Tuesday, 19 June 2018

What about Old Testament Violence? Part 2 - Some attempts at reconciliation

How do we reconcile troubling Old Testament violence with the Jesus Christ's admonition to love and bless our enemies?
Are you inspired by Jesus but disturbed by the violent portraits of God recorded in the Old Testament?

Many attempts have been made to reconcile these very different, often contradictory pictures of God and we'll look at some of those here.

Last time, we started with the question 'Is God Schizophrenic?' and ended with the statement that 'What we see is what we become.' If you see God as unpredictable, never knowing if you're going to get the Yahweh version or the Jesus version, it's harder to behave consistently yourself.

Do believers act more aggressively when they believe that God sanctions violence?

A study done at the University of Michigan by social psychologist Brad Bushman and his colleagues suggests they do - read it here.

History provides substantial evidence of its own though. The church has used the image of the war-mongering God of the Old Testament to justify all sorts of atrocities. They felt justified in committing acts of horrific violence because they believed it was the moral thing to do. God, who set the standard of morality, modelled violence as a solution to situations of conflict. (A fascinating article on how people resort to violence because they believe their moral codes require it can be found here.)

Divinely sanctioned acts of atrocious violence, seemingly contradicted by Jesus' instruction to love and bless our enemies, can be confusing. How should we respond to situations of conflict?

2 Corinthians 3:18 - What you see is what you become

I know enough of God to know that there must be an explanation. How do I know that? Here's a clue:

Whenever we see something about God that doesn’t match the character of Jesus, no matter how bad it looks, we can trust that there is an explanation.

But I must be clear: platitudes like: 'One day all will be made known,' and 'Each to their own,' and 'God's ways are higher than our ways,' are not, to my mind, satisfactory explanations.

So how do we explain it then? Some people simply dismiss the Old Testament picture of God by ignoring it. They just never read that section of the Bible. If it's not in their ‘Live your best life’ devotional they pretend it's not there.

Old Testament violence - How can I believe God is Good, even when He looks bad?

On the other hand, some will take those revelations as equal in authority to our revelation of God in Jesus, often thereby justifying atrocious acts of violence in God's name. - they get to choose which aspect of God they want to demonstrate in any given situation.

The difficulty with this view is that Jesus himself directly contradicts God’s words in the Old Testament. Which do we take as our example?

Even others find a way to show how justified the violence was in each situation; spin it one way or the other to make it more palatable.

Some will blame a translation error - that's a common one. Maybe there was some kind of mixup and 'slaughter' doesn't really mean 'slaughter'.

Maybe I'm just hard to please, but none of these approaches solves the glaring contradictions to my satisfaction.

We can't ignore chunks of the Bible - every word has to be taken seriously and acknowledged as inspired of the Holy Spirit, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us. Why do I believe that so emphatically? For starters, Paul, referring to our current Old Testament, described it as 'God Breathed'.

We have the added complication that Jesus believed the Old Testament. Nuts! Just when you thought you get away with leaving it on the shelf we see that Jesus directly quotes 24 of the 39 books in the Old Testament. Only 4 books in the Old Testament are not quoted by all the New Testament authors combined.

But what do we do now? Jesus is the peace-loving hippy and Yahweh is the warmongering despot, ready to chop everyone's heads off and Holy Spirit wafts about making windy noises.  With Jesus and Yahweh making up 2/3 of the Trinity - How can they be so at odds with each other? How do we reconcile these pictures of the persons within the Godhead? These are not just different behaviours as expressions of the same character - this looks like completely different characters. Is there disunity in the Trinity?

Old Testament Violence - Can I trust God?

Which one are we going to get in any given moment? We'd never be sure what to expect. It's a bit like growing up with an unstable parent - you never know if you'll get furious mom or patient mom or withdrawn mom or sweet mom - and that makes it harder to know how to behave because like all kids, you blame yourself for triggering the behaviour changes.

That's just exhausting, feeling like it all depends on you and your behaviour. You stop taking risks - even good ones - especially good ones - because you're never sure how mom / God is going to respond. And so you try to make yourself smaller and as invisible as you possibly can so maybe you won't be noticed and so no one can blame you for the inevitable outburst.

As usual, I've got myself in a bit of a hole - one I'm going to have to wrestle my way out of. Fortunately, I have a pretty good precedent in the Old Testament when it comes to wrestling with God.

