You know those moments where you read something that perfectly encapsulates things you’ve been feeling but haven’t been able to clearly define? I just experienced one of those while reading Jayber Crow, a novel by the ever-inspiring Wendell Berry. So, for once, I will not share a post filled with my own words but will let Mr. Berry’s words speak for themselves for they state the thoughts of my heart more clearly than I ever could.
“Questions all of a sudden were clanging in my mind like Edgar Allan Poe’s brazen alarum bells. I still believed in the divinity and the teachings of Jesus…but it got so I couldn’t open a bible without setting off a great jangling and wrangling of questions that almost deafened me.
If we are to understand the Bible as literally true, why are we permitted to hate our enemies? If Jesus meant what He said when we should love our enemies, how can Christians go to war? Why, since He told us to pray in secret, do we continue to pray in public? Is an insincere or vain public prayer not a violation of the third commandment? And what about our bodies that always seemed to come off so badly in every contest with our soul? Did Jesus put on our flesh so that we might despise it?
But worst of all was when it hit me that Jesus’ own most fervent prayer was refused: “Father, if thou be wiling, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.” I must have read that verse or heard it a hundred times before without seeing or hearing. Maybe I didn’t want to see it. But then one day I saw it. It just knocked me in the head. This, I thought, is what is meant by “thy will be done” in the Lord’s Prayer, which I had prayed time and again without thinking about it. It means that your will and God’s will may not be the same. It means there’s a good possibility that you won’t get what you pray for. It means that inspite of your prayers you are going to suffer. It means you may be crucified.
After Jesus’ terrible prayer at Gethsemane, an angel came to Him and gave him strength, but he did not remove the cup.
Before that time I may have had my doubts about public prayers, but I had listened to them complacently enough, even when they were for the football team. I had prayed my own private prayers complacently enough, asking for things I wanted, even though I knew well already that a lot of things I wanted I was not going to get, no matter how much I prayed for them. (Though I hadn’t got around to thinking about it, I already know that I had been glad to have some things I had got that I had never thought to want, let alone pray for.)
But now I was unsure what it would be proper to pray for, or how to pray for it. After you have said “thy will be done,” what more can be said? And where do you find the strength to pray “thy will be done” after you see what it means?
And what did these questions do to my understanding of all the prayers I had ever heard and prayed? And what did they do to the possibility that I could stand before a congregation – my congregation, who would believe that I knew what I was doing – and pray for favorable weather, a good harvest, the recovery of the sick and the strayed, victory in war? Does prayer change God’s mind? If God’s mind can be changed by the wants and wishes of us mere humans, as if deferring to our better judgment, what is the point of praying to Him at all? And what are we to think when to good people pray for opposite things – as when two devout mothers of soldiers on opposite sides pray for the safety of their sons, or for victory?
Does God want us to cross the abyss between Him and us? If we can’t – and it looked to me like we can’t – will He help us? Or does He want us to fall into the abyss? Are there some things He wants us to learn that we can’t learn except by falling into the abyss? Is that why the Jonah of old, who could not say “thy will be done,” had to lie three days and three nights in the dark in the belly of the great fish?
“Father, remove this cup from me,” I prayed. And there I stopped. For how would I know what God’s will was, even provided I could have the strength to submit to it? I knew a lot of hearsay about God speaking to people in plain English, but He never had (He never has) spoken so to me.
By then I wasn’t just asking questions; I was being changed by them. I was being changed by my prayers, which dwindled down nearer and nearer to silence, which weren’t confrontations with God but with the difficulty – in my own mind, or in the human lot – of knowing what or how to pray. Lying awake at night, I could feel myself being changed – into what, I had no idea. It was worse than wondering if I had received the call. I wasn’t just a student or a going-to-be preacher anymore. I was a lost traveler wandering in the woods, needing to be on my way somewhere but not knowing where. (Jayber Crow, pp. 50-52)”