Prayer: Doubt’s Doorway (on the Philippine typhoon)


de-Goya-The-Giant“So, like I said, we’re trying something different by spending some time each week praying for something in the world or the city, and not just for our own issues. Does anyone have anything?”

“One of my best friends is in the Philippines and–you know–the huge typhoon is heading their way. I’d like us to pray for my friend and everyone there in danger.”

“Oh yeah, that’s supposed to be the biggest storm ever in history or something.”

I was embarrassed. Anyone that knows me knows that I stay glued (too much) to various news sites throughout the given day. And yet, I hadn’t heard of this storm. While someone in the home group prayed for those in the path of this storm, I snuck a peak at my New York Times app. Yep, the top story was still about the FDA all but banning trans fats.

Why hadn’t I heard about this?

We prayed and continued with our sermon discussion. Afterward, I had my fifteen minute walk home. It was dark and quiet out. I’ve been trying to give myself more spaces without defaulting to easy distractions: my phone, books, articles, TV, and such. I’m trying to give myself more time of quiet and prayer.

And so I walked down the streets in silence and my mind returned once more to the Philippines. The first time I ever heard of the country was when I was really young and my aunt and uncle were missionaries there. I wondered where they were in the world right now. China, I last heard.

But then I started drifting into prayer. Intense prayer. For the Philippines. For my friend’s friend. For the international response. I prayed harder than I have for a while. I then prayed, pleaded and begged God that he would do something miraculous–not let anyone die. Not one person. I felt the Holy Spirit prodding me and moving me to pray this prayer, to give this bold request.

I pulled out my phone to see if CNN had the info on the storm. And yes, it was the top story. I opened it up. The first line talked about three people that had already died in the initial swells and winds: one older person and two infants.

I looked up, a little bewildered. I returned to praying. Strengthen their spirits. Let peace reign. Let resources be available. And please don’t let anyone else die. Please. Lord, life and death are in your hands. Don’t let anyone else die.

I went to sleep. I woke up to more than 10,000 Filipinos dead (with more to come). Over a million people now homeless. Looting rampant. First responders not able to get in.

I played all of the mental games. Well, God has us pray for things to change us and make our hearts more sensitive to the world. Well, I know that most everyone in the Philippines are Christians, so if this storm had to come, at least it came to people that I can confidently believe are with God right now. No kooky evangelicals can say it was God’s “judgment” or something. Perhaps this will turn into something amazing in the long run, like a powerful show by the Christian Church and some revival. This is God’s people being joined to God’s suffering. Jesus knows how this feels. He’s been there. He’s suffered and died. 

But no matter what, I still felt betrayed. I felt angry. I had really felt a gift of faith stirred in me that God had heard those prayers. But now, I felt that those prayers went nowhere. I felt that, in fact, maybe there wasn’t even anyone there to hear them.

I recalled all of those cliche atheist attacks about prayer. Show me any empirical evidence that it works. Is it any better if God only saved lives if we asked first? Why would God answer your prayer and not someone else’s?

I felt personally hurt by God. Unfortunately, the rhythm of my life is such right now that I hadn’t prayed in depth like that in a long time. I had felt far from God and this was my first time turning back to him. I felt a real connection for the first time in a while. And this is what happened.

I felt that deep darkness of doubt begin to grow in my chest. And prayer had been the doorway to this moment.

But the funny thing about a doorway: most of the time, not only is it the way into something, but it’s quite often the way out as well.

I had all these emotions swirling in me. I had nowhere to turn. Nowhere to take them. And so, ironically, I took them to the one Person I possibly could. I got no answers. But again, I knew I was heard.

And maybe, just for today, that was enough.

Please consider giving to the relief effort in response to Super Typhoon Haiyan. I would suggest either giving to the UN’s World Food Programme or World Vision. Oh, and also pray.

