Suffering, Hardship, and Certainty

Sometimes the bible sucks. Not the whole thing, mind you, just parts of it. There are parts of it that really, thoroughly suck… at least, from a selfish American perspective. 1 Peter 2 is one of these passages that calls us to things that we just don’t want to do. Peter starts off the chapter well enough by reminding his reader’s that they’re not actually alone (remember that the book was written to Christians spread throughout Asia-Minor and currently undergoing persecution). However, then he gets into issues of obedience, specifically obedience in the face of suffering.

As Christians we are going to suffer. Paul makes that perfectly clear in 2 Timothy 3 when he tells Timothy that those who follow Christ will suffer. Of course, for many this has led to the question: since I’m not suffering right now, does this mean that I’m not really following Christ? Of course not, but… maybe. The fact that Christians will suffer does not mean that all Christians will suffer at all times in all places. Christians are not promised constant suffering, nor are we promised universally equal suffering. We are simply promised suffering. If you consider yourself a Christian and you have never suffered for your faith, then the above may be a valid question. However, the fact that you haven’t suffered yet doesn’t mean that you won’t suffer in the future. To assume a constant or universally past quality in this would be a mistake.  That being said, Christians will suffer persecution. This persecution may come at the hands of people who disagree with us, people in authority over us, or people who hate us and are powerful enough to make the authorities look the other way (certainly this is far from a complete list), but it will come.

Not every Christians suffering will be equal. One Christian my be bullied in school, another may lose a promising career, another may be beaten, and another may have he hands and feet amputated. However, any suffering for the sake of the cross is a reflection in our lives of the suffering of Christ, and thus a thing of honor in which we should rejoice. This is a part of Peter’s message in 1 Peter 2. Of course, he also reminds us that there is a difference between suffering in general and suffering for the cross. If you are imprisoned for murder, you are not suffering for the sake of the cross, you are suffering because you killed someone. If you were lazy in school and thus have lackluster opportunities, then you are not suffering for the sake of the cross, you are suffering for you laziness. However, when we do suffer for the cross, it is a wonderful thing… this doesn’t mean it’s a pleasant thing.

I am always amazed by the (generally very young) Christians I see running around singing and praying and talking about how they want to be broken. I am often tempted to add to their prayer’s something like ‘God, please make so and so’s girlfriend dump him and kill his grandmother…’. Anyone who honestly, truly wants to be broken is insane. I have been broken, multiple times. Consider the meaning of the word here: to be broken, at it’s most basic, means that a thing no longer works correctly. When I am broken, I stop working. Being broken… hurts… to an unendurable degree. No one in their right mind finds this desirable. Of course, this doesn’t mean that it isn’t necessary. There is a huge difference between wanting to be broken, and being willing to be broken. If I truly trust God, then I must be willing to allow him to break me, because I know that being broken is the path to being better, and I want to be better.

Now that I’ve finished my rabbit trails, 1 Peter 2 calls us to submit to those who would persecute us. This is antithetical to the American mindset. An American, even most American Christians, is convinced that his/her rights and freedoms are paramount. However, 1 Peter 2 calls him to cast aside his rights, even in the face of unjust actions on the part of those in authority over him. American’s value independence and freedom to the point of making selfishness a virtue. However, the scriptures claim that we should think of ourselves as less than others, give of ourselves by putting others first, and allow ourselves to be treated unjustly and thus rejoice in sharing the sufferings of Christ. This is a hard shift to make.

A few years ago, I was fired from my job for unjust reasons (I think I’ve shared the story before). The company that fired me only gave me half of my last paycheck. They had deleted the rest of my hours. It took about a month… maybe a month and a half… to get everything worked out, and at first the company didn’t appear to be willing to handle the situation at all. For a few weeks I didn’t think I would ever be seeing that money, money that I sorely needed. I had a number of friends tell me that I should sue the company, and I wanted to. I had my schedule, and I had kept track of the hours that I worked (the company was notorious for losing hours). Moreover, I had a desire for vindication. However, I prayed about the issue repeatedly, and repeatedly God told me that I was not only not to sue them, I wasn’t even to mention the possibility. No suggestions or threats to create leverage or put an emphasis on getting things worked out. Even after mentioning this to my friends who suggested that I sue the company, they continued to push me to sue… I should mention that all of these friends were Christians. They cared about me, and they wanted me to take the ‘wise and reasonable’ course of action. However, in doing so they encouraged me to flout God’s specific will. They put human reasoning and my rights above the glorification of God, and I honestly lost a lot of respect for several people because of that experience.

