All of us have had times when we have prayed hard for something to happen. For healing, for a job, for forgiveness, for a lost child… No matter what the status of your relationship with God, these are the kinds of things that bring all of us searching for and begging before a higher power.
Recently, I was on my knees for a ten year-old girl from Springfield who was kidnapped. While the midwest searched for her, every parent’s nightmare haunted social media and the news. I retweeted, reshared, cried, prayed, and shuddered at the reminder that the horrific can happen to the innocent.
Christians knelt together and joined fervent whispers begging God to bring Hailey Owens home safely.
The prayers for Hailey’s life echoed in my mind this week as I’ve been studying the story of “The Fiery Furnace” from the Old Testament book of Daniel. Three faithful men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, stood at the edge of flames stoked for the purpose of their death. There, they said these words:
“…our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. “But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods…” Daniel 3:17-18
But Hailey Owens never came home. In her story, her poor family is left in the heartbreaking realization of “But if not…”.
After Jesus’ mother stood at His crucifixion, facing the eminent death of her child, certainly begging for a miracle, God answered with darkness. I doubt any honest human being, on that afternoon, was able to proclaim God’s goodness with confidence. When we are left in that kind of darkness, don’t we feel that we’ve not only lost hope in what’s good, we’ve also lost hope in our God? The image of the God we prayed to, worshipped, and proclaimed shatters a little each time that we must swallow another disgusting “But if not”.
If we look closely, we must admit that this short phrase, this incomplete thought, this unsatisfying fragment, is at the center of the cross. On the cross where Jesus hung, the disappointment of a nation, the confusion of disciples, and the pain of a mother was also on display. The foot of the cross must have been littered with fractured dreams and broken hearts. Our beautiful and shiny crosses that we hang in our homes and around our necks remind us of a disturbing day in history. The Christian cross is a reminder that this life is not ours to control. It highlights our limitations and points to a God who is unpredictable and certainly not safe. In a way, it symbolizes life’s “But if nots”.
Without the resurrection, the cross is unbearable. Without the cross, the resurrection doesn’t offer life to anyone but Jesus. Combined, they bring a complete narrative of Grace. This entire story allows us to move through the tension between “God can, He will” and “But if not”
Still, in the tension remains a painful struggle. Here, in the crux of life, is where I suffer, rattle my cage, and shake my fist. I pace and demand. Here, I choke on the words, “But if not”. In this tension, my hands must be pried open and my knees buckled. Here, I must be brought low in order to see that there is One who is bigger. Only in this place, with this posture, I can admit that my sight is veiled and there is a farther-reaching design behind the curtain. I can stop trusting in good plans and start to trust a good God. A more correct image of God is rebuilt in my heart and I can bow low before Him.
Christians and non-Christians alike experience monumental grief in the crux of life. No one is insulated from the deep pain that comes into our broken world. But if we allow Him to soften us in the pain of our crosses, we can shift closer to the hope of the resurrection…without breaking. With each of life’s heart-shifts, at each attempt to swallow the “But if nots”, the One who placed Himself at the center of the cross is there. And in Him, healing is possible.
So how about you? Are you on your knees begging for God to intervene and spare you a cross in your life? Are your feet balancing on the edge of your own fiery furnace? If so, project your voice across the flames and with confidence declare, “He can and He will!” Just remember to add the phrase that keeps your grip loose.
Or perhaps, dear friend, your confidence is gone and you are facing a painful “But if not”. Please allow Him to shift you to the place of Grace where you can grieve with hope. Through your tears, look upon an empty grave and at the One who conquered death. You can trust Him with your shattered heart.