Sunday, November 17, 2019

You Could’ve Just Asked

Some people approach God as if he is mechanical rather than personal; as if checking all the right religious boxes will get you what you want out of him, after which you can happily go on your way until the next time you need something.

It’s not specifically a Catholic thing, an Orthodox thing, or a Protestant thing, but it’s definitely a thing. The tendency to view God as a stimulus-response Being on a cosmic scale can infect even the most theoretically-liberated evangelical heart.

Checking the Boxes

In Bible times, people who thought like this regularly wore sackcloth and ashes to make their repentance unmistakable. Even today, some Christians believe that if you make an official, Church-sanctioned form of confession, you are temporarily cleansed. If you do not, even if you pour out your heart to God in private, your sin remains your problem, pal. They believe that if you practice fasting, God will take you seriously. Non-ascetics need not apply. They believe you can drizzle water on a baby and St. Peter will be sure to give him a pass. Fail to do so, and Junior may burn in hell. Have Last Rites been administered? Good, you’re safe. If not, well, you’re in dodgy spiritual territory if you cross over to the other side. Want something really badly? Then make a solemn vow to make some really big personal sacrifice, and maybe God will respond favorably. While you’re at it, make sure to pray on your knees to show you mean business, and don’t forget to add “in Jesus’ name” at the end. This stuff doesn’t work if you don’t follow the formula!

In this sort of thinking, God is effectively reduced to ones and zeros. Give him the correct input, run the Divine Response Algorithm, et voila!

Think about that for a moment. It’s actually pretty insulting. And yet we cannot deny that certain formal religious preliminaries do indeed appear to carry some weight with God. There are times in our Old Testaments when great men of God did things that demonstrated they thought grandiose public gestures quite effective. Sometimes God even appears to encourage them.

Blessing the Grand Gesture

Take Samuel, for example. In a time of extreme danger to his nation, he took a nursing lamb and offered it as a whole burnt offering to the Lord in front of the people. I find that a bit repulsive myself, and I won’t be offended if you do too. But the Lord seems to have responded favorably to his subsequent request. Does God have it in for baby sheep?

Or consider Saul. He checked all the right boxes. He wanted a win against the Philistines so desperately that he bound all his soldiers with an oath, cursing anyone who ate anything before Saul had tasted victory. As a result, he had ravenous troops. And yet God seemed to give him an answer when he asked for one. Is God impressed by lots of people being forcibly starved? Sure seems like he might be.

Then there’s Mr. Overkill, King Solomon himself. The night God appeared to Solomon in a dream, he had just offered a thousand burnt offerings at the high place in Gibeon. Is God especially responsive to high places or dead animals? That might be the conclusion Solomon came to, because when he dedicated the temple in Jerusalem, he sacrificed “so many sheep and oxen that they could not be numbered.”

Hey, the glory of the Lord filled the house. Something about that worked.

All the Data

At the same time, if we are going to make suppositions about what we ought to do to please God, we must look carefully at all the data, not just the verses that seem to make our case for us. For every grand gesture heavenward made by the Samuels, Sauls and Solomons, we can find an earnest, quiet prayer of faith that was equally effective, if much less overtly dramatic.

Abraham’s servant asked God for success in finding an appropriate wife for his master’s son. The need was pressing; in fact, the whole future of the nation of Israel turned on it. Yet he didn’t offer a sacrifice. He didn’t fast, vow, kneel, bow, genuflect or make solemn promises. He didn’t even articulate his request out loud. He voiced it in his heart. And God answered him “before he had finished speaking.”

Elijah knew all about making grand gestures, but arguably the most effective prayer he ever prayed was nothing more than a plaintive cry of despair from under a broom tree in the wilderness, all alone. He wanted to die. In response, the Lord sent him an angel with food, a personal revelation of his own character, a like-minded successor to bear his prophetic burden, and the comforting evidence that he was far from alone in faithfully serving God.

A quick bow of worship, and Moses successfully interceded for Israel without first making any kind of formal religious gesture. Blind, self-indulgent Samson called on God from a Philistine jail. He had nothing to offer God at that point, and yet God gave him the strength to kill more Philistines in death than in life. The Lord turned the counsel of Ahithophel to foolishness at David’s passing request, and his kingdom was saved. He raised a child from the dead for Elijah, who had no time to do anything more than cry out to him on behalf of the child’s mother. Confronted with a million hostile Ethiopians in the Valley of Zephathah, Asa cried out to the Lord on the spot and won a mighty victory. Given that he was about to go into battle, it is likely his prayer took fifteen seconds and was preceded by absolutely nothing.

The Heart of the Matter

Shall I go on? It should be abundantly clear that God frequently responds to requests from people who cannot or have not observed technical religious formalities, that his responses to those who seek him fervently are intensely compassionate rather than robotic and predictable, and that his mercies often far, far exceed the expectations of those who make their desires known to him.

So is there anything wrong with fasting, self-discipline, or visible acts of humility? Surely not. Was there anything wrong with sacrifices or vows in their time? Of course not. Are religious formalities always wrong? Absolutely not. God would not have such an established track record of responding to them if they were.

What we can say with confidence is that “the prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” This is true with or without accompanying formalities.

What pleases God is not the big gesture, but the condition of the heart that makes it.

Prayer That Works

Samuel’s prayer worked because he was a righteous man of faith coming to God humbly and fervently in time of crisis, not because he happened to incinerate a baby sheep. Saul’s oath-juju was unnecessary and quite counterproductive, as his own son astutely pointed out. Solomon found favor with God not because he topped all previous and future kings in the sacrifice department, but because he “loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of David his father.” He was blessed in spite of his sacrifice at the high places, not because of it. The high places were the one blot on an otherwise-exemplary start to his reign.

For some believers, religious formality, liturgical routine and familiar gestures of supplication are comforting, safe and thought to produce predictable results. These Christians cannot bring themselves to approach God without some visible gesture by which they hope to win his favor. But God’s love and care for his children are immeasurable. He is not restrained in his generosity by our inability to give up ritual, religious formalities and even superstition, and to simply approach him in faith as a loving Father.

But next time you find yourself asking God for forgiveness through a proxy in a frock, slipping a hundred dollar bill into the offering box in hope of getting his attention, or making promises you can’t keep in hope of getting answers to prayer, stop and listen hard to what these scriptures are telling us.

Who knows? You might even hear a voice quietly saying, “Child, you could’ve just asked.”

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