Why won’t Jesus make me better?
One of the hardest situations I remember as a mom was having a miserable, sick child. Especially when the child asked me, “Why won’t Jesus make me better? I prayed, you prayed, Dad prayed. Jesus could do it, but he won’t.”
Obviously, it’s not a question only children ask. Basically Phillip Yancey’s Where is God When it Hurts? addresses the same question powerfully. And it’s not an easy question to answer. For ourselves or for our children. I’ve always struggled with that question. The hardest times were when the question came from our most black-and-white child. She was usually the quickest to assume Jesus would answer our prayers. But then she also was the quickest to wonder why when he chose not to answer the way she expected. Her disappointment was hard for me to watch.
My struggles to answer her.
I remember struggling to answer her. God answered prayers–I knew that. I even knew of miraculous answers to some prayers. But I also knew God’s answers are often not what we are hoping for. Yet, how do you explain to a child that God loves us immensely and still allows us significant pain?
With great difficulty. And great humility.
I remember saying “I don’t know” a lot. I also said that I knew sickness was one result of human sin. And that sickness is not a result of the sick person’s sin but the state of the sinful world. I remember thinking of the blind man Jesus healed, when my daughter asked me why God was punishing her. She wondered what sin God was punishing her for. I recalled John 9:1-12, where Jesus tells his disciples that the man’s blindness is not a result of someone’s sin. It was a vehicle for God to glorify himself through Jesus’ miraculous healing.
Of course, my daughters would have loved to be miraculously healed to bring someone to faith. Wouldn’t we all? The tricky thing is that God glorifies himself in different ways in different times and places.
God working in our pain.
The other thing that always struck me in those difficult times is the fact that God uses our pain to bring us to himself. As C.S. Lewis explains in The Problem of Pain, “[P]ain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
Obviously, it would not have helped to share that quote with my four-year-old daughter. She was already looking to God. So she did not need his megaphone at that moment. She needed to be reassured of God’s love in her pain. But her pain was God’s megaphone to get my attention and to give me a teachable moment to share with her.
No pain in heaven.
What I told my daughter is a different part of that process. God also uses our pain to remind us that this is not our true home. Our true home is in heaven with him. There we will never be sick or hurting. I told her that being sick could help her value the knowledge that heaven would someday be painless. Honestly, if life on earth were painless, we would have a lot harder time longing for heaven. Pain and sickness are earthly results of the Fall that make us yearn for God and his perfect home.
Did that solve the problem for my daughter? Or for me? Obviously not. But it gave us a teachable moment and an opportunity to focus intensely on God’s work in our lives. It emphasized his sovereignty and his love. For me it also emphasized my dependence on God. I had no idea how to answer my daughter. So, I was forced to pray a lot while trying to answer her questions–and mine.
And isn’t that the point of a megaphone? It gets our attention. Every time one of my daughters asked me, “Why won’t Jesus make me better?” God had my full attention.
Jesus lives within children just as He does within adults.
Accepting Jesus as Savior, little kids often ask Jesus into their hearts. Once they do, they experience his love and know they are children of God. But do they understand that the incarnational power of Jesus lives within them as well? And do we explain to them that the way Jesus lives within us is through the Holy Spirit?
One mother tells the story of her young daughter getting the stomach flu and worrying that she had vomited Jesus into the toilet.
We laugh at the silliness of the image. But it makes us realize how challenging it is to learn the concept of Jesus living within us in Spirit. As adults, many of us also miss the importance of the incarnational power of Jesus. We know we are children of God but aren’t fully aware of the supernatural power for living that Jesus has given us. In John 10:10, Jesus says he came so that we could live abundantly. How do we do that? How do we teach our children to do that?
The incarnational power of the Holy Spirit enables us to flourish.
If we focus on telling our children how Jesus wants them to act, we short-circuit that learning. But if we ask them how Jesus would act in our situation, we give them a chance to understand. When I was in second grade and upset that a classmate was being bullied, my mom asked me that question. She didn’t say, “What do you think Jesus would want you to do?” She said, “What do you think Jesus would do if He were at your school?”
Her question allowed me to think through the mind of Christ who was working in me through His Holy Spirit. The other question would probably have made me defensive and resistant to doing the hard work of attempting to befriend an ostracized older child. But her asking what Jesus’ action would be empowered the role of the Spirit within me.
Children love to be helpers.
One way we can bless our children in learning this lifestyle is in calling their attention to ways that they can show God’s love to others. Some schools have “helping circles” for children with special needs. Others have tutoring or mentoring opportunities for older kids to help younger kids. But even if those opportunities are not available in structured activities, we can guide them to look for needs. My mother used to ask me the first day of every school year to look for a person who needed a friend.
