Unanswered prayer: a thorn in theology’s side

Every branch of knowledge has its ongoing problems. Philosophy has the free-will problem, economics has the gambler’s fallacy, physics has the problem of why there are three space dimensions but only one time dimension. Sociology, mathematics, astronomy – they all have a proverbial thorn in their respective sides.

Theology is no different; it has its thorns as well. One of them is the problem of prayer. If God exists and knows all things, why pray at all? Won’t he do the good thing, whether I ask him or not? And more troublesome still, if I ask him to do a thing that is clearly good – heal a child of some awful disease, for example – why does he sometimes not do it?

I ran into the problem of prayer not long after I became a Christian. My grandfather, who lived five doors down, was dying. I had spent many Friday nights at his house, and spent many Saturday mornings watching westerns with him on TV. But my grandfather didn’t just watch westerns, he was a western. He was born in the Indian Territory in 1889, the year of the Oklahoma Land Rush. He rode horses and worked the oil fields and followed the harvest. He had fired my imagination and filled my young mind with images of the old west.

And in 1973 he was dying. I prayed earnestly that God would heal him but he didn’t and I couldn’t understand why. A few years later when our first son was born prematurely, his lung collapsed and he was moved to the neo-natal unit of a larger hospital. When I asked his doctor if he would be alright, he answered: “I can’t tell you that.” I prayed earnestly again, and our son recovered and grew into a strong, intelligent and kind man.

Why answer one request and not the other? And why, if a request is clearly meant to bring good – to land a job that will pay the bills, or to overthrow the dictator who kills innocent men, women and children – does God sometimes refuse to answer?

It would be silly to think that I could solve a problem over which thoughtful men and women have puzzled for generations in the space of a column. I hope rather to point in the direction of some possible answers, for those who care to explore further on their own.

The problem of unanswered prayer might be somewhat alleviated by considering God’s purpose for making a world in which people experience need and are compelled to pray. Answers may not be all – or even primarily – what God is after. The chief benefit of prayer might be that it brings God’s children into communication with the Father who loves them and wants them to know and love him.

That idea that God is a father is also helpful. If we only talk about prayer in religious or metaphysical terms, its simplicity and value remain hidden from us. As soon as we realize that prayer is a child’s request to a loving Father, a new outlook on prayer becomes possible. When a child asks a parent for something he or she really wants, even a good thing like a snack, the loving parent may say no because there are other goods the child needs more at the time.

A child may ask for five dollars to go the matinee. The movie may be a good one, but dad says no because there is a better good to be had. He may be building the child’s confidence and self-esteem by having him earn his spending money. While the movie is a good that might last for two hours, a work ethic is a good that can last a lifetime.

A loving father cares about his child’s entire life, not just one incident, and so sometimes he refuses a heartfelt request. This was the Apostle Paul’s experience. He repeatedly asked for relief from a terrible burden, and God repeatedly said no. Yet he gave him another and greater good that helped him bear the burden, a gift the apostle did not ask for, but came to cherish.

As soon as we see prayer as a request from a child to his or her father, we realize how likely it is that Father knows things and longs for things that his child cannot yet understand. Sure, he will sometimes say no; not because he doesn’t care, but because he does.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 1/24/15

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Freedom of speech is an opportunity, not an excuse

On the same day that twelve people were killed in the attack on the French satirical weekly paper Charlie Hebdo (Charlie Weekly), I heard a commentator interviewed on National Public Radio say that people “are going to, you know, perhaps hesitate for a moment, think about security considerations. And that has a chilling effect on free speech…”

I had to stop and think about stopping and thinking. Was this commentator saying that hesitating for a moment and thinking about security concerns (or anything else – people’s feelings, for example) was somehow am unwarranted limitation on free speech?

The killings at Charlie Hebdo were wicked and inexcusable, and decent people everywhere must say so. But I very much doubt they were an attack on free speech. The murderers were not plotting to curtail free speech but to take revenge and, perhaps, as The Christian Science Monitor conjectured, to radicalize other French Muslims.

