The first lesson God taught me through my affliction was
regarding prayer: He taught me the difference between a
request and a report. It was an uncomfortable lesson because
it required a shift in theology—the same shift I walked a skeptical
student through after a class I was teaching at a Christian university.
I had just finished teaching a class on Bible interpretation when she came up to the podium wearing what I call her “Christian frown.” Although she was smiling just enough to cover her discomfort with my class, her eyes betrayed her disapproval. Karen was brilliant and dedicated, a model student at our university. When I asked her how I could help her, she gathered her courage. “I disagree with a lot of what you taught today. You took verses out of context and encouraged people in risky ways. I would never pray like you told us to pray just now.”
Karen objected to one specific line in the lecture: Stop offering information to the Lord, and start telling Him what you want ... before it’s too late.
“I just feel it’s wrong to make Christians think that somehow they could miss something by not asking for it. I pray to talk with God, not to get something from Him,” she said. “This idea of having to beg Him for help could cause someone to become dangerously preoccupied with their personal problems.”
I opened my Bible to a few of the verses we had studied. “I know many who agree with your fear that this teaching is dangerous,” I said. “Read these words with me and answer me this. Is it my teaching or the passage itself that is dangerous?”
Reminding her of our firm commitment to a literal interpretation— that the Bible can never mean what it never meant—I turned to these sentences, asking her what she thought they meant to the disciples who first heard them.
The first verse I asked her about was James 4:2: “What does James mean when he says, ‘You do not have because you do not ask’?”
She just stared at the page, so I stated the obvious.
“Doesn’t this raise the possibility of not receiving something God wants to give you because you did not take advantage of your privilege to ask for it?”
Still no answer, so I directed her to Mark 11:24.
“After picturing what faith in God can do with the impossible feat of casting an enormous mountain into the sea, Jesus says, ‘Therefore I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them.’”
I had underlined three words as I read—things, ask, believe. “Karen, you seem uncomfortable with all three,” I said. “But the Lord’s advice is to ask for whatever specific, definite things are on your heart, and believe that He will do the impossible.”
“How do you get ‘tell Him what you want before it’s too late’ from this?” She seemed to concede the need to ask for something in faith.
“Karen, do we need to turn back to James 4:2? It’s not my words but God’s words that are making you uncomfortable. Would you mind if we made this a little more personal and less academic?” I asked.
“What do you mean?” She seemed fearful.
“Karen, if you could ask God for anything right now, what mountain would you ask Him to cast into the sea? Think of that one thing in your life you would ask Him to deliver you from,” I said. “What heartache, fear, or disappointment is breaking your heart right now?”
I could tell a very specific crisis or sorrow was on her mind.
“The Lord Jesus knows what you are thinking right now,” I pressed. “It would take us hours to review all the conversations about prayer He had with His followers. They all speak of urgency—keep asking, seeking, knocking; My Father wants to give you good things; ask in My name. The early leaders of the church heard Him. Peter and Paul constantly begged their followers to pray for them.”
I reminded her again of James 4:2: “You do not have because you do not ask.”
“What is your mountain?”
Karen looked at the floor. “My parents are getting a divorce, and I won’t be able to come back to school next semester. They don’t have the money,” she said quietly.
I handed her a napkin to wipe her tears. “Ask the Lord before it’s too late, Karen. Beg Him to let you stay here with your friends,” I told her. “You never know. He may cast that mountain into the sea. But you must ask!”
Before I got sick, Christians never seemed uncomfortable with my teaching on prayer. It was “safe,” the usual. But on the night I almost died, a revered mentor named Charlie White prayed for me in a dangerous way—and I lived.
Like Karen, and like me before her, millions of hurting Christians are afraid to pray dangerous prayers of faith. They’ve never known this type of excruciating pain before. They believe that God loves them. They want to pray. But the words in their hearts scare them.
Are you afraid to ask the Lord to cast your mountain into the sea? If so, I want to introduce you to a family in the tiny Judean town of Bethany on the day their world fell apart. Like the many believers who picked up this book, this family has suffered a great tragedy. As you get to know the family members better, I believe you will easily identify with their personal experience. Their names are Martha, Mary, and Lazarus.
John introduces us to their story in the eleventh chapter of his gospel. Lazarus is very sick, and Martha and Mary are becoming despondent as they debate whether to send for Jesus in their time of need.
Taking Care of God
The apostle begins by making sure we know exactly which family
he is talking about. It is Wednesday in Perea on the east side of
Jordan when the couriers arrive. But John’s extended description
of this special household takes us behind the scenes—back west, a
twenty-four-hour journey across the Jordan to Bethany, where suddenly
it was Lazarus’s last day.