As the Apostle Paul writes to the Ephesians about this process, he says,
16 I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. 20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. (Ephesians 4:16-21)
Praying that the incarnational power of Jesus will guide our children.
Our children understand riches and probably know that God has the most glorious riches ever. But do they see His riches as living within them and empowering them to live for Jesus. My dad helped me understand this as a kid through one story and one anology.
The story was of a poor man who came from Europe to America on a steamship long ago.
This man bought the cheapest ticket possible and packed some food in his bags with him. Partway over, a ship worker saw him eating his stale food alone. He asked him why he didn’t ever eat with the other passengers. The man told him he didn’t have any money to pay for it. The worker surprised him with the great news that the food was free because he had already bought his ticket.
My dad explained to me that that man was sort of like most of us as Christians. When we try to live the Christian life on our own power–instead of in the power of the Holy Spirit–we miss God’s glorious riches for us.
Dad explained the how through an illustration Bill Bright calls “spiritual breathing.”
He explained that we need to “inhale” the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives and “exhale” our sin.
Spiritual breathing is like physical breathing in that we:
“Exhale” by confessing our sins immediately to God and claiming His forgiveness.
“Inhale” by asking the Holy Spirit to control and empower us and to keep us from returning to sin. . . .
Usually, we don’t think about our physical breathing. But spiritual breathing is something that requires conscious action — a readiness to “exhale” (confess our sin), and to “inhale” (trust God to fill us with His Holy Spirit).
But the tricky thing about explaining this to kids is that we can’t teach them to do it by telling them what to do.
We need to explain the process and model it. We need to let them know the riches available to them. Then we have to be ready to explain how God works this process. They need us to guide them lovingly to experience the incarnational power of Jesus for themselves.
During my time of seventh-grade bullying, one girl was the primary cause. Supposedly a close friend, she instigated the incidents. Over the years I needed to learn the hard way that I couldn’t trust her. Originally I confided in her, trusting her friendship. Then she betrayed me. Repeatedly. Because she had been my first friend in my new school, it was hard to wrap my mind around the fact that she was acting as my enemy. Finally my mom got me to see, after far too many times of being betrayed, that I couldn’t trust my friend. Then my parents taught me the even harder lesson of loving difficult people by faith.
Loving difficult people by faith.
Loving by faith initially seems to contradict our definition of love. When we think of all the ways we use the word “love,” we usually associate it with pleasure. We love pizza. I love chocolate cheesecake, especially when I make it with Kahlua. Mmmmm. We love great books and great movies. And, of course, we love people. We love all the special people in our lives.
But what about the difficult people in our lives? Don’t we all have difficult people we love? And, if we’re honest, aren’t we difficult to love at times too? My parents taught me the importance of praying for difficult people. But here’s the most challenging part. We’re not allowed to simply pray that they stop being annoying or sinning against us. We need to pray for them in a way that cares about their needs being met. That meant I needed to pray that my frenemy would be happy, that life would go well for her, and that she would feel loved. That meant I could never complain about her to our friends.
God uses prayer to create love.
In his Love is a Feeling to be Learned, Walter Trobischer explains that the feeling of love follows the actions of love. Not the other way around. Infatuation can come first. Or an intense, sudden best friendship. But the feeling of real love follows our learning to love unconditionally, as God loves us. It also comes after we learn to love by faith. My parents gave me a tiny book by Bill Bright that changed my life and relationships: How to Love by Faith. This tiny book taught me how to trust the Holy Spirit to give me his love, as I prayed for the person who bothered me so much. What a revolutionary, biblical concept!
Prayer for others changes us.
To me what was most amazing about this process was that God used it to heal me. He took away my anger, my desire for vengeance, and even much of my pain. As I really prayed for this girl, I began to notice the ways she was suffering and saw that she was lashing out because of her own pain. My changed heart allowed her heart to change–slowly. I didn’t notice the change in her as quickly as I noticed it in myself. But God changed both of us, through my prayers.
Over the years, God has called me back to that lesson many times. Because I forget. When people act nasty toward me, my automatic reaction can be to feel hurt and angry. But each time God brings me back to his lesson of loving difficult people by faith, he brings healing. To me and to the other person.
God sightings: helping kids see him
Years ago, one of our church series focused on “God sightings”–specific places we saw God working. For quite a while we were diligent in asking each other for God sightings during prayer time. It was fun to see our girls recognize God’s work in answers to their prayers. It was even more fun to see them recognize God’s presence in areas we hadn’t thought to pray about. Yet God was blessing us specifically in those areas anyway. Ahead of our prayers. He knew our hearts. We used to say, “Wow. I hadn’t even thought to pray about that yet.” But after a while, we forgot to look for these special moments, those God sightings.