Charlie Hebdo’s free speech, exercised week after week, was rude, crude and intended to offend. While I defend their right to free speech, even if it is offensive, I also exercise my right to criticize what they say. Je ne suis pas Charlie – “I am not Charlie.”

Making fun of people, mocking their values and beliefs, and offending their sensibilities is not a way to promote positive social change. Such behavior betrays an arrogant conceit and a narrow outlook. It may be necessary to allow people to speak in such ways, even necessary to defend their right to speak like this, but that does not mean we approve of or condone what they say.

As a student of Jesus, I have learned that speech – what we say and how and why we say it – is of the utmost importance. Indeed, Jesus taught us that “by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” Freedom of speech is a political concern, and a vitally important one, at that. But the truthfulness of speech, and the love in which it is spoken, is a spiritual concern that is of even greater import.

Speech is, by its nature, revelatory; that is, our speech reveals who we are on the inside, under the layers of social sediment and public pretense. Jesus explained, “Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.” As such, speech, when properly understood, expresses a person’s heart – his or her values, hurts, and commitments.

This is especially true of unguarded speech. A preacher’s unplanned remarks will likely reveal more about who he is than his carefully crafted sermons. A politician’s speech on the Senate floor may hide his true designs, but his speech on the sofa in his den will reveal them.

Because Jesus understood how this works, he said that “men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken.” It’s the careless, unplanned words that most clearly reveal character.

Jesus taught his students to refrain from using speech to manipulate others into a course of action, even if that course of action would prove helpful to the other person. He disallowed the use of rejection or condemnation as a means of forcing people into doing the right thing.

Jesus also cautioned his students against trying to talk their way to success. For many people, speech is nothing but a tool to get what they want, and they know all the tricks of the trade – rhetorical devises, exaggeration, sales techniques – to make that happen. But Jesus says, “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.”

A Christian’s speech ought to build people up, not tear them down. St. Paul said, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up …” For the Christian, freedom of speech is not an excuse to belittle people but an opportunity to help them, build them up, and make the world a better place.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 1/17/15

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Salvation-lite: Great Benefits…Less Responsibility?

It was once quite common to hear people say, “I was saved in Vacation Bible School,” or “I was saved in a small group Bible study.” What did they mean by that? Saved from what? Saved for what? In what sense saved?

There was a time when the church employed salvation language frequently, but in the mainline church that changed years ago and has, more recently, been changing in evangelical circles, too. Salvation-talk is out of fashion. No one these day wants to say, “I’m saved.” It seems self-focused and more than a little politically incorrect.

And yet the Bible is full of salvation talk. Salvation is seen as our most pressing need and as God’s great concern. That may be difficult for us to understand because in our time the breadth and richness of salvation has been drastically understated. Breadth and richness don’t sell in a culture that produces lite beer, lite soft drinks, lite computer software and lite radio stations. We want to reduce the calories, reduce the complexity and reduce the effort of just about everything, including salvation. So we have salvation lite: Great Benefits…Less Responsibility.

What is salvation lite? It’s what’s left of the rich biblical teaching about God’s salvation after cutting everything from it that is not about me. When that’s been done, the only thing left to salvation is a free trip to heaven when I die. That’s salvation lite.

I once urged a young man to give his life to God and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. He told me that there would always be time for that later, and he was planning to do a lot of living until then. When he was old, he said, “Like in my seventies, then I’ll get religion; then I’ll get saved.”

Where did he get the idea that he could put God on hold for fifty years? What made him think that salvation was unnecessary until he came to death’s door? Sadly, his reasoning was based on the salvation lite teaching he had heard from church people. In his mind – and in most people’s minds – salvation remains inoperative and irrelevant until one dies. It is a boarding pass to be produced at death so that you can fly to the heavenly skies.

