When people say happily ‘God has never let me down’, I’m tempted to retort ‘Really?’
When you prayed that your relative wouldn’t die from cancer, and they passed away, could you really say it didn’t feel as if God had let you down? When you asked for a new job and your applications bore no fruit for several years, was God living up to his name? When you’ve told God you long to marry and you have remained alone, has he been trustworthy?
How can I trust God in a pandemic?
The pandemic makes these questions all the more urgent. One of my relatives currently is teetering on the edge of needing to go into hospital with Covid. I’ve been praying that he gets better for the last fortnight. But I vacillate about expectant prayer.
Why should God hear my prayer and not the prayers of those whose relatives are on ventilators already?
Is it better to abandon prayers for healing and just pray for ‘strength’ for those who are caring for him?
Maybe I need to adjust my expectations and say to God ‘please heal him if it is your will.’ But that assumes God might want him to get worse.
When I was in my twenties, I prayed for a husband for a whole decade. That gave me plenty of time to tie myself in knots about why God wasn’t granting my wish. Perhaps he thought it was better for me to remain single, that I’d be more useful to him that way. Perhaps, as a ‘male’, he didn’t really understand the urgency of a woman’s longings for a husband and children. Perhaps statistics were simply against me.. there just weren’t enough Christian men to go round. I knew I should lay down my desires and commit to what God wanted, but could I stave off resentment towards him for ever? I finally married a week after my thirtieth birthday, but I knew others whose patient wait was never rewarded.
In our consumerist world, we’re used to ordering things and getting what we have paid for. Often we treat prayer like that. ‘I’m trusting God for x’ people say. But God doesn’t adhere to the Consumer Rights Act. He’s not a slot machine that operates on a ‘prayer in, blessings out’ principle.
It seems God is more like a parent who wisely chooses not to give their toddler all the sweets she asks for. Or like a parent who is of great value to their teenager, not because she can directly stop the bullies at school, but because she supports him as he deals with it. It is still possible to trust someone who doesn’t or can’t give you everything you want or need. Sometimes, with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that our parents were wise not to give us what we asked for. Sometimes we see later that they wanted to, but they couldn’t. They were still worthy of our trust.
But that doesn’t help with senseless, destructive things like kids losing parents and people being abused. It’s very hard to trust God in the face of really awful things.
There are some things God can’t do
I’ve been reading some theology recently that suggests that sometimes God doesn’t give us what we pray for because he can’t. [This theology is called ‘open theism’ for those of you who are interested.’] When he puts people in his world, he limits his own power by giving them the power to make free choices. And now that he has given away that power, he refuses to take it back by coercing people into doing things they don’t want to do. He gives them free will. Any parent knows that if children are to grow up, it is the loving thing to let them start to make their own choices, even if that means they might make bad ones. So God gives us free will out of love for us, but that means his world will have people making bad choices in it, and some people will get hurt as a result.
So this theology says that in our pandemic, we can pray that governments will listen to God’s guidance as they make difficult decisions, but God can’t force them to. Governments can be slow to enforce quarantines, or make decisions that slow up vaccination programmes, and there is not a lot God can do about it if they won’t listen to him. He can nudge but he can’t force his will.
There are some things God doesn’t know
In addition theologians of this type say that God can’t predict the future, or at least that he deliberately doesn’t sort out the details in advance. He may know that he will bring the world to an end at some point but not exactly how or when he will do it. It partly depends on us. Because he has given us free will, he doesn’t know which of our future options we will choose. He is all-knowing in the sense of knowing all there is to know, but the future can’t be known by anyone, even God, because it hasn’t happened yet. So when a woman has to chose which of two men she should marry, God doesn’t know any more than she does, which one will turn out to be unfaithful. When things go wrong, God couldn’t have predicted it.
This makes it easier to trust God
In one way it feels uncomfortable to take these ideas on board, because they seem to make God a lot less powerful than we have thought. But I have heard someone who was raped say that similar ideas to this saved her faith. They meant that God hadn’t allowed the rape to happen. God didn’t know until it happened what the rapist would choose to do. If God had known and hadn’t stopped it, it would turn him into an accomplice of the rapist, and certainly not someone she could trust. Strangely, this understanding of the limitations of what God can do actually helps in trusting him. We don’t have to assume he was party to some awful calamity that has messed up our lives.
In addition it means he values us hugely. He limits himself because he really wants to be a collaborative worker with us. It means that he really wants to work in partnership with us in helping our broken world. He wants to walk with us as we move forward into an unknown future. And part of working with him is praying with him for the things he wants to do.
So I’ll carry on praying for my relative with Covid. But I’ll adjust the way I go about it. This way of thinking means I’ll be surer that God is really interested and concerned about the situation. I’ll also be keener to ask God how he wants me to pray. That way my prayers and his will together will work in tandem and perhaps will bring about something that couldn’t have happened otherwise.
What do you think? Do share if you know others who might find this helpful, or comment if you want to discuss further.
There is a helpful summary of open theism, with plenty of backup from the Bible, in ‘The Evangelical and the Open Theist’ by Garrett Ham