Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The difference between balance and paradox

I've been trying to figure out this prayer thing for a while. I can see obvious answers to my prayers all around me. Things like a godly wife and my children safe in my stable home were the biggest desires of my heart last year. But now I have a new prayer challenge regarding my wife and healing. Heather is in some kind of pain or another about 90% of the time. Whether it's migraines, back, neck, or stomach pain. She's gets pain in her wrists when she plays piano for very long, and strange aches in her legs or sciatic nerve pain for no apparent reason. So needless to say we never run out of things to pray for. And since our prayers never seem to work it looks like we won't be running out of things any time soon.



Which naturally begs the question: What’s the point? Well I have a couple answers off the cuff, but they don't ease the frustration of asking for something ad nauseam and getting no results. Here are my answers so far… Why pray when nothing happens?


1. God told us to.

2. For the edification of the one who needs prayer.

3. Because we don't know when or if our request will be granted.

4. It builds faith?



Yeah. I hear that prayer is supposed to build our faith. But so far, on this issue, it has had the opposite effect for me. Assuming we are talking about the evangelical translation of faith: that we believe what we ask for will happen. And I think that's where a lot of my frustration lies. I don't believe that. I don't see it in scripture. I don't see it in reality. I've never even heard of it reported to be true in any specific person's life. God is not a genie who gives us our every wish. He has greater plans for us and His kingdom that granting us our whims. Heather just read a statement out a book she's reading that basically said God's will is that everyone would always be healthy. And you have to accept that fact if you are going to be healed. The only verse quoted was:




Philippians 2:13



For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure.


That is very true. Notice whose good pleasure it is being fulfilled here? Yeah. The guys 'proof' that God wants us healthy all the time? This statement:


Kenneth E. Hagin ~ Health Food Devotions


It is God's will not only to heal you, but also to heal everyone else who is sick, because healing is in God's redemptive plan. Settle that in your mind and heart. Then you don't have to ask any questions. And you don't have to wonder. You know!


Really? I don't have to ask questions anymore? Hallelujah! No more thinking or discerning for me! Just good ol' fashioned healing all the time. I guess I won't ever die either. I'm not sure where this redemptive plan is… But I guess it's the same for everybody, and comes with a full-coverage health plan.


Of course it doesn't make much sense for me to ridicule someone who has way more experience with prayer and healing than I do. And who is, I assume, much more successful than me at it. But on the other hand, when people make up things about what God wants or doesn’t want out of whole cloth and try to claim that's how healing happens, I get a little skeptical. But could a misunderstood motivation for God actually lead to more faith, and therefore more healing? Can a lack of truth ever produce good fruit? I don't know. But I see two sides of the prayer issue that seem to contradict each other.


On the one side I see the sovereignty of God. He does what He does for good reasons that you or I may never know. In the Bible, there are innumerable examples of people's individual wishes being thwarted for God's plan to happen. You think Joseph wanted to be falsely accused and spend years in prison? You think Saul wanted to be struck blind? You think after his conversion he was happy about the mysterious infirmity that he mentions? In fact, he specifically said he believed God kept him in that state so that he would not become prideful. How do the faith healers explain that one? Clearly, and logically, we can't all have our way all the time. We must humbly bow to God's authority, trusting that His will, no matter how it makes us feel, is good and right. Even Jesus prayed that He would not have to go through with His task.


The other side I see are the verses that tell us to pray about what we want and need, and that, with certain conditions, we will get them.



James 5:


13 Is anyone among you suffering? He should pray. Is anyone cheerful? He should sing praises. 14 Is anyone among you sick? He should call for the elders of the church, and they should pray over him after anointing him with olive oil in the name of the Lord. 15 The prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. 16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The intense prayer of the righteous is very powerful.


1 John 5:


14This is the confidence which we have before Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us.
15And if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests which we have asked from Him


Matthew 7:


7"Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you."




John 14:



13"Whatever you ask in My name, that will I do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14"If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it. "


Those are pretty strong statements, and very difficult to explain how they don't contradict all the biblical examples of requests that are denied. My rational mind seeks to balance the two sides. To explain away the above verses… just a bit. But of course if you explain them away completely your belief system is bereft of miracles, and at that point what is the point of belief? Plus, I'm not a fan of explaining stuff away. And yet… obviously there is a paradox.


