both have cancer and spend almost all of the time that they’re not climbing over mountains and valleys, in lengthy sessions of treatment and testing. The tumors never seem to abate and the news I hear is often more bad than good. Their faith is virtually without parallel, but at times, so is their suffering and sorrow. They ask for prayer frequently and I pray for them constantly. But what do I pray? What am I supposed to pray? Jesus, tell me how I’m supposed to pray!

The answer probably seems obvious to you. “Pray for their healing,” you say. “Pray that God will give them both a complete and perfect cure,” you say. “Pray that they experience total comfort and joy and peace.”

Is there something wrong with my prayers? I pray for all that, but it doesn’t happen. God is supposed to give us what we need and even what we want if we pray in the name of Jesus Christ, right? Why isn’t it working?

If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it. John 14:14 (NASB)

In that day you will not question Me about anything. Truly, truly, I say to you, if you ask the Father for anything in My name, He will give it to you. –John 16:23 (NASB)

It’s not working out the way he promised. Instead of being given what I ask for in the name of Christ, I feel like I’ve wrestled with an angel all night long. It’s not easy, it’s exhausting. I’m worn out and no closer to experiencing “comfort and joy,” let alone “contentment,” than I was when I started praying. As far as I can tell, Joe and Heidi are no closer to be cured of cancer now than when I started praying, and it’s not only me. A lot of believers are praying for them all the time. God, where are You when we need You?

That is why Jewish prayer tries to evoke not only peace and comfort, but wrestling and angst as well. Despite our desire to feel beauty and the comfort that often accompanies it, it may be precisely when we feel somewhat disconcerted and not entirely at ease that Jewish prayer may be accomplishing its most central goal. Indeed, that ideal for prayer is communicated by the very word that Jews use for the act of praying.

The Hebrew term for the verb “to pray” is “le-hitpalel,” which means “to judge oneself,” or even “to struggle with oneself.”

-Gordis (pg 165)

Now that is what I experience when I pray!

Rabbi Gordis goes on to explain that prayer is not sending out “Santa’s wish list” up to God so that His miracles can be delivered to us in flashy wrapping paper and tied in a pretty ribbons. Jewish Prayer is not a “Catechism” of devotional statements about what we believe, but a struggle with God and with ourselves, with faith and trust hanging in the balance, along with human lives.

Adon Olam or “Master of the Universe” is a classic Jewish prayer that encapsulates faith, trust, and struggle. The beginning of this 11th century poem speaks of a Jew’s absolute trust in the God of his Fathers, but as Gordis teaches:

…suddenly, after line six, the tone changes. Beginning with the seventh line, the focus shifts. The poet moves away from broad theological claims about God’s grandeur, focusing instead on the speaker’s intimate feelings about God. No longer is God endless and majestic; now, the poet speaks of “my God…a Rock in my travail at the time of distress.” Gone are the claims that “even after all things have come to an end, God alone, awesome, will remain King”; in their stead we hear “to His hand I entrust my spirit, when I sleep and when I wake.” Just as the Mishnah we examined above abruptly switched its emphasis from keva to kavvanah from one line to the next, this text suddenly focuses not on what we believe about God, but on how we feel about God.

-Gordis (pg 173)

The struggle in our spiritual journey of discovery of both God and who we are in God, is contained, not only in Adon Olam, but in the contents of the siddur; in all Jewish prayer. Contrary to what most Christians believe, Jewish prayer contains both spontaneous and liturgical elements that create the structure in which a Jew prays, as well as allowing a Jew’s prayers to fly up free, returning to God as a spark returns to the flame. It also provides the arena in which we wrestle with God and our own spiritual struggle as we progress along the rough and rocky path that leads from earth into heaven.

How can there be misery and suffering in a world created by a perfect and loving God? That unanswered question has resulted in many falling away from the faith and many more never coming near a God they see as horrible and destructive. And yet, the current condition of our world is not God’s fault but man’s. God allowed us to play in our world as a child living in a tinderbox might play with matches. God could have protected us the way any responsible parent would have kept matches out of the reach of a four-year old, but we were meant to be the caretakers of this world, and as such, we were given autonomy over it (Genesis 1:28). We are responsible for our own messes and if the concept of Tikkun Olam has any meaning, we are responsible for preparing the world for the arrival of the Moshiach, who will help us repair the world we damaged so completely, including the world of our lives.

Yes, God answers prayer and sometimes people are miraculously healed, both for His glory and because of His kindness, but prayer isn’t like putting a coin in a vending machine, pressing a few buttons, and expecting a delicious soft drink to come popping out to quench our thirst. Each prayer is a fresh encounter with God where He challenges us to become a little more holy than we were before, often by facing those things about ourselves and our world that are most ugly and repellent. We meet both the best and the worst in ourselves, and in the midst of that battle, we encounter our desperation and our fears. We also encounter the miracle of meeting God on neutral ground, neither heaven or earth, and occasionally find the miracles of joy and comfort. We also encounter the thorn.

Prayer isn’t just a gift where we get what we want. It’s also a place where we share our joys and sorrows with God, and where we begin to realize that even if the conditions of our lives never really change, we come to know that God is always with us, no matter where we go, or what is happening to us.

If God entered the Egyptian exile with Jacob (Genesis 46:4) and even entered the death camps with six million Jews, He also goes into chemotherapy with those who have cancer, lives with the tumors, and climbs along the mountain trails, sharing our struggles, our tears, and even our joy.

3 thoughts on “Praying and the Pain of Thorns”

  1. “And sometimes, God delivers. And a lot of times, He doesn’t, at least in the immediate sense of providing instantaneous, overwhelming peace.”

    Powerful quote and powerful blog entry, James!

    Well-timed for me, struggling yesterday with my bad cancer news. My experience lines up with what you’ve written 100%. God shares everything I go through – like a cherished Companion instead of a Santa Clause or a happiness vending machine.

    – Joe

  2. I think about all this and of you when I recite the bedtime Shema each night. It ends with Adon Olam and these final words:

    “He is my God, my living Redeemer,
    Rock of my pain in time of distress.
    He is my banner, a refuge for me,
    the portion in my cup on the day I call.
    Into His hand I shall entrust my spirit
    when I go to sleep — and I shall awaken!
    With my spirit shall my body remain.
    The LORD is with me, I shall not fear.”

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