Why doesn’t God magically sort out our problems?

Way back last time I was looking at miracles, and the problems both of being overly cynical about the miraculous or overly reliant on it. This follows on from a slightly different angle.

First, a question. If you knew God wasn’t ever going to fix your problems, answer your prayers, heal your hurts, bless you with nice things and generally sort things out and make things better for you, would you still bother with Christianity or religion?

I ask because I’ve realised that, for all my vaunted sophistication and scepticism, deep down I’ve still been clinging on to a view that God is basically magic and will (or should) do magic when I need it.

God our daddy?

I’ve been expecting God to be like a toddler’s mum and dad, a big all-capable provider and problem-solver who I can go running to and who will ‘kiss it better’. I’ve been hoping God will always make it all okay, will make all the pains and problems magically go away.

I’ve been fondly imagining that if I just pray enough and maybe try and do the right things, everything will always turn out fine and I won’t have to suffer regret, loss, disappointment, failure. And if God doesn’t act like that, I feel aggrieved and let down.

And I have a feeling that I’m not alone in this.

We know we can call God ‘Father’, even in a sense ‘Daddy’ (Hebrew ‘Abba’). We also know that he is love, and that he is full of kindness and compassion. And we know that he is all-powerful and can in theory do miracles (depending on our theology).

Put these together and it’s easy to assume that he is going to magically fix all our issues for us, make everything nice and easy, and spare us from all pain. And we (well, I) can get pretty annoyed with him when he doesn’t; when things go wrong and God doesn’t instantly step in to make it all better.

What’s the point of believing?

Let me state two apparently contradictory things up front.

Firstly, I believe that God does care and does answer prayers, albeit often not quite as we’d wish or expect. I believe that he does even heal, sometimes and in some ways, again not always the ways we want.

But secondly, the reality is that Christians (and people of faith in general) are not immune from problems, pain or suffering. Christians seem to get ill as much as the rest of the population. Christians appear to suffer relational breakdown and break-up pretty much as often as everyone else. Christians certainly suffer bereavement and loss just as much as any other group, and I can confidently state that the mortality rate among Christians is as high as among the general population. That’s even true for charismatic and Pentecostal believers who expect and pray for miraculous healing rather more than the rest of us.

So does that mean it’s not worth praying, or not worth being a Christian? If God offers no guaranteed magical protection against life’s ills and no guaranteed magic cure when they occur, then what’s the point of turning to him?

I’m beginning to wonder if the point may be that we need to grow up into a mature, adult relationship with God and leave behind our childish expectations of a magical, problem-fixing, pain-zapping super-Daddy. (Though as always, I may be wrong.)

Good-enough parenting

Almost every parent knows from experience that they can’t (or mustn’t) just give their children everything they want. Nor can they just jump in and fix every problem their child experiences, nor take away every pain they feel, nor shield them from the uncomfortable consequences of their own actions or unwise decisions.

A good (or good-enough) parent has to grit their teeth and let their child grow, and grow up, by learning to handle their own problems and feel their own pains. Obviously this is a gradual process, and a balancing act; parents don’t just abandon young children to sort out everything for themselves from the word go. But bit by bit, parents train their kids to be able to do things for themselves, to grow in competence, confidence and responsibility.

And parents even have to be a little bit mean at times, though I hope few enjoy it. There comes a point when they have to push their child away just a little bit, like an adult bird pushing the fledgling out of the nest when it’s ready to fly.

Crucially, the good-enough parent has to allow and encourage their child to separate from them, to stand on their own two feet, including making their own mistakes. Yes, at first they can come running back to mum or dad when things get too tough, but gradually they need to learn to be independent and separate.

And God, I’m pretty sure, is the same. He is not our eternal Daddy who will always make things better when we’ve fallen over in the playground or bail us out when we’ve got ourselves in trouble. He will be with us, support us and empathise with us, but he won’t always ‘rescue’ us from all our trials and mistakes and hurts. That would not be truly loving or even truly kind. It would merely infantilise us, create a cycle of dependence and discourage our growth to maturity and wholeness.

Growing up in faith

New Christians do often (not always) seem to experience more direct answers to prayer, more miracles, more divine intervention than others. If so, I don’t think that’s because they have greater faith necessarily (though some may), but because they are infant believers who need more hand-holding and spoon-feeding as they take their first baby steps in the ways of faith.

So if you’re experiencing pain as a Christian and God isn’t stepping in to make it all better, congratulations – looks like God thinks you’re mature enough to handle it. Though of course I realise that may not feel like much consolation. I only say this because I’ve wrestled with it too, shouting at God to make things better and take away various long-term pains and problems. But in the silence and apparent inaction of God, I’ve gradually started to learn a deeper lesson. I’ve started slowly and protestingly to grow up.

Giving up the need to rescue

Along with the need to be rescued, I think we may also need to grow out of the need to rescue others all the time.

