After serving 28 years as an Air Force chaplain, I can tell you that troubled service members didn’t always come to see me on their own volition.

Occasionally a supervisor would send the servicemember to my office in hopes of avoiding a career-threatening visit to mental health. That arrangement usually worked well. However, a young reservist who came to my office one summer day seemed bent on sabotaging the arrangement.

As she looked around for the right place to sit, she continuously mumbled the same complaint: “My incantations just aren’t working.”

I wanted to say, “And neither is your attempt to shock the Protestant chaplain,” but instead I invited the sergeant to sit across from me and encouraged her to say more.

Over the next 30 minutes she revealed she was a cutter. If you’re not familiar with cutting, it’s an attempt to cope with emotional pain by deliberately cutting one’s body.

As a practicing Wiccan, she told me of her failure to cast the right spell that would stop her cutting urges. Adding to her frustration was her mother, who was threatening to evict her unless she renounced her religion.

“I still practice,” she whispered. “I just keep my crystals and candles hidden.”

Lest you assume the woman’s plight was because of her religious beliefs, you should know that I heard her story echoed in an Apostolic woman’s the very next week.

I was making my rounds as a chaplain in a Northern California hospital when I met the woman, in her early 30s, who was suffering from a life-shortening disease. In soft sobs, she told me how the Apostolic faith she’d adopted from her parents was failing her.

“My parents blame me for not getting well. They accuse me of praying with a lack of faith. They say I’m not believing God will heal me.”

I was hearing the same motif. The woman used different words than my Wiccan visitor used, but she was expressing the same thought.

Both women were voicing their doubts as to whether they were using the right formula for their prayer or spell. Both were seeing their beliefs ricochet off reality’s hardened wall and hit them square between the eyes.

It’s a dilemma people have when they only see two explanations for unanswered prayer. They either believe there’s something wrong with their faith or there is something wrong with them.

The cutter thought there was something wrong with her, so she kept cutting. But as the Christian woman unfolded her story, I heard her explore a third option.

“Maybe,” she said, “there’s still a way to accept what’s happening to me and to enjoy the life that I have remaining. Maybe that’s a better miracle than what my parents are praying for.”

Something happened at that point in the conversation. She wondered aloud what it might be like if she lived her faith, not as a vehicle for getting what she wanted, but as a way to unlock the story of who she was. Perhaps it was possible, she thought, that God wouldn’t be manipulated through a formula or spell; maybe prayer is a way of healing and expressing our hurts to God.

Sadly, the Wiccan sergeant path led her to some poor conclusions about her self-image — those that would lead to her transfer to a mental health facility.

The Apostolic woman, however, went home with much improved spiritual health. She finally saw a God whose love isn’t canceled out by our disappointments in Him. She saw a God who promises to remain present in our pain, even when things may seem out of control.