When I was in elementary school and middle school and found myself faced with something unpleasant or frightening, my nighttime prayers became simple and short:
“God, please fix this.”
It was a child’s prayer, originating from a young and simple faith. At the time, though I didn’t realize it then, I associated good circumstances and blessing with God’s approval, love, and affection. And the problems I prayed about, though they seemed significant at the time, were startlingly mundane: a boy who didn’t notice me, a trip I didn’t want to take, a test I was dreading.
Then I grew up.
And part of the process of growing up in faith is that recognizing the world is full of problems that are more than mundane: death, tragedy, terror, sickness. And part of the process of growing up in faith is also recognizing that God does not always step in to fix it. Good people die in awful ways. Unspeakable tragedies occur around the world. Sickness ravages and destroys.
We have staked our life, our afterlife, and our belief on a fundamentally good God who assures us He loves us enough to give up everything, even His son. And we also live in a world of, at times, unspeakable sadness and sorrow. It is at this juncture that Tish Harrison Warren’s book Prayer In the Night rests, inviting the reader to contemplate theodicy: in layman’s terms, why a good God permits bad things to happen.
Warren, Anglican priest and author of Liturgy of the Ordinary, writes Prayer in the Night from grim experience. After a move to a new city, she loses her father and then experiences two miscarriages. In the harrowing story that opens the text, she describes one of these miscarriages: her husband rushes her, hemorrhaging, to the hospital, where she begs him in the middle of the medical chaos to recite the Compline prayer with her.
That prayer anchors the text and becomes the central crux around which Warren’s meditations on the problem of sorrow, grief, and pain revolve, and it is worth reprinting in full here:
Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake.
This book offers no easy answers. In fact, as Warren points out, the church has never had an easy answer to the question of suffering, and accepts the problem of pain and evil as a mystery of faith. She notes:
“…millions of the faithful have long held stubbornly to this antimony: God is good and powerful, and terrible things regularly happen in the world. The church has always known this paradox, but instead of resolving its tension, it has let it persist. We have left this chord humming in dissonance for thousands of years, always believing that it will only be resolved when God himself sounds the final consonant note.”
Solving the problem isn’t the point. We do not know why God permits suffering, Warren acknowledges, but we know that God suffers with us—that He, as she puts it, does not spare bad things from happening even to God. That our experience of suffering does, in ways that perhaps nothing else can, work on our spirit to fundamentally change us. And that we are encouraged and permitted as believers to lament suffering, death, sickness, and pain, to acknowledge it as evidence of the fundamental not-rightness of the world, and to cry out to God to deliver the fullness of promised redemption. That we should, as believers, learn to grieve well, and that grief is necessary to enduring pain.
There are, of course, a lot of books on theodicy. But Warren’s excels both because of her gentle, precise tone and because of her focus on deep spiritual formation as fundamental to our endurance of the experience of suffering. For Warren, the Compline prayer in particular serves as a way of praying through pain when she has no words; the prayer carries her when grief has worn her out. Her book is an argument that believers need strong spiritual formation in prayer and Scripture to survive in such times. After all, as she puts it:
“A lot of what appears as kindness or patience or holiness in my life is fueled by good health, energy, and simple pleasures. When these are taken away, it’s clear that I am not that kind or patient after all. I just didn’t have back pain.”
The prayers we learn, the Scriptures we commit to heart, the church itself is part of what carries us through seasons of long darkness. Without these supports, Christians run the risk of being crushed: this is a vital message to a world where modern Christian formation tends toward the shallow, shiny, and new. What we do every week in church, every day in our prayers, matters profoundly to the times of darkness ahead and how we will be able to endure them. In this way, perhaps surprisingly, Prayer in the Night is a callback to Liturgy of the Ordinary. What we do, as believers, determines who we will become. We are products of our spiritual influences both for good and for ill.
I have long loved Warren as a writer. I enjoy her articles in Christianity Today and Liturgy of the Ordinary was, in many ways, a book that altered much of my daily approach to my faith. That Prayer in the Night would be well-written, powerful, and thought-provoking doesn’t surprise me. But what does is that reading the book took me back to elementary-school me and my desperate prayers: “God, please fix this.”
Even then, without knowing it, I was learning the language of lament. And as an adult, though I accept and understand that we live in a world plagued with sickness, suffering, and death, Warren’s book is a reminder that the desperation we feel summed up in the cry of fix it, Lord! is God-born and holy, a recognition that not all is as it should be, that we can and should lament what has and will be broken, knowing that it will one day be set right.
Toward the end of the book, Warren invokes the phrase per crucem ad lucem—“through the cross to the light.” Even in the midst of sickness, pain, and death, God delivers wells of joy, deep wonders, miracles, beauty. While we lament, we can also celebrate all that is good. This is the tension that believers hold, recognizing the tensions of where we stand: redeemed by Christ, but waiting, breath held, with all the rest of creation for the fullness of redemption to be realized.
“Fix it, Lord.” Per crucem ad lucem—through the cross, He has, and will. And as believers, we set our face to forward to that light while we stumble forward in the dark, waiting for all the good we know will one day come in fullness. Suffering before joy. Darkness before morning. But the dawn will come.
Will we ever understand this problem of pain? I’m not sure. But Warren posits in the text that eventually, like Job, one look at the face of God will tell us everything we need to know. And in the meantime, to be loved by God in our suffering—to never be left alone in it—and to be accompanied by Him in our suffering is everything we need to keep going.
This book is worth your while whether you’re walking through a season of darkness or have yet to do so. There is nothing trite about it, no platitudes, nothing that shrugs off the struggle believers may face. But it is, at the same time, a deeply healing and hopeful read. As such, it embodies perfectly the paradox Warren discusses throughout: that beauty, life, love, and joy can coexist alongside of sickness, death, sadness and grief. And I suspect that it, alongside Philip Yancey’s Disappointment with God, will be a book that I recommend to believers struggling through darkness for a long, long time.