God is trustworthy. Whether we are in times of plenty, times of hardship, or times of persecution, he is faithful to care for us, and he has not forgotten us. He has been, is, and always will be faithful to work everything to his glory and our good. This is something that we are all to prone to forget, and we shouldn’t be.

Suffering and Weakness

You’re all ridiculous. I hope you know that. I’ve said it before and I’ve no doubt that I’ll say it again: I don’t write anything worth reading. My random thoughts are not far off from a madman’s ravings, which inevitably implies that all of you are following a lunatic. At least I’ve kept my post count above my follower count for a while. I think that means I’m winning, but honestly I’m too tired to be sure right now. However, I do hope that in my insane ramblings I at least keep good company. Peter and Paul are both rather depressing authors of the New Testament at times (many times). Between the two of them we are exhorted (repeatedly) to rejoice in suffering and weakness (Consider 2 Corinthians 12 or 1 Peter 3 if you need examples [though really the entirety of 1 Peter will do]), two things that are fairly anathema to the American way. We don’t rejoice in suffering and weakness. In fact we don’t even approve of suffering and weakness. According to the American Church at large (much like Job’s friends) if you are suffering then you must be a bad Christian, and weakness simply isn’t tolerated.

Suffering is, apparently according to the Gospel of the US, God’s way of telling you that you are a sucky person, and if you weren’t such a sucky person then he would be giving you many and varied blessings like he does to all the non-sucky church-goers. This, of course, flies in the face of scriptural teaching and 2000 years of Christian tradition, but who cares, we’re Americans!

… … …So, I might be in just a little bit of a mood this morning… slightly… I blame it on the fact that I didn’t get any sleep again last night. After a week’s worth of wonderful rest (yes the alliteration is intentional) I had another night of sleepless torment, temptation, and failure. After I’d finally given up on sleep I turn to scripture to find this waiting for me: boast in your weaknesses! Well… I have plenty of weaknesses to boast in. I’m prideful, arrogant, supremely confident in my own intelligence (which is, admittedly, modest at best), lustful, foolish, insecure, and terribly, terribly afraid. Oh, and I tend to be pretty lonely most of the time as well. I generally console myself that it’s because I’m a smart, deep thinker and most people can’t keep up with me (what a crock… did I mention that I’m arrogant? I think I must be pretty hard to be around at times).

My bad mood aside, honestly looking back over the past few months I think one of the major lessons God has been trying to teach me is to find joy in my weaknesses. Paul was a pretty incredible man, and he certainly had a lot to boast about, but in 2 Corinthians 12 he talks about a thorn in the flesh that God had given him to keep him humble. Some scholars argue that this was some physical deformity (which they inevitably attempt to identify as buggy eyes, bowed legs, albino skin or some such), but others connect this thorn in the flesh with his rant Romans 7:14-25 and conclude that Paul’s thorn in the flesh was some issue of sin that presented him a continual and humiliating struggle (of course they also feel the need to identify this, often as a sexual issue, though only Paul’s staunch stand against sexual sins provides any support for this). I tend to side with the latter as I have trouble seeing a physical deformity being of much shame to Paul (given that he had been beaten, stoned, drowned, etc repeatedly I would imagine that he had several deformities). However, for a man of Paul’s stature a struggle with sin (which we already know from Romans 7 he had) would certainly be very humiliating.

We are all weak. Physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, we all suffer from many and varied weaknesses. As I write this my mind is drawn back to Desperate Housewives, which (as I’ve said before) is a surprisingly good and surprisingly uplifting show. There are two couples  (well, one couple and half of a couple) that, in many ways, exemplify what the church should and should not be respectively. First, Tom and Lynette are two imperfect people who accept one another’s imperfections and choose to continue in love regardless. One of my favorite scenes revolves around this couple. There is a portion of the show in which Lynette is tempted to cheat, and when Tom discovers this he confronts the man who is in the process of seducing her. Tom doesn’t threaten the man (well… much), but instead points out this (I’m paraphrasing here): “Have you thought about what’ll happen if she does slip and spend the night with you? It’ll destroy her. She’ll hate herself. And you think I’ll leave, but I won’t. I won’t go anywhere. I’ll stay right here and love her as hard as she hates herself, and we’ll get through this, because that’s who we are.” Honestly, Tom and Lynette are a fairly good example of the kind of undying, complete, self-sacrificing, gracious, imperfect love that the church could potentially show to one another. None of us are perfect people. None of us are even good people. However, when we recognize our own weaknesses and lovingly accept the fact that others are just as weak, we can show the grace that God has shown us. Does this make the actions that come out of our weakness good? Of course not, but it does mean that sin causes grace to abound.