In my pastor's sermon last week he talked about this issue. His assertion is that these amazing claims are true when we walk in who we really are in God. As the being that He birthed us to be. When we realize that we are not just created and adopted as his children, but that –as it is said many times in the New Testament- we were born of God. That is, we are of the same substance. That born again being that is within us who cannot sin. He makes an analogy of an oak tree that is born within us. But our outward sinful nature is like cottonwood that will be burned away. The cottonwood is what causes us to stumble and keeps us from fulfilling our true nature of sinlessnes and miracles.


Well, It's the best explanation I've heard to explain this paradox. But the solution… "Walking in the truth of who we are in God." That's a bit vague. Curt brought up the best and most literal example of this: when Jesus was walking on the water to the boat with the disciples. Peter wanted to do it, and he did for a moment. But he became freighted by the wind and waves and began to sink. Jesus said, "You of little faith. Why did you doubt?" Clearly, faith seems to be a huge factor in miracles like healing. But what is that faith in, exactly? Is it faith that God will grant your wishes? Without concern for His will or any consequences? Or does faith that God is good and trusting that His will is better than yours count too?


Curt brought this story up for an interesting point though. He said that everyone who has believed God for miracles for a decent amount of time has had at least one major failing where their prayers, despite an absolute and pure faith, were still not answered. Curt's explanation for this? God is bigger than anything we can imagine, and there comes a time when He says to us, "I want to know which one you are going to believe: your experience, or My Word. Which one are you going to stand on?"


He proposes that God is doing something profound in these instances. Because we have a tendency to look at our experience, and use that as a filter for God's Word. We want to figure out why they conflict. (Exactly what I'm puzzling over in this entry.) And that it is good to use our mind to do this sort of thing. God gave us our brains to use them. But that the proper use is for the marshaling (to bring together and order in an appropriate or effective way ) of our faith. We don't want to distort the plain meaning of the Word with the prism of our experience and theology.


One way to combat this is to remember the times where God did answer us, and provided for us. Since people always remember bad more than good, we tend to contrive our formulas based on the exceptions rather than the rule. Our experiences will fade with time. But what will last is the Word. Perfectly. It is more true than any experience that you have ever had. Period.


But I have a problem with this approach to paradox. If I'm supposed to abandon experience as a guide to inform my thoughts, that leaves me set adrift in an ocean of relativism. Because how else did I come to my belief in Christ in the first place if not by a series of experiences? I want to believe that faith must be rooted in logic for it to be real. I believe that there is enough evidence for Christianity to hold it as rationally tenable. That is not to say that faith is not required. But it is important that there be a foundation or rational for one's belief. If that does not exist, what is to keep me from worshipping a Flying Spaghetti Monster?


But that's not entirely what my pastor said. He said that only some of our experiences -specifically the ones that contradict a simple, strait forward interpretation of scripture- are to be ignored. But that doesn’t quite work either. Because you could apply the same logic to any belief system and dupe yourself into anything. But then there is the example of Abraham, who was told by God to sacrifice his son. This made no sense according to everything he knew and understood about God. But he acted anyway. Ignored his experience, and acted in faith. Of course God stopped him from doing it at the last second…


I'm not a fast thinker, so I didn't arrive at this apparent dead end until just now. But I did ask Curt a question after the sermon. I asked how to balance the two Biblical concepts of Get What You Pray For, and God's Will Is Supreme. He said I should NOT try to balance them. He said it is a paradox, and you shouldn't try to balance a paradox. Because balance require diminishing both concepts. You have to bring one side down to match the other. But paradox says they are both true. I believe that God is logical. Or rather, what we call logic is a shadow of His nature, His Truth. So I believe that paradoxes in general exist because we are ignorant of certain factors that 'explain' them. Not because God likes keeping secrets, but because creatures in time, and non omniscient, omnipresent, or omnipotent, just can't comprehend those factors.


So it's not that I can't handle paradox. I can believe that Jesus is 100% man, and 100% God. I can believe that we are saved 100% by grace, yet we must have works happening too. But those concepts are beyond experience. They aren't asking me to ignore what is clearly happening here and now.


Here is my understanding of things now….
Instructions for building a car could say "To build a car, you need wheels." This statement is true. And if later in the instructions it says, "To build a car you need wheels and an engine." It does not contradict the former statement. It builds on it and clarifies it. So when Jesus says ""If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it." and later John adds, "if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us." He is not contradicting Jesus, he is adding more information. That is why proof-texting – taking a couple verses out of context to prove your position- is so dangerous.