Waking from a fitful sleep on Tuesday morning, Mary and Martha move to their brother’s bedside. Lazarus’s condition has not changed, and they have been up with him many times throughout the night. They long for the slightest sign of improvement. Is he more alert? Does he seem more comfortable? Has his fever broken?
Standing over his pathetic form, they know immediately that his time is short. Death came often to the streets and homes of Judea in the first century. The smell of death was in the room, the tint of death in his face.
Alarmed, the women wipe his forehead with a cool cloth. “Lazarus, wake up. Lazarus, the morning has come. Open your eyes. Lazarus, you must wake up.” But their brother is too weak to hear their voices.
“He’s dying!” Martha cries. “Time is running out, Mary. We must send for the Lord now. He is our only hope!”
The question had been on their hearts for days as their brother’s condition worsened. “Should we send for Jesus?”
Right now, the answer to that question seems obvious to us: Yes! Send for Jesus! we think. But times were much different back then. In fact, Lazarus may have told them not to send for Jesus because of the danger. Jesus’ last two visits to the city had stirred the people in ways that threatened His enemies, and they had turned on Him with murderous rage. It was only a short time earlier that Jesus had stayed with them following the tumultuous events of the Feast of Tabernacles (Luke 10:38–42). The plot to kill Him was known even to the people who suspected the rulers’ self-preserving motives. “Can it be that the authorities really know that this is the Christ?” (John 7:26 ESV).
Jesus fled for His life to another Bethany, east of the Jordan River, beyond the reach of the Jewish authorities. There, in the province of Perea, where John the Baptist preached, and where Jesus met His first disciples, Jesus’ ministry flourished.
As their brother fades, the sisters agonize over their choice. Should they bother Jesus with their personal problems? What a selfish mistake it would be to distract the Lord from His mission and put His life at risk.
But Lazarus has not improved. He is worse, much worse. Death is near.
Mary looks at Martha. “Send for the runners. Now!”
The two desperate sisters give careful but hurried instructions to the
men who will carry the news of Lazarus’s condition to Jesus. They
must have believed everything depended on these messengers. “Go
straight to the Lord. Do not linger here or loiter on the way. And tell
Him exactly what we say to you, word for word: ‘Lord, behold, he
whom You love is sick’” (John 11:3).
John makes sure we are aware of just how special these people were to Jesus:
Now a certain man was sick, Lazarus of Bethany, the town of Mary and her sister Martha. It was that Mary who anointed the Lord with fragrant oil and wiped His feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick. (John 11:1–2)
His introduction refers to a famous event that heightens our appreciation of this family’s relationship with Jesus in two ways:
- They were close to Jesus. Everyone knew of Jesus’ special attachment to this family. Their comfortable house, just a few miles from the city, became His personal refuge during His visits to Jerusalem. He felt a rare freedom in their home. Luke pictures Jesus relaxed and at ease with them. He even helps them settle family disputes (Luke 10:38–42). Of all the homes in Judea, the Lord chose this one. Their openhearted hospitality gave Jesus access to their lives so that He could truly abide there.
- They were devoted to Jesus. Mary’s extravagant worship of Jesus the week before His death (John 12:1–8) was well known years later when John wrote his gospel. This was no ordinary anointing. Her spontaneous expression of gratitude and compassion revealed a deep love that is precious to the Lord.
For years I read this introduction to the story of Lazarus never noticing the jarring disconnect between verses 2 and 3. With the images from Bethany in mind, the message the sisters sent to Jesus just doesn’t make sense:
Therefore the sisters sent to Him, saying, “Lord, behold, he whom You love is sick.” (John 11:3)
This isn’t a prayer; it’s a report!
Why would these women, as close to Jesus as you can get, make no specific request? What were they thinking?
In just a few hours they will rehearse every decision they have made in this crisis over and over. Only God knows if the sisters wished they had sent Jesus more than their one-sentence memo that morning.
From what we know about this family, I think they did. I know I would have. “Lazarus is dying, ladies,” my heart cries today as I read verse 3. “And you’re sending Jesus information!”
If I were standing outside Martha and Mary’s house in Bethany that day, I know now what I would tell them before they sent their message to Jesus:
“Jesus is your Friend. He loves you like no other,” I would remind them. “Don’t send Lazarus’s medical report to Him; beg Him to come to you. Plead with the Lord for the life of your brother—before it’s too late. Or you’ll wish you had and be sorry for the rest of your life. Don’t tell Him about your problem; ask Him to help you!”
If you think I’m being a little hard on the two sisters, I’m going to ask you to put yourself in their place. John’s record of their tragedy shifts to Perea in verses 4–16, but Mary and Martha have to go back into the house.