The second character is Bre Van DeKamp Hodge. Bre is an excellent example of the faux perfection that the church often exhibits. She has her moments of true goodness and goes though some hard things, but generally she is unwilling to accept any weakness in others, even when that same weakness is all to apparent in herself. She does genuinely try to help people, but she is generally unwilling to show either grace or love, and this is a problem. Where Tom and Lynette forgive easily and often (as we should), Bre rarely forgives anything.

Bre seems to assume, as many of us do, that grace equals a lowering of standards, and this isn’t true. My students often tell me that my standards are too high and that I need to lower them. However, as I tell them, this is not going to happen. However, what will happen is the chance (if they seek it) to try again. To rewrite papers, seek advice, improve their abilities to meet my standards, and all of this I am more than happy to do. Similarly, we cannot expect God to lower his standards. It’s simply not going to happen. However, we can expect him to let us try again, and we should be able to expect that of one another as well.

Faith and Violence

As a culture we have developed the concept that violence, in any and every form, is evil. Yet we entertain ourselves with endless violence throughout every form of media, which we decry even as we consume it. We support seemingly endless wars, we encourage violence against criminals even as we chastise our children that ‘hitting is wrong’. We deprive our children of any legitimate means of expressing their frustration and anger, and then we wonder why school shootings are on the rise. In truth, as a nation, we have no clear concept of when violence should be used and when it should be avoided. We have no consistent philosophy of violence in relation to our daily lives. We might be able to espouse the tenets of Just War theory, but we can’t explain if or how America follows those tenets,or why they are justifiable in the first place. We certainly can’t explain the tenets of Just War theory in relation to Christ’s command to ‘turn the other cheek’ in the sermon on the mount. As individuals and as a nation we must answer the question: when and why is violence appropriate?

There are a number of seemingly pacifistic commands in scripture. Four of these are found in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:9, 43-48; Matthew 6:39; Matthew 7:12) and another warning against violence appears in Matthew 26:52. However, only Matthew 7:12 truly supports a concept of Christian pacifism, and it only to the degree that every presentation of the Golden Rule supports pacifism, which is to say that it can be taken that way, but is better understood as a general standard of behavior. After all, if we all went around treating one another exactly as we individually want to be treated, we would doubtless cause many people to be aggrieved. No two people want to be treated in quite the same way. That being said, these verses do give us strong and real warnings against violence. Christ tells us that peacemakers will be blessed (though historically force can and does bring peace: consider the Pax Romana or the peace brought by the military might of the Han dynasty), and he tells us to turn the other cheek (i.e. violence is not a tool for vengeance). He also tells us that those who wield violence will die violently, which is all to often true, and he commands us to love our enemies.

However, the scriptures also have an inordinate (at least with a concept of pacifism) amount of violence in them. God commands the Hebrew people into many violent conflicts, and multiple times commands the people to commit genocide. He raises up violent oppressors to punish the people in the form of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and Persia, and he himself does violence, both to the Jews (as a punishment) and to their enemies (as a boon). In the New Testament we see Christ drive the money-changers out of the temple violently. It is also interesting that in Luke, before his capture at the Garden Christ commands the disciples to procure the very swords that he later chastises Peter for using. In Matthew 10 and Luke 12 Christ promises to bring violence and division rather than peace, and in the book of Revelation we see God bring immense amounts of violence to the Earth, culminating in Revelation 19 in which Christ slays all those who oppose him. We also see, both in the Mosaic law and in Romans 13, the acceptance of violence in the pursuit of justice.