Such an idea of salvation would have been incomprehensible to Peter, Paul and the rest of the early church. For them, salvation was rooted in God’s actions in history, bloomed at the coming of Christ and will come to fruition at his return. They understood that, though God’s great work of salvation is unfolding all around us, salvation is not our personal property. Individuals may and must be saved, but that doesn’t mean salvation is individualistic.

In recent years our nation has gone through a spiritual earthquake, but reclining in her spiritual La-Z-Boy, the Church has hardly noticed. We are in the midst of a mass exodus from the Church and from Christianity – perhaps ours is the time of apostasy to which the Apostle Paul referred. (According to the last census, the number of people claiming no religious affiliation was the fastest growing religious category among Americans. It also showed that over one-third of the people who now call themselves irreligious are under the age of 30.)

I’m sure there are a variety of reasons for this apostasy, but one of the main ones is this: the salvation offered by the Church seems to a growing number of people to have nothing to do with real life. It seems completely irrelevant. It hasn’t even occurred to them that salvation might be important to their relationships and their work and their satisfaction in life.

But that is because they don’t understand salvation. They think of it as a boarding pass for a trip they don’t want to take to a place they don’t care to see. In reality, salvation is a rich, satisfying (and eternal) life – “more and better life than they ever dreamed of” (John 10:10, the message).

First Published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, January 10, 2015

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We need the Answerer more than the answers

Our church has been on an emotional roller coaster in the last few weeks. We had three young families, all expecting their first babies within a few days of Christmas. The first of the babies, a beautiful little girl named Christina Rose, had a heartbeat when her family reached the hospital parking lot, but was stillborn. Christina’s family thought that her memorial service message might help other families grieving lost. What follows are excerpts from that message.

“Christina Rose spent nine months with Zach and Kathryn, and since the day they first realized she was with them, she’s been the biggest thing in their lives. These were exciting days, filled with anticipation. They talked to her, probably sang to her and told her she was loved. And Christina was apparently a very social child: when they spoke, she responded. When they sang, she did a jig. And she could kick like Mia Hamm. They may have thought she would be a future soccer star.

“The Kiehnau’s were getting to know their daughter before she was even born. They already had ideas of what her personality was like – the girl had an attitude, waving her arms and kicking her legs when dad came home and dancing around when she heard grandpa’s and grandma’s voices. Kathryn and Zach were beginning to wonder what is was going to be like to raise this little live-wire. And they were not only getting to know their daughter, they were coming to love her more and more, as were their families.

“If you’re like me, you wonder “why?” Why would a loving God let this life be conceived, why would he let Kathryn carry this child for nine months, why would he let Zach and Kathryn give this baby a name and fall in love with her, even before they met her, if he wasn’t going to let her survive her birth?

“Now please understand: I am not suggesting that God is to blame for Christina Rose’s death. He didn’t do this to her – or to you. He is not putting you through this pain because of some secret reason, or even for “your own good” — though nothing can stop him from using even this for good. (He knows from personal experience that even the terrible and unjust death of a dearly loved child – in itself entirely evil – can bring about great good.) But he did not do this to you. Yet we think, even if he didn’t do this, he could have stopped it. There’s the rub. He could have stopped it, and he didn’t. So why?

“The answer to that question – or answers (there may be millions) are beyond our ability to comprehend. But let’s go back to the original question: Why would a loving God let Christina Rose be conceived if he didn’t intend her to survive her birth?

“Framed that way, the question casts doubt on the goodness of God, doesn’t it? But I think it is the wrong way to frame the question, because it grossly misrepresents the situation. Christina Rose did survive her birth. The loving God did not allow her to be conceived and become a human being in order to die but in order to live forever. It’s true – and it is very sad for us – that she is not living here, but she is living.

“So let’s frame the question another way, which I think more accurately represents the situation. Why would a kind and loving God allow Christina to be conceived, even though she wasn’t going to live here on earth? And now the answer leaps out at us: he wanted her to be conceived so that she could be his forever; so that she could live and thrive and become something so magnificent that we cannot yet imagine it. He wanted for her the same thing he wants for all of us: glory and love and joy inexpressible, and not even her death can disrupt his plan. Our path has led through an extended preparation period on earth. Hers did not, yet God created her and us with the same end in mind.

