Thursday, June 7, 2012

Things that Haunt my Theology

Last month I had a post on how and when to thank God. It featured a drawing from the Naked Pastor of two people praying in a hospital, one person's prayers are answered the other's are not. 

Along the same lines I ran across this picture posted by Joel over at Unsettled Christianity. It crystallizes the problem, for me at least, of how we mentally and theologically negotiate what we interpret as answers to our prayers and God working in our life. As I said in my last post:

I also wonder about people living in poorer, oppressed economies who pray the same prayers and yet God does not seem to answer their prayers. I wonder how I can be thankful to God for hearing my prayer for say a job or to heal me of a minor aliment, but they are asking God to give them their next meal, a drink of water or protection from their enemies.

Although I try to be thankful to God for what I have, pictures like this one haunt me. I know some will say that God wants me to help by either going to feed this person or sending money with those who do go, but that doesn't seem to be enough nor does it resolve the tension I feel. How can I thank God for a warm, beautiful home when I know there are others who, through no fault of their own, have no home to sleep in and no food to eat? Has God forgotten them? Why did God answer my prayers or come to my aid, but not the child in this picture? Scripture says that he causes rain to fall on both the just and the unjust, but I am not sure what this child did to not get the rain needed to grow food.

I wish I had an answer. I find myself wincing when I hear people praising God for that new car or some other trinket that they asked God for. And my theology is haunted by pictures like this one. 


  1. John,

    Thanks for the thoughtful post. My experience in poor countries is that most of the Christians there are more thankful for their daily bread than we are who have too much bread. That doesn't solve your dilemma by any means. It's just an observation.

    1. Allan,

      Thanks, at a minimum it might demonstrate that our thankfulness is more superficial than we think.

  2. Well, I know it doesn't add anything constructive, but for what it's worth, I feel exactly the same.

    Very well said.

  3. I regularly work at changing the common church thinking that our offering is like dues paid for our membership in the Country Club church. Instead, I argue that we should give out of the thankfulness of our hearts. My experience is that Americans seem to have a hard time understanding thankfulness.

    Ever since I went to Honduras with the US Army in the 1980's I have often felt that travel to the third world ought to be a requirement for American citizenship. I have never gotten those images out of my mind and every day I am grateful for what we have, even when it seems that others have more and our culture tells me I ought to want what they have.

  4. The problem is that we know what Jesus said about this stuff -- Mark 10:21. The problem, of course is that we don't do it and we know we don't do it.
    As for whose prayers are answered, I take comfort in the mystery that not even all of Jesus' prayers were answered (Mark 14:36).
    But in James there is some advice on how to have "powerful and effective" prayers (5:16). These prayers belong to the righteous man - and if my memory of Luke Timothy Johnson's commentary is correct, he points out that this righteous man pops up earlier in the chapter as the one who opposes those who exploit the poor (5:4-6).

  5. John, You do not have to figure it all out. God tells us to pray and to be thankful. To some he gave five talents and to others he gave one. Life is short. Eternity is forever. Live fully in the present but do not get so attached to it that you cease to focus on the eternal. That is the problem with blessings and wealth. It is also why he says that the poor are blessed and the rich are turned away.

  6. John,
    I have the utmost respect for you for stating your position on this without the hand wringing and attempt at convoluted answers.Just your pure honesty at the thoughts that pictures like these evoke in you is something to be emulated.
    The above picture is a sample of the harsh reality of life.

    It is a question I have often contemplated and ask of those who believe in a god or gods. That which is depicted in your sample illustration is at the very tip of the ice-burg of more unspeakable suffering and ills that occur on a daily basis.
    At the time an NBA or NFL(or any other sport) athlete is thanking god for winning or making that buzzer beating shot, somewhere in the world unspeakable horrors are impacting the lives of babies, children, women. etc

    Thinking back to the events of 9-11,the persons above the impact zone were faced with two(2) choices:
    1. be consumed by the fire or 2. jump to their deaths. This was no trivial choice - it was literally death or death! There were no angels to help those people but I heard testimony from a few survivors below the impact zone that indicated that god or angels had guided them out.

  7. I have always wondered about people who pray for good weather so they can have a picnic, or a good parking spot, etc. and claim that God answered their prayers (I've been guilty, too, many times). And I wonder if we are not going about all this in a self-centered way and treating God like a heavenly Santa Claus. I don't deny that through God's answers to our individual prayers (selfish or otherwise) we do experience God and grow through those experiences in a subjective and highly personal way. But I wonder how much should we advertise these experiences, and if they really present an accurate or complete image of God and His will. I guess I'm throwing out more questions than answers here. I just want to let you know that this post really struck a chord in me. And yes, those images of suffering haunt me, too, and I do not have an answer that seems adequate.

    Helen (wife of Sam Tsang)

    1. Helen,

      Thanks for your comments. I think the more we ask questions like these the less we find answers and instead we have more questions. I stopped praying for the weather a long time ago. I agree, how do I reconcile the farmer who needs rain having his prayers preempted by the team that doesn't want their game rained out?

  8. John,
    In our class on Romans you pressed home the point that the essence of sin is idolatry. This, to me, speaks to what motivates us. Any discussion about our response to the poor is inherently subjective and can only be seen from our own worldview. Jesus said that we would always have the poor with us - and some are called to minister to them and that calling should be their motivation. Others are called to bring attention to the plight of the marginalized and needy; others to pray for them. If we are truly listening to the Holy Spirit (not an easy thing in our culture of noisy excess) then we can reconcile our position as being one with God and then respond to the poor, or anyone else, as God would direct. If, however, we place anything in that position of worship that should be reserved for God and His will, then we commit idolatry. This is where I have difficulty with the topic, because I often find myself asking God's forgiveness when I let my desires, wants, wishes, etc. be my own and not his. This calls for a radical devotion that I have yet to attain. But at least I'm trying.