So, as faithful Christians, how can we practically approach the philosophy of violence? First, we must accept that violence does solve problems. As Jean V. Dubios says in Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers when confronted with the claim that violence never solves anything: “Tell that to the people of Carthage.” It is true that violence has probably solved more disagreements throughout history than any other method. However, this does not mean that it is the best method of solving problems.

Second, we must understand the places in which violence is appropriate. For instance, violence is appropriate between friends. A good-natured fight can be a lot of fun and a good way to get exercise. As long as both people are involved for the same reasons and no grudges are formed, then violence between friends is appropriate, natural, and healthy. Violence can even be a good way to solve problems between friends, as long as all parties are recognized as equals in the end. Violence is also appropriate in the pursuit of justice, for the protection of oneself or others, and in the defense of national interests. Formalized violence (i.e. refereed matches) can also be both a good form of entertainment and a practical means of solving a dispute between two parties.

Third, we must understand the places in which violence is not appropriate. For instance, while violence is appropriate in the pursuit of justice, it is not appropriate in the pursuit of vengeance. Violence should not be used to satisfy the emotional need for retribution. While violence can be a good means of resolving disputes between friends or opposed parties, it should not be used to oppress. A good fight between friends leads to agreement and mutual trust. When violence between friends results in oppression and resentment, then it is not healthy in itself, and it does not lead to healthy ends. Violence should never be uncontrolled. Whether it is controlled intentionally by those using violence, or controlled by a referee, violence that is controlled can be an excellent emotional outlet. However, when violence is uncontrolled, while it may be an emotional outlet, it generally doesn’t end well.

Lastly, we must understand that violence is never a replacement for faith. When one has a choice between faith and violence, faith must always win. God is our guide, our lord, and our judge, and when he commands us either to commit or abstain from violence we must obey. The capacity for violence demands responsibility, because if a violent person is not responsible in their use of violence, the result is almost never desirable.

Concerning Signs and Wonders

In my life I have vacillated between rejecting the need for signs in an effort to ‘walk by faith’ and asking God for signs in times of difficulty, fear, and frustration. It’s easy to run too far in either direction and thus ignore the entirety of scripture in favor of only seeing a part. In Matthew 12:38-42 we find a rather famous passage in which Christ rebukes the Jews for asking for signs and wonders. However, many times we fail to ask a very simple question: why? As I drill into my philosophy students, many of the most important questions that we can ask in life are ‘why’ based questions. “Why am I here?” “Why should I believe?” “Why do I want to be happy?” “Why am I unsatisfied?” etc. Many of us focus on asking ‘what’ based questions, but we ignore the ‘why’ based questions on which they rely. In this passage we must ask the question, “Why did Jesus rebuke the people?” The simply answer is, “Because they asked for signs and wonders”, but this answer isn’t entirely correct. Consider Isaiah 7, in which God tells King Ahaz to request a sign from him, and Ahaz refuses. Consider Gideon, who (admittedly out of fear) requests signs from God and is not rebuked. Consider the multitude of signs that God provides throughout the scriptures, from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, to the parting of the Red Sea, water from the stone, the signs of the prophets, the miracles of Christ, all the way down to the miraculous signs done through the apostles. To say that God is ‘against signs and wonders’ ignores almost the entirety of scripture for the sake of a theological perspective that relies on a single verse. So, why does Christ rebuke the people?

A more fundamental question might be why does God give signs in the first place? The answer to this question is three-fold: 1) God gives signs to show his character (i.e. the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the parting of the Red Sea, the giving of water from a stone, the execution of Ananias and Sapphira), 2) God gives signs to encourage faithful response (i.e. the signs given to Gideon, the healing of the Lame man by Peter, etc), and 3) God gives signs to guide his people on the proper path (i.e. the pillar of fire and smoke, the signs of the prophets, etc). The miracles of God serve his purposes first and foremost. Through them he displays his glory, love, mercy, and justice, and by them he leads his people where he wants them to go.

Miraculous signs do not exist from the pleasure of man, and that is what the Jews were asking for in Matthew 12. These Jews did not want to believe in Christ, they didn’t intend to follow him, they were not seeking a greater understanding of God, and they did not desire to be shown a true path. Instead, they wanted to see something cool, which is often the by-word of our own culture. There is a vast difference between seeking a sign so as to more thoroughly understand God, and seeking a sign that titillates the mind. There is also a difference between seeking a sign because you doubt the power and authority of God (not necessarily a bad thing, but certainly a sign of weakened faith), and seeking a sign because you do not trust yourself to correctly discern the will of God.