“But why let her spend nine months becoming part of Zach’s and Kathryn’s lives? Why let them fall in love with her, if they were only going to lose her? But they haven’t lost her. They know where she is and they will meet her again. And the next time they meet, it will not be in sorrow but in joy, overflowing joy, joy too great for a human to contain; joy that will spill out of them onto all those around them; joy that will overflow those around them and return to its source in God.

“I think that on the day you first meet her in heaven, you will recognize her. You won’t say, “Is that her? Is that her?” but, “There she is!” And how glorious she will be. Her whole being will radiate joy and gladness and power, so that you will be astonished and filled with wonder and gratitude that God allowed you the great privilege of bringing this glorious creature to life in his world. And you will love her. That love will not be diminished by the intervening years, nor will it be clouded by the grief that accompanied her entrance into the world. You will see her and your heart will leap for joy.

“And she will see you, and she will not say, “Is that them? Is that my mom and dad, and grandmas and grandpas and uncles and aunts?” She will know you. She will honor you – her parents and her family – as God’s chosen instruments through which she came to be. And she will love you. For you too will radiate joy and gladness and power, though you may not be aware of it. And then you and she will fall silent or better yet, find yourself singing – for in that land all that is not silence is music – because you will stand in the presence of Joy himself, shining like the sun and full of gladness and power.

“In that day you will need no more answers. You will have been answered, and your questions will already have been forgotten. I’ve heard people say, “The first thing I’m going to do when I get to heaven is ask God why” – why my daughter died, why my wife left, why he allowed a drunk driver to take my husband; there are all kinds of questions. But the truth is, if we are so graced as to get to heaven, to stand in the presence of Eternal Joy, we will no more think of those questions than a man in his prime agonizes over the difficulties of his time in the womb.

“Because you see, we do not need answers as badly as we need the Answerer. Answers can satisfy our minds and still leave our souls starved and perishing. The Answerer satisfies our souls, comforts us in our grief, and gives us hope. And when we’ve met the Answerer, the strangest thing begins to happen: we, who were insisting upon an answer, actually become his answer. It’s what the apostle had in mind when he wrote about, “the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.” We become the Answerer’s answer to others in their time of suffering.

“All this is because Christ is the answer God spoke to us. His suffering became the source of our comfort. His death becomes the source of our life. On this difficult day I commend you to him, our hope for eternal life and our grace to live this life to the full. Amen.”

 *******************

 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new!” (Revelation 21:3-5a)

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Away – or rather, the way – in a manger

A man asked God how long a million years was to him. God replied, “It’s just like a single second of your time, my child.” So the man asked, “And what about a million dollars?” The Lord replied, “To me, it is just like a single penny.” So the man mustered his courage and said, “Well, Lord, could you spare me just one of your pennies?” And God said, “Certainly, my child; just a second.”

God just doesn’t seem to see things the way we see them, nor does he always do things the way we would like them done. We want our friend to be healed; he is not. We want the bank to come through on that loan; it does not. We want our adult children to live near us; their jobs scatter them throughout the country. Why doesn’t God get with the program?

But the biblical witness, along with the testimony of saints throughout the ages, suggests that God goes about his business in ways we never would. The classic example is Christmas. What was God thinking, sending the world’s savior as a helpless baby, born into a poor, working-class family, stuck in a forgettable village like Bethlehem? It was impractical and it was time-consuming – as any efficiency expert could have told him – and the cost was staggering.

No, if we were rescuing the world from its mess, we would form a committee, begin raising funds, and hire an advertising agency. We would enlist support from government leaders, from intellectuals and from celebrities. We would ask both our propaganda department and our military experts to devise a campaign of “shock and awe” with which to launch our operation.

But God’s ways are not our ways, and every Christmas we are reminded of the fact. If you ever doubt that, just look back to Bethlehem. God obviously wasn’t kidding when he said, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are my ways your ways.”

