Rev. Don Beyers, Christ Church, Bolton
Whether I like to admit it or not, I sometimes have a hard time trusting God. This is particularly true when the challenges and difficulties of life seem to be overwhelming. It’s easy for me in such moments to plea to God to help with one concern or another and to hope that God will quickly answer my prayers. More often than not, however, I’m left disappointed; God rarely seems to act according to my expectations or to my plans.
I suspect many of you might be able to relate to my experience of God. After years of ministry, I’ve come to conclude that the greatest challenge to faith is our unrealistic expectations of God. We want God to fit into our image of God. We want God to be the wonder worker, who answers our every prayer and dream imaginable. We want God to be the genie in the bottle who will grant our every wish.
Such expectations of God easily disappoint.
Regrettably, some never get beyond our childhood images of God. The popular religious writer, Karen Armstrong, once observed that we modern people have a better understanding of science than we do of God. Why? Because few of us were rarely ever taught anything about God beyond what we learned in our Sunday school. While Armstrong’s observations struck me as harsh when I first read them a few years ago, I now suspect she may be right. (Although with the prevalence of conspiracy theories online now, I worry if even our scientific education may be poor as well.)
Many still imagine God as a white-bearded man hidden above the clouds somewhere beyond our reach. While we might be tempted to be amused by the popular images of God, a careful review of religious education today reveals that those of us in the Church haven’t always challenged our children, youth, and even adults to explore more fully the nuances of our faith.
The Christian experience of God, as accounted in the scriptures and writings of centuries of Christians, reveal God to be beyond our wildest imaginations. Sure, we can affirm certain qualities of God, but even our affirmations often fall short of the reality. As we read in Exodus 3, God reveals God’s self to be more than whatever we can imagine or conceive; God reveals himself to Moses as “Yahweh – I am who I am.” Moreover, we learn in scripture and in our encounter with Jesus Christ that God is a being who yearns to enter into relationship with us.
It’s helpful to remember that God desires a relationship with us. God isn’t simply a figure who dispenses blessings whenever we feel best — or even more erroneously — when we think we deserve those blessings. No, God is a being who yearns to enter into relationship with us and to draw us more closely to himself. As such, our God grants us the freedom to respond to him in love; it’s up to us to respond to God’s free offer of grace. As we enter into relationship with God, we grow to love God more fully and to have our concepts of God challenged and broadened.
As our relationship with God deepens, we also begin to understand that God knows what is best for us. In one sense, this is why the parental imagery of God is helpful for us. It expresses, albeit imperfectly, God’s relationship with us as a one who cares and provides for us.
To be sure, this raises another set of questions and perhaps frustrates us even more. God can often seem silent even in the moments when we seem to need him most. More often than not, we may feel anger towards God or lament his apparent inaction. These feelings, as well as the many others we have for God, are all perfectly normal and healthy. Again, God desires a relationship with us. As many of us know, relationships can bring us great joy and frustration.
Why does God respond to some of our prayers and not others? I don’t entirely know. If anything, I’ve come to appreciate over the years that there are some things I will never know or understand. Yet I keep turning back to God in prayer trusting that God answers prayers as may be best for us.
There’s a prayer I find helpful for when I am in times of need or uncertainty. It is a rather old prayer, written by the early Church Father St. John Chrysostom, and it may be found in the Book of Common Prayer after the final prayers for Morning Prayer and at the end of the Great Litany. Translated by Thomas Cranmer, the prayer goes as follows:
Almighty God, who hast given us grace at this time with one accord to make our common supplications unto thee; and dost promise that when two or three are gathered together in the Name thou wilt grant their requests; fulfil now, O Lord, the desires and petitions of thy servants, as may be most expedient for them; granting us in this world knowledge of thy truth, and in the world to come life everlasting. Amen.
What I find so wonderful about this prayer is its subtle encouragement for us to entrust to God all our cares and to allow God to hear and answer our prayers at a time that may be best for us. Moreover, the prayer echoes Jesus’ words in today’s gospel that he will answer our prayers “so that the Father may be glorified.” (John 14:14) The prayer challenges me to be open to the possibility that God may have a greater plan than what I am able to see in the present moment.
Let me be clear that this doesn’t dismiss nor diminish our emotional response to God’s seeming lack of response to our prayers. As with all our relationships, our relationship with God may frustrate or confound us. Just consider some of the great mystics of the Christian Tradition and their struggles with God. The 16th century Spanish mystic Theresa of Avila once lamented to God after a fall from a horse. As the story goes, she exclaimed to God “if this is how you treat your friends, no wonder why you have so few!” Although humorous and trite, Theresa’s intimacy with God enabled her to have an authentic and honest relationship with God. She could name how she felt without shame. We, too, are invited into such a relationship with God.
I think the challenge for all of us in this is for us to really consider what it means to be in relationship with God. To simply expect God to answer our every request isn’t entirely fair to God. Aside from being simply bad theology, such thinking demands that God conforms to our ways rather than allowing God to be God. We certainly wouldn’t put such expectations on our other relationships; rather, we enter into relationship with others open to the possibility that we will change and grow. So too with God. We enter into relationship with God open to God’s transforming grace in our life.
Unlike other relationships, however, we can be sure God only desires our best. God would never will anything other than good for us. This adds an additional challenge for us: if a prayer isn’t answered in the way we wished it to be answered, then what might God have in store for us and for others? We may never know or see in our lifetime how the prayer is answered. Thus our relationship with God demands great trust; trust that God will always work out what is best for us and for others.
We will not form this this trust in God overnight or over the course of a short period of time. Rather, our trust in God is formed over a long relationship with God. The spiritual life is never an easy one. There will be joyful and wonderful moments, but also painful and difficult moments as we grow more closely to God. And most of the time we will not know or understand what God is up to in our life or in the lives of others. We simply have to entrust ourselves to God’s care, while at the same time being honest with God about the joys and challenges of our relationship with him. Amen.