A great example here is Hand. You might remember that I mentioned her in some posts a while back (I’m not going to go find them and link them, you can find them yourself). Hand was a young woman that I was attracted to, but that I had doubts about. I asked God for guidance, but I know myself. I have, several times, tricked myself into believing that God has led me to pursue whom I wanted to pursue, regardless of God’s desire. So, I asked God for a sign, a very specific sign, not because I doubted him, but because I doubted myself and my own ability to clearly listen to him in this particular situation.

This brings up another issue with signs. A sign is always specific. It is very easy to pull Homer Simpson’s trick and pray, “God, if you want me to eat this donut then do absolutely nothing.” While I have no doubt that God could easily smite a person with lightning, I also believe that God is willing to allow us to wallow in our own stupidity and self-will. God generally doesn’t divinely stop us from making stupid decisions (though sometimes he might protect us in those decisions). If you want a sign from God, make it specific, and make it antithetical to your self-will. Going back to my example with Hand, I knew what wanted. So, I asked God for a specific sign showing me to pursue my desire. I did not ask him for a non-specific sign showing me not to pursue my desire. The latter would be easy to ignore while the former is very difficult to ignore.

That being said, signs and wonders aren’t the core of our faith, and they shouldn’t be the core of our faith. They are a part of the Christian faith, but they are a small part at best, useful for specific circumstances. If your faith relies on signs and wonders, then take some time to actually get to know God, instead of looking for miracles.

The Inward Understanding of Prayer

Recently I’ve been reading Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God and I just started E.M. Bounds Essentials of Prayer. Prayer is an interesting topic on which many great and worthy volumes have been written, each with it’s own approach, conception, and fundamental understanding of the importance of prayer. There are many who believe that prayer exists solely to guide the mind and heart of the believer to God, and that it has no fundamentally real effect on the world outside of the believer. There are others, as I have written about before, who believe that prayer is akin to a magical spell which the believer can use to force God to accede to his wishes. Some believe that prayer is a simple thing, that it is easily pursued and it’s goals are easily obtained. Others argue that prayer requires the absolute and total concentration and devotion of the believer, that a half-hearted or half-minded prayer is utterly worthless, possibly even that God does not hear these prayers in the first place. I think that prayer is all of these things and more.

Prayer is, at its very core, our communication with God. There are times in which our prayers are uttered in confusion. They are half-hearted, half-said, half-meant because we ourselves do not truly know or understand for what we pray. We are easily distracted and often utterly without conviction. We lose ourselves on a daily basis, and must seek God for any hope of finding ourselves again. In these times, we are told by scripture, the Holy Spirit translates our prayers for us. No prayer passes by God unnoticed. No utterance, no matter how confused or insincere, is lost to the rolling tides of time. God knows all, sees all, hears all, and so all prayer is meaningful in that it is communication with God, but this does not mean that God responds in the affirmative to all prayer.

However, any attempt to parse out the prayers that God answers and those that he doesn’t is an exercise in ridiculousness. Who are we, simple and foolish men, to lay out rules upon God. Make no mistake, this is often what we do. We search the scriptures for verses that support our ideas and desires, and then we make those into unbendable sanctions upon the divine. We claim verses from John 15 or Christ’s promises to Peter and make them into manifest laws that, when we pray in a certain way, God must give us what we want. Similarly, we take verses from Paul’s epistles or from James and transform them into unalterable standards that all men must meet for their prayers to reach God’s ears.

I have found that these issues of practical theology are best governed by one simple rule, place not upon God, but upon man’s desire to define things: God is God. He can do whatever he wants.

There is much wisdom concerning prayer in scripture, and many promises concerning the effectual nature of prayer. However, the one thing that we can see both from scripture and from experience is that God does as he desires. Consider the failure of Paul’s prayers to remove his ‘thorn in the flesh’, or the failure of the disciples in casting evil spirits out of a young boy. Even at our best, the understanding of man is utterly and thoroughly limited, and any attempt to understand the power of prayer must begin with an inward conviction that we are not in charge. We do not make the rules, we do not define the standards, we do not tell God how things work or what he is allowed to do.

