We say we believe God is all-powerful and that He has the ability to intervene on our behalf. But what about when He doesn’t? I had a mini “crisis of faith” this week that has made me reevaluate what I believe about God, His promises, and how to get what I want.
It started before I got sick. A couple we knew in Bible College lost their healthy, newborn son to unforeseen complications, after two miscarriages, while on the mission field. Then a wonderful, sweet, loving woman, who was also a pastor’s wife, suddenly died. Really, God? So I was already questioning, already doubting, and then I got sick.
I hadn’t been this sick in over 20 years, not since I was a kid! It dragged on and on!! I was supposed to have a lovely day to work on my book proposal while my mother-in-law watched the kiddos. She still watched my children, but I laid on the couch while they were gone and tried not to die. I was supposed to go with my husband (a youth pastor) and the teens to an exciting conference this weekend while my parents kept the kids. They went without me. My parents still kept the kids, and I laid on the couch. I couldn’t even keep my thoughts straight, let alone write a coherent sentence. I’d prayed for healing, lots of people were praying, and I was still sick. Sick and filled with doubts.
We have all been there. Something falls apart, or a prayer doesn’t get answered, or a tragedy happens, and we start wondering: Is God really real? Is He really in control? Is He really good? Am I believing a lie?
My feverish brain had four days to wrestle with these questions in-between naps and excessive amounts of Netflix.
We see a “good” outcome we want, and we know that God could do it. There are plenty of examples of miracles in the Bible, and we hear modern-day stories. We know our desires are possible too. How do we get God to agree? Cooperate? How do we “twist His arm”? Which combination of buttons do we push on His vending machine?
You don’t talk like that? Me either, at least not out loud, but that’s how we act!
We don’t understand God, we can’t! He is way too big. So, we tend to create a version of God that we can understand, a god made in our own image. We can manipulate people, why not God? I see this happening in at least three ways.
- We Create Formulas.
I was raised under the shadow of the king of formulas. If you can get your hands on any of Bill Gothard’s materials, you will see 3 steps to this and 5 steps to that, always promising blessing and success. A perfect example is the book Gothard wrote called “The Power of Crying Out”. He basically shows verses (mostly out of context of course) where people “called out” or “cried out”. Then he turns around and promises that if we pray loudly God hears us and will respond better than if we pray quietly. What?
It’s not just my old cult leader who does this! I’ve read formulaic thinking on blogs, and in books, and heard it from the mouths of Christians across the range of Evangelicalism.
I have seen people take Bible stories and turn them into formulas. So-and-so did x, y, and got z, therefore, if we also do x, and y, we will get our z. Sorry, it would be nice, but I don’t think it works this way! God is not a vending machine! We cannot enter A5 and B10 and get a Snickers bar and bag of Doritos every time.
- We Claim “Promises”
Ever heard this verse used as a promise for physical healing? It’s pretty popular. “By His stripes we are healed.” It amazes me how many people use this verse and are clueless about the context. First of all, it’s not even a whole verse; it’s a phrase at the end of one. Read the whole thing and see if you can figure out the context and whether or not it’s appropriate to say it promises physical healing.
“But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.” Isaiah 53:3 (NIV)
It doesn’t take a Biblical scholar to see that this verse is a prophecy about the coming Savior and how we would be rescued by his death. Jesus’ wounds healed us, but it wasn’t a physical healing, it was a supernatural, spiritual one!
How about this? “We walk by faith and not by sight.” People use this verse to claim physical healing. You know what I’m going to say: Context! The verse comes from 2 Corinthians 5, ironically a chapter about heaven and one day being with Christ. It is not talking about getting physically healed either! Here is verse 7, sandwiched between verses 6 and 8 for context sake.
“Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. For we live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” 2 Corinthians 5:6-8 (NIV)
Claiming “promises” like these (even if they WERE in context) and others, is still at their root a formulaic approach. We are still trying to find a way to guarantee a specific outcome, to push the right buttons.
- We Take the Blame (or put it on others):
“I guess I didn’t have enough faith.”
“We didn’t have enough faith.”
“Their faith was lacking.”
These are all real responses that I have heard from people when their prayers weren’t answered the way they hoped. Right. Because there is a specific amount of faith that will twist God’s arm and make Him give us what we want. I don’t think so. It’s formulaic thinking again!
Where do we get this idea that our lack of faith is to blame? From the Bible. There are tons of verses talking about having faith, and asking for things in faith. Here are just two of them.
“He replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.” Luke 17:6
“But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord.” James 1:6-7
If these were the only verses I read, then I could easily believe that I am at fault because of my lack of faith. However, when I take a closer look, I realize that James is talking about asking God for wisdom (vs 5). The specific promise is that if we ask for wisdom, God will give it to us. And while it is important to have faith as we pray, what is the object of our faith? Our ability to move a mulberry tree (or a mountain), or the God that made it? There are no verses that (used in context) guarantee any and every outcome based on our faith.
So, what does God actually promise us?
Stay tuned! Part 2 is coming tomorrow…