Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Unanswered Prayers and the Personality of God: How "Raiders of the Lost Ark" Got it All Wrong

A while back I wrote a post directed primarily toward atheists who argue that God doesn't exist based on the irregularities of answers to prayers. I had been reading atheist arguments and just got sick of hearing that one.

Well this weekend I got to thinking about fellow brothers and sisters in Christ who need to hear a similar message. For example, The Prayer of Jabez makes the same error that the atheist's arguments do: assuming the Christian worldview is one in which God will necessarily grant a request if it is performed a certain way. And worse yet, Christians who get into The Secret hold this belief - not even about God anymore - but about The Universe.

Reflecting on this reminded me of a subtler instance of this type of thinking, my judgment of which might raise some eyebrows. My wife and I were once a part of a prayer team that was led by some very nice and respectable people, with whom we remain on good terms. One thing these individuals did however, that rubbed us the wrong way, was act in God's name without His consent. They were steeped in charismatic, "name it and claim it" type theology, and had the tendency to pray that whole limbs would grow back, and that blind individuals on the street would receive sight, in the name of God. But their prayers weren't always tempered with the "by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God" mentality. Rather, they were framed in "God has given me His name and His authority to use to heal the sick" mentality.

What's the problem with this?

There are several. Let's take a look at what happened to Israel, when they acted without God's consent:
Now Israel went out to battle against the Philistines. They encamped at Ebenezer, and the Philistines encamped at Aphek. The Philistines drew up in line against Israel, and when the battle spread, Israel was defeated by the Philistines, who killed about four thousand men on the field of battle. And when the troops came to the camp, the elders of Israel said, "Why has the LORD defeated us today before the Philistines? Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the LORD here from Shiloh, that it may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies." So the people sent to Shiloh and brought from there the ark of the covenant of the LORD of hosts, who is enthroned on the cherubim. And the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God.

As soon as the ark of the covenant of the LORD came into the camp, all Israel gave a mighty shout, so that the earth resounded. And when the Philistines heard the noise of the shouting, they said, "What does this great shouting in the camp of the Hebrews mean?" And when they learned that the ark of the LORD had come to the camp, the Philistines were afraid, for they said, "A god has come into the camp." And they said, "Woe to us! For nothing like this has happened before. Woe to us! Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods? These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with every sort of plague in the wilderness. Take courage, and be men, O Philistines, lest you become slaves to the Hebrews as they have been to you; be men and fight."

So the Philistines fought, and Israel was defeated, and they fled, every man to his home. And there was a very great slaughter, for there fell of Israel thirty thousand foot soldiers. And the ark of God was captured, and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died. (1 Samuel 4:1-11)
Israel acted without communicating with God. They thought that God was something to be manipulated by way of the Ark (just as we often think God is something to be manipulated by way of prayer). Then, as if attempting to manipulate God wasn't bad enough, they went so far as to say "Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the LORD here from Shiloh, that it may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies."! They thought the ark itself would save them. God shows no tolerance for this, in this case chosing to make it abundantly clear that He cannot be manipulated by men, that He does not dwell in temples (or boxes) made by hands, and that He certainly does not exist as anything made by human hands. In thinking this way about God, the Israelites had lowered their worldview to Philistinian levels ("when they learned that the ark of the LORD had come to the camp, the Philistines were afraid, for they said, "A god has come into the camp."").

The result? Thirty thousand dead. Eli's sons dead. The ark lost.

When, with our words or with our behavior, we ascribe any of the characteristics true of God alone (ultimate power, knowledge, love, ability to save, deservedness of being glorified, pleasingness, etc.) to anything, even good things given to us by God (the law, the ark of the covenant, the name of God, food, sex, marriage, prayer, etc.), we commit idolatry.

If 1 Samuel 4 is an example of the devastation that occurs when people try to wage war in God's name without God, I cringe to think of the damage done when people try to wage spiritual war in God's name without God. The ark was a very concrete symbol and it was horrifying to lose it (not to mention the Israelite lives), but what subtler, spiritual ground are we losing when we attempt healings and other acts of spiritual warfare in God's name without His endorsement?

Another friend of mine, now overseas, told me a story. In a town he used to live in, a little girl died. A local church told everyone, including the parents, that God wanted to raise this little girl from the dead. They prayed for days straight in vain. Their prayers went so long that the police ultimately had to seize the girl's body for burial because it stank so bad. The church claimed the police shouldn't have done that, because they stopped giving God the opportunity to work.

Do you think, if God is intent on raising someone from the dead, a couple of city cops are going to stop Him?

Why didn't those limbs our team prayed for grow back despite the fact that we used the name of God? Why didn't the blind we prayed for see despite the fact that we used the name of God? Why didn't the little girl rise from the dead despite the fact that we used the name of God?

The same reason the Israelites lost the battle despite the fact that they used the ark of God.

Neither God's name nor His ark nor any other created thing has any power whatsoever in itself.

And the result of making that mistake this time? Destruction of the hope of those people who were told were going to be healed and the parents of the girl whom the church promised would be raised. Destruction to the reputation of the Christian God when He didn't do that which He was said He would do. Destruction to the faith of those believers who prayed fervently because they were led to believe God wanted to perform these miracles.

Obsessing over extraordinary healings causes us to lose sight of ordinary healings, which are also only accomplished by the providence of God. Obsessing over the restoration of physical sight causes us to lose sight of the importance of spiritual sight. Obsessing over temporal life causes us to lose sight of eternal life. Obsessing over the unbelievable causes us to lose sight of God in the believable. Obsessing over breeches in physical law causes us to lose sight of the ingenuity of that law in the first place.

Don't get me wrong: God reserves the right to perform miracles for His purposes. My point is simply that He also reserves the right to withhold miracles for His purposes.

I'm reminded of something the disciples asked Jesus one time, centuries after 1 Samuel was written. In Mark, the disciples are baffled when they can't cast out an evil spirit. They ask Jesus 'why?', and He says that a spirit of such a "kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.".

And so it remains apparent that God is not an impersonal force that He may be commanded, an idol or an ark to be manipulated, or a name to be used like a magic spell, but a personal being who must be asked.
You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name. (Exodus 20:7, NIV)

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