I grew up believing in a God who bestowed favor on his children in all kinds of tangible ways. When I snagged the last pair of shoes that just happened to be in my size and, surprise, they were on sale…divine favor. When the vending machine accidentally dropped two bags of chips instead of one…divine favor. When the closest parking space to the door became available just as we pulled up…divine favor.
We prayed big prayers with loud voices. We lifted our hands and we claimed the “promises of God,” whatever we thought that looked like in a given situation. We were bold in our requests and confident in the outcome. We cursed the devil and all of his works, from cancer to witchcraft to democrats.
We were like horsemen, using prayer to direct a mighty power, the way the rider uses reins to tell his horse which way to turn.
In college I discovered theology for the first time. I learned about different forms of biblical interpretation and different faith traditions, and I started probing into the “why” behind what I believed and how I expressed it. Along with many other things I questioned, I started to feel like there was something pretty arrogant about telling God what you’d like him to do and how you’d like him to do it.
If the favor of God* was evidenced by material gain, physical comfort, or what many would deem “good luck,” what did that mean for the mother trapped in a cycle of poverty, unable to provide for her children and hopeless to find a way out? Or for the child who was abused while the world looked the other way? Or for the man who was shot and killed because the color of his skin sparked fear in the heart of someone more powerful? I could not accept that God was answering my prayers and showing favor by arranging a convenient parking space while another woman died from a lack of clean water.
The result was that over time my prayers became more vague. Now I pray for peace. I pray for God’s presence. I pray for direction. I pray for the faith to trust in God’s provision. I rarely ask for anything specific. This is partly from the theological conviction that we are not God’s puppetmasters, but if I’m honest, it might also partly be to protect myself from his silence. If I pray “God, please help my husband find a higher-paying job,” I am set up for disappointment if it doesn’t happen. If I pray, “God please be with me,” I am guaranteed a positive answer. God is always with us. Crisis of faith avoided.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I am living through a season of tremendous uncertainty. Every plan I had for the future and everything I thought I knew about the shape my life would take has changed. In about 4 months I will become a mother. On a very practical level, I do not know yet how we will provide for our child financially, what our childcare situation will be like, how my mental health will be impacted postpartum, or how long we will be in Hong Kong. These are concrete questions that need concrete answers. But I find myself unable to ask God for any of these things. I haven’t prayed for a higher salary or that I wouldn’t get postpartum depression. I’ve just prayed for “provision” and “peace.”
Is it a theological issue of believing it is wrong to pray for the things I want? Or is it that I no longer believe in God’s ability to impact real-world scenarios? Do I pray in big-picture terms for God’s provision because it isn’t my place to try to dictate how God should provide? Or is it because I don’t believe he is powerful enough or interested enough to change my circumstances? Do I dare ask God to provide a way for me to stay home with my baby and still save money for our eventual move home? Is that an arrogant request in the face of a world with so much real need and real suffering? Or is it holy boldness? The kind that gave Peter the confidence to say to the lame man, “Stand and walk” ?
Can I ask God for something and believe wholeheartedly that he can make it happen without believing he should make it happen? And if so, how do I ask with expectation-with hope–but without entitlement? ________________________________________________________________________________
*I wrote a post a long time ago now about how my understanding of divine favor has changed. You can read it here.