Why does God answer yes to some prayers and no to others? Why does God miraculously heal some people and not others? Why does disaster strike one city and not another? Bad theology surrounding these questions can be very detrimental.
I’ve been pondering these questions since Hurricane Florence devastated much of eastern North Carolina last year. I live in the center of the state, and contrary to the foreboding predictions, we were relatively unaffected. In response, a friend said, “I know why we were spared catastrophe and the storm circled our area and went south. I was praying that God would keep us safe and he answered my prayers!”
I had no words.
Bad Theology Hurts the Suffering
I know that God answers prayer. And we need to pray. God tells us to ask, and it will be given to us (Matthew 7:7). But my friend’s words made me wonder if she thought that no one in eastern Carolina was praying. I know people whose livelihoods were destroyed in the storm. Everything they owned was gone. They escaped with their lives but nothing material left. Some of them begged God to spare their city.
One Died, Another Lived
What are we as believers to infer from these natural disasters? Can we simply draw straight lines between our requests and God’s answers? Years ago, I heard a pastor tell of his cancer that went into remission. When he told his congregation the good news, several commented, “We knew God would heal you. He had to. So many people were praying for you.”
While the pastor was thankful for others’ prayers, he also knew God did not owe him healing. Faithful believers throughout the ages have earnestly prayed and yet not been healed. The apostle Paul was not healed in order that God might show that his power could be made perfect in Paul’s weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).
And then there was my own son, Paul, who died as an infant. We had prayed, fasted, and asked friends to pray for his healing. Several years after his death, we met a man who said when he learned of our loss, “Don’t take this wrong, but we prayed for all of our children before they were born. And they were all born healthy.” We had no words.
Why Did God Save Peter?
In considering the question of when and why God chooses to rescue, I was reminded of Acts 12 which begins, “About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword, and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. . . . So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church” (Acts 12:1–3, 5). Peter was then rescued the very night that Herod was about to bring him out, to presumably kill him as he had killed James.
Why did God let James die and Peter live?
Peter, James, and John were three of Jesus’s closest disciples. These three were often selected to be alone with Jesus. Yet their earthly lives after Christ’s resurrection were markedly different. John was the last of the disciples to die, Peter was rescued from prison in Acts 12, but church history records that he was later martyred by being crucified upside down.
James was the first of the disciples to be martyred. The Bible records that Herod killed James with no elaborating details. We simply know that Peter was spared while James was not. What are we to make of this? Did God love Peter more than James? Was James’s life less important? Did James have less faith? Were people not praying for James?
Our Father Knows Best
Looking at the fuller counsel of the Bible, it is clear that God has plans that we do not understand. His ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8–9). Because we believe that death is just a passage into eternal life (2 Timothy 1:10), one that all of us will go through, it ultimately doesn’t matter when we pass through it. God numbers our days before they begin, and he alone determines when we will die (Psalm 139:16).
Though we often cannot understand God’s purposes in this life, we can be sure that James’s life as a disciple and his death as a martyr was intentional. Everything God does has purpose (Isaiah 46:10). Because of that, we can be sure that at the time of James’s death, he had accomplished what God had called him to (Philippians 1:6), while Peter’s work on earth was unfinished (Philippians 1:24–25).
Living or dying, being spared or being tortured, being delivered in this life or the next is not an indicator of God’s love for us or the measure of our faith. That is what bad theology would have you believe. Nothing can separate us from God’s love, and our future is determined by what he knows is best for us (Romans 8:28, 35–39).
Paul understood this principle well when he said in Philippians 1:21–23, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” Departing this world and being with Christ is far better because eternal life is far better than life on earth. No matter what this life holds, we will eventually be deliriously happy in heaven, where God has all of eternity to lavish us with his kindness (Ephesians 2:7).
Suffering Is Not Punishment
Even though I know these truths, I have often been discouraged that others have been rescued while I was still suffering, because of the bad theology I had experienced. Prosperity gospel proponents have told me that if I had prayed in faith, my body would have been healed, my son would have been spared, and my marriage would have been restored. It was all up to me. If I just had the faith, I would have had a better outcome.
Their words have left me bruised and disillusioned, wondering what I was doing wrong.
But that bad theology is not the gospel. God’s response to our prayers is not dependent upon our worthiness but rather rests upon on his great mercy (Daniel 9:18). Because of Christ, who took our punishment, God is always for us (Romans 8:31). He wants to give us all things. Christ himself is ever interceding for us (Romans 8:31–34).
If you are in Christ, God is completely for you. Your suffering is not a punishment. Your struggles are not because you didn’t pray the right way, or because you didn’t pray enough, or because you have weak faith or insufficient intercessors. It is because God is using your suffering in ways that you may not understand now, but one day you will. One day you will see how God used your affliction to prepare you for an incomparable weight of glory (2 Corinthians 4:17). This is the gospel, not that bad theology. And it holds for all who love Christ.