I hear a lot of prayer requests in my job.
On a weekly basis, I probably participate in 10-15 different sessions of prayer requests. Over my evangelical lifetime, I’ve participated in thousands and thousands of prayer request sessions.
For quite a while, I’ve wanted to write about what I hear in those prayer requests, but I don’t want to seem snarky or elitist, so I’ve hesitated to say what I’m going to say.
It seems to me that a lot of evangelicals have a religious experience that basically amounts to a kind of protection racket; a Christianized version of paganism, where you beg the gods to keep bad things from happening to you and work out your problems.
Those prayer requests are full to overflowing with directions to God to stop the bad that hasn’t happened and solve the results of the bad that has.
I’ll admit that I’m having more than my share of theological problems in developing a practical experience of the “sovereignty of God” as a central principle of Christianity. It’s not that I don’t believe it- I do. It’s that I have absolutely no idea how it works and especially no idea how it relates to my life and the lives of people around me. The problem is that I have a serious case of burnout from the reformed version of pastoral care: the answer to your suffering is that God did it, probably to give you a dose of his temporal wrath.
God may be in control, but I don’t think my prayers providing him with lists of things that need to be prevented and rescued really gets his attention.
So I’m having trouble joining in with prayers for God to protect various people from various things, or prayers asking God to straighten out all kinds of problems which I suppose he could have stopped from happening anyway.
In my desire to have a Christ-shaped spirituality, I’m convinced that Jesus didn’t offer his services to “protect” his disciples from bad things. He seems pretty clear that all kinds of bad things are going to happen to them, and he’ll work with whatever comes along.
What about miracles? Aren’t they showing us a God who will pay off that credit card, keep our spouse from leaving us and protect our child from bad influences? Aren’t we entitled to pray things like “put a hedge around him, Lord?”
I believe miracles are 1) revelatory in scripture and 2) an aspect of God’s mercy and freedom now. I had a co-worker once tell a roomful of students to ask God for miracles and he would do them. This was a bunch of kids with alcoholic parents, dying relatives, absent dads and major dysfunctions in the family. God had plenty to work with in the miracle department if he wanted.
I just don’t think God does miracles according to our requests. I believe he answers prayers in accordance with his purposes, and there is no telling what that’s going to mean. Maybe things will work out well and you’ll be sharing a “praise” at the next prayer group. Or maybe you’ll watch things get worse and your whole ship sink, because we can’t tell God what to do anyway.
I believe we can pray for God’s revealed kingdom purposes. I believe we can pray boldly for all things related to the Gospel. But that Mrs. Smith’s niece will make a better choice in a boyfriend? I don’t thin he’s that kind of God.
I’ve sat in the chair where I am typing this and I have cried like a little child praying for God to intervene in situations and to stop bad things from happening.
The result? Lots of bad things have happened, but I am trusting Christ in the midst of them more. Some things have changed in a way I can praise God for, but mostly God seems to be going about his business and I’m not really getting to make suggestions.
Robert Capon says that God is sovereign, but most of the time he runs the world in a way that looks like he’s not. That’s precisely my experience. I can call upon God for people to be healed, Christians to have their “needs” met and unbelievers to hear/believe/trust the Gospel.
I can’t ask for God’s protection and expect that bad things that happen to other people won’t happen to me. I can’t ask for God to straighten out messes in a miraculous way and still honestly say I believe what scripture says about what it means to follow Christ in my life.
Jesus doesn’t run a protection racket, and he isn’t a rescue squad. He gives meaning to suffering and shows us the way of kingdom repentance and the cross. That’s where I am these days. I don’t want to tell unbelievers that God works things out for me because I’m on his team.