*Editor’s note: this post was originally published here on 6/27/2011.
Dear Father John, How can I know what the will of God is in my life? I have been suffering physically for almost a year. I have been praying for healing and others have been praying for me. How do I know if it is God’s will that I continue suffering? I don’t know whether to keep on praying for healing or to just accept this suffering as God’s will. I pray that I may know His will but so far can’t figure out what it is.
After covering the basic ideas regarding God’s will in our previous post, we can now answer your question specifically.
How Long Is Too Long?
Your first question, then, can be answered like this: You can know the will of God in your life through the commandments and the responsibilities of your calling (God’s indicative will), and through the circumstances outside of your control that God permits (God’s permissive will). The physical suffering you are facing is clearly a circumstance that seems out of your control; it would most likely fit into the category of God’s permissive will.
Your second question, though, is harder to answer. How long should you pray to be delivered from this suffering? A few reflections may help you have greater peace in this difficult dilemma.
First, praying to be delivered from suffering is fine. It is one of the fruitful responses to suffering, because through that prayer we exercise our faith, hope, and love for God, along with the precious virtues of humility and perseverance. Jesus prayed for deliverance in Gethsemane. St Paul prayed to be delivered from the “thorn in his flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7). But, this prayer of petition should always be offered with a condition: “Lord, let me be healed of this affliction, if it be your will.” We have to trust that if his answer to our prayer is “no” or “not yet,” that answer flows from his infinite love and wisdom, even if we don’t particularly like it.
Accepting God’s Current Answer
Second, as long as God has not healed you, either through a miracle or through the natural, prudent steps that you have taken (medical attention, for example), we know that he is still permitting your suffering. In that sense, it is his permissive will for you to continue bearing this cross. So, for now, this is part of God’s will for you.
I say “part” because God’s indicative will still apply. Even in the midst of our sufferings, we must strive to remember that by following the commandments and fulfilling the responsibilities of our state in life, we are glorifying God, building his Kingdom, and following Christ. We should try to avoid letting our crosses blind us to the integral picture of our Christian discipleship (which includes continued participation in the Sacraments, prayer, and loving others as God has loved us).
Learning to Live with Mystery
Third, on a very practical note, it is not always easy to know when to stop praying for a particular petition. In the Gospel, Jesus exhorts us to “pray continually and never lose heart” (Luke 18:1), and even tells us a couple of parables to illustrate the point (see Luke 18 and Luke 11). He also promises: “Ask and you shall receive” (Matthew 7:7). And yet, St. Paul had the experience of asking for the thorn in his flesh to be removed – repeatedly – and God did not give him what he asked for.
There is a mystery here. St Augustine explains that God sometimes refrains from giving us the specific thing we ask for because he wants to give us something better; he wants to respond to a deeper desire from which the specific petition flows.
Learning from St. Paul and a Practical Tip
Perhaps in your case, St. Paul’s example can be helpful. He kept asking for the thorn in his flesh to be removed until he received this answer from God: “My grace is enough for you; my power is at its best in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). With that answer, he no longer felt a need to ask for healing.
As long as you feel in your heart the desire to be healed of your affliction, continue to bring your petition to the Lord. But in order to avoid becoming obsessed with or confused by the painful situation and God’s mysterious response, perhaps it would be helpful to make your petition in the form of an established devotion. For example, you can make the Nine First Fridays devotion for this intention. Or you could do a novena to St. Pio Pietralcina or to Our Lady of Good Remedy during the first nine days of every month. By circumscribing your petition for healing within an established devotion of some kind, you can be at peace that you are doing your part (persevering and not losing heart), while not letting your struggle disturb or dominate all the other aspects of your Christian discipleship.
You can be assured that I will join my prayers to yours, that God’s will be done, and that you find the peace that comes from God’s embrace even as you share in the pain of his Cross.