There is a profound mystery in Christ’s strange arrival on our planet. The mystery is not that God invaded the world. That had long been foretold. People were expecting him. It is not that he came “to do away with sin.” The prophets repeatedly warned that he would. The marvel is that he invaded the world as a baby.

When God came to his world, he came with love, not irresistible force; with grace, not with threats. People had believed for a thousand years that God would do away with sin, but they assumed he would do so by destroying sinners. It’s probably how we would have done it. But not him. He did not come, as he once said, “to condemn the world but to save the world.”

“To save the world.” God’s plan for Jesus was not merely to get people into heaven when they die, but to give people a meaningful way to live now. It was God’s intent (so says St. Peter) to free people from the pointless way of life handed down to them from previous generations; to give their lives meaning and fill them with love.

Yet people continue to pursue empty and pointless lives. They invest their time and energy in accumulating stuff, hoping that it will somehow bring them happiness. The wild rush at Christmas time is just one more expression of humanity’s compulsive attempt to fill its emptiness. Yet when the presents have been put away, people’s souls are often just as empty as the discarded boxes that litter their floors. They have missed the real treasure of Bethlehem.

Bethlehem’s treasure was not a diamond bracelet or a new iPhone, or whatever else this year’s advertisements are trying to convince us we can’t live without. It was not even gold, frankincense or myrrh. Bethlehem’s treasure was packaged in flesh, gift-wrapped in swaddling, and laid in a manger – with your name on the gift card.

When he came to earth, he was not just away in a manger; he was the way in a manger, the way to a meaningful life now as well as a glorious life forevermore. Of all the gifts ever given, this one is the most precious.

First Published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 12/20/2014

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Good thing Jesus isn’t afraid of dirt

In 2013, a record 2 million people visited Bethlehem. It was estimated that there were 75,000 tourists in the Holy Land for the Christmas holiday, and most of them were expected to celebrate Jesus’s birthday in the city where he was born.

Yet a survey taken several years ago listed Bethlehem as the world’s third most disappointing tourist destination, just beating out the Polo Lounge in Hollywood and the Monte Carlo casino in Monaco. Why is it that people find Bethlehem disappointing?

It might be that tourists come with unrealistic expectations. They come, expecting to see something holy or even magical. They find themselves looking for a strange light in the sky and expecting a thrill down the spine, as they reminisce about the silent night that changed the world. That’s what they come looking for, but that’s probably not what they find.

What they find is a noisy town, crowded with pilgrims and secured by armed soldiers. Before they can enter they must pass through a checkpoint, show their passports, and walk through a metal detector. They flock to Bethlehem’s most important site: the Church of the Nativity. But it’s smaller than they expected and divided into Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox sections. Apparently these followers of the Prince of Peace can’t get along with each other.

If tourists find Bethlehem disappointing now, one wonders what ancient travelers must have thought – because the place doesn’t seem to have been all that great when Mary and Joseph were there either. The biblical text suggests it was overcrowded, inhospitable, and (remember the stable) dirty. If Joseph and Mary had submitted a review to TripAdvisor, Bethlehem would have been lucky to get two green dots, and that would only have been because they were generous.

So people are disappointed in spite of Bethlehem’s close connection to Christmas. Or are they disappointed because of it? Christmas is, after all, the most disappointing of the holidays. We expect gifts, we get debt. We want excitement, we get stress. We pray for peace on earth but we get crowds at Walmart. We hope this year’s Christmas gatherings will be characterized by “good will among men,” but once again we get ill will among co-workers and family members.

Could it be that Christmas lets us down because we are looking for the wrong things? I once spent eight days in a remote spot in the Ontario wilderness, a hundred miles north of where the road ends. I went outside almost every night, hoping to see the northern lights as I had seen them once before, full of fire and color. They weren’t there and I was disappointed, even though the sky was magnificent, filled with stars that burned white hot and lit up the night. Because I was expecting one thing, I almost missed another.

