When I was seven years old my uncle Gary traveled to Púcuro, Panama to film a video for three American New Tribes Missions families. Dave and Nancy Mankins, Rick and Patti Tenenoff, and Mark and Tania Rich were living in the tiny village near the Panama-Colombia border to teach the Kuna people there about God. This was a life-long mission of love, in which the families worked together to create a written alphabet, a dictionary, and translate the Bible into their own language. They taught Bible lessons, and helped the people in whatever ways they could. My uncle documented their efforts, and returned home.

Two weeks later Dave, Rick, and Mark were kidnapped by members of the leftist guerrilla group, the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarios de Colombia). Wars (even guerrilla wars) cost money, and one of the ways the FARC financed their war was by kidnapping people and holding them for ransom. Foreigners, including Americans, often made attractive kidnapping targets for the FARC because they were likely to have families, employers, or organizations with access to money who might be able to pay hefty sums for their return.

However, many missionary organizations maintain policies against paying ransoms for kidnapped members. Their reasoning behind this is that it increases the kidnapping risk for missionaries everywhere, essentially putting a price on their heads. If the ransom is paid today for this group, perhaps it’ll get paid tomorrow for the next group. The logic is not flawed, and because of policies like this many missionaries have likely avoided being kidnapped.

Of course, it hasn’t stopped all missionaries from being kidnapped. Others have been kidnapped before that and since then, but because of my family connection – my uncle having been with them so recently – it hit closer to home. In addition to hearing about these men and seeing the sense of loss that my uncle felt, there was the realization that if the kidnapping had just occurred two weeks earlier, or if my uncle had been there two weeks later, we would likely have been grieving his disappearance as well. Furthermore, my father (who now works in full-time missions with my mother) often traveled on short-term missions trips, and often to similarly dangerous places. It was a somber feeling.

At seven years old I had recently begun saying my prayers every night. Just before bed my father would read a few chapters from the Bible to my brother and I, then we would say our prayers. I decided to pray for the kidnapped missionaries. I prayed for them every night.

In those days I had a habit of adding something to the prayer list and keeping it there for a long time. I essentially had a few main things that I prayed in a specific order, and might have added other things ad hoc here and there. Over the years the list changed, but one thing did not change, and that was my prayer for the missionaries who had been kidnapped. I certainly did not think about them all the time, but I thought about them a lot.

In John 14:12-14 Jesus says,

Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.

This passage seems pretty clear: if you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.

In Matthew 17:20 Jesus says,

…if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.

When I prayed I believed in God’s power to rescue those missionaries, and believed that He would do it. I was certain.

I prayed for them for over eight years. But in September 2001 New Tribes Missions concluded, based on the testimonies of multiple FARC guerrillas, that the three American missionaries had been shot by FARC guerrillas as Colombian troops were closing in on their position in July 1996.

They were dead, and had been for five years.

Many people face challenges that test their faith. For me this was the first, and maybe the greatest one I ever faced. Why? Why? Why? I found it difficult for me to articulate much more than that. For years I had prayed with all faith, that God would rescue the people that had marched forth in His name. But they were killed, and not only that, but I had continued to pray for their rescue for five years after the fact. Why?

I wrestled with the question for years, and faced questions you may have asked: Is God just? Is God good? These questions led to more specific questions: If God created everything, and he had the option and ability to create it however he pleased, could He have not found a way to give us free will and ensure that we chose not to sin? For a time I lost sleep over these questions.

But at some point I stopped wrestling, and simply let go. I knew that I could not answer these questions, and I could let that stand in the way of my faith or not. I chose to believe.

Perhaps I am inadequate to explain it, but when you let go of yourself, and cling to God, an enormous weight falls away. In 1 Samuel 26:23, David said to King Saul,

The LORD rewards every man for his righteousness and his faithfulness.

In this case, I believe God rewarded me in accordance with my need. He settled my restless heart and mind, and helped me to better understand what is written in his word. You see, when we read passages like John 14:12-14, telling us that if we ask Jesus anything in his name, that He’ll do it, we’re quick see it from a worldly perspective. What should I ask for from Jesus? Wealth? Health? Good looks? A strong body? Friends? A big house? A better education? A great job?

“If you ask anything in my name, I will do it.”

But it’s easy to take scripture out of context, and for our own purposes. It happens a lot. In fact, In Matthew 4:7, Satan himself quoted Psalms 91:11-12 to Jesus when he said, “He will command his angels concerning you, and on their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.”

Context matters. All of scripture is written in the context of God’s will. John 14:12-14 (and other verses like these) were not written in order to teach us that God is a genie, waiting to fulfill our every desire. They were written to equip us to know, love, and serve God according to His will.

Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.

The works that Jesus does! Jesus spoke the truth to thousands. He washed the feet of His disciples. He gave up riches, and power, and honor on earth to serve a higher, heavenly purpose. He was betrayed by a follower, falsely accused by those who were supposed to be serving Him, and assaulted by foreign soldiers, and hung on a cross to die. Jesus performed miracles, yes, he turned water into wine, and fed people, and healed people. But his greatest miracle was sacrificing himself at the will of the Father, making way for the Spirit, and offering salvation to everyone.

Praying for the rescue of those missionaries was not frivolous, and was arguably well-intentioned. But, as with all humans, I could not see the whole picture.

For many years I knew nothing else about the fate of those missionaries. From the little I had heard, it sounded like they had simply died for no reason. But that wasn’t the whole story.

In 2004, a former FARC Commander named Alberto came forward to a missionary familiar with the kidnapped men and confessed to having been one of the men assigned to guarding them. It was not clear from his testimony if he physically killed them, but he certainly felt complicit and culpable in their deaths. But he had more to say. Due to the testimony of Dave, Rick, and Mark he had become saved. Those men had stayed joyful, and patient, and loving, and kind despite their hardships. The day they were killed they knew they were going to die, and they were not scared. They knew they were going to a better place, to meet Jesus. Alberto and the other guards with him accepted Christ.

Rick Tenenoff’s wife, Patti, wrote a few years ago about the Kuna church:

We missionaries planted the seed of God’s provision of eternal salvation through the death, burial and resurrection of His son Jesus. After the kidnapping, some Kuna believers took on the task of watering the seeds in the fertile Kuna soil. A Kuna couple from a different village moved to Pucuro and continued teaching the Word. It hasn’t been an easy time, but it has been profitable in that there are many Kuna now trusting in the finished work of Christ.

I don’t claim to understand God’s ways, but I do make this claim: God’s way is greater than ours.

It is not wrong to pray for what you want, or for what you need. But I don’t think that’s the main point in prayer. Jesus said, pray then like this:

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.

Praise to God, and asking for His will come first. Prayer is an opportunity for us to praise Him, and acknowledge his sovereignty in our lives. After all, He knows what is best for us (and everyone else) far more than we do.

Whatever you’re wrestling with today, God can handle it. He may not handle it how you want Him to, or how you would expect him to, but He will handle it.

 

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