Of the great patriarchs mentioned in Hebrews 11 as champions of faith, Jacob wrestled with God through the night, Moses repeatedly objected to God's intended course of action and had the audacity to suggest an alternative, as did Abraham. Usually, they were questioning the consistency of his actions with his character... which is precisely what we are doing here.

Even crazier than the thought that they could question God, is the thought that he changed his way that he was going to do because of them. On that precedent, I feel confident in asking God what he's up to.

The Cross is the lens through which God is seen, it is the means of Grace by which he is known. - Michael Gorman

I mentioned the clue to all of this earlier: If we see a portrait of God in scripture that doesn't match how he has revealed himself in Jesus, we can trust there is some explanation because Jesus is the standard by which we measure all revelation. How can I be so sure of that?
You'll have to wait for part 3 to find out... Or you could read ahead, but just know that if you do end up buying from one of the links below, I'll get a small commission at no extra cost to you. (Full Disclosure)

 Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of Old Testament Violence is the popular version of the more academic The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Volumes 1 & 2 which Greg Boyd spent around 10 years writing in his quest to find out how to reconcile the troubling pictures of Old Testament violence with the self-sacrificial love of God revealed in Jesus' work on the cross. With the heart of a pastor and the skill of a theologian, he forges a path that shows how even the most horrific episodes in the Old Testament testify to a God of peace and love. Sound too good to be true? It's not, He really is that good! Get the book if you don't believe me.

Or, if you're willing to take the gamble that the next post will be ready before you get the book, make sure you subscribe via email to be notified of future posts, and/or follow us on Facebook.

And, if you'd like to hear a recording of me sharing this in person at Dwell Church in Durban, in May 2017, complete with South African accent, weird belly chuckle-laughs and a couple of family anecdotes, click on the Soundcloud link below.

Friday, 20 April 2018

What about Old Testament Violence? Part 1 - Is God schizophrenic?

I am convinced that God is good, but I'll admit there are times when I wonder, "What about the time when?..."

I've realised I spend quite a large portion of my thought life asking, 'Yes, but what about...?" I test my opinions and observations by trying to find exceptions.

If you've spent any significant amount of time reading the Bible, especially the Old Testament, you'll have a lot of those, "Yes, but what about...?" questions, I'm sure!
Moments where God does something that doesn't look 'good', things that I wouldn't consider morally good, or things that don't seem to match up with God's own definitions of what is 'good'.

Many people reject Christianity outright because they don't feel they can serve or worship or love God as he is represented in the Old Testament. To be honest, I've had my moments where I've wondered aloud how on earth (or in heaven!) this all fits together.

A. A. Milne, the author of the Winnie the Pooh books wrote:
'The Old Testament is responsible for more atheism, agnosticism, disbelief, call it what you will, than any other book ever written.'
It’s a strong statement but frankly, I can see where he is coming from. What makes it more complex is that we can’t dismiss the Old Testament by saying, 'It’s just not like anymore.'Yes, we are in a new dispensation, but our new dispensation is on the foundation of the Old Testament - we can’t dismiss that foundation. But then again, these Old Testament portraits are so very different from the portrait of God we find in Jesus.

These differences can seem quite stark. There were times when Yahweh, I’ll refer to him as Yahweh as distinct from Jesus even though we know they are God, where Yahweh commands his followers to slaughter every man, woman, child and animal as they were entering regions of Canaan - their Promised Land, where Jesus comes and says, 'If someone strikes you, turn the other cheek.'

Yahweh threatened curses on those who showed mercy to their enemies, Jesus comes and says we are to forgive our enemies - and when his disciples ask how many times - he says seventy times seven times. Jesus also prayed for those who persecuted them and taught forgiveness.

Yahweh even brought judgment on a group of people by causing them to cannibalise their children. Yes, that's in the Bible. But Jesus praised the faith of children and said that for anyone who harms children 'it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.' (Matthew 18:6)

These are very different pictures of God we're getting from the Old and New Testaments - I trust I can bring some clarity to this seeming contradiction.

Those of us who have known God's love, we have enough experience of him to say, 'I know there's an explanation for this.' If you are not yet in that place - please don't panic - there is an explanation.
For those who haven't ever met Jesus, who haven't experienced his presence, often there isn't enough for them to go on to trust that there is an explanation for the contradictions they find - and so they reject Christianity outright.

