When his oldest son was diagnosed with severe autism, pastor Jason Hague found himself trapped, stuck between perpetual sadness and a lower, safer kind of hope. This is the common struggle for those of us walking through the Land of Unanswered Prayer. Life doesn’t look the way we expected, so we seek to protect ourselves from further disappointment. But God has a third path for us, beyond sadness or resignation: it is the way of aching joy. It’s a grace to welcome Jason to the farm’s front porch today…
My son Jack was two when my friend Nathan made an offhand comment: “You know, I don’t think I’ve ever actually made eye contact with Jack.”
The observation puzzled me at first. Really? Was Jack becoming distant?
I thought over it and became further unsettled.
He wasn’t becoming distant. He had already been distant for months.
He wasn’t just avoiding Nathan’s eyes; he was avoiding everyone’s eyes.
Most of us take eye contact for granted. It’s such an easy reflex, we can’t imagine how precious it really is.
Even before sounds can ever form themselves into words, words into sentences, and sentences into sentiments, eye contact is the primary medium of interpersonal understanding. For a dad and his two-year-old mini-me, it is the bridge to relationship itself.
Losing that bridge was catastrophic to me.
It was the first stab of the knife, and the cut went deeper than I could have ever thought possible. I was too immature, at that time, to think beyond that one form of connection. All I knew was it hurt.
We didn’t know much about autism then, but people began whispering the word. We did a little research, but since we didn’t see all the symptoms we read about, we dismissed the possibility.
“He’s just a late bloomer,” my wife and I decided. It became our little mantra. He was fine. He would come around.
It was my own praying mother who put a crack in my defenses. She did it in an email that cut straight to the issue:
“Jason, I think Jack has autism and you are in denial.”
I laughed at the words, thus proving her point. In my heart, I think I knew already.
When Jack was three, the diagnosis read “moderate autism.”
At seven, it read “severe.”
Our prayers weren’t working. Jack’s condition was getting worse.
It seemed to me I had two choices: I could either live in perpetual sadness, or I could lower my level of hope.
For ages, I embraced the first option, but it was costly. I became distant and numb, and my family was suffering because of it. I had to pull out of that for all of our sakes.
The only option left, then, was for me to lower my expectations and embrace my new normal in hopes that God might salvage something out of it.
But how could I be satisfied when my son was still distant from me? Why hadn’t he emerged from that dim place? Where were the sunbursts of language? Where was that relationship he was made for? And, dear God, what would happen to him in the tomorrows?
Today, I am still living in the country I fell into: the land of unanswered prayer.
It lies just east of Acceptance and west of Breakthrough.
Maybe you’re here too, living with lingering pains, and with troubles that refuse to resolve.
Maybe there’s an illness. A death. A severed relationship. Whatever it is, it’s not going away, and you want to know why God hasn’t made it better.
Your heart throbs, maybe with anger, maybe with hurt, but almost certainly with disappointment.
Maybe you feel like you’re facing the same choice I did: either you can climb back up to the invisible path of forced smiles, or you can stay on this parched earth and wallow in your broken state.
But of all the false binaries in our modern, angry world, this one might be the most damaging.
Why must we decide between happiness and sorrow, denial and despair, the joy and the aching?
It is a wrong idea that exaggerates both the bright side and the dark: the bright side full of sunshine and the dark side grim as death. The premise requires that we pledge allegiance between two extreme views of the world, two straw men that can offer nothing more than safe, intellectual predictability.
But the sighs of safety and predictability are such small prizes.
What if there was a third way forward that offered more than mere predictability?
The way is out there. And it does, indeed, offer much more.
In fact, there are treasures waiting to be found. God promised this through His prophet Isaiah: “And I will give you treasures hidden in the darkness—secret riches. I will do this so you may know that I am the LORD, the God of Israel, the one who calls you by name” (Isaiah 45:3, nlt).
On this journey with Jack, I have found treasures in my darkness, and the greatest of them all was this: aching joy.
The Lord taught me how to sigh in pain, how to weep in gladness, and how to trust during days of hope deferred.
It was not an easy road to walk. It still isn’t easy, and it isn’t safe.
Rather, it is a confounding country full of myths and mirages. Here, faith resembles denial, settledness looks like surrender, and hope is the scariest creature of all.
If you are with me here in this land, you know all about discouragement.
But look up, friend. The path before us is paved with secret riches.
To embrace it is to embrace the terrifying tension of God’s inaugurated but unfinished Kingdom: the already and the not yet, the treasure in the field, costing us everything but giving us even more.
It is the place where I thank God for my son, who is enough, and in the next breath, I beg God for more.
The road ahead is dangerous but not barren.
There is sustenance here, because Christ Himself is here, and He goes before us.
He walked this path already, this Man of Sorrows, and endured all that we must endure and more.
But He did it all for the joy set before Him.
In the land of unanswered prayer, we follow His lead.
He does not hover above us on the winds of false expectations.
Rather, He stands next to us with His own humble scars, beckoning us forward.
Jason Hague lives in Junction City, Oregon, where he serves as the associate pastor for Christ’s Center Church and chief storyteller for his wife and five children. He writes and speaks regularly on the intersection of faith, fatherhood, and autism, and he chronicles his own journey using prose, poetry, and video at JasonHague.com.
In the way of aching joy Christ Himself is with us, beckoning us toward the treasures hidden in the darkness.
Aching Joy: Following God Through the Land of Unanswered Prayer is an honest psalm of hope for those walking between pain and promise: the aching of a broken world and the beauty of a loving God. In this place, rather than trying to dodge the pain, we choose to feel it all―and to see where Jesus is in the midst of struggle. And because we make that choice, we feel all the good that comes with it, too.
[ Our humble thanks to NavPress for their partnership in today’s devotion ]