I was descending from Omu Peak, in the Bucegi Mountains, with a few dozen young people. It had not been an ideal hike, and we were behind schedule. The forest made the darkness even thicker as it began to cover the mountain, and slowly, our minds as well.
It was almost 9 pm, and we still had to walk for three to four hours to get back to camp. I don’t think anyone would have a hard time imagining what we prayed for that night on the mountain: to find our way in the dark and reach home safely. What else to pray for, if not for protection, and for a speedy end to the crisis? Our group, cheerful when we began, first fell silent, and then grew tense. Calm and confident group prayers were the first response to the crisis. But fear threatened to turn into panic, affecting some faster than others.
Panic has the power to transform people. Not long after our prayers came less rational ideas, loud reproaches, sporadic screams of fear, tears, and fear-inspired selfishness. We all had what seemed like an endless amount of time to discover our unplanned, visceral reactions to the threatening unknown.
The next day, in camp, we struggled to forget things we had either done or seen the night before, and to behave as if all those things had not happened. Our prayers had been heard, and we had arrived back safely, but, like the jamming of an old radio, a dissonance had crept into our thoughts and disturbed our harmony.
Why did we react to our crisis in ways that would later make us feel ashamed? At the same time, would it even have been possible to react differently? And these two questions inevitably led to a third:
Had we prayed for everything we needed while on the mountain?
Why don’t we realise the shortcomings of our prayers in times of crisis?
“Let us not exaggerate the novelty of the situation”, wrote C.S. Lewis, just a few years after atomic bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. To most it would seem that it was precisely the novelty of these two tragic demonstrations of humankind’s power to destroy which caused people’s anxiety to grow. But Lewis answered our burning question—“How are we to live in an atomic age?”—succinctly: there is nothing truly new about the threat of atomic war. Various and terrible threats have always loomed over humanity. The most important thing, Lewis believed, is that our ever-present crises should never prevent us from doing the everyday things which fix our eyes on Heaven—praying, working, learning, listening to music, bathing children, playing, talking. We should never stop hoping for and anticipating salvation.
Bombs “may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds”, Lewis concluded.
Far from suggesting that we deny or ignore the danger, Lewis’s words encourage us to focus our attention on one key question:
Shouldn’t life, in times of crisis, mean much more than the concern to avoid the threat, and shouldn’t our prayers, in times of crisis, encompass much more than the demand to be protected?
Lewis’s words are no exaggeration. On the contrary, if we recognise the relevance of the example of Jesus in the greatest crisis, between Gethsemane and Golgotha, we realise that Lewis’s answer is only the beginning of the faithfulness and trust in God that Jesus modelled for us.
“Then He said to them, ‘My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death. Stay here and watch with Me.’ He went a little farther and fell on His face, and prayed, saying, ‘O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will.'” (Matthew 26:38-39).
In the crisis, Jesus prayed for a release from His burden (“Take this cup away from Me!”). But he was always willing to accept that his request would not be granted by God, for the greater good of humanity.
Amidst the crisis, Jesus felt both the need for support, and the pain of not receiving it from those he loved. But he was not crushed by resentment. In the crisis, Jesus received the comfort of the Father, and this nourished the compassion with which, as His crisis intensified, He urged His disciples to rest.
This staggering compassion of the Saviour can be seen in what the apostle Paul later described in Philippians 2:5-8: Jesus wanted the cup removed, but only if it could be done without endangering His plan—rescuing mankind. Amidst the crisis, Jesus loved.
The words “yet not as I will, but as You will” did not mean He felt abandoned or hopelessly resigned to his fate. Instead, they were a heartfelt request. Without doubting the superiority of God’s plan over His need to remove suffering, Jesus longed for God’s will to be done.
Later, but still in crisis, Jesus repeatedly testified about God’s character before His judges and the angry crowd. He continued to pray, not only for Himself, but also for others, such as the soldiers who crucified Him. He forgave Peter, the crucified thief. He took care of His mother, by entrusting her to John. He shuddered at the fear of parting from the Father, but He also expressed it by appealing to the words of Scripture, confirming that even that fear drove His thoughts to the Father, even though He could no longer feel God’s presence as powerfully as before.
Nothing selfish, no desperate gesture. On the contrary, he continued to pray, to work, to learn from the Father, to listen, to care for His people, to address those who needed His words. And so, He became our model.
What unbalances us in the crisis?
Death—the fear of it.
Jesus has shown us that all deaths—whether the result of old age, premature death, or death caused by sickness, catastrophes, or accidents—are ugly to His eyes. They all remind us that death entered the world through sin, is a consequence of sin, and, ultimately, a payment for sin. People who do not accept God’s forgiveness, no matter how hard they struggle to prolong their life on earth, cannot expect anything else from the Great End (Luke 13:1-5). If the only motive behind someone’s actions is the fear of death, none of their schemes and plans to live outside of God’s love will be of any use to them.
It is on this basis that the teaching of Jesus in Luke 13 conveys an implicit message: the only beneficial response to tragedy is for us to evaluate ourselves and the lives we live, and then work to transform ourselves, according to God’s will. A crisis can pass rather easily, or it can ask us to pay a high price. But whatever the situation, a crisis is not a time to seek God out of fear or to try to earn His favour and protection. The crisis is a time to understand that God has a broader and better plan for us. It is a time to realise that we can come out from under the curse of death and confidently live God’s salvation.