I'd love for this post, and the posts following, to give you confidence that he is good, more good than you could ever imagine. You may have seen some ugly pictures of him, but he is good!

In case you're worried, I am absolutely not going to tell you that God is good in some creepy abusive partner kind of way. You’ve all heard of the guy who gives his wife a black eye and tells her it's for own good and he only hits her because he loves her. We’re not going down that road. Promise!

But why spend the energy on finding an explanation? Well, I agree with this guy called Aiden Wilson Tozer who stated that 'The Image that comes to mind when you think of God is the most important thing about you.'

It affects absolutely every moment of how we live our lives: what we think about ourselves, about other people, how we read the circumstances around us - they determine the direction we move in, who we become - what we believe about God really is the most important thing about us. How did the serpent get Eve to eat the fruit? He attacked her mental image of God.

Paul writes to the Corinthian church:

'And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image.' (2 Corinthians 3:18)

What we see is what we become.

So I'm trusting that as you join me in this journey of discovering how good God really is, your life would be transformed as have the lives of many believers before us.

If you'd like to 'read ahead' then I'd recommend one of the books linked below. They are two different versions of the same material written researched and written over the course of a decade by Pastor-Theologian Greg Boyd - a man I believe may go down in history as one of the most influential but underrated theologians of our time.

(Note: If you do end up buying from one of these links, I'll get a small commission at no extra cost to you. Full Disclosure)

The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Volumes 1 & 2 is the more academic version, clocking in at over 1500 pages. Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of Old Testament Violence is written for a more general audience. Both are very readable and wonderfully unstuffy. (I have copies of both and have been reading them again in parallel. #theologynerd) I found myself in tears often as my understanding of the goodness of God was stretched in all directions.

So, how do you usually resolve your, 'Yes, but what about?' moments?

Share below!

Click on the Soundcloud link below to listen to an original recording of this post - recorded in May 2017 at Dwell Church in Durban, South Africa.

The most certain way to make sure you get the next post in the series is to subscribe via email, second best would be to follow us on Facebook, but if you missed either of those, here it is: Part 2: How do we reconcile contradictory pictures of God?

Monday, 12 February 2018

Why Pray? Part 3: What about unanswered prayer?

If you've never had an unanswered prayer then I think it would be safe to say you've never prayed for anything. 

And I'm pretty certain that in experiencing unanswered prayer, you've had moments of wondering why you prayed anyway. Did God even hear?

From Part 1: What difference does it make? & Part 2: Does God change his mind? of our 'Why Pray?' series, I'm hoping you've come to the point of agreeing that our prayers can and do make an actual (rather than imagined) difference in how things are. But what about that time when you prayed for that thing? You had faith and you knew it was God's will, but nothing happened. What do we do with unanswered prayer?

From experience, we know that when we pray for something, it’s not an automatic guarantee that it will happen. As much as the statement is pretty self evident, I feel like a bad Christian for saying it. But we all experience unanswered prayer, even when we pray in faith and in accordance with God’s will.

But it is precisely because we assume God's will and our faith are the only two variables at play that we make life difficult. There are many more variables than only those two. (Inspired by Greg Boyd here and here.)

The reason it’s hard to say that is because we love the idea of deposits and withdrawals. In that sense we’re legalists at heart: Do this and you’ll be blessed, do that and you’ll be cursed. Simple. Easy. It's this for that and it works.

But that's not how it works.

It cheapens the relationship that God invites us into. He isn't a genie and our wish is not his command.

When things don’t go our way we generally default to one or more of the following: possibly God doesn’t want to best for us, or he doesn’t have the power to make it happen, or we don't have enough faith. But that view omits all other variables, like the fact that we have an enemy. Unanswered prayer also doesn’t negate that God is all powerful - he has all power. But this is how he chooses to govern on earth. He values free will so highly that he’s happy to let this much ride on our free will and the free will of angelic beings. That to me is an incredible gift that God has given us that we can have so much influence.

The Bible does seem to say that sometimes persistence may be required when we pray - and I struggled with that for a while. I felt like I was begging.

If I'm a daughter, why do I need to beg?

Like fasting - I always had a suspicion that fasting was like a hunger strike. If I fast for long enough, then God's just going to have to do what I want.