Instead, we must come to prayer with a humble spirit and a contrite heart, fully aware of our own depravity, and of the eternal grace that God has laid upon us to cover our many sins. We must begin by understanding that prayer, at its core, is communication with God. It is our conversation with a loving, gracious, jealous, wrathful, just (and so much more) father who has the will, the right, and the power to do whatever he desires with and in us, and who loves each of us more than can be understood. Any discussion of prayer must begin with the inward understanding that our first purpose is to glorify him, and the humility to make that purpose our overriding goal. Whatever other intention our prayers might have, this is the core, and when we forget that, then we lose sight of the foundation upon which our lives of prayer are built.

Isaiah 6:6-7: An Example of God’s Temporal Authority

Someday I think I might actually write a paper around this issue. At the moment, however, it’s just a thought… a thought that I want to consider and hold on to. C.S. Lewis argued that God stands outside of time, that he is beyond time and thus that he is capable of experiencing all times simultaneously. It’s a difficult concept to wrap your head around, but this idea has a lot of implications. For one, it explains how God could have knowledge of the future. I was going to say that it explains how God could be all-knowing, but it really doesn’t. I’m not actually sure that is explainable. However, if God experiences all times simultaneously, then to him the future is the same as the present and the past. This also explains the concept that for God a day is as a thousand years and a thousand years is as a day. God is not bound by time in the way that we understand it.

That being said, Isaiah 6 is the record of Isaiah’s vision calling him to speak for God to the people of Judah and Israel. In this vision, Isaiah is brought before the throne of heaven and he realizes his utter impurity (a man of unclean lips among a people of unclean lips), and that because of this he is not only unworthy to stand in the presence of God, but also unworthy to speak for God. In Isaiah 6:6-7 one of the Seraphim that worship in God’s presence takes a coal (Gary Smith argues that this is best understood as one of the coals from under the throne of heaven from Ezekiel 10) and presses it to Isaiah’s lips. The Seraph then announces that this action has ‘removed’ Isaiah’s guilt and that his sin ‘has been atoned for’.

This, of course, begs the question of who atoned for Isaiah’s guilt. Obviously this happened long before the life, death, and resurrection of the Christ, and so from a purely human perspective God seems to simply be casting away Isaiah’s sin and guilt into some void of nothingness. This then leads to the question of why he can’t do the same for all believers. If God can simply cast sin aside without sacrifice, then why did Christ die? Why does Hebrews tell us that without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins? The most direct answer is that God cannot simply cast sin aside, a concept that the use of the word ‘te-kuppar’, which carries with it the meaning of forgiveness or atonement, reinforces. Isaiah’s sin was not simply cast aside, it was ‘we-sar’ (taken away from him) and ‘te-kuppar’ (atoned for).

The most obvious solution to this conundrum is, it seems to me, to remember that (as Lewis posited) God is the lord over time, not simply space. While the death of Christ would not happen for several hundred years from Isaiah’s perspective, it was happening and had already happened from God’s perspective. The atonement of Christ had already been completed when God cleansed Isaiah of his sin, and this helps our understanding of how he could simply take the sins of Isaiah and cleanse them. Of course, this then raises anew the question of who Christ preached to when he traversed the spiritual cosmos and entered hell (1 Peter 3:18-20). Traditionally this has been seen as Christ bringing the believing Jews from ages past out of prison and into atonement. However, if God has temporal authority and can apply the atonement of Christ backwards through time (at least from a human perspective) then why wouldn’t he have done this for other believing Jews? Was Isaiah a special case or is there perhaps another answer to the question of who Christ preached to in hell? These are questions to which I do not yet have an answer. Maybe someday I’ll figure it out.

The Two Faces of Prayer

A couple of days ago I had a conversation with a friend of mine about Joel Osteen and the Prosperity Gospel movement, and for those of you who have a problem with calling this movement a ‘gospel’ movement, the word gospel comes from the Old English word ‘godspel’ which is a translation of the Latin ‘bona adnuntiatio’ which is also a translation of the Greek ‘euangelion’. Euangelion, Bona Adnuntiatio, Godspel, and Gospel all have one simple meaning: ‘good message’. Christians use this term to refer to the message of Christ, but having someone tell you that God is going to make you rich, healthy, and happy certainly counts as a good message. Not a true message, but a good message. That being said, my friend asked me the question: can’t Christians lean a little bit more on the prosperity gospel? Why is it so offensive to believe that God might want to give his children good things?

