I have blogged before about how we need to stop saying ‘prayer works’. As I said in that post, but I’ll head of again here, that’s not because I don’t think prayer works. I just think what we tend to communicate when we say that is not very helpful. Often what people mean by that phrase is also not very helpful. But you’ll have to read that other post to find out why.
But we have another close cousin of ‘prayer works’ that does the rounds. It is essentially ‘God works’. The view comes in a variety of forms. In its crasser form, it is the ‘delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart’ brigade. The most favourite verse of all who want God to be their personal genie. But there is a more reformed ‘seek first the kingdom of God’ approach that is just as problematic. It all ends up with either a quid pro quo with God – if I do this, he’ll do that – or, if we’re being less crass about it – a ‘God works’ idea so that I can just trust in the Lord because ‘he’s got it covered’ kind of thing.
Of course, we should trust in God because he does have things covered. Just as we should pray because prayer does work. The issue is that God having things covered and prayer working don’t always work in the way we have decided they must. I don’t think ‘prayer works’ in the sense that God will just give me whatever I ask for every time I ask. I don’t think ‘God has it covered’ by necessarily resolving everything to my satisfaction in the way I would like it resolving.
Often, these sentiments come out in little stories of our own. I was worried about such and such and event, I struggled to get something or other, I just had to trust God and, in the end, it all worked out. We can trust he’s got it covered. Or, I was worried about some operation or other, it was totally out of my hands, all I could do was pray and trust the Lord. But he made me well, the operation was a success, we can trust the Lord.
Now, I get the sentiment, I really do. And, for the record, it is obviously good to praise the Lord when he does what we have asked him to do. It is good when we are sick and God heals. It is good when we are worried and God resolves the cause of our fears. It is good when we are anxious about something unknown and the Lord works it all out for us. It is, of course, good and right to give thanks and praise him for such things.
My concern is, if we have gone hard on the ‘God has it covered’ or the ‘prayer works’ line, what do we say when our family member is sick and God doesn’t heal them and, worse yet, they die? What do we say when we are worried about something and God not only doesn’t appear to resolve the cause of our worries, but our worst fears are realised? What do we say when we are anxious about something unknown and the thing transpires to be even more hellish than we had even imagined? Do these things mean God doesn’t have it covered? Did prayer just not work that time? Has God basically let us down and failed to work for our good?
The problem with this line of thinking is that if God does not seem to have matters covered (as we judge it) or prayer does not appear to work (from our perspective), we quickly wonder whether it is worth the bother of following this God. You don’t have to know much about Israel’s history in Canaan to see this calculation roll round with troubling regularity. If God doesn’t appear to work, we’ll have a little go with Baal instead. If God hasn’t answered our prayer to our satisfaction, maybe sacrificing some of our kids and cutting ourselves to bits like lunatics might get Baal to sort us out instead. Yahweh is alright when he appears to work, but if he doesn’t seem to work anymore, we better get ourselves a better god who will.
We may not be overly tempted to go after the Baals, but you can bet your bottom dollar we are quite ready to go after some other gods who might work for us instead. Just as Israel were tempted by the gods of the nations around them, so we will be tempted by the gods of our own nations and culture. If Yahweh won’t work for us, if he doesn’t have matters covered, perhaps we’ll fare better by living like the pagans who seem to be doing alright.
The issue with these sorts of calculations is that they mistake how prayer work and how God has matters covered. Things do not occur because they are necessarily what we would like to happen. God does what he wills for the sake of his own glory. When God doesn’t work in the way we might like, that doesn’t actually mean he isn’t working. It just means his glory is better served by not doing the thing we want. The matter then is not whether God works or not, but whether we have the eyes of faith to see that – even though God has not done what we might hope or desperately want – he is working all things to the praise of his glory and, though we cannot see it, it will work to our good in the end. That good may not even be the kind of good we are expecting, but we will one day – certainly from the perspective of being in glory – see exactly how it served our good in the best possible way because it served God’s glory in a way we could not see.
I am sure we can all think of times when we have prayed diligently for something that did not happen. We may even have prayed for something that the Lord, in his sovereignty, decided to deliver the opposite of what we hoped. We may have trusted God to have something covered and yet found ourselves in situations that were hurtful, damaging, seemingly harmful. It can’t escape our notice how Israel found themselves in such situations. Being taken into slavery in Egypt and being taken into captivity in Babylon, the latter of which God specifically said through his prophet, ‘I know the plans I have for you… plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’ I mean, when your city is being razed to the ground, your people killed off and those of you who remain taken into captivity in the foreign land, by anybody’s measure, that sounds a bit wrong. But it is what the same God who cannot lie said to his people before doing exactly that. It takes real eyes of faith to trust that, even in this, God has our good at heart.
All of that is to say, of course, God cares for his people. Of course, God has our good at heart. Of course, if we seek his kingdom first, he has got it covered. But we need to stop giving these sorts of examples as to what that means because the way the Lord has matters covered is often not we wish he would cover. Sometimes we have to just trust the Lord knows best even when everything suck and your worst nightmares unfold before your eyes. We have to trust what Romans 8 tells us, which is – among other things – that we cannot be separated from the love of God by any such thing and all things, including these things, work together for the good of those that love him. That good to which these things work are the ultimate good of making us like the Lord Jesus. Sometimes, in pursuit of our ultimate good, we have to endure some particularly ungood things because they are the means of achieving these more important goods.
These things are, as ever, exemplified for us by the Lord Jesus. He did not shrink back when he knew unimaginable suffering was coming his way through the cross. He did not insist on grasping onto his position in Heaven so he didn’t have to suffer for our sake. He pressed on, as the writer to the Hebrews tells us, ‘for the joy set before him’. He knew there was something greater to be gained. He knew his Father would not ask him to suffer what he did without there being a greater purpose, a greater joy, a greater glory awaiting him. The cross was not something Jesus relished. But he knew through it, there was a greater glory and joy awaiting him. God worked his purposes out, he worked ultimate good, through means that on paper looked as bad as they might be.
Those of us with eyes of faith can recognise the same thing. Though circumstances may seem bad to us, we can know that there is a greater joy and glory awaiting us in Christ. Our circumstances, even if hard, do not mean God is not at work. Our suffering does not mean God has failed. Our difficulties – even if we are praying for them to be resolved and taken away – do not show God to not be serving our good. Which is why we perhaps need to stop implying that we trust God because he works followed by examples of the Lord finding the money for our rent or healing us of some sickness. Those things are great and warrant our praises and thanksgiving. But they are not the evidence that ‘prayer works’ or ‘God has it covered’ we often think. We know God has it covered because, whatever may befall us now, we have a home in Heaven. Whatever our circumstances are today, we have the ultimate insurance policy.