I was uneasy, because this view assumes that God isn't generous in bringing about the greatest good, that we care more about his will being done than he does, and we need to manipulate him for things to happen and secondly, it again assumes that God's will and our faith are the only variables at play.

Jesus nonetheless encourages persistent prayer. What’s up with that?
Sometimes we need to persist in prayer because there are forces that resist us.

We are at war. 

I would describe myself as a pacifist on the whole. But we know that 'we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and autwe are not at coming at this from a losing position, because 'He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.' (Col 2:15)
horities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places' (Eph 6:12) and

We engage in warfare from a place of victory and 'the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds.' (2 Co 10:4) So why does the Bible speak of us being in a place of victory but also at war? It's part of the dual nature of Christianity that I mentioned in the last post. There are still obstacles to be overcome - our defeated enemy still attempts some last gasp skirmishes - and that forms one of the variables that affects whether our prayers are answered or not.

So, fallen angelic beings can be obstacles to prayer being answered. 

In Daniel 10 we see an account where a heavenly messenger appears to Daniel. He tells Daniel that he had been dispatched immediately when Daniel had prayed 21 days earlier, but was resisted by the [spirit] Prince of Persia and was only able to get there after all because the archangel Michael had come to his aid.

It’s not that Daniel’s faith only kicked in at 21 days, it’s not that God’s will only kicked in at 21 days.
There were forces that opposed them.

I understand that in the New Covenant we have greater authority than under the Old Covenant, but nonetheless there is still this impact. Jesus had to deal with demons during his time of ministry. He dealt with them by God's authority but he still had to deal with them, as did the early disciples.

Even now with the Holy Spirit we have forces that oppose us, that resist the kingdom of God, and aim to thwart the will of God in our lives. So if God gives us a heart for something we keep praying for that thing until it happens or until that conviction is removed, but we keep going - because we can’t see always what is happening in the heavenlies, but God can.

One other factor, among a few others, is the free will of other people. God can and does influence people, but doesn't coerce them. He values free will insanely highly. So sometimes people's free will decisions will interact with our answers to prayer.

There have been times where we've been struggling financially, and I remember thinking, 'I wonder who is not listening to God. I'm sure somewhere God is telling someone to help us out with some cash or a better job or a car or something, but they're just not exercising their free will in the right direction.'

So I’m not going to blame God for this, I’m going to blame the person who’s not listening to what God is telling them to do. Maybe that will help you when you're struggling, but maybe it will also encourage you when God is asking you to help someone - maybe he wants to use you as the vehicle for provision and blessing in someone's life!

What is tragic, is that so much of the suffering on earth is the result of people’s free will actions. It’s tempting to ask, is it really worth it God? This free will thing: It’s hurting me. It's hurting us. Is it really worth it?

His answer is a resounding YES. 

God believes it’s worth it for us to have free will, for us to have agency. Without free will, without actual choices that have actual consequences, there’s no possibility of love. Love requires free will. If I don’t choose to love God’s then it’s not love. If I act in a loving way: if I serve him and I worship him, but I never chose it, if I never had the option to do otherwise, then it’s not love. 

He values love, he values relationship so highly that he allows us free will even though we can use that free will for good or for bad. With Jesus we have an even greater capacity to use our free will for good. When we make decisions for good they have even greater impact than they could have had before the cross. He is willing to take a risk on giving us free will because he knows that even though we have a capacity for evil, it is only because we have free will that we have any capacity for goodness.

There are other reasons for unanswered prayer - some listed here -  but I think the examples above are enough to prove that our faith and God's will are not the only two variables at play. But, we can always rest in the knowledge that God works all things together for the good of those who love him. (Romans 8:29) It doesn't say that what happened is necessarily good, but God can take the worst, most seeming irredeemable situation and bring something so beautiful out of it, that one might be forgiven for assuming that he planned it that way all along. 

Going back to the idea that prayer is not magic - often we see God as an input output machine, like a bank teller. You put in your prayer and your church attendance and your tithe and your good deeds and ta da! - health, wealth, prosperity, comfort, rainbows, dolphins and sunflowers are yours forevermore. We get this idea that because we did everything right, I’m entitled to a life of comfort. When we get upset with God that’s our attitude - I did what you said and you owe me and why is it not happening like that.

He wants us to live in freedom and health. I don’t doubt that. He wants us to live in a place of more-than-enough and all of those wonderful things, but greater than any of those things is his desire for relationship.