We need God’s reminders.
The people of Israel were like us. For a while they noticed God’s blessings and talked about them. Then they forgot. God knew that would continue to be true, so he used a pile of rocks to help them remember:
21 [Joshua] said to the Israelites, “In the future when your descendants ask their parents, ‘What do these stones mean?’ 22 tell them, ‘Israel crossed the Jordan on dry ground.’ 23 For the Lord your God dried up the Jordan before you until you had crossed over. The Lord your God did to the Jordan what he had done to the Red Sea when he dried it up before us until we had crossed over. 24 He did this so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the Lord is powerful and so that you might always fear the Lord your God.” (Joshua 4: 21-24)
We don’t live in a rocky country with a huge pile of rocks to stand as a national memorial. In fact, conservationists tell us that we might cause problems in certain habitats when we do leave piles of rocks behind to show that we have been there. So, what reminders can we set up for ourselves? More importantly, how can we point our children to the ways God is working in our lives and in theirs?
Not all reminders need to be physical.
Our traditions can be reminders. Even our daily habits can be reminders of who Jesus is and what he did for us and continues doing for us. Praying before meals, reading the Bible together as a family, praying for each other during the day–all these behaviors God uses to remind us and our kids who he is today. Can we ignore these reminders? Obviously. Did the Israelites sometimes walk by those rocks without thinking? Absolutely. But God does call us to create our own reminders and our own ways to tell our children about who Jesus is and that he is an active part of our lives today.
We need to be living reminders of the reality of Jesus Christ.
God told the Israelites they needed to love him with all their hearts and talk about him continually with their children (Deuteronomy 6:5-9 NIV). In the same way, he tells us that we need to season our conversations with the reality of Jesus Christ (Colossians 4:6 NIV). To our children, we are the most powerful reminders of Jesus they have. We need to make intentional choices in being those reminders. My husband and I chose family prayer time before the first person went to bed. For us, that has been a lasting legacy for our family–and a powerful stimulus to our faith.
I challenge you to choose either family prayer time, talking to your children daily about God sightings, or some other special tradition to become your spiritual legacy in conveying the living reality of Jesus Christ.
Make kids feel needed
Even these days, most kids probably grow up helping their parents or their siblings in certain ways. But probably not to the same extent that was true of their parents or grandparents. We no longer have a dozen kids per family, needing the older ones to care for the younger ones while we tend to the babies, as my dad’s parents did. The same tends to be true at church. Grown-ups do everything. So how do we develop our kids’ sense of who they are and their importance in the body of Christ? How do we make kids feel needed in the church?
Needs in tiny churches
The tiny church I grew up in–a church plant–was so little that they needed to rely on kids for important roles. I was eleven when I heard my parents discussing the need for a teacher for our first-, second-, and third-grade Sunday school class. I’m sure my dad was trying to persuade my already heavily committed mom to add that to her list. But since I loved that age group and planned to train to be a teacher, that position sounded great to me. So, I volunteered.
My parents were startled. They first responded with the obvious, “Oh, you’re not old enough. And you have to have made profession of faith publicly in the church to be a Sunday school teacher.”
Not allowing kids to feel pushed aside
“What does that involve? Can’t I do that?”
“It would mean going to the church council and telling them that you are ready to go public for Jesus and make your membership official. You’d have to tell them that you understand the teachings of the church and believe they’re biblical. Then you’d be an adult member.”
“Sure. I can do that. How? When?”
Although I thought my parents were startled, their reaction was nothing compared to that of the church elders and deacons. Stunned is more like it. They asked me all the questions that were typical in that day. The creeds, the catechism, and what Jesus meant to me personally. They also asked me what made me decide to make profession of faith right at that time. Then they sort of looked at each other as though they didn’t know what to do next.
“How old did you say you were?” one asked.
On hearing I was only eleven, they asked how many months till my birthday. They agreed that I could make my public profession as soon as I turned twelve. Though I thought the waiting was silly, I was happy to be accepted. I felt validated in my faith and very adult because they were going to let me teach Sunday school.
The blessings of feeling needed
Teaching that class was much harder than I had expected. First-graders can hardly read, and third-graders are already good readers. Teaching to that range of kids stretched my creativity. Ten to thirteen kids that age at once can be a handful. But I was so energetic and eager to prove myself up for the job that I figured it out.
