By William B. McGrath
I like to remember the special times when the Lord answered my prayers. One of those times was when I had a severe relapse of hepatitis. We were having a reunion with the relatives on my wife’s side of the family. I just did not want to accept that I was sick. I knew I was in quite a predicament. I asked the Lord to please heal me. Then, right after praying, though I felt so weak and sick and had other symptoms, I jumped into a swimming pool and swam. After a short, vigorous swim, I was so surprised. I truly was healed, completely and quickly.
Besides remembering notable and quick answers to prayer, I realize that the greatest and most important answers to prayer for me have come only after a long period of waiting; not just waiting for the answer, but learning to deal with the problem victoriously while waiting. This may be one reason why the Lord doesn’t answer some of our prayers right away, as we would like. We need to have some long-term struggles in our lives, because they help make us stronger.
I can remember taking a certain concern, an ongoing problem, to the Lord repeatedly, for years, politely requesting Him to intervene. At the same time, I was letting Him know that I was puzzled about why I had to keep dealing with the same problem over and over—things like interpersonal relationships that seemed unfair, healing of an illness, or a spiritual weakness. Seeing the Lord answer these important matters is wonderful, but the answer may take a long time—years or decades.
I believe this enduring of hardship or afflictions, and maintaining a good attitude through them, is part of God’s school for us. He is interested in building character and inner strength. Sometimes that simply requires that we endure hardship for long periods of time. While we’re passing through the waters or the flames of hardship,1 as the Bible refers to them, He is with us, and through the troubles we are not overcome, but are trained to become more like Him, more tolerant, compassionate, etc. Like an irritating grain of sand develops into a pearl in an oyster, our ongoing difficulty can transform itself within our heart; it can cause virtue to grow there.
Many of the famous Bible characters had to endure quite a bit of trouble for years, but were rewarded later in their lives in a special way that related to their struggle. Joseph was exiled by his jealous brothers for being a dreamer, but the dreams the Lord gave him later came true. Moses had to run for his life after killing an Egyptian out of zeal for his people. He lived in hiding until many years later when God called him to return to Egypt and be His instrument to save the same people he had so wanted to save long ago. Sarah, who wanted a child in her younger years, was not given one until she was very old. She probably had a long-term struggle with that. It was decades later that the Lord promised she would bear a son in her old age past the normal child-bearing age. It seems the Lord was giving her a great honor, showing her favor in a way that related to what she had struggled with for so long.
Today as well, the Lord grants some amazing answers to prayer in the later time of our life, fulfilling our deepest desires. It may not be on the scale of what He did for Joseph or Moses or Sarah, but it can be something wonderful, a sign of His favor. The Lord is aware of the things once dear to us that we may have had to leave behind in order to serve and please Him, or the things we have long endured, and He will not fail to show His love and appreciation to us—either in this life or the next, and it will mean so much to us.
In Psalm 84:5–7 we see a person whose strength is in God, a person in whose heart are His ways, passing through the valley of Baca and making a water well there. Bible scholars say that a place named Baca hasn’t been found. This could be a symbolic valley, one of ongoing difficulty that God’s people pass through in life. What does one do, after telling the Lord all about the problem, and then struggling with it day after day? We dig a well there (we cultivate a deeper walk with the Lord), and learn to endure the difficulty bravely. We may also ask the Lord how He might wish for us to change some of our attitudes and thought habits, and what lessons He might have for us through it all. Then, years later, we may see Him remove the difficulty and grant some special reward that relates to the difficulty.
Isaiah 58:11 says, “The Lord shall satisfy thy soul in drought”—through the years or months of the difficulty. And Isaiah 30:20–21 tells us: “Though the Lord give you the bread of adversity, and the water of affliction, yet shall not thy teachers be removed into a corner anymore, but thine eyes shall see thy teachers, and thine ears shall hear a word behind thee, saying, ‘This is the way, walk ye in it.’” Through our long years of digging a deeper well, we will learn to have a closer walk with God and recognize His voice and guidance more clearly.
“Suffering is a school whose students learn things about themselves, about God, and about life that they would never have learned without it. Looking back on the priceless lessons he learned, the sufferer is able to say to the one who appointed it all, ‘You are good, and what you do is good.’”—Timothy Keller