It often feels like the loving, kind and ‘Christian’ thing to do, to step in and bail someone out when they’re struggling. It feels cruel to stand by and watch someone in difficulty when we know we could make it easier for them, could do the hard thing for them.

And sometimes it is right to help; but not always. Sometimes it’s just necessary to go through the struggles, the pains of trying and failing and trying again, or of waiting for something which is taking a long time to get better.

We want to rescue others because it feels unloving not to, but often the more loving thing long-term is simply to support and be with them as they keep struggling, keep trying, keep waiting, keep pushing until either their situations change or they do. I believe that’s what God does with us, and I don’t much like it but I’m starting to think he might just understand a bit better than I do. Annoyingly.

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Divine intervention, Faith, Suffering, The faith journey and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Why doesn’t God magically sort out our problems?

  1. jesuswithoutbaggage says:

    Harvey, I think this needs to be heard. And, in my opinion, you maintain a very good balance here of rejecting expectations of daily miracles and interventions while maintaining the reality of occasional miracles. I really like your idea of the miraculous among some new believers and immature believers, but not among more settled and mature ones. That makes good sense.

    Your statements that believers and non-believers have the same rates of illness and death is right on target. I think those who expect constant interventions from God are robbed of being able to rest and trust God while facing the natural pains and reversals in life.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks Tim! It’s an area I’ve struggled with, as I used to believe very strongly in the charismatic gospel of miraculous healings. And I think I’ve seen a few such healings, very occasionally. But from hard experience I’ve come to accept that miracles aren’t always what we most need, and may not be the best thing for us. And if we expect miracles all the time, we’re likely to end up disappointed and embittered and may just end up walking away from God.

      And yes, I absolutely agree that those who expect constant divine intervention are robbed of being able to rest and trust God – something I’m still learning to do!

      Bless you,
      Harvey

      Liked by 2 people

      • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

        I agree, Harvey. And as a former Pentecostal, it seemed to me that those who had seen ‘moves of the Spirit’ and perhaps a miracle or two often sought diligently for constant repeats of the experience–even to the point of manufacturing them. This can’t be healthy. If such things occur, they are for some particular reason and not meant to be a constant experience.

        I like this: “Miracles aren’t always what we most need, and may not be the best thing for us.”

        ‘May not be the best thing for us’; this is rich!

        Liked by 2 people

  2. tonycutty says:

    Beautifully honest post, Harvey, thanks for posting it.

    As you may remember, my wife and I are battling a serious illness, and although we do not believe that ‘God is doing it to us to teach us a lesson’ (in a disciplinary sense), and that we can rest in Him without having to find the deeper ‘meaning’ behing suffering and anguish, still any mature person would seek to learn lessons from their sufferings, else they could well be wasted.

    We are finding that God is indeed teaching us, through our responses to the illness. He’s also teaching us how to respond to the ilness too. I have to say in all honesty that this illness has brought us so much more forward in realising who we are in Christ, and in this battle we are learning how to minister healing in ways we never dreamt of before. Also added in is the 2Cor 1:6 stuff where it enables us to minister to others more effectively because of our present sufferings. I do believe that the illness is the product of a combination of circumstances (shall we say) and also enemy activity through those circumstances – I realise that yourself and Tim may have a problem with that, but that’s the impression we have realised over the last 2.5 years of fighting this, that there is/was a real evil at work – and one of the best was to thwart the enemy is to use his tricks against him, which we feel we are doing. So this is good too.

    Now if God had answered our prayers for healing immediately, there is so much good (and of course so much suffering!) that we would have missed out on. I have seen family relationships healed, I myself have been healed of two emotional problems (one just last Sunday) and more, all of which have followed on as either direct or indirect consequences of the illness. We have come on light years in our faith walks. We feel closer to God than at any time in the past.

    And yet, yes, it’s all a mystery. Why God allows these things when, yes, He’s omnipotent. But our response to the suffering, and to the apparent lack of answers to prayer, are what we can contribute to bringing His light into the darkness. Maybe He hasn’t answered our prayers in the way we’d have preferred Him to, but He has in so many other ways. And we have also learned one of the keys to happiness (Although in my opinion it was never really locked!) is thankfulness; thankfulness for each new day and for all the blessings He gives us every day. Serious illness or no, any one of us could die at any time, and that without appreciating the good things in life. Serious illness has taught us to appreciate what we have and to be grateful. So yes, He answers prayers, but just not in the way we ask – in fact, I do think that sometimes what we ask is not big enough! But yes, it would be nice just to get a small answer now and again – and I believe this does happen, just that we don’t always notice these answers. Appreciation of every day can help us indeed to notice these answers.

    I hope this all makes sense!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks Tony – I really appreciate your honesty and bravery, and your faith. And yes, everything you say here makes perfect sense.

      I do believe in the reality of evil – I’m just not sure what I believe about a literal Satan, demons and particular interpretations of spiritual warfare. It’s something I’m uncomfortable with and uncertain about, but I certainly don’t reject it completely. I think my view is that there probably is some kind of reality behind what we call the devil, but that most of our ways of describing and understanding that reality are wide of the mark.

