Then on Friday I went out and found a large group gathered around a house just in front of ours. I asked what was going on and was told that a baby had just died. Stacey and I went down to visit the family. As is the Bakoum custom, the deceased was laid out in the livingroom of the house on a mattress and people were mourning around her. And she was beautiful: a little chubby girl, around 1 year old, laying as if she were sleeping. I sat looking at her, hearing her grandmother wailing at her feet, and I could have sworn she was still breathing.
They told us that she had just fallen ill two days before. As is often the case, we don’t know why she died. They told me it was malaria, but in reality they just have no idea. This is one aspect of life that is so scary for our neighbors. Without any medical knowledge, nor often the funds to go to the doctor, they never really know when their kids get sick if it is going to be fatal. I have seen people scared out of their mind because their baby was sick, and to me it looked like they only had a cold. And most of the time the babies are OK, but one mother affirmed to us that she had lost six children!
I posted the above picture to Facebook on Friday, which shows the men preparing the grave next to the house. I spoke briefly to the father who was sitting on the other side of the house on a grave of another child. I asked my friends to “pray that the sorrow would turn the family to Christ.” Even as I typed that, it felt a bit disingenuous. This family is living in the home of the (alleged) “village guardian,” a woman entrusted with the supernatural secrets of the Bakoum and charged with protecting it spiritually. This death means of course, that even the village guardian cannot keep babies from dying. But it also means that this family will be responding to the death within the framework of their traditional religion. Further, the Bakoum do not have the Bible in a language they can understand. They do not even have a word for grace! How in the world could the sorrow of this loss lead them to Christ? How in the world could we offer any comfort to them?
The reality is that at this moment in time we cannot. We genuinely cannot communicate the Gospel to them in a way that they would understand. And really anything that we say could confuse them, even reaffirming their beliefs. So, what should we pray? Can I really pray that they would turn to Christ if I know that there is no real way in which they could do that right now?
As these questions have been bothering my sleep, I have come to realize that my prayers are weak, sometimes misguided, often at least in part affected by my sin and selfishness, and always limited. My prayers are limited by what I know, by my understanding of God, and by my shortsighted view of time. In fact, I believe now that it is impossible to pray for the right thing in its fullness.
I was comforted, though, in remembering a quote I heard in a Tim Keller sermon. I found he had one like it in his book about prayer: “God will either give us what we ask or give us what we would have asked if we knew everything he knows.” I have put it this way to our kids: God answers our prayers according to what we would have asked if we knew everything, and were only good. It is an amazing truth that God tells us to pray (in spite of our weakness) and then answers our prayers. But I don’t think that the fact that he answers our prayers means that he always gives us what we ask for. Think of what would happen if God just gave us what we asked for! Instead, I think that he gives us what he knows we need. And what a glorious reality that is. The all-knowing, all-good God is committed to giving his children not always what they want, but always what they need.
So, I have come to a response to the question: “What should I do when I don’t even know what to pray?” My response is: “Pray anyway.” And sometimes that prayer is going to come out as foolish, misguided babble. Sometimes nothing may come out other than just groaning. But Paul tells us in Romans 8:26:
“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.”
He knows that we are weak. He knows that we don’t always know what to pray for. But that is one of the reasons he he has given us his Spirit: so that our foolish babble does not remain foolish babble. The Spirit is with us to make our prayers better than what we meant. He makes our prayers understandable, reasonable, and efficacious. And when we look back we can say more than just “He answered our prayers.” We can say, “He answered what our prayers should have been.”
Specifically, I have decided to keep praying that my neighbors’ sorrow will be comforted in Christ. That they may know the love of a God who has grieved the death of his own son. And I have no idea what an answer to that would even look like at this point. Maybe it is a prayer that will be answered in several years. But I am full of faith that his answer will not be anything less than what I prayed. And I am eager to see how he answers that prayer more fully than I could have ever imagined.