But that begs the question of why Jesus would leave it at that. Even considering context, it's a clear and bold statement. There are obviously more facts that are not included. He said that anyone who has faith in Him will do what He had been doing. Since no one has ever had a track record like His, either, A. Nobody has faith in Him, or B. there are additional restrictions. Why did He not mention them? Were the writers of the New Testament negligent to record them? Was he allowing room for interpretation? Was He leaving room for further explanation that would come later in the New Testament? Or is it none of the above? I don't see how it can be without saying that no one has had faith in Him.


I would say that as we become more spiritually mature the more our will is going to line up with God's will. The more we will be sensitive to His promptings. The more we will pray for what He wants instead of what our flesh wants. As that happens, our prayers will obviously be getting answers because we are praying for His will to be done. Maybe that is what "Anyone who has faith in me…" means. Faith is a mysterious thing. It is apparently not an on/off switch, since many in the Bible were told they had too little; not none. (Such as Peter when he jumped out of the boat.)
Here is my favorite verse about prayer…


Philippians 4:

6Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.


Why is this my favorite? Maybe because it focuses on a broader faith, and makes no promises concerning specifics. That way I don't feel like a failure when I pray for healing and nothing happens. (immediately) It showcases attributes where I am strong. I don't worry much. I'm usually very thankful for everything in my life. I can easily obey the command to pray and petition for my requests. And I have noticed God's transcending peace guarding my heart and mind. So this verse resonates more with me than, "Ask anything in my name and I will do it." And yet, just because it is not in my realm of experience, and I've never seen or heard of it happening, (consistently) does not diminish the truth of the statement.


It seems like I'm making a differentiation between two kinds of faith. I would call one a foundational faith. Faith that despite whatever happens, God is in control and the righteous win in the end. (After death.) I see this as a stabilizing faith. Then there is the kind of faith that brings forth miracles. This faith moves you foreword, in boldness and strength. These probably are not two separate kinds… but maybe different manifestations. And a mature Christian would probably demonstrate both. I rely heavily on the former. I'm guessing most Christians of my type do. The kind who care a lot about the reasons that they believe, and contemplate these kinds of issues frequently.


I think the reason the issue of healing is such a test of faith is because the problem is so much more immediate, visceral, and panic-inducing then the other issues I've had. For instance, last year I was bemoaning my lack of a help-mate; my longings for a woman to love. These things were real, but not causing me to double over in pain. The year before that I was distraught over what to do to keep my children safe and mentally healthy. There were some immediate issues, but mostly those were long term issues. The year before that I was torn about what I was supposed to do about my marriage to a wife who had suddenly gone off the deep end. While these things were traumatic, and difficult, they were more of a slow-burn variety of problem. But when it comes to continual pain in my wife's body, essentially torture of some kind or another… It makes every unanswered request at relief seem cruel. Of course God is not cruel, and I will do all that I can to bend my perception of these circumstances to a biblical understanding of them.

In the mean time, I'm going to track down my pastor and talk about this some more.








Wednesday, January 04, 2006

I'm fast. No I'm not.

I'm in the middle of a week long fast from rich food and my favorite game. And I don't know why. I'm hoping it was a prompting of the Holy Spirit and not some random thought that popped into my head. I had the usual holiday diet of way too much fast food from all the traveling and such. New years eve I got Taco Bell and decided after that it was over. I needed to eat nothing but vegetables for a week. The thought developed into a fast from gluttony in general. I've been addicted to a game called Civilization IV for the past several weeks. It has everything I could want in a game. History, strategy, role play, and an epic scope. I have been gluttonous with it. And sadly, I feel like I restrained myself a lot. But realistically, it takes about 20 hours to play an average game…. And I've played several of them. For someone so freaked out about how little time I have, it's quite sad.

So now I'm trying to figure out how to cope with my losses. And I think that might be the most important part of why I'm doing this. I always knew I used food and games as a crutch to get me through the day… little rewards I could look forward too. Oh, and I'm not drinking pop either. That was my only caffeine source. I kind of surprised how little it seems to affect my tiredness. Actually, come to think of it, I've tried to go to bed early the past 3 nights only to lay awake for hours… Hmm.

Anyway, I'm hoping this will be worth it… because mixed vegetables for breakfast lunch and dinner is getting old. Surprising, huh? And I really, really want to play Civ 4 again! It's funny how when you resolve to do something, suddenly the fates are against you. For instance, the very first day, we took the kids to McDonalds. (Mmmmm Double Cheesburger…) But I had a side salad. Then, last night my wife goes out with her friend for several hours. She almost never does that! That is my prime gaming time!!! (Since I try not to play games when I should be spending time with my beautiful wife.)

But so far I have been steadfast. Maybe I'll have something profound to share afterwards.