I don’t know if any of you remember the Prayer of Jabez back in the day - coffee mugs, devotionals, bible covers, fridge magnets - you name it, it was everywhere.

It came from 1 Chronicles 4:10:
'Jabez called upon the God of Israel, saying, “Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from harm so that it might not bring me pain!” And God granted what he asked.'
My theory is that someone thought this verse would make a good prayer, so they prayed it and something good happened and then all of a sudden, everyone needs to pray the Prayer of Jabez three times a day and abracadabra you'll never have pain and always be blessed. You can solve all your life problems by praying the Prayer of Jabez.

And maybe that's even true. But I feel its an impoverished view of what we are invited into. We love that kind of thing because it makes it easy. Relationships are hard. They take time and effort and vulnerability and reciprocity. If we could just pray the Prayer of Jabez 20 times, say 20 Hail Marys, 50 Lord's Prayers and get what we want, who needs all that messy relationship stuff anyway?

Then there's The Secret that’s not so secret anymore since they sold so many million copies and loads of related merchandise. It's based around the idea of the Law of Attraction (capital L and capital A) which is purported to be a 'natural law' (like gravity) in which your thoughts become feelings, which radiate from you into the universe causing the universe to vibrate at the same level, cause you to attract what you are thinking. If you think about sickness, you will attract sickness, if you think about wealth, you'll attract wealth.

Um, No.
I've seen how this idea has been attractive to many Christians - believe and you'll receive. 'Whatever you ask for in my name' and all that. I could write pages on this stuff, and I might, but essentially the Law of Attraction collapses under the weight of real evil in the world. The young child sold into a human trafficking ring - she must have attracted that to herself. Like for real?

No, I'm not taking it out of context. The Secret teaches that there is no such thing as coincidence or accident - we are always getting what we deserve, what we ourselves attracted.

Still Nope.
And if it doesn't work out how you wanted it, you obviously weren't thinking about it just right. Or maybe someone else was attracting it to themselves stronger than you were. While it has helped some people be more optimistic and feel happier with life, and dwelling on good things can be good for us, Christians are honestly doing themselves a great disservice by going anywhere near something like 'The Secret'.

While I'm at it, I detest all those emails and Facebook posts and Whatsapp chain messages telling you to share or post or like or else. It makes God into a genie and prayer into magic: light this candle, say this prayer, burn this incense and you’ll get your job back or be blessed or not die.

That’s not God. That’s superstition.

God calls us into relationship - a dynamic, living vital relationship. We’re not trying to twist God’s arm and neither are we his puppets. Prayer is not an abstract manipulation tool. He calls us to co-labour with him, to work with him to accomplish what he’s doing on earth - primarily in the context of a relationship.

So even though we can mentally acknowledge the various reasons why our prayers go unanswered, it doesn't address the real heartache that we experience when things do go wrong and real suffering is experienced. The very human response is to ask why, often so we can assign blame.

Even if we only take free will into account, we have no way of knowing the intricacies and effects of every single free will decision ever made, by humans or angels, fallen or otherwise. I don't know if it is possible for us to ever know why, not because God is vindictively mysterious, but because the answer is more complex than we could ever comprehend. Sometimes we need to live with the fact that we don't know why some are answered and some not, but we can always affirm that God is good and always loving, because that is how he revealed himself on the cross.

In conclusion,
Prayer is important.
Prayer makes a difference.
God loves you.
More than anything else he wants you in relationship with him.

That marks the end of our 'Why Pray?' series. 
Feel free to engage or ask questions by commenting below - I love hearing from you!

If this touched you or made you think, please share with 10 people within the next 5 minutes... 
Just joking. 
Rather, feel free to exercise your (uncoerced) free will to share this post with people you feel may be interested in reading it. 
Or not. 
It's your choice.
It's also your choice to subscribe to future posts by making use of the 'Subscribe by Email' box. 
I'm trusting you choose well. ;-)

You can listen to all three parts of the series as an audio teaching using the link below:

Friday, 2 February 2018

Why Pray? Part 2: Does God change his mind?

Does God change his mind?

If not, then why pray?

(Make sure you read Why pray? Part I: What difference does it make? for context!)

One of the keys to understanding the purpose of prayer is making peace with the 'Done' and the 'Doing', the 'Being' and the 'Becoming' nature of the Christian faith. There’s the finished work of the cross where, to some extent his kingdom has come, but he wants to complete the expression of that through us. This duality seems to be crux of the whole thing. ('Scuse the pun.)

