Always?

Back in the day, occasionally someone in Sunday school would look up at the teacher in all innocence and ask, “How come God doesn’t answer my prayers?”

“God always answers prayer,” the teacher would glibly say. “Sometimes He says yes; sometimes He says no; sometimes He says wait.”

That little Sunday school chestnut has always bothered me. It used to bother me because that’s not what we mean when we talk about answered prayer. When people talk about answered prayer, they mean that they prayed for Aunt Martha’s gout to get better, and it got better. If it got worse instead, nobody said, “See? God does answer prayer! (He just said no!)”

So I always thought it was a little disingenuous, a slippery redefining of the terms in order to avoid having to answer the hard question of how come God clearly heard Johnny’s request that his parents would not get divorced, and — as far as any of us could tell — just decided to ignore it.

*****
I still harbor that same objection, but now this whole “God always answers prayer” schtick bothers me for a different reason entirely: the people who say it don’t really believe it either.

Suppose I ask you for a lollipop. You have the same three possible responses:
“Sure; here you go.”
“Sorry, no.”
“Hang on a minute.”

Suppose you do nothing, and say nothing to me, even though I ask again, and then once more. Would I say that you answered me? Or would I say that you didn’t answer me, even though I asked you three times?

Some of you see where I’m going here, and I can already hear the protests. “I would be answering you in my actions.”

Really? How do I tell the difference between “no” and “wait”? I can’t, except by waiting until you eventually — in ten minutes or ten years — give me a lollipop, or until I die, whichever comes first. Not the most kind and helpful possible responses, huh?

If you treated me like that, even if it was just over something as insignificant as a request for a lollipop, you’d be a jerk. How much worse if it was over a request for a job, for healing my wife, or something else equally life-altering?

But how many of you think God is exactly like that?

Jesus said, “If you, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father give good gifts to those who ask him?” Most of us don’t believe that God is much better than an earthly father; we believe He is incomparably worse — the sort of dad who, when we ask for a fish, would give us a viper, make sure we got bit, and then tell us that it will improve our character. We send dads like that to jail. The early Christians used to mock the pagans for worshiping gods that indulged in adultery, incest, rape, theft and every sort of debauchery while at the same time disapproving of those behaviors in human society. We have become like those ancient pagans, rather than like our fathers who mocked them.

*****
I have good news though. God is not a bit like we think He is. He really does answer prayer. For example, when Paul asked God to take away his thorn in the flesh, God answered him: “My grace is sufficient for you; My strength is perfected in your weakness.” That’s what our loving Father sounds like when He says “No.”

Know what it sounds like when He says, “Wait”? It isn’t the silent treatment; it sounds like “Wait.”

The question is, do we listen?

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4 Responses to Always?

  1. Jim Reitman says:

    God wants relationship—just like we crave relationship, even when we feel like hiding when others within the body of Christ have offended or hurt us. In every context (especially Johannine) where the Scriptures enjoin us to ask for whatever we want, it is in the context of relationship and mission. God is “looking for a few good [wo]men,” to take over “on mission” where Jesus “left off” before he returned to the Father: “As the Father has sent me, so send I you. And he breathed on them the Holy Spirit.”

    James is particularly insulting when he says we don’t get because we don’t ask, and then turns right around and says we ask but with wrong motives. The whole backdrop to his injunction is a prevailing environment of materialism, consumerism, and most of all, utterly deplorable relational integrity within the body of Christ (cf. 2:1).

    I’m preaching today on John 17. As a people, we just don’t do “oneness” very well. I think the “listening” problem you have surfaced is a very real one, but it is in the main attributable to the fact that we really don’t deep down believe that we truly need one another, even as—at our core—we are desperately craving the kind of relationship Jesus already has with the Father. We don’t “abide” very well, if at all: we don’t “abide” each other very well, we don’t really “abide” in Christ very well, and we don’t “abide” very well in the unpleasant situations on the mission in which God promised us that He would give us whatever we ask.

  2. Tim Nichols says:

    Jim,

    Beautifully put.

    In the idiom through which God has been teaching me of late, those who mourn will be comforted, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled.

    But we don’t mourn. We deny, get mad, bargain, self-condemn, self-isolate, and eventually resign ourselves to the new state of affairs, all without ever really mourning. We don’t face the loss squarely and live in it, in order to let patience have its perfect work. This is because all those “stages of grief” are things *we* can do, while genuine lament and mourning means leaning on God in order to face the raw reality that we can’t do anything.

    Likewise, we don’t hunger. In the hunger, God is humbling us, preparatory to feeding us with bread we did not know nor did our fathers know, so that we might finally learn that we get life not by fulfilling our appetites, but by every word that falls from God’s lips. But we hate being humbled, and so we short-circuit the process by trying to turn stones into bread.

    Another one — we don’t wait on God. If it seems that God isn’t speaking to us, we make Him talk by doing exegesis of His written word, rather than asking Him why we don’t hear His voice.

    We may tell ourselves that these avoidance behaviors are signs of maturity, and in an odd way, they are — which is why we are tempted to use them in the first place. But they are hallmarks of maturity in the same way that having a sexual relationship is a hallmark of maturity. In its time and place, it really is a potent demonstration of adulthood — but a 12-year-old running around screwing everything that walks is not thereby a grown-up.

    We are to act on God’s behalf in the world, and He is very interested into developing us into the sorts of wise agents who can act on His behalf in the world. But close, deep communion with Him is how we get there, and no amount of faking it will get us closer to real maturity.

  3. Jim Reitman says:

    . . . and they got on my case for using “R” rated movies as sermon illustrations. 🙂

    Amen, brother.

  4. Tim Nichols says:

    Ha! Wait for next week’s post. Wrote it yesterday.

    It’s not particularly raw as regards illustrations — it’s about the strictures we visit upon ourselves in church, and the results of same.

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