Let’s walk with them to the deathbed, where reports to Jesus suddenly seem foolish and missed opportunities fill our hearts with regret.
We know that Lazarus died shortly after the messengers left for
Perea—a journey of about twenty-four hours. One day to Perea to
bring the news to Jesus, two more days there as the Lord waited
(John 11:6), and one day for Jesus and His entourage to come to
Bethany. That’s four days; the same four days Martha would later
remind the Lord that Lazarus’s remains had been decomposing
Exactly when the sisters realized that their report to the Lord no longer mattered we can only guess. But it was soon after they bid the runners off that crisp spring morning.
Can you picture them entering into the still air of the house and stopping by the figure lying in bed? I imagine them explaining themselves to their brother. “Lazarus, we just couldn’t wait. We sent word to Jesus. He needs to know how sick you are. It’s just too hard watching you suffer so. He’ll know what to do.”
“Lazarus?” Mary repeats. “Lazarus ...”
“Lazarus?” Martha throws back the cover and rolls him on his back.
“Lazarus!” She holds his lifeless hand in hers and looks up at her sister. There is no need to mouth the words. He is gone.
“Oh, Lazarus!” Mary cries as she cups his head in her hands. She gazes into her brother’s eyes for any sign of life, and her tears wet his face. She wipes them with her hair.
“Oh, Lazarus, why did we wait? We should have sent for the Lord sooner. What were we thinking? He could have saved you. But now it’s too late.”
It’s interesting to me that they never sent Jesus an update: “Never mind, Lord. Lazarus died shortly after the first messengers left.”
They had plenty of time. Jesus didn’t make a move for fortyeight hours after receiving the initial report. Jerusalem is still a dangerous place for the Lord. Surely they would want to warn Him against making a useless trip now. After all, he’s dead! “Hurry! Tell Jesus of Lazarus’s death. It’s too late to help him now. Jesus must stay in Perea.”
Nothing. No warning. Not even a death announcement.
Anguish—when the worst you can imagine happens—sure does change your priorities and opinions.
It sure transformed my view of prayer the night I almost died.
Dying in Los Angeles
Like Lazarus and his sisters, Judy and I talked about the Lord and
sent reports to Him when I was on the way to my deathbed.
February in Southern California can be spectacular, one of our favorite times of the year. This February seemed especially encouraging. We loved what God was doing in our church. The “corner” we seemed so bent on turning looked closer than ever before.
“This is no time to get the flu,” I remember saying to Judy on Friday night as we drove to my daughter’s house in central California. The next morning my knee swelled to the size of a small watermelon. I took some home remedies and preached on crutches that Sunday.
Every medical professional in the congregation scolded me for not seeing a doctor. I promised them I would first thing Monday morning.
“Mr. Underwood, you’re in trouble,” the doctor told me the next day. “Your knee implant is infected. I’m sending you to a surgeon at USC who specializes in this procedure.”
Looking out my hospital window at the medical center, I could see Dodger Stadium. At least I have a nice view, I thought as I briefed the Lord again concerning my situation: Lord, You know my schedule. This needs to go quickly. I have to be out of here by the end of the week.
My journal entries the two weeks following my surgery read like a military duty log:
24 February: Today I go to surgery. Lord, help me to love Judy well during this time. I need to face this with courageous faith.
29 February: I go home this afternoon. Father, teach me the lessons of faith You have for me in this. Show me how to share these insights with the elders and staff.
10 March: Feeling a little weak today. I need more strength.
20 March: Can’t get out of bed. I need to get better so I can preach on Sunday.
Lazarus would have been proud of me. I was careful not to ask the Lord for anything personal. It was all about the Lord and His work.
Mary and Martha would have agreed with my concise updates to the Lord Jesus concerning my medical status. Until the day time ran out and Lazarus died with their report still on its way to Perea.
Time Is Running Out!
I knew something was terribly wrong several weeks after the surgery
when I caught my image in the mirror. Able only to lift my
head, I was repulsed by the face staring back at me. Swollen, yellow,
hideous. “That can’t be me! Lord, what is happening to me?”
When Judy came home a few hours later, she took one look and rushed me back to University Hospital. I could hear the doctors as I faded in and out.
“Acute renal failure.”
I was dying.
Family and friends soon arrived and gathered around my bed. Most couldn’t bear to look at me. A few offered to pray.
Father in heaven, we come to You now with full confidence that You are the Sovereign of the universe. Every circumstance of our life is under Your watchful eye. So now we trust You as the One who knows best—the God who never makes mistakes. Give us the faith to endure in this confusing and difficult time.
