April 29, 2010

Moving the Hand of God?

"Prayer moves the hand of God," I have often heard, but I wonder: "Really? Is that really how it works?" Now, maybe it is one thing to make this claim in the excitement of the moment while rejoicing at answered prayer, though I would hope that the tone is not self-congratulatory or even smug. It is quite another thing to seriously contemplate a cause-effect relationship between our prayers and God's actions given a view of God as all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving; and given a view of ourselves as none of the above.

What really happens when we pray? Do we think we can speed up the unfolding of God's will? Do we think we can change the cosmic calendar? If so, is his original will before we pray not quite as loving, or flawed in some other way? Or is his original timetable perfect, as befitting his character, but he lets us sway him from that plan to a less-perfect but more-accommodating oneperhaps because he is bound by the heavenly law about prayer moving his hand? Either way, it is disturbing to imagine that we are able to make God do what he wouldn't otherwise have done, perhaps even by means of prayers that aren't all that fervent, persevering, or even important to us. Really, if it boils down to God's judgment of what is best or my own, I'll vote for God, thank you very much.

What else might we infer about prayer, if it moves God to act? Does God wait to heal a sick child until someone prays for her? Or until a critical mass of prayers is finally reached? God forbid. What happens when equal numbers of people pray opposite prayersfor victory in sports or politics, for example? Do the prayers balance and cancel? Perhaps the prayers of some people carry more weight. Does God have his favorites? Children, maybe, or the clergy? If ten people pray, is an answer twice as likely as when only five people pray? Does God not know our needs, relying on us to fill him in on the situation down here? Does he pretend to wait until we "show him that we mean it" before answering us, like a rock band quickly filing off stage to trigger the big applause before returning immediately for their obligatory "encore."

When we frame the questions in these ways, some answers seem more clear:
  1. God doesn't or shouldn't show favoritism; 
  2. God will or should help people even if nobody, or nobody else, is praying for them; 
  3. God doesn't or shouldn't dole out mercy in proportion to the math; the same prayer prayed repeatedly or by more people shouldn't make God care about it more; 
  4. God already knows or should know what is best before anybody prays.
Despite such beliefs, however, both how we talk about prayer and how we pray are different stories: We ask for prayer. We take comfort in having multiple people praying for us. We thank people for their prayers, even claiming that we could really "feel" them. We make lists of prayer requests so we can pray repeatedly about the same thing, and so we don't lose track of these requests so trivial that they must be written down or else forgotten. We bring desperate prayers to God as though he hadn't been paying attention. We feel guilty if we forget to pray, assuming that our dropping the ball makes an answer nigh unto hopeless. We pray prayers of logical persuasion, as much to convince ourselves that God should want to answer them as to convince God to do so.

All of which suggest a theology of prayer as mechanical device, or magic box, or flowchart of proper if-then conditions. I'm not sure which is worst, but all of them share both an assumption that answered prayer is within our control and a requirement that we have to do the right thing for prayer to work: push the button, say the magic words, or jump through the hoops. If so, God does what we want; if not, it's our fault. Misinterpretation of favorite verses reinforces this error. There's the one about two or three gathering together to loose and bind in heaven and on earth, and the "blank check" classics about asking whatever we wish and  asking anything in his name. No wonder we are confused about how prayer really works and overestimate the extent of our power or influence to make God give us what we want.

In his brilliant essay, The Efficacy of Prayer, C.S. Lewis rejects such a causal relationship between who we are or what we do and God's response to our prayer. Reflecting on Jesus in the garden, where his request to his father was rejected, Lewis writes:
When God becomes man, that Man, of all others, is least comforted by God, at His greatest need. There is a mystery here which, even if I had the power, I might not have the courage to explore. Meanwhile, little people like you and me, if our prayers are sometimes granted, beyond all hope and probability, had better not draw hasty conclusions to our own advantage. If we were stronger, we might be less tenderly treated. If we were braver, we might be sent, with far less help, to defend far more desperate posts in the great battle.
 How then might we better understand prayer? Look for Part 2.

