When my wife was diagnosed with cancer, the doctor told us there were many people at the hospital willing to pray for us. I said, “I’ll take my prayers in the form of competent expertise.” I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately… A lot of you may already know that Rachel Held Evans has been in a medically induced coma for a couple weeks now. If you don’t know who that is, you should. She’s a lot like me, only she’s smart and successful and a really good writer. Folks on Twitter have started the #PrayForRHE hashtag to allow people to share their love & prayers during this scary time…
As a writer & a blogger & a Christian who went through deconstruction, it was only natural that I was introduced to the beautiful mind of Rachel Held Evans. She is one of my heroes. She has this way of saying things that feels so Fresh & True & Good. People would send me her articles all the time. Many of the things she wrote became a sort of Doubter’s Canon for people who had questions about their unraveling faith. The news of her health struggles have broken my heart. I just love her.
Before I was aware of the inherent danger strangers/men like me posed to people like Rachel, I think I messaged her something like, “We should totally be friends.” My feelings were a little hurt when she didn’t respond. Ha! As if she owed me a response… Anyway, I have looked on through tears as people post their prayers & well-wishes to her on social media. She is so universally beloved by people I respect, and so feared & reviled by people I can’t stand. And through all this, I have been thinking once again about prayer.
In the faith of my youth, PRAYER was the thread I started pulling on which led to the unraveling of my Sweater Of Traditional Christian Theology… An admittedly ugly sweater. I grew up in Church. I went to a Christian School, kindergarten through college. I was a Young Life leader. I worked at a Christian Camp. I did Bible studies. I did prayer groups. I did all the Christian things.
It wasn’t until I moved to Nashville that I had my first experience with a church that “believed in miracles.” For a while, we attended the sort of church that would tell stories about seeing angels, & limbs growing back, & the dead being raised. They were interested in the God of the Spectacular. I remember watching once as prayer team members were released, and they pushed past addicts & single moms to get to a person on crutches… In the hopes of seeing him spectacularly drop those crutches. One Sunday we worshipped late into the afternoon, as we received news that God had miraculously healed a woman of her ovarian cancer! We cried & sang & collected an offering.
When she died from cancer about a year later, no one mentioned it…
I work at a restaurant, & most of the people there know I’m a big fan of Jesus. A few years ago, a friend asked me to pray for her gravely injured brother to get better. I told her I would—even though by then I had stopped believing in that sort of prayer. I couldn’t sleep that night. He died soon after. I cried later as I told her that I didn’t really believe that is how God works. And that I didn’t want my prayer testifying of the God who COULD, but so often decides to NOT.
I feel like the #PrayForRHE hashtag is a net good… Seeing all of us beautiful misfits come together around loving RHE was inspiring. Certainly, the GoFundMe was a beautiful act of generosity & support & goodness. But there’s a part of this whole thing that is troubling me. And it came to a head for me today, when Nadia Bolz Weber—another important voice I love & respect—posted a tweet about praying for Rachel that said “We’re not asking nicely anymore, God.”
And I guess that’s my worry here: It feels to me like these prayers for healing paint a picture of a God on a throne… A God who has plenty of water for a kid dying of thirst, but who is like, “Sorry, you didn’t say PLEASE.” It feels like a physician who has the cure for a deadly disease, but requires the sick person to get 10,000 signatures first. Or to get a hashtag trending. It feels like being back at that Holy Spirity, charismatic church, and having to listen to people talk about “Storming the Gates of Heaven,” or “Holding God to his promises.” It feels like the bullshit that is “Name It & Claim It.”
It feels like “Everything happens for a reason” and “All part of God’s plan” and “God never gives us more than we can handle.” And if I’m being honest, it feels like the reason I can’t go to church anymore.
It feels like what led me to read Rachel’s work in the first place.
And please believe me when I say that I’m not writing this to try to steal anyone’s hope during this hard time. I am filled with hope. I realize these prayers can be comforting to some. But beyond this tragedy, I am worried about what these prayers say about God. If her brain isn’t healed, it’s because “God had other plans.” If her brain IS healed, then God healed it… Healed by the same God who was in control when this happened. And the same God who healed her brain still decided not to heal some little kid’s leukemia.
