Sunday, 26 August 2012

When God Says No

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“From the lips of children and infants
 you have ordained praise”
Psalm 8:2

An old troublesome doctrine has once again raised its head in me and begun to cause me to yet again try and seek understanding. Why is it troublesome? I count it so because, though I have not yet made peace with it, my leanings seem to be going in a direction that many of my friends and acquaintances are not going. When that happens, all sorts of problems can arise such as dissentions and factions within the Body of Christ. I say that it can, but it doesn’t have to. True fellowship, if built on genuine love and relationships, will endure even when doctrinal views are not the same. I know this to be true because I’ve seen evidence of it many times in my own life and relationships.

Now, please understand, I am not suggesting that I’ve got this whole faith thing all figured out. All that I know for sure is that “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Everything else, all of man’s doctrines, I am beginning to think are subject to interpretation. I would almost dare go so far as to suggest that they are subjective. In discussing the faith of the weak versus the strong believer, the Apostle Paul once said, “whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God” (Romans 14:22; NIV).

Perhaps, then, we shouldn’t even have doctrinal discussions at all, lest we find ourselves dividing the Body of Christ still further than we already shamefully have. Is that what this verse is saying? Probably not, especially when taken with other Pauline texts, such as Colossians 3:16, which tells us to, “teach and admonish one another with all wisdom.” This is a very fundamental part of the Christian community. Still, as per 1 Corinthians 13, I think Paul would also argue that a proper loving relationship trumps all doctrinal discussions. Jesus himself, in his Greatest Commandment, said that, “all the Law and the Prophets [doctrines] hang on these two commandments [love to God, and love to mankind]” (Matthew 22:40).

Yet, this nagging faith question of mine remains. What is the troublesome question that I am referring to? It is this:

What do we do when God says no?

Maybe this question really first should be preceded with another question, and that is, Does God sometimes say no? Maybe it’s my imagination, but sometimes when I listen to some folks talk, I get the impression that they think that God would never say no to them, unless of course, they don’t have enough faith. Now I know that there are many verses of scripture that speak about one’s faith being key to receiving blessings from God. Jesus himself said it time and again.
“Go! It will be done just as you believed it would” (Matthew 8:13). 
“According to your faith it will be done to you” (Matthew 9:29). 
“Because you have so little faith. I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:20). 
“Everything is possible for him who believes” (Mark 9:23). 
There are a host of other scriptures like that too, but you get the point. The outcome of events does seem to be tied in some divine way to the level of one’s faith. I do believe that. But here’s where it begins to get complicated for me.

What do we do when God seems to say ‘No’ to our prayer request? Do we pray harder? Do we ‘name it and claim it’ as some have taught? Do we get more religious and try to manipulate the situation by ‘doing’ good things in order to try and get God’s attention to our plight? Certainly, we might argue, God wants the best for me and desires that I be healed (or whatever else we’re praying for). Certainly, we reason, a God of love always answers prayer. So we busy ourselves seeking a more intense level of faith, or at least something closer to the kind of faith that we imagine Jesus was referring to in the Gospels.

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But then the child dies anyway. But then the job is lost and the paychecks dry up. But then despite our prayers for healing, the cancer returns. But then the house is repossessed and we find ourselves on the street. But then, though the Bible says that “the prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective” (James 5:16), God either seems to say ‘No,’ or remains altogether silent despite our (perceived strong) faith.

Now what do we do? I’ve known of very godly people, with very strong faith (certainly much stronger than mine) who were told by presumably well meaning Christians at the funeral of their child that if they had a stronger faith, the child would not have died. I’ve known others too who, also appearing to have had powerfully strong faiths, have completely walked away from the Lord and live as atheists today because they feel God had rejected them by unanswered prayer. Based upon a reading of 1 John 2:19, we could ask if such backsliders were ever really Christians in the first place, but that’s a hot potato that I really don’t want to juggle at this time. Still, the question remains:

What do we do when God says no?

The Bible records an interesting time when God said no to the Apostle Paul’s repeated prayer for healing. What do we do with that?
To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassing great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12: 7-9; NIV).
I wonder, did Paul not have enough faith to be healed? Does that sound crazy? It does to me, and yet when many others in the church have found themselves in similar circumstances, lack of faith is precisely the answer many of them receive from their well-meaning brothers and sisters in the Lord. What do we do with that?

“It is not as though God’s word had failed” (Romans 9:6).

Now, I realize that we all read these texts differently, but the only way that I have been able to reconcile this subject is by looking at Romans 9 and the sovereignty of God. Though the context has to do with Israel, the message applies universally; God is sovereign and will do as He sovereignly wills. Yes, the Bible promises are there, and they are true, but at the end of the day, just as God said through Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Romans 9:15). The Apostle Paul continues his discourse by saying,
It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden. One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?” But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’ Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use? (Romans 9:16-21; NIV).
Many in the church have struggled with that. It seems almost contradictory to other scriptures and doctrines that we hold dear, and yet, there it is in the pages of our Bibles. What are we to do with it? Can we make peace with difficult or seemingly contradictory scriptures? I hope we can.

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Probably the best thing we can do is to go back and look at our initial prayer from the beginning. Were we praying according to our will, or according to God’s will? My son once put it this way:
“Your will before mine. That needs to come first. Far too frequently we think that we know best and our prayers are simply telling God what to do, so to speak. If we know what is best for us, we pray to God to see that happen, and if it doesn’t, we interpret that as a lack of faith, not that we were incorrect about our request to begin with.”
I do not believe that the Bible contradicts itself, but I do believe that we are often inclined to “always learning but never able to acknowledge the truth” (2 Timothy 3:7). How do we move past this? Maybe the answer lies in another Pauline text. Maybe the answer lies in, “Now we see but a poor reflection” (1 Corinthians 13:12). The fact is, you and I do not fully understand the mind of God as to why and how he chooses to do that which he does. Yes, we live by faith, and through our study and learning we do understand some things. But at the end of the day, isn’t it all just a poor reflection of the bigger picture? Could it be that maybe the forest is actually keeping us from seeing the tree? Could it be that maybe too much doctrinal learning has actually had the reverse effect and kept us from seeing Jesus? Maybe we move past this problem by getting back to some basics, to which we now turn.

Have we complicated faith unnecessarily?

Maybe when all is said and done, I’ve even completely missed the boat on this subject too. Do I have all the answers? Of course not! However, when it comes back to dealing with the question of God sometimes appearing to say ‘No,’ at the moment, and until such time as the Lord perhaps chooses to give greater revelation, this is all that seems to make sense to me.

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Then again, perhaps in the words of Festus to Paul, “Your great learning is driving you insane” (Acts 26:24) could be spoken of to many of us as well. Perhaps our “insanity” has been to grossly overcomplicate the Gospel message. Perhaps instead of moving from doctrinal learning to understanding and then (maybe) on towards love, perhaps we would be wise to reverse the order and start with love. If love is truly the fulfillment of understanding God (as in the Great Commission), then by focusing on love we have already achieved all else that may be necessary.

Maybe we think too much about these things. Do we really have to have answers to all those “why” and “where” and what” questions about the things of God? At the end of the day, and as I said earlier, all that I now seem to know for sure is that, as in that classic children’s hymn, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

Childish, you say? Maybe. But then again, Jesus also said, “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). Maybe that’s enough. Jesus loves me, this I know. Can we rest in that?

Anyways, that's the way I see it. 

Peace and Blessings.

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