Now while I find the idea that 'prayer changes us, not God' rather unsatisfactory, (Apologies to C. S. Lewis!) I'm not saying that prayer doesn't change us. Acknowledging our dependence on God on a regular basis can only be good for us, but that's not the primary purpose of prayer.

Still, something about the idea that prayer only changes us just didn't ring true, and when I actually checked my Bible, wonder of wonders, I found my suspicions confirmed.

In fact, it seems like the whole Bible narrative is stitched together by God responding the the prayers of his people.

Some examples...

At one point the Isaraelites had been getting up to no good, not unusual. This specific incident occured just after they had left Egypt. People were extorting money from each other, oppressing the poor, essentially slipping away from what God had called them to. So God says to Moses in Numbers 14:12-20
12 I will disown them and destroy them with a plague. Then I will make you [Moses] into a nation greater and mightier than they are!”
13 But Moses objected. “What will the Egyptians think when they hear about it?” he asked the LORD. “They know full well the power you displayed in rescuing your people from Egypt. 14 Now if you destroy them, the Egyptians will send a report to the inhabitants of this land, who have already heard that you live among your people. ... 15 Now if you slaughter all these people with a single blow, the nations that have heard of your fame will say, 16 ‘The LORD was not able to bring them into the land he swore to give them, so he killed them in the wilderness.’
17 “Please, Lord, prove that your power is as great as you have claimed.
I’m not sure I’d be quite so bold as to pray that kind of prayer, but seeing as he isn't incincerated yet, he continues...
For you said, 18 ‘The LORD is slow to anger and filled with unfailing love, forgiving every kind of sin and rebellion. ...’ 19 In keeping with your magnificent, unfailing love, please pardon the sins of this people, just as you have forgiven them ever since they left Egypt.”
20 Then the LORD said, “I will pardon them as you have requested.
Moses is quite bold in his response, but, somewhat surprisingly, God acquiesces: 'I will pardon them as you have requested.'
Not, 'I will pardon them because that was what I going to do anyway.'
He actually says, 'I will pardon them as you have requested' - because of your request, I will pardon them.

There are other examples where Moses cries out on behalf of the people and God appears to change his mind. And the same with David. It's a scary thing to say, I know. People get very stressed when we observe God changing his mind, because we have this idea that changing one's mind suggest inconsistency, but we see it in scripture so we’ve got to find a way to figure this out.

Another example: God tells Elijah that because King Ahab humbled himself, he (God) wouldn’t destroy King Ahab’s dynasty in his generation as he promised to do - he actually says ‘I promised’ but because KingAhab humbled himself I won’t don’t it.

Because of King Ahab's response, God changed his mind as to what he was going to do. If God had intended that outcome all along, then he was lying when he said he had changed his mind, or he actually does change his mind and King Ahab's prayers actually did make a difference. (1 Kings 29:21)

Then there's verse we’ve all seen on bible covers and mugs at the Bible shop - 2 Chronicles 7:14-15
14 ...if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land. 15 Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place. 
Did you catch all those 'ifs' and 'thens'? We see this 'if - then' pattern quite regularly in scripture. God has given us this incredible gift called agency - our decisions do actually influence what happens on earth.

This also has a negative side - we see in Ezekiel 22:30
30 I looked for someone among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it, but I found no one.
God relies on our prayers to get things done - and just as things change for the good when we do pray and act, so things change (or stay the same) in a way that is contrary to God's will when we don't pray.

This illustrates to us again the insane importance of prayer. It’s not just something we’ve made up to feel pious. It’s the way God has chosen to govern this earth - by relying on our prayer.

It’s a difficult thing to say, 'God needs our prayers,' especially when God's own name is Yahweh: 'I am', the self-existent one who needs nothing.  But there is a difference between something needed for existence and other kinds of needs. God needs nothing from us in order to continue existing, but he has chosen that for his will to happen, our prayers are required, which is maybe an easier word than needed.

Also, I see people start twitching when we talk about God changing his mind. But even in Genesis 6 concerning the flood, the text says that God repented of creating human beings - which I understood as regret. This understandably raises some concerns as most churchgoers today see the idea of God changing his mind as totally inadmissable - and I think I know why.