In a time of great trial, the most comforting revelation is that the crisis of the Son of God made it possible for us to get out of our most cruel crisis—eternal death. The fear of death dissipates because it becomes irrelevant in the context of Jesus’ teaching: “…do not fear those who kill the body” (Matthew 10:28).
Fearing separation, on the other hand, was the essence of Jesus’ crisis. He cried out on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). And, because Jesus knew that separation is—whether we realise it or not—the essence of our crisis, tearing down the wall between us and God became the essence of His struggle with Death, the reason for His sacrifice. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?” (Romans 8:35). No! Consequently, no crisis will be able to separate us either. Crisis can bring death in this life; but neither crisis nor death can separate us from God!
There is a crucial distinction between the fear of death, and the fear of separation. Recognising the distinction can explain the disparity between our behaviours and our prayers in times of crisis. Some fear death and do everything, even the most reprehensible acts, to save their lives. The fear of death limits our prayers to what we need to merely preserve life, to simply survive. There is nothing worth following in such an example, “for whosoever will save his life shall lose it” (Mark 8:35).
Others, however, are afraid of being separated—not just from God, but also from loved ones. There is no condemnation, degradation, or shame in this fear. Jesus Himself feared separation. He did not fear death, but the separation from the Father that death would generate. What is interesting is this: the fear of separation has the opposite effect to that which is generated by the fear of death.
The fear of separation does not take us away from those around us but brings us even closer to them. It does not make us more selfish, but more selfless. It does not make us panic but focuses our thoughts. It does not make us feel that time slips through our fingers but makes us fill our time with memories that will be most valuable to our loved ones.
The fear of separation does not make us desperately implore God to spare our own lives, nor cause us to develop frustrations against God—it makes us cling to His heart. We desperately want to see Him again on the day of resurrection.
Prayer born of the fear of separation does not preclude, and has no reason to preclude, invoking God’s protection. We use our fear of separation to ask Him for support, and to send us those He has chosen to help us.
The fear of separation does not impoverish, but enriches, the content of our prayers, in accordance with what it means to live one’s life for God and for those around us—especially in times of crisis.
Such a perspective on prayer in times of crisis raises questions that press beyond mere crisis and go right to the heart of our faith. How well do I know and understand God? How much trust have I grown to have in Him? Am I willing to go with Him on any path He opens up to me? What is my life like now? What are my relationships like now? How would any crisis that could arise find me?
Jesus’ model in His crisis between Gethsemane and Golgotha reveals that His prayers reflected these deep concerns. And in His response to the crisis we gradually discover what we can and ought be praying for in times of crisis:
To be found, in any crisis, living in love, peace, and harmony with those around us, trusting in God, abiding in Him, and loving those He has given us;
To make sure that our lives and the lives of our loved ones are placed in God’s hands;
To have faith in God’s “power to keep that which we have entrusted to Him” (2 Timothy 1:12) and that nothing that happens to us ruins His plan for us;
To be able to understand more of God’s will, of His plans that include us and are so good, and to understand more of God’s thoughts;
To be prepared to give glory to God with our trust, our loyalty to Him, and our witnessing to people, even if we were to live through things that frighten us;
To be prepared to talk to people about the answer God has given us in our crises, to know how to make Him known to them and to help them understand God.
Questions we no longer need to answer
Praying for these things grants us the opportunity to examine our faith and thereby realise deep truths about God. In addition, such prayer nullifies the concerns which are at the heart of the questions that may torture us in times of crisis.
For example, when we or a loved one suffers, we tend to ask why these things happen to us, or to our family. Or, when someone loses their life, we ask why it had to happen. Some blame themselves for this outcome. Many others think it is God’s fault. But both of these tendencies are misguided.
In fact, all these questions are misleading. Death intervenes in many ways in the world in which we live. We are tragically condemned to death before we are even born. If at some point society faces a new risk, a new threat to life (such as this coronavirus pandemic), we are not really dealing with anything new. We can die at any time, in many ways. Death is death, regardless of what caused it. It is true: we tend to accept death more easily if it does not come violently, or as a surprise. But even such a death, though easier to console ourselves over, does not make the fact of death any more tolerable to us. No matter how it comes, death is still an intruder, an unwanted and traumatic reality. And, above all, it is still a relentless presence in our lives on Earth. That is why, in the final analysis, although we may not like to hear this, how we die matters infinitely less than how we live.
We have no reason, no matter what crisis we go through, to let our minds be ruled by the fear of death. Death has been defeated, “death shall be no more” (Revelation 21:4).
The fear of our bodies fading leads us to a place of selfishness. The fear of parting with God and loved ones, on the other hand, focuses our attention and prayers on how we live for God and others, here and now—before meeting the crisis, and right as we step into it. Beautifully, the fear of separation will never descend into a feeling of terror, because it is always tempered by God’s promises. We are not alone. And as long as we want it, nothing will separate us from the love of God.
Norel Iacob is Editor in Chief of ST Network and Semnele timpului.