Something similar happens at Christmas. We expect Hollywood and miss holiness. We expect presents and ignore God’s presence. We look for gifts but overlook the Gift that came wrapped in human flesh.

Matt Kooi, the Director of Spectrum Ministries in Tijuana, Mexico, once pointed out to me that even if Bethlehem is a disappointment to some tourists, it was the perfect place for Jesus to be born. True, the place was no great shakes when he arrived there, but then, neither were our lives. If dirty, crowded and inhospitable Bethlehem could provide a place for the King of kings to be born, cannot our lives, covered with dirt and crowded with cares and distractions, provide a place for the King of Kings to live?

It’s a good thing Jesus isn’t afraid of dirt.

So why do people keep going back to Bethlehem? What makes that little town a place that people the world over dream of visiting? It’s not its splendor or beauty, nor its great hotels or attractions. For two thousand years its one great attraction has been a person. He gives Bethlehem its meaning, its special beauty. He does the same for our lives.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 12/13/2015

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Are you infected with “solution aversion”?

Duke University psychologists Troy Campbell and Aaron Kay recently published a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that suggests that a person’s deeply held beliefs may alter the way he or she interprets reality.

When Campbell and Kay suggested relatively easy fixes to problems caused by climate change to conservative Republicans, they were likely to agree that global temperatures are rising. But when the proposed solutions involved governmental regulations or threatened the health of the economy, the conservatives were much more likely to deny global warming entirely.

Likewise, when liberal Democrats were presented evidence suggesting that gun ownership reduced the likelihood of violent home invasions, they became much more likely to deny that violent home invasions pose a significant problem. Campbell summarized the study’s findings this way: “If you don’t want the solution to happen, then you deny the problem exists.” Campbell and Kay refer to this phenomenon as “solution aversion.”

In The Week, William Falk references the Duke study and bemoans our inability to reason “coolly and rationally, on the basis of evidence.” Instead, he says, “…virtually all of us … reason backward to the conclusion that feels right because it buttresses what we already believe.”

The Duke study’s results are not surprising (most of us could have anticipated them), but they are a helpful. They remind us of the extraordinary importance of responding “coolly and rationally, and on the basis of evidence.” They also remind us to be honest with ourselves, to question our reasoning, and to be alert to the covert prejudices that live inside us.

I was a spectator recently to a lively discussion on an issue of biblical interpretation. The parties involved held opposing views. One of the disputants offered biblical support for a conclusion the other rejected. When he asked her why she rejected it, her answer was: “Because that’s not what the Bible says.”

It was clear that both debaters had skin in the game. They each felt that the other’s views threatened some important theological principal. As a spectator (rather than a debater) it was obvious to me that at least one of the disputants was reasoning backward from the conclusion that felt right.

The Duke study, coupled with anecdotal evidence like this, sheds light on recent research from the Canadian Bible Society that indicates the mere reading of Scripture does not contribute to spiritual health and growth. The reason, in light of the Duke study, seems clear: unless we are careful, what we see in the Bible will only reinforce conclusions we’ve already drawn.

The biblical writers themselves were aware of how this process works. The Apostle John quotes Jesus who, in the midst of a tense debate with religious leaders, tells them: “You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! Yet you refuse to come to me…” The religious leaders’ study of the Bible only reinforced a conclusion they already held and left them blind to the possibility of any other.

Fortunately, the Canadian Bible Society study went on to state that people who spend ten minutes a day (at least three days a week) reflecting on what they’ve read in the Bible benefit significantly. Those who talk with other people about what they’ve read benefit even more. Careful reflection and open discussion seem to minimize the impact of solution aversion and enable the reader to thoughtfully apply biblical truths to life.

Lest the reader concludes that solution aversion only affects (infects) religious people, let him or her remember that the Duke study was carried out with Democrats and Republicans, not Catholics and Protestants. The irreligious person has deeply-held beliefs too, a lifestyle to protect, and a solution offered – a life of faith and obedience – that he or she might wish to avert.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 12/6/2014

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