April 18, 2010

What Jesus Never Said about Hell

I grew up in the church tradition where "narrow is the way" to heaven and "few there be that find it." To put it more accurately, I grew up in church circles dominated by a view that the vast majority of human beings, perhaps more than 99% of the world, will wind up in hell for not "responding to the gospel." This view is presented as Biblical, seen as a significant part of any sermon about the gospel, and used as a key motivation for missions and evangelism. Though Jesus supposedly said more about hell than about heaven, most references to hell are contained in a rather meager handful of "red letter" verses from the mouth of Jesus himself. And despite what he does say about hell, there are some very interesting statements that he does not make—if hell was as important to Jesus as we make it out to be today.

Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, for example, has lots of useful information about how to pray, give to the needy, and fast, along with admonitions not to worry and not to store up treasure on earth. All of which is fascinating and good, but completely irrelevant if the audience is going to wind up in hell. However, he does not couch these useful tidbits with a preface like, "Most of y'all are going to hell, but until you do, here's some advice about your personal finances for your days here on earth," or, "We both know you're going to hell, but let's talk about something else today." If this passage is one of Jesus' most significant messages, as many people believe, then why does Jesus say nothing about eternal punishment for mostto the multitude sitting right there at his feet? Or was he only addressing the few who would wind up in heaven and ignoring the lost causes?

We have no record of Jesus warning the woman at the well about hell, despite her string of relationship misadventures. We have no record of Jesus souring his friendships with tax collectors and winebibbers at all those dinner parties by insisting on changing the topic to God's dissatisfaction with their sinful lives and their pending damnation. No warnings about hell to the other thief on the cross. No intimate pleading with Mary and Martha, or with his own family members, for that matter, about their need to wait until after his death and resurrection and then to be "washed in the blood," lest they burn in eternal fire. Sinners, friends, strangers, or family members; all appear to be spared hearing from the lips of the savior himself the gospel message of salvation from hell.

Now, arguments from silence are problematic. Perhaps Jesus constantly hammered people about hell but the gospel writers glossed over that fact, choosing instead to share with us Jesus' many parables of the kingdom and assorted comments on other topics. But it is curious that we find no Jesus theme of "Repent, ye sinners, or I'll throw ye into hell for rejecting me!" anywhere in the gospels. Very curious, indeed. In Matthew 4:17, we read that Jesus began preaching "Repent," but nothing about hell. In a few other verses, he does warn about hellor warn about two different words that in some translations of the Bible are sometimes translated "hell" but that maybe don't mean the "hell" that we assume today, to be more technically accurate. But these warnings are sometimes in parables, where literal, factual truth may be neither required nor assumed; mainly concern punishment for sins rather than for not being born again; and are primarily directed at religious leaders and others who thought they were already saved. The fact of the unwashed masses going to hell doesn't seem to matter so much, though God so loved the world.

 If hell is the overriding concern, and the reason he came to die on a cross, then why didn't Jesus say that? Why substitute temporal trivia, really, for crucial warnings about the paramount disaster of eternal damnation for billions of souls? Why so many, very inclusive "your father in heaven" statements to the crowds he addressed, as though the audience was already in the family of God? Was Jesus just sharing facts about a precious few other somebodies with the throngs of hell bound listeners, or did he mean that they were the blessed, and destined for heaven?

Now, maybe hell wasn't the point that the gospel writers wanted to stress in their portrayal of Jesus' message. That is possible. But maybe someone else created the "fear of hell" bandwagon, and Jesus never intended for anyone to ride on it. Maybe he never desired the gospel to be shrouded in "Turn or burn" rhetoric. Maybe, just maybe, he had other, more hopeful plans for the billions of people he came to die for, those who we preach are eternally trapped in the fires of hell.

More on this later.

April 14, 2010

Gracious Disagreement

Here's a lovely little video clip of Dr. Greg Boyd on historic diversity within the church on the "negotiables." This is one of several intriguing video tidbits from the BioLogos Foundation, a site well worth exploring for a scientific Christian perspective on science, the Bible, and Christianity.
"Having to wrestle with diverse opinions and perspectives is hardly a new thing in the church. Unfortunately, we've lost some of that: the ability to be gracious with disagreements, especially among conservative Protestants throughout the twentieth century."
I'm not convinced this is unique to 20th century Protestants, but I like the use of "gracious" in this context and agree that its absence makes us look "ugly." Can we disagree but remain gracious in our disagreements?