“Why does God answer your prayers and not mine?” a friend asked recently. She doubts that God can be trusted, especially when it comes to his intentions toward her. She sees little connection between her notions of good and her notions of God.
From my perspective, her doubt makes her do dangerous things that hurt herself and those she says she loves, including me. Because I see no difference between how God blesses her and how he blesses me, her question stymies me.
My faith is sometimes scrutinized like a strange, rediscovered species once thought extinct. I don’t for a minute think I can explain it in a way that will convince anyone else. I don’t believe in blind faith. I believe in things I don’t see based on things I do see, and through testing I become more convinced. That’s the essence of the scientific method. I’m willing to explain the science of my faith, but the evidence is personal to me. I do it also for my children who know my story and whose faith is already rooted in evidence personal to them.
I believe there’s a science to it. The good. The bad. The successes. The failures. The unrealistic hopes. The dashed dreams. The renewed sense of vision and purpose. The fact that the battle of faith is fought entirely in the mind makes it no less scientific. Faith—and we soar above the clouds. Doubt—and we grovel like the dwarfs in the smelly barn at the end of C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle. I’ve done both—soar and grovel.
I’ve thought long and hard about my friend’s question—a dilemma as old as Genesis 3. I see the hand of God in everything. She claims to see it, too, but benevolently in my life and malevolently in hers. Are we both imagining things?
The good I see is distinctively patterned and loving, like the patterned and loving ways I care for my own children. Like the sun rising and setting. Like planets and molecules in orbit. Like water evaporating, precipitating, and flowing back into my life as streams and rivers, day after day after day.
My parents recognized and demonstrated that same patterned, selfless love. It has no logical root in the selfish default of human nature—not even from an evolutionary perspective. Most parents have strong protective instincts, but I realize that not every parent loves this way.
Why does God seem to move in some people’s lives while remaining motionless in others?
Perhaps a better question is, Why should God bless us with rainbows when we fail to recognize him as the source of sun and rain? What good does it do for him to demonstratively bless us when we choose to be miserable no matter what he does and take credit for the blessings while complaining about the delivery?
I believe he does bless and sustain us, regardless of our perspective. “He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends the rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). The sad fact is, we harden our hearts against those blessings and ultimately against him, becoming more bitter and self-sufficient in the face of overwhelming evidence that he is good. Even worse, we attribute blessings to our own goodness rather than to his. (We prayed for them after all. He merely responded.)
Our unrealistic expectations are largely the culprit. Where do those expectations come from? He promised blessings, but he also made it clear that we would suffer. For a limited time and revealed purpose, selfishness is taking its miserable course. He also promised that our pain and suffering would never be vengeful or meaningless. For those who trust Him, suffering as well as joy brings about good. We see it happen every day. Sometimes in the moment, sometimes in retrospect. We recognize that we’re blessed far beyond what we deserve, despite our self-serving choices. We see his goodness, and we recognize all good things as coming from his hand. It makes no sense to take any of the credit.
Conversely, it likely brings him great joy to send unexpected blessings our way, even though He can’t yet fully deliver us from our pain, largely because we love Him back. Logically, we may not see it that way because we either don’t want an authority figure in their lives or because it prevents them us from taking the credit if something turns out well. Either way, it’s a strange sort of aimless doubt that makes us do strange and dangerous things that hurt ourselves and others we claim to love, merely because we doubt his goodness. Yet somehow God still turns our actions into blessing for anyone who recognizes and acknowledges his goodness.
If He is good and we trust his heart, we know he will send blessings in the right way and at the right time, just as he always has. We see overwhelming evidence. We don’t worry or do crazy things out of anger at him for not answering our prayers in our way and in our time. We realize that he’s protecting us—from ourselves as well as from external, eternal dangers.
Logically, he also understands our desire to be in charge. He lovingly plants seeds, blessing and providing and sometimes letting us think good was our idea when he had it planned all along, but ultimately leading us to clearer vision and deeper understanding of our limitations.
Prayer is our means of acknowledging that “all we have needed his hand hath provided.” Whether out of desire or curiosity, we communicate with him. In response, He suggests safe thoughts and desires. We pray for them. He answers those prayers. In receiving, we love him more and recognize how much he loves us. And then we trust him, even in the worst circumstances. We recognize the blessings in our days, even when they’re disguised as trials. We recognize the answers as coming from him because we know we can’t even want selfless good much less bring it about. Recognizing our weaknesses and limitations, we acknowledge the reality of his desire and power to save us. The battle of doubt is won, and joy begins in the present with no visible end.
It all seems circular unless I tell you I’m actually talking about my husband. A real human being you can clearly see exists. He’s in my life, at my table, and on my Facebook page. You can see him for yourself. It makes perfect sense.
Well, I am…talking about a real person. The fact that you may not see God astounds me as much as my seeing him may astound you. He’s in my life, he’s at my table, and he’s even on my Facebook page. We’re largely looking at the same evidence. I’m suffering along with everyone else, but I do see clear glimpses of heaven and a loving God and I understand the big picture reasons for the suffering. Feel free to question my intelligence, but what if you’re missing something? I didn’t always see things this way either.
I can’t show you what I see, but I can suggest that it’s never possible to drive while looking in a rear view mirror. Faith isn’t like that. Faith is having a clean windshield, a good GPS, and some sense of where you’re going, even if you’ve never been there before. It’s a road trip with lots of potholes but a good map.
Some believe God causes us to suffer merely to remind us of their dependence on Him. If I perceived God that way, I wouldn’t think it logical to serve him. I think he is deeply misunderstood.
We all suffer. We all are blessed. All in context and with reason—some of it having to do with the bigger picture and some of it for more immediate reasons. The larger narrative provides enough context for me to understand the frustrating, daily mix of good and bad. I don’t believe God plays favorites, but I do think He interacts with and responds to his children much the same as we do with ours (albeit with greater, more selfless wisdom).
Loving, responsive children have better relationships with their parents and generally easier lives than belligerent, paranoid ones. Some children are more difficult, selfish, and ungrateful than others. If you’re a loving parent, you love and bless them the same, but they don’t always see and appreciate your efforts. Their tantrums have to end before they can recognize your love for what it is.
Some children live their lives in a passive tantrum state. There’s not much we as parents can do other than to faithfully stand by and love them in spite of themselves and in spite of their twisted view of us and our love. Our loyalty and faithfulness don’t change one way or the other if they finally wake up and see us as we are, but their perceptions certainly influence their choices and often contribute to additional, unnecessary suffering. If we love them, we’re waiting with a full bouquet when they finally wake up and smell the roses.
I’m suggesting that it’s largely the same with us as God’s children, and that this is something we can comprehend clearly. We are given opportunities not only to participate but also to understand. He provides full explanation. It doesn’t take our pain away, but it does bring peace and vision for something beyond. If I couldn’t see a bigger picture that made sense, I could not go on.
Life can be brutal, but it is not senseless. Sometimes knowing that is enough. That, for me, is the science of salvation. It’s the beginning of wisdom that gives basis for rational, moment-by-moment decision making, despite seemingly irrational circumstances.
It’s the same message in every Bible story, each one a chapter in a larger book with an even grander theme: God is good. He can be trusted. I’m not alone in being convinced.