Monday, May 27, 2013

What to Expect when You're Praying

A strange coincidence after my last post. In fact, only a couple hours after I posted. The EF5 tornado that devastated Moore, OK was not the inspiration for that last post, but offered an example of what I was referring to. If you've seen the neat video of the woman who finds her dog amidst the rubble in the middle of a TV interview, you may have seen comments such as "God answers prayers." But what about those parents praying for their children that died? Surely God didn't answer THEIR prayers?

First, let me state that I believe in prayer and I think it's an important part of discipleship. But when we pray, what can we expect from God? If there's nothing we can expect, is prayer worth it?

While I haven't delved into the deep well of the theology of prayer, from what I've read (and experienced), our prayers should be aimed towards the will of God. Jesus teaches this both at the Last Supper and at Gethsemane. So we could say that when we pray we should expect God's will to be done. Two things, though: (1) was it God's will for children to die in Moore, OK or Newtown, CT? I don't think so. (2) We are completely unable to figure God's will (cf. Garth Brooks's song "Unanswered Prayers"), so how could we expect a specific outcome from prayer if we pray that God's will be done?

So what CAN we expect? A personal story may help. At church, there is a closet which has an intake for the air handler. The door to this closet slams as hard as any weightlifter could slam it. It's scary. I had gone into the closet to get a new banner out for Pentecost. I didn't realize it but my son was following me. He went to open the door before it had closed, but the door slammed shut on his hand. Even with my back to him, when I heard him scream I knew exactly what had happened. I couldn't have prevented it from happening. I was impotent to relieve his pain at that moment. My only option was to scoop him up, cuddle him, rock him in my arms, and give him kisses. While I was calling my wife to come get him to take him to urgent care for what I was sure were broken bones, a pediatrician walked in. She checked him out and was sure there were no broken bones and he had quit crying by now. She saved me hundreds of dollars in copays!

What this story illustrates, hopefully, is that when we pray, all we can expect from God is (1) that he loves us, snuggles us close, and rocks us through our pain, and (2) that, just as I hurt while holding my son, God suffers with us through it all.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Against the "Prosperity Gospel"

I'll be honest, I've usually only been hypnotized by Joel Osteen's smile long enough to catch a couple points in his sermons. Then something snaps me out of it and I continue channel surfing for American Pickers reruns, UFC highlights, or the Weather Channel. But occasionally I've tuned in long enough to actually digest some of his teachings. They sound great on the surface. They're uplifting. They're inspiring. They're motivating. They promise good things.

Ay, but there's the rub. To paraphrase one comment I heard on his program: "pray and dedicate your life to God and expect good things to happen to you." Now I'm all for praying and I'm all for dedicating my life to God, but I'm not all for expecting results. This can all be easily summed up in one hypothetical situation.

Let's say there's someone suffering. Horrible suffering. Some problem that we just can't imagine. They pray to God. They dedicate their life to God. They live their faith. And then their situation changes. The problem is, it changes for the worse. Viewed from the perspective of Prosperity Gospel, what is this person to think? Either they didn't pray well enough, dedicate themselves enough, or do enough for God to intervene positively in their life. They weren't a good enough Christian.

This conclusion simply doesn't make sense to me. Sometimes horrible crap happens to good Christians. And then after they pray about it and redouble their faith, worse crap happens. There's no rhyme or reason. The Prosperity Gospel has been disproven definitively. Leave it and don't turn back.

What IS true of God when bad things happen and then even worse crap happens on top of it is that God is there with us -- suffering WITH us. That's the most important message.