      The area of long-term illness or other suffering is so difficult and mysterious, and different people experience it in such different ways. My dad has severe Parkinson’s disease and watching his body slowly degenerate is very hard for all the family – not least for him. Many faithful people have prayed for him, but it seems that God’s plans in this are not the same as ours.

      We’re friends with another couple at church where the wife is battling with cancer, and I think they would give a very similar testimony to yours. It’s been a daily struggle for them, but they see that God has been in it, even though he hasn’t taken away the (now inoperable) tumour.

      I’ve still got a long way to go in coming to terms with all of this, but stories like theirs and yours do help in putting these issues of suffering and healing (or not healing) into perspective, and in learning to trust God through all things. Thank you.

      Liked by 2 people

      • doncher1 says:

        On the subject of dealing with long term illness and / or suffering, whilst it’s obviously really important and brilliant when someone is able to learn more about God, thankfulness, who they are in Christ, etc. through the illness/ suffering, I equally think that it can be just as important sometimes to not feel that anything is being learned. I read a great article the other day about this – the spiritual discipline of learning nothing. http://emilypfreeman.com/the-spiritual-discipline-of-learning-nothing/. Perhaps it depends a bit on personality (or perhaps not), but I can definitely fall into the trap of thinking i have to be learning something from God in all difficult situations / experiences of suffering.

        One of the most helpful things I’ve heard in our church came from a woman who normally says very faith-filled prayers (the kind that make me immediately feel inadequate and wonder whether I’m really a Christian at all). Anyway, she’d had a long period dealing with a serious illness and she got up and spoke in church and said that she had hoped she would have used the experience to demonstrate her faith, to grow in her relationship with God, to trust God more, etc., but, in reality, she’d experienced none of this at all – she’d learned ‘nothing’, it had just been awful. Maybe some people found that unhelpful and damaging to their faith, but I didn’t. At the time I wondered whether I was just feeling reassured about my own lack of faith (and I’m not saying that there isn’t some of that!!), but I think there was more to it than just that.

        Liked by 1 person

        • tonycutty says:

          Great comment. And indeed, one of the first people to come alongside us in prayer told us just that – that we don’t need to imagine we need to learn anything from our ordeal. As it happens, we have learned a lot – but we felt free to not learn, if you see what I mean.

          Liked by 1 person

        • Thank you – I think that’s a really important thing to say. Yes, there may be things we can learn through times of suffering, but I’m pretty sure there are many cases when God isn’t trying to teach us anything. And I certainly don’t believe he sets up suffering just so we can learn a lesson.

          Though I think that often we may ‘learn’ things in a rather different kind of way through these times, generally without even realising we have. We come through the other side changed in subtle ways – not necessarily always good ways of course. But if so it’s not the intellectual kind of learning, but something more profound and less visible. Perhaps.

          Coincidentally (or not), a very interesting Huff Post article on this topic landed in my inbox a couple of days ago: “Did God give me cancer?”

          Liked by 2 people

  3. This post reminds me of these words of Jesus:
    “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance…” (Matthew 11:17)

    As I say to my children sometimes, God is not Santa Claus. After everything I’ve been through I do get offended by the idea that if I had only done the ‘right’ thing, or prayed the right prayer, or had the right kind of faith, God would have made sure I didn’t get abused as a child, didn’t get ill, wasn’t broken in too many ways to count, didn’t have a disabled son, didn’t marry my first boyfriend, didn’t get coerced and abused and… When you look at it like that, the idea of God not dancing to my tune is offensive, because it reduces God to a kind of materialism. That’s not quite the right word.

    The mystics have known throughout the centuries that suffering is a vital part of the Christian faith and can bring with it gifts that are far more valuable than any that can be learnt without suffering. That’s not to say we should cause ourselves to suffer. I don’t believe there is any virtue in any form of self-flagellation, it’s more that there is a season for everything, and we have to learn what God thinks is important; because as that song goes, ‘it’s all about You, it’s all about You, Jesus’. Maybe we should have a song that says ‘it’s not about me’!

    Good post. Got me thinking. Also prompted me to think, again, about teaching what I have been fortunate enough to learn. The flipside of all that I said above is that I have very little faith in myself and my abilities. But it keeps coming back – this idea of teaching. I keep looking over my (figurative) shoulder and thinking God can’t mean me, He must mean someone else. I don’t know.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks Sandy. I think you’re absolutely spot on. And yes, God isn’t Santa Claus and he doesn’t dance to our tune. And though I still often wish he would, I know that would not actually be great.

      I often wish suffering were not such a vital part of the Christian faith, and I don’t think God ever delights in our suffering, but I know from experience that my (relatively small) sufferings have changed me for the better, and have at times helped other people. And knowing that does make me more able to face difficult times – though I’m still not exactly eager to!

      I think you should go with the inner promptings. God almost never means someone else! 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

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