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.)
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.