I remember having so much fun doing things like big cut-outs for the walls to encourage attendance. One season each child put up a squirrel and got to add a nut for each Sunday of attendance. I was so eager to share Jesus with these little kids that each Saturday I even pedaled my bike to the house of any child who had missed class the week before to tell them we had missed them.
God’s mission moving forward
Not surprisingly, the class prospered. And I prospered. The class grew in size and in unity, and I grew in motivation to learn the Bible better and to learn better ways of teaching. My most important takeaway was my intense sense of belonging that I gained from being needed by the church. 1 Corinthians 12 gives us a detailed description of the body of Christ and each of us needing to use our gifts. As adults, we know how important using our gifts is. But what about our kids?
Kids who are needed in the church feel motivated to stay in the church.
When I hear people lament about the difficulty of so many young people leaving the church, I often think back to the time the church allowed me to become its youngest Sunday school teacher. The church’s accepting and enfolding me early actually gave me protection against negative peer pressure during my teen years. I had found my place. I was a Christ follower–a part of the body of Christ. No one could convince me otherwise.
When my kids were that age, we encouraged them to help with nursery, the church library, Vacation Bible School, playing instruments for church. Those were encouraging experiences for them as they felt needed and got to know godly adults they were working with. Just think how much better it would be if we as church bodies could make it a priority to incorporate young people into as many different ministries as possible.
How to make kids feel needed? Find ways to use their gifts.
One-Time Comments Have Lasting Impact.
Telling kids that only sticks and stones can hurt them–not words–may make speakers feel better. But both kids and adults know it’s a lie. Fortunately, positive one-time comments have lasting impact too. In this world of physical bullying and cyber bullying, it’s more important than ever for adults to speak words of hope to the kids in our lives.
Girl dancing in church expresses her praise.
Parents have lots of opportunities, but any adult can bless a child with words of lasting impact.
Even our brief conversations with children at church during greeting times can affect them powerfully. Negatively or positively. I mentioned before my twelve-year-old daughter’s horrid reaction when an older woman told her to enjoy her childhood, since these were the best years of her life. The well-meaning elderly woman had no idea of the negative impact her words conveyed and that my daughter would never forget that one comment.
At the same time, a sincere question to a child about to start a new school can be powerful. It affirms the child’s importance and the significance of that time in life, because the grown up acknowledges it. Hearing that an adult they don’t know well is going to pray for them in this time validates their membership in the body of Christ. It points to the fact that they are valuable human beings and not simply partially formed adults. We can help our church children to feel embraced by the Body of Christ, so that they can open themselves up fully to the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives.
One woman I know overheard a nine-year-old say something to her mom about the sermon reminding her of her recent nightmares.
She told the girl she had overheard and remembered her own children experiencing nightmares. Her children had been blessed by having her come in and pray with them. She had simply prayed, “In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, I command you, Satan, to leave this child alone! Lord Jesus protect this child from further attack and give your peace.” Instantly, the child had experienced the peace of Christ and freedom from nightmares.
This woman asked the girl if she could pray with her right there. She eagerly accepted. After praying for her, she reminded the girl of 1 John 4:4 “because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world.” She also reminded her of the power of the name of Christ.
The next week the girl initiated conversation. She told how she had needed to pray that on her own one night. But since then, she had been nightmare free. The woman now tells of how this girl she didn’t really know, and still doesn’t really know, has a special bond with her. Because one-time comments have lasting impact, they share a special greeting each time they see each other at church. She knows the girl feels the certainty of being a part of the Body of Christ with her.
Sunday School teachers have special opportunities.
In talking to friends lately about our faith journeys, I’ve realized how many of us remember something an adult said to us decades ago. Just once. I remember being struck by my Sunday School teacher telling her fifth graders that God had no grandchildren. To adults, that may seem obvious. But to me as a young child, it was striking. She challenged us that we were not automatically part of God’s family just because our parents were. We needed to make our own choices.
Though I’m sure my parents tried to convey this same idea many times, no memory of it stands out. But Mrs. Bruizeman’s fervent conversation with us struck a chord. I’ll never forget the earnestness in her voice. I knew it was important to her personally that we each take God seriously and accept Jesus as personal Savior. It changed me.
A friend has a similar experience. She remembers her Sunday School teacher telling a class of eleven-year-olds that each person had to make a personal decision to accept Christ, not just assume it because of parents. And she told them they were old enough to do that for themselves. She also challenged them that they were old enough to read their Bibles daily on their own. My friend felt surprise. She also felt the challenge and a sense of responsibility she never forgot.
I pray each of us seeks these opportunities and remembers that one-time comments have lasting impact.