Let's start with a teeny tiny philosophy lesson. The whole idea of change being bad comes from Greek philsophy, Plato specifically.

A friend went to study theology at a university that shall remain unnamed. At one of their first lectures, the lecturer starts by sayng, ‘God is perfect. Agreed?’ The first years nod their heads. The lecturer relates an instance where God seems to change his mind and asks,  'And if something perfect changes, what does it become?' The immediately obvious answer seems to be, 'Imperfect'.
Imperfect. God. What?
You can see everyone blinking. Uh oh!

Plato is credited with the idea that when something changes it can only change for better or for worse. Later theologians applied these ideas to Christianity: If God changes his mind and it is something better then he wasn’t perfect to start with, if he changes his mind to something worse, then he has become imperfect. Either way there is no option for God to change his mind.

Where there is change there is sequence and where there is sequence there is time.

'If God is unchangeable then God experiences all of history and all of the future as a timeless unchangeable ‘now’.  If everything that will happen is already eternally settled in his unchanging mind, why pray?'

If nothing changes in his experience, if there’s no way I can genuinely interact with him. If it is all eternally settled and unchangeable, why pray?

I don’t feel like I can have any response to that other than passivity.

So before you panic - it's the underlying assumption all change is for better or for worse that is at the heart of the problem, and I want to say that I reject that assumption.

Greek philosophy is not derived from the Bible but a lot of our Biblical interpretation is derived from Greek philosophy which is unfortunate.

But we need to remember that when we talk about God's changelessness, we're referring to his character. He is always loving and always just and always good, but the precise way in which he chooses to express that can take many different forms, and, I believe, can change in response to our prayers.

If I'm asking him to do something he wasn't already planning to do, surely it wasn't the best thing? But, we see in Scripture God accommodating and even inviting our input. As risky and ungodlike as it might sound, he invites us to engage with him and he responds to our engagement. His character will never change and he'll never act contrary to his essence, but still he wants to give us say-so in our relationship with him.

It’s almost a bit like being married in community of property - you need a co-signee to do things like open a bank account. God invites us as his bride, in community of property, to be his cosignee. There’s things he wants to do for both of us, there’s things that he wants to accomplish, things that he wills, but he needs (requires?) our cosignature on it. Without that second signature, without us aligning ourselves and agreeing to his will through prayer and action, he can’t do what what he wants to do.

That’s huge.

And quite sobering.

It made me realise how lightheartedly I’ve taken prayer, glibly declaring, ‘Let’s pray.’
God is restoring a sense of gravity to ‘let’s pray’. We know that when we pray, something is going to  change or happen ormove because he's chosen to assign that importance to prayer.

Having said all that, I'm not sure getting things done is God’s primary purpose for prayer.

I believe the primary purpose is to build relationship. It’s not just for us to get our needs met, like some kind of transactional thing. He wants relationship with us because he loves us. He is so good. He wants to draw us in - he wants to engage with us.

Otherwise this incredible gift of prayer, this intimate engagement and dynamic relationship is reduced to a transaction - the bank teller in the sky where you punch in the right numbers and put in your request and your wish is granted.

Even with the risks, he’s chosen for us as the church, his bride, to rise up into our authority and co-reign with him. It seems the most insane thing to say that we are called to co-reign with God - but it's right there in Revelation 5:20:
You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.
Some translations even say 'they reign' in place of 'they will reign'.

I am continually in awe that he refers to us as co-laborers, co-rulers, even as a marriage partner - even though we sometimes act like employees or even beggars. We come primarily to get our basic needs met when God has called us into intimacy. Having said that, it is by no means a symmetrical relationship, but it is definitely a reciprocal one.

For there to be any real intimacy there has to be mutual influence, give and take, like a dance where each impacts the other, where we actually have some way of effecting change.

So prayer makes a difference, because God has chosen for that to be one of the methods to accomplish what he wants done on earth.

But, prayer is not magic. When prayer works like magic, then we've lost the relationship again.
So why aren't all our prayers answered? More on that in Part 3.

Do you feel the post answered the questions raised in Part I: What difference does it make?
Did you have any, 'Yes, but what about...?' moments? Please share below.
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Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Why pray? Part 1: What difference does it make?

If God is Good, Why Pray?

Why Pray?

Does prayer change God? Or me? Or circumstances?

