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A God of Strength
Prayer And God’s "Perhaps"

Dennis Bratcher

"How can we affirm that God answers prayer and acts in human history, and yet still affirm the idea that God never changes (the immutability of God)? If God never changes, how can he respond to prayer unless it is part of his divine plan? And if it is part of his divine plan anyway, what good does it do to pray?"

Serious questions for persons of Faith!  First, I would say, we need to abandon the concept of the immutability of God! That concept is based largely on certain philosophical ideas that attempt to define God in relation to human beings, and so defines what God must be to be God according to our preconceived notions of what a god ought to be. It is certainly not a biblical concept, and I think causes us too much difficulty in trying to understand how God actually works in the real world in which we live. There is ample biblical evidence that God does change, at least from our perspective in history (a good biblical theology lesson here would be Genesis 6-9).

Second, there is no question that God interacts with humanity. Wesleyans can say that far better than our some of our Christian brothers and sisters can. God does change His mind, but in response to human decision in general, and not just to prayer in particular.

The way the Old Testament expresses this theologically is interesting in several places. There is a single Hebrew word that is used in many such cases, a word that is usually translated simply "perhaps." It occurs in the Jonah narrative as the captain of the ship calls on Jonah to pray to his God to help them: 1:6

So the captain came and said to him, "What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call upon your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we do not perish."

The perspective is that calling on God may or may not cause certain results, even though prayer was seen as appropriate for such a crisis. It was finally their actions, not prayers, to which God responded (1:1):

"So they took up Jonah and threw him into the sea; and the sea calmed."

The same idea occurs again later in the story where the king of Nineveh and the entire nation repented at Jonah’s preaching. The ambiguity of God’s course of action is graphic (3:9-10):

"Who knows? God may yet change his mind and turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish." When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God changed his mind of the evil which he had said he would do to them; and he did not do it.

And again it is not just prayer to which God responds, but a changed way of living.

Lest someone think that only non-Israelites have this view, there is also prophetic theology that takes seriously the "perhaps" in how God works. As Amos is calling the people to repent and change their lifestyle, he introduces the idea that even repentance and changing their ways do not necessarily cause God to take a certain course of action (5:15):

Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate; perhaps the LORD, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.

In this case, they do not repent, and the nation is destroyed. But the implication is clear that even if the people had repented, there was no guarantee that they would survive.

Another example is the three young Hebrew men as they are facing ordeal by fire for failing to worship the king of Babylon. The perspective here is still more striking, because the wording raises the issue of whether God really is in control of this situation ("if he is able"). The ambiguity of God’s actions is again prominent (Dan 3:17-18):

If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace; then he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image which you have set up.

The syntax indicates that the phrase "if not" of v. 18 goes with "if he is able." In other words: "if he is able. . . but if he is not able. . ." The emphasis falls on the faithfulness of the young men in spite of what God can or cannot do or does or does not do in the world.

There are many other examples, but the point here is that "Yes!" God does respond and interact with human beings. Otherwise we would be deists and take the view that God wound up everything like a clock and then walked off leaving it to run by itself. God does work in our world!

But there is a profound biblical confession that we cannot always know exactly how he will work and on what basis, and that we cannot control how he will work. To attempt to control God by any means is to revert to a magical world view. Therefore, I think we must be very cautious in affirming everything as a miracle, or assuming that God will always do certain things because we pray. That is popular in some circles, but our experience often challenges it, and the idea is not supported by Scripture.

I will not give up the idea that God works in our history. He sometimes does so in physical, marvelous ways, and for that we can rejoice and praise Him! But I also think those times of miraculous intervention are not as common as we want them to be. If we spread out all the miracles recorded in Scripture over the 2,000 years of history that it covers, it is easy to realize that a lot of people lived all or most of their lives without ever seeing the great works of God. That very fact often became an issue of faith in the Old Testament (Malachi), as it does later in the New Testament (2 Peter).

So, testimony to the acts of God is important for the community ("when your children ask in time to come. . . you shall tell them. . .your own eyes have seen it") But I think it is a shallow and immature faith that constantly presses God to intervene in the world for our selfish interests. That was one of the problems Jesus had as the crowds pressed for just one more sign.

It is really an expression of our own self-centeredness, our own immaturity, perhaps even our own sinfulness, when we assume that prayer is a vehicle to get what we want, or what we think is best for us. This does not suggest that we should not take the greatest of our needs, the deepest of our sorrows, the most horrible of our tragedies to God in prayer. But it does affirm that we can acknowledge God as sovereign in our lives, even acknowledging His work in the world on all levels, without adopting however subtly the view that He actually manipulates the world and constantly moment by moment rearranges His creation to suit us.

Coming from a long line of farmers, I raise vegetables, specializing in tomatoes. When we have our summer feast of tomatoes, usually in the form of BLT (bacon, lettuce, and tomato) sandwiches, we always pray thanking God for the food, including the tomatoes. Now to be honest, God didn’t have much to do with those tomatoes being on the table. I’m the one who began the compost in September, spaded the ground in October, added the compost to the garden in February, fertilized in March, bought and set out the plants in April, watered and weeded them from May until September, sprayed them for leaf spot in May, hauled in ladybugs and mantis to eat the aphids in June, staked them in July, and then picked them and cleaned them. But we thank God for the tomatoes as a way of acknowledging His lordship in our lives.

I think the same is often true when we offer a prayer of thanks that our family is safe when we see a car wreck, or pray for our children or family to find the Lord. We know that God is not going to force people to accept Him (at least I think we know!). And we know, if we are honest, that it may be our family in the next car wreck.

But as Christians we choose to live in a world under God, and so can celebrate that world as God’s world even when we don’t understand it. And we also know that sometimes, in ways that we cannot really comprehend, God really does enter history and work wonderful miracles! But even beyond that, we acknowledge that He is always with us in the "in between times," even when He does not work like we want. Maybe that’s more important anyway. Sometimes the real miracle comes, not in the spectacular "fire and whirlwind" deliverance from our circumstances, but as God gives us the quiet strength to face life as it is!

So, to conceive prayer as somehow "working" is, I think, applying the wrong concept. It places too much emphasis on the results we think are appropriate based on our wants and needs. But I also think that prayer is a valuable means of communion with God. And it is that communion with God that becomes our strength! Will I pray for people to be healed, for example. Absolutely! Our God is one who has the capability to intervene in our world in marvelous ways. Do I have the Faith that He can heal. Most certainly! Does He in fact heal people? Yes, although not on our terms or for our purposes. Do I claim that He will heal because I have prayed. No. That is His decision, and I will trust him to make it. I may not like it. But then God does not exist to make me happy. Otherwise, I would be God.

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2013, Dennis Bratcher - All Rights Reserved
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