It’s only logical that if God always answered our prayers as we wanted him to, those answers to our prayers could hardly be considered miraculous. They would only be part of a predictable system that we could manipulate, if only we knew how. It really makes God not God, but a “God” or a god whom we are ultimately able to control through our efforts, whether via prayer or via our “moral” actions designed to elicit a favorable response.
If that is the God in question, we who think of ourselves as his devotees are actually not worshiping him but rather a wished-for and prayed-for outcome, which is a fulfillment of our desires, whether noble or selfish. It follows that we are really quite indifferent to the God behind that outcome, if he is there at all. It is the outcome itself to which we are passionately devoted. So in this scenario, we are really treating God like a tool to be used, and we hardly acknowledge him any more than we thank the hammer or saw.
If the goal of prayer is really to “get the results we want,” we have a strange, candy-machine idea of God. It is as though we need only to put something in and we get something back. It’s a kind of trade. With this sort of a “God,” there is no doubt that if I do x, then he must do y. In a way, he has no choice in the matter. If that’s true, why would there be any gratitude on the part of the one getting what he wants? Hasn’t he earned it by doing his part? If that’s true, he owes God nothing, because he did what was necessary and now he simply expects what is coming to him.
In other words, perhaps I say a certain prayer a certain number of times and perhaps I forgo this pleasure for a certain period of time, and in return I get what I’m after. It’s a system that allows me to get what I want without the necessity of acknowledging God or having a relationship with God.
Perhaps the thinking is that God is so rich it’s no big deal for him to give me what I want, so why should I be grateful? Perhaps I know I am only using God because I despise him and only want to do what I must to get what I want. It puts me and what I want at the center of things and again creates a God who is no God.
This approach is what I’ve previously called “Dead Religion,” which is contrasted with what I have called “True Faith,” where the relationship with God is central, and the things we get from him are peripheral. We can think of it this way: If a child really loves her father and knows he really loves her, she trusts him. When he gives her what she wants, she is happy and grateful. But even when he doesn’t give her what she wants, she knows that he has a reason for not giving it to her, and not just any reason but a reason that has her ultimate welfare and concerns at heart. So although it might take some effort, in the end she cannot help but be grateful. If we have that kind of a God in mind, then even when we don’t get what we want or ask for, we can trust there is wisdom and real love toward us in not giving it to us.
There are many people who may talk about God and prayer and who outwardly look very religious, but they’re really just performing rites and deeds and prayers so they can get what they want. If they felt that those rites or deeds or prayers wouldn’t get them what they wanted, they would stop doing those things.
So they are not really worshiping the God they claim to be worshiping. They are selfishly worshiping getting what they desire. For them, God is only a means to that end. If he doesn’t give them what they want, they cut him off. Any parent understands that we don’t want our children to treat us that way.
If we are talking about a loving God, we are talking about a God who asks us to trust him, whether we get what we ask for or don’t. But he will never force us to trust him. That is entirely up to us. We have free will and we can accept his love or reject it, or claim it doesn’t exist at all. We can trust him or distrust him as we like. But if he really and truly is the God of the Bible, who loves me with an unchanging and self-sacrificial love (agape), then I really and truly can trust him in all circumstances, which is tremendously freeing.
In fact, I can go one step further than trusting him. To use a biblical phrase, I can rejoice in him. But this is only possible if we really do know that God has our best interests at heart at all times. Of course, we have to decide on our own whether we believe that. But if we come to see that that is true and do allow ourselves to believe it, we are precisely where he created us to be: in his loving hands.
Eric Metaxas is a New York Times #1 bestselling author and nationally syndicated radio host. The preceding is excerpted from his book, Miracles: What They Are, How They Happen, and How They Can Change Your Life (2015), now in paperback from Plume.
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