I was thinking about writing this post last night, which would have made it timely, but incomplete. In church this morning I was reminded of the second half of the issue: Prayer has the power to change God’s mind. If you don’t believe that then read Exodus 32, or Amos 7. This is not to say that God is variable or wishy-washy, but that prayer is effectual from time to time. Honestly, the entire concept that God changes his mind is theologically… challenging to say the least. We are told in scripture that God knows everything, that he is unchanging and constant, and that (at least on specific occasions) he changes his mind. I’m not going to try to break this down into a theologically understandable construction… to be honest I’m not sure that I can at the moment. Much like the hypostatic union, this is something that I don’t understand, and that I’m not entirely convinced I am even capable of understanding to any reasonable degree. However, I am confident that it is. God is constant, he is all-knowing, and yet he does change his mind. Not easily, and certainly not capriciously, and unlike ourselves when God changes his mind it is not a sign of changing or imperfect character.

So, all to often, attitudes concerning prayer in Christian America fall into one of two camps: either prayer is magic, or prayer is ineffectual, or at least only effectual for the internal being of the believer and not effectual for actual issues in life. Let me treat the prayer is magic attitude first: many Christians treat prayer as though it is a formula to make God do what they want. I’ve had people tell me that I was ‘praying wrong’ and explain that if I phrased my prayer in ‘this’ way that nothing would happen, but if I phrased it ‘that’ way then God must answer my prayer. This is both in part a cause of and in part a result of both the prosperity gospel and the word/faith movements in modern theology. The problem, as I explained to my friend, with the prosperity gospel movement is that it takes a part of the Christian gospel (that part that promises good things and answered prayer) and ignores the rest (all that stuff about suffering isn’t really important after all). The prosperity gospel movement promises and focuses on satisfaction through worldly treasures, which is exactly what Christ tells us not to do (the Beatitudes anyone? Seek ye first the kingdom of heaven and all that). The word/faith movement combines with this focus a belief in the inherent power of human language. This movement teaches that our words can change our physical reality, and that the right combinations of words can force things to happen. This then places God in the power of man. God must do what want as long as I phrase my desire correctly, and thus it is my will and not God’s will that truly matters. Clearly, again, this contravenes the teaching of scripture (James: you have not because you ask not, and when you do ask, you ask with the wrong motives, to satisfy your own lusts… I might have paraphrased a little). As I’ve said before, a good working definition of magic is the magician’s attempt to alter his physical reality through the manipulation of spiritual forces. Thus, these movements treat prayer as though it is magic, and prayer is not magic.

However, often in reaction to these movements, but sometimes through a reliance on logical reasoning, or simple bitterness that God has not done our will, but his instead, many of us respond by rejecting the effectual nature of prayer entirely. We argue that prayer ‘changes the believer’ instead of that prayer ‘changes the world’. Again, this isn’t entirely untrue. Just as God does promise his people good things, he also promises them suffering. Just as God does explain the effectual nature of prayer in the physical world, he explains the important effect of prayer in the mind and heart of the believer. In part, the purpose of prayer is to draw us into communion with the father and to mold us in the image of Christ… in part.

At it’s core, prayer is our means of communicating with God. Just like your cell-phone *luddite grumbling* is your means of communicating with your biological father, prayer is your means of communicating with God. Just like you wouldn’t only call your actual father when you need something (… if you do, and I’ve been that person, you are a horrible, horrible child. Go call your parents and tell them that you love them), you shouldn’t make your prayers into a list of needs and wants. Hopefully, prayer should mostly be a chance to talk to God, to relate, repent, worship, and yes, request. However, it is also a time to listen to God. If you are a Christian, God speaks to you. If you don’t hear him, then you need to learn how to listen (… logically the other possibility is that you’re not really saved… but we generally don’t like to talk about that).

Just like you’re biological father, God does actually want what’s best for you. Unlike your biological father, you have no recourse to say that God is being arrogant when he acts like he does know what’s best for you… he knows everything, remember? However, this does not mean that when I ask God for something he simply ignores me. He might not give me exactly what I want, but he does take my requests into account. So, prayer is effectual in the world, it is not magic, and it is important for me to understand the difference.