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