I get demotivated when I feel like what I’m doing isn’t making a difference. That’s probably why I really struggle with housework so much.

It’s also one of the main reasons I have a blog.

No one can draw on it, no one can puke on it, no one can unpack it, no one can do anything to it, it’s just there.

Unlike the laundry pile that never seems to reach its end.

Not feeling like I was making a difference was part of the reason why I really struggled with the whole idea of prayer for a while. In short, why pray?

My logic was this: God is all good. So if he’s all good, he’s always doing everything he can to ensure the greatest good and the least evil. So when I pray, what am I really doing? Am I trying to twist his arm to get him to do something he didn’t want to do in the first place? Who am I to think I know better than him?

If he’s all good and he’s all wise and he didn’t already want to do that thing I’m asking him to do, and I’m still asking him to do it, then that’s a bit stupid. It’s clearly not the best thing.

But, if I’m only asking him to do what he already wants to do anyway, then why ask, why pray? Surely he would do it, whether I pray or not, because that’s what he wants to do.

I give food to my kids without them needing to ask because that's what parents do. Being kids, they ask me for food anyway, but I do have a plan to give them food on a daily basis. Genuine. A number of times a day even. (Totally winning at parenting, I know)

If God is good then I assume he never refrains from doing the best thing. So then why must I ask? It’s not like he forgot and needs to be reminded. It’s not like he doesn’t know what I need.

If it isn’t good then hopefully he won’t give it to us even if we do ask. So what do we do?

Either way praying seemed pointless - whether I was praying in accordance with God’s will or not, I didn’t feel like my prayers made a difference and that, like I said, demotivated me and sucked the life out of prayer for me.

Amidst all these questions, we have the Bible. In it we are commanded to pray; expected to pray. Jesus says, "When you pray." Prayer is assumed.

When I felt like there was no purpose to prayer other than to tick the prayer box, I trusted that there had to be a purpose.

Some say God knew what he was going to do all along, and so prayer doesn't change him, it is meant to change me.

Another possibility is that God merely lets us think that our prayers are being answered while doing what he intended to do all along - he is just testing us.

He says that he is going to do X and unless we pray, when he’s actually intending to do Y all along. Then we pray, and he does Y and gets his desired outcome anyway. But if he ends up doing what he was intending to do all along, then did I really have a choice whether or not to pray? And did my prayer actually make a difference? And if I did have a choice and I didn’t pray, then he wouldn’t get the outcome he wanted. It felt like a case of she knows that he knows that she knows that he knows and it’s all just a test or whatever. So that got my brain all stuck again. I remember driving home and thinking, “I just can’t do this. I can’t. It just doesn’t work. If this is how it’s going to be, I’m out.”

I suppose you could call it a crisis of faith because it was a make or break moment for me.

The idea that God lets us think that our prayers make a difference, or that prayer is to change me, not to actually change the circumstance feels patronising and humiliating. To be told that something can make a difference, because that’s what the word tells us, but actually it doesn’t really make a difference, in actual real life - I couldn’t deal with that.

It’s not that my theology is based on what I find acceptable about God’s character or not.

It’s not as though I just chose to reject prayer because I wasn’t happy about it worked. I felt like this view of prayer only serves to diminish God’s relationship with us. If we don’t genuinely have agency or some kind of say-so in our relationship, is it even worth it?

About the whole idea that prayer primarily changes us, it doesn’t actually change circumstances, my reply would be that Jesus said to tell the mountain to move and it would move. He didn’t say our attitude to the mountain would change, or our perception of the mountain would change, or that our feelings about the mountain would change, He said the mountain will move.

He assures us that things change when we pray.

He also taught us in the Lord’s Prayer that we should pray that God’s will be done on earth: “Let your kingdom come, let your will be done.”

That would assume that there are elements on this earth that are not in line with God’s kingdom, that are not in line with God’s will - otherwise why would he command us, in his summary of how to pray, to ask for his will to be done and his kingdom to come?

It only makes sense if there are some things that are not in line with his will and his kingdom and it’s our job to partner with him and pray those things into being.

It only makes sense if it actually makes a difference.
If it doesn’t make a difference, then why pray?

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Have you ever asked these questions? How did you feel about the answers you were given?Did you have any, 'Yes, but what about...?' moments while reading? Please share in the comment section.

You can listen to all three parts of the series as an audio teaching using the link below: