Because "pray harder" is sometimes the worst advice ever.
“You just have to have faith.” “Pray harder.” “Fast more selflessly.” “Wait on God more patiently.” I had big gold stars by all the Christian categories of waiting, and my uterus was still a barren wasteland.I was the man by the pool waiting for a miracle, and day after day, my miracle didn’t come. What do you do when faith “fails”?
If you’ve ever gone through a difficult time, you’ve probably encountered those helpful people who feel obligated to give you a pep talk. Like coaches in a locker room during halftime, they come up to you at church or sideswipe you in the grocery store, tilt their heads to the side, and ask, “How’s it going?” If you haven’t gotten pregnant, beaten cancer, “gotten over” the ginormous hole in your heart, or whatever it is you’re supposed to be working on and checking off the list, they give you the Pity Face and proceed to Matt Foley you, with a van down by the river. Their motivational speeches vary depending on your circumstances, but I’ve encountered a couple of different versions.
In Version One, the person with Pity Face checks to make sure you’re doing the steps. Are you using the right essential oils, cutting out gluten, going to the chiropractor, and keeping a journal of your feelings? And it’s still not better? Then they prescribe new coping strategies. Try this doctor that did wonders for her sister, electroshock therapy, leeches.
In Version Two, Pity Face person sees you as a flight risk to the faith. Your faith is failing. That’s the problem! You just need to have more faith. More faith will fix everything. Because if you’re still sad about something and having emotions toward God about it, then you must be lacking in the faith department. Pity Face begins a rousing motivational speech about faith, reminds you of why God is real, and probably cites Hebrews 11.
This happened to me a lot. I expressed negative emotion about being infertile, and well-intentioned people would mistake that for not believing in God. Look, I believed in God, I never stopped believing that he was real. I even believed he had a plan. I just didn’t like his plan. And I thought that was okay to communicate. I still do.
We see throughout the Bible plenty of people not liking God’s plan. Even Jesus said, “Lord, if you are willing, take this cup from me,” followed by, “yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). There’s the tricky part. Not my will but yours. Ugh. That’s hard, especially when it feels like the total opposite of what you want.
I felt like I’d done everything right. My entire life, if I worked hard and tried my best, I usually achieved what I wanted. Good grades. A college I loved. A job that . . . wasn’t completely horrendous. And then infertility hit, and there was nothing I could do to get what I wanted. I couldn’t meet with a teacher, I couldn’t do an interview, and I couldn’t study hard for an embryo. I prayed, I fasted, I read the Bible, I dug into my faith and did all the steps I’d been taught, but I could not find the magic combination of faith and works that would unlock my uterus.
After a lifetime of overachieving and checking boxes in Christianity, it felt like faith failed. My faith in God didn’t really fail, but it felt like my faith failed me. Which was disconcerting. Why wasn’t God listening?
Have you ever felt like that?
When you’re stuck in the middle of something crazy hard and people are asking how you’re doing, there’s so much pressure to respond well, like you owe everybody perfect answers. It makes me grumpy. And if you add in faith, then there’s added pressure to respond like a happy human being AND a faithful believer. You have to beam out your Care Bear Stare while simultaneously rocking out to the power ballad “Don’t Stop Believin’.” It’s exhausting. And most of the time, it’s all lies and what you really want to tell people is you ate gummy worms for breakfast and you stayed in your bathrobe for five days straight and you haven’t shaved in a month. And you have no idea if you’ll dig out, and you have no idea what God’s thinking, and you have no idea how to have real conversations and behave like a regular person anymore.
And so we act like droids, and not even quirky ones like C-3PO. We smear smiles on our faces and answer questions with, “God’s got this. I know everything will work out for the best. I’m believing.”
Once more with feeling.
Sometimes my robot smile hurts.
So there’s droid you, and then there’s Dark Side of the Force you, when you want to smash a chair against a wall for dramatic flair and wave your fist in the air and say, “How am I doing? How am I doing? I’m great. So fantastic. (Smash chair.) How are you?” (Rip ice cream cone out of their hands and smush it on the table and quote Happy Gilmore’s line, “The price is wrong, b****.”)
And then there’s you you, not Stepford Droid, not Hulk Smash, but the you in the middle. And someone wants to know how you’re doing. And they aren’t awful (probably). They care (probably). And you respond.
“I know this is kind of cheesy and lame, but I wrote about it on my blog/Facebook/Caring Bridge because I don’t have the emotional capacity to answer a lot of questions right now. But the fact that you asked means the world to me, and I would absolutely love for you to stop by my little spot on the Internet.”
“I am hanging in there.” (Hanging in there is always acceptable. It’s the vanilla of answers. It’s boring, slightly more indicative of struggle than “I’m fine” but reveals nothing. Use liberally as needed, with or without head tilt or shoulder shrug.)
In my head when I hear all the sayings, I think, “Die, perky person, die,” with Psycho “re-re-re-re” stabbing sounds from the shower scene. Sometimes when you’re hurting, the last thing you want is a perky person trying to cheer you up. They say things like “At least you had some good times together,” and “It’s not all bad.” Sometimes it feels all bad and sometimes you fantasize flicking them right in the middle of the face.
Sometimes we need to stop trying to make each other feel better and just be together. Just join our friends in their ashes and sit quietly by their side.
But why, you might ask, why on earth do Christians say these things to one another? Why do we do it? Our unfortunate circumstances trigger others’ fears that the vending machine God on TV, the one where you stick in your prayers and out pops health, wealth, and happiness, is all a big sham, like those arcade games where you try to get the claw to pick up a cheap plush toy. What do you mean God doesn’t always answer prayer? The Bible says the Bible says the Bible says the Bible says.
The Bible isn’t a Magic 8 ball that you shake, and it isn’t Google where you look stuff up and it gives you exact, step-by-step instructions. Our lives are nuanced and unique. There is no script with lines and stage directions to follow to the letter.
Christians want our faith to be if/then, because the alternative is so much harder. We shy away from tension, but that’s where real faith is forged, in the tension. Sometimes our faith is fine, our prayers are happening, we’re checking all the boxes, and God says, “No,” “Wait,” or worse . . . nothing.
Don’t be too quick to resolve the tension. And definitely don’t let the people around you try to resolve it for you. Sometimes there’s a big inhale before God speaks. We need to spend more time in the breath before the answer.
That breath can last a lifetime.