As they prayed, I looked around the room. My son, on leave from his duties as an army officer, held his mother and sister with his wife at his side. The picture of their grief just didn’t fit with the prayers being offered in that desperate room.
Father, Your Son, Jesus, sits at Your right hand, and we come to You in His name. Please hear our prayer as we submit to Your will. Though we may not understand this, You know all things. We praise Your majestic name.
I had prayed these prayers myself, many times. At bedsides and in emergency rooms all over this country I had offered reports to God with theological precision. Though absolutely sincere in my motivation to comfort the broken lives I prayed for, I somehow felt a responsibility to pray in a way that protected God.
Like the student I told you about earlier, Christians who actually asked God for something in faith and expected Him to answer made me feel uncomfortable. Like her, my role had always been to pray for others who may have lost perspective in a tragedy.
But on that day I realized the enormous difference between standing at someone’s deathbed and lying in your own.
Stop telling God what He already knows! I wanted to shout. Look at my wife, my children. I’m dying and you’re preaching on the sovereignty of God? Somebody ask Him for something. There’s not enough faith in this room to heal a bunny rabbit!
Time was running out.
Let This Boy Live!
Just then our elders walked into the room. Even they were shaken by
the tortured figure in the bed that eerily resembled their pastor.
Charlie White, mentor to most of us in the room and friend to all, taught us a lesson in prayer at that moment. Leaning across my bed like a prophet of old, this dear brother cried out to His God:
Father, we are frail and foolish. There is little here we comprehend. But we remember Your love for us and hear the words of Your Son who taught us to pray. He promised us You would listen to our prayers and that He would remind You that we are weak. He told us to pray with the faith of a mustard seed, to believe that You are able to answer our prayers. He told us that with You all things are possible. And so, our Father, we come now to Your throne of grace with this one request: Please heal our pastor. O Lord, we love him and do not want him to die. There is so much to do. Our church needs him; his family needs Him. Please let him live. We beg You, in Jesus’ name.
And then, his own private appeal: “Lord, I love Ed. Please let this boy live and serve. Amen.”
The fear and doubt drained from my heart as this old saint and retired pastor spoke his mighty prayer. His bold words gave us hope. His faith kindled a fire of courageous faith that spread around the world. By the next day, over ten thousand Christians were repeating Charlie’s simple request: Please let Ed live and serve.
As a man of the Word, Charlie seemed intensely alert to the excesses we should avoid when we encourage prayers of faith:
- God will never do something contrary to His sovereign will. Charlie’s humility before God’s throne did not presume to know better than his all-knowing Father.
- When God does respond to prayer, it is never because we demand our answer according to some formula or with enough faith that forces His hand. The seasoned elder was not claiming anything except the love and power of his Father Almighty, and the promises of Jesus, His Son.
- God loves His children and delights in caring for them. In my time of need, this retired pastor known throughout Southern California as a spiritual giant spoke before the throne of heaven in childlike sentences, appealing to the heart of his Abba Father.
He asked. And God said, “Yes!”
Have you asked?
Or is your fear of what others might think holding you back from the threshold of God’s throne of grace?
Stop worrying about how your prayers sound to Christians, and start begging God for what you want and need. He’s waiting to hear your bold and dangerous prayer of faith.
This is a book about suffering. In the next chapter you will discover that my anguish was just beginning. As with Mary and Martha, the excruciating pain I was going through was about to bring me to the brink of faith and raise a question in my mind about Jesus and His love.
Before we move on, I encourage you to kneel before your Abba Father. Tell Him exactly how you feel and what you want. Don’t suffer unnecessarily for one more minute. What a waste it would be for you to miss the comfort He wants you to have. All because you did not ask!
Charlie is in heaven now, but his mighty cry is your encouragement. Follow his lead; pray his risky prayer of faith, filling in the details of your personal request:
Father, I am frail and foolish. There is little here I comprehend. But I remember Your love for me and hear the words of Your Son, who taught me to pray. He promised me that You would listen to my prayers and that He would remind You that I am weak. He told me to pray with the faith of a mustard seed, to believe that You are able to answer my prayers. He told me that with You all things are possible. And so, my Father, I come now to Your throne of grace, with this one request: Please . I beg You, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
If I may be so bold, before you get up from your knees, would you pray for me? You see, I really believe what I just wrote. My doctors still wonder at the power of this prayer against my disease. They tell me “it wouldn’t hurt” to keep asking friends to pray: Father, please let Ed live and serve.
Thank you. Your daring and dangerous prayer comforts my heart and gives me hope.
When God Breaks Your Heart © 2008 Ed Underwood. Published by David C. Cook. Published in association with the literary agency of D. C. Jacobson & Associates LLC, an Author Management Company. Used by permission.