[image credit: “The Giant” by Francisco deGoya]

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4 thoughts on “Prayer: Doubt’s Doorway (on the Philippine typhoon)

  1. Paul,

    Thank you for this piece. I remember many a sleepless night struggling with the very things you vocalize above. I eventually found a way out, but it is obviously a path you and I do not share for the time being. I was not able to reconcile these tragedies with a loving god, but I sincerely hope you find your own way out, whether it be toward a more resolute faith or none at all.

    Albeit a small grievance, I might reword your paragraph on “atheist cliches.” The doubts that stream into our consciousness at moments like these are not new and are not cliched. These questions have been pondered from the moment the first disease met its first victim, long before ‘atheist/ism’ ever entered human vocabulary. Thousands of years of rationalization and circuitous theological acrobatics have not sidelined these questions to the periphery. To the contrary, with each incidence of undue misery they continue to leap to the forefront of our minds, as poignant as ever. I know not a single Christian (presently or historically) who doesn’t battle these questions and contend with these doubts. Indeed, they are anything but “cliched”.

    Best,

    – Daniel

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    • Okay, I grant that. I more meant the go-to things we all hear (and yes, think) in seemingly every discussion of this stuff. Like you said, they are the oldest difficulties, and like you said, most every Christian has had these thoughts, and we have all had different ways of still sleeping at night. So yeah, they are things we either find convincing or find intellectual ways to move on early on, so they end up feeling like the same horse being beaten, and yes, a little cliche. But again, this post represents more the existential alienation we can feel, no matter the intellectual ways we’ve learned to approach these issues. I find the conservative political argument of “government dependence” pretty cliche, but it can still nevertheless be an idea that sways people that direction the older they get.

      So yes, cliche? Yeah, maybe a little. Does that automatically make those thoughts less valid? Not necessarily. Was that a necessary or helpful line in the post? Probably not. Sorry. Thanks for the comment.

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  2. Paul,

    “But the funny thing about a doorway: most of the time, not only is it the way into something, but it’s quite often the way out as well.

    It was indeed a doorway out for me. At some point the cognitive dissonance of things like this overwhelmed the bandaids of “God works in mysterious ways” or the other faith crutches you mention. And finally having the courage to give them up and admit it made much more sense to finally admit there is no one there was the most liberating, freeing experience of my life.

    Listen to yourself my friend. “Perhaps this will turn into something amazing in the long run, like a powerful show by the Christian Church and some revival.” Would you ever in your wildest dreams think of killing and harming thousands of people to spread some religious idea? Of course not. You’re a good person. You are far more moral than this god you imagine you talk to.

    I have a strong feeling that you are one who is heading toward that doorway, like myself and a number of others I know from our WTS days. You only don’t go through because you fear that the other side is darkness and despair. it’s not.

    I’ll be waiting for you hear on the other side. Peace to your tormented mind. And thanks for being so honest.

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    • We will see what time holds. I will say two things: one, those thoughts I was thinking were supposed to be the most common shallow, silly, and absurd straws we grasp at in the midst of those moments of existential crisis, not necessarily my typical go-to response to moments like that. I think there are far more sophisticated and reasonable responses, though they don’t answer everything.

      Secondly, my line about the doorway being in AND out, was meant to be taken this: Prayer (and it not being answered) had been that doorway INTO doubt, but, as I found myself to drawn to prayer all the more in the midst of it, I found that same sort of praying to be the doorway out of DOUBT, not faith.

      This is not to say that I am not well-acquainted with the limitations of shortfalls of Christian responses to these issues. They are many. This is not to say I simply want to be numb to it all and stay where it is safe and comfortable. I really do want truth, not simply comfort. But it is to say that though there are intellectual moments where I sense that precipice edge of abandoning faith, I can still say that my heart (whatever exactly that is or means) is still securely in the jaws of faith.

      But again, we’ll see what time holds. I’ll keep a place at my “spirituality table” open for you if you’ll keep one open for me at yours.

      May it be well with you, friend.

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