This is the God of “Have you considered my servant, Job?” allowing Satan to torture & murder an entire family because God felt like showing off. That’s the distorted picture of God Jesus tried to fix… And the same distortion the Still-Speaking Voice Of God still longs to correct.
I have no interest in a faith or a theology that is not intellectually honest enough to deal with the Problem of Pain without deferring every answer to some supposed omnipotence, while simultaneously refusing to address the inherent immorality of inaction.
I am done worshipping “The God Who’s In Control Of Everything.” I’m done with The Volcano God, who requires a sacrifice. A VIRGIN sacrifice. The God who hears us if we’re pure enough. Or ENOUGH enough. The God who moves mountains IF we just have faith like a mustard seed. Because “The God Who’s In Control Of Everything” quickly becomes a monster… ESPECIALLY to those who are oppressed. When we ask for the mountain to move, I believe in the God who hands us a shovel. Not because God WON’T, but because God CAN’T.
As my wife & I raise our 3 kids, we are trying to give them as little theology as possible that they’re going to have to deconstruct later. If they hear a prayer from me, they won’t hear me pleading with God to do a miracle… They hear me acknowledging that the God of the universe binds us together in love… That God is in us all, and that Gods knows what it’s like to feel powerless and forsaken… That we love God best when we love & take care of each other… But you will NEVER hear me testifying—with my words or my prayers—of the God who COULD help, but doesn’t. That God might be powerful, but we could never call that God “Good.”
And if God’s not Good, then what’s the damn point?
Thank you for reading. This was initially published as a Twitter thread, but I wanted to make it available to those of you who aren’t on Twitter. I have written a few different times about this stuff. If you’re interested, here’s one: “Fun With Cancer” (by the way, my wife is cancer free now… So that’s a really good thing). Another one is “God Had Nothing To Do With This.” One more is titled “When Prayer Is Worthless: Some Thoughts On The Cold Weather.”
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So just thinking out loud here. What if, just what if, we have it all wrong. What if the Name It, Claim It crowd has it wrong in their “forcing” God. What if, though (and not to single you out because I get it. If He can WHY doesn’t He), you (and often me) have it wrong as well. People brought others so that Peter’s shadow would fall on them and they would be healed. Now that’s an anointing. We don’t see things like that today on a regular basis. Is it because it doesn’t happen or because it doesn’t happen in our lives? What if the God we look for healing is the same God that wants to set every person free from a demonic spirit? I have seen people set free from demonic spirits. When that happens there’s a prayer in intensity that doesn’t happen with a prayer for healing. At least in my experience. This is an area I believe God is taking me so much deeper in. Where are the signs and wonders that will follow us? Like I said, just thinking out loud.
It’s possible, Brandon…
My thoughts here have more to do with this: If that is true, what does that say about the nature of God?
At the time Peter was walking around, they thought just about EVERYTHING was a “demonic spirit.” Many of the sorts of Charismatic Churches I wrote about here think being gay is a demonic spirit. They are filled with the sorts of people how hit three green lights in a row, and credit it to God miraculously intervening.
But if God is in that much control & that powerful (so much so that God can do any miracle–move mountains/raise the dead, with just the tiniest seed of faith from us), and yet God chooses to intervene in small things (knee pain) and ignore kids with cancer.
The charismatic church I used to attend believed in miracles. They believed it so hard that when a man’s wife died, they tried to forbid people from mourning, because they were “believing God” that his wife would be raised from the dead, and mourning could be seen as not having faith. It is some terribly abusive stuff. Truly harmful… But even Lazarus ended up dying, you know?
Here is what throws me. I have seen miraculous. I have witnessed instantaneous healing. I have witnessed demonic spirits manifesting and being cast out. He IS God. He IS all-powerful (either He is or the Bible is false…one or the other). So what is the “secret”, for lack of a better word? Or is it that we get in the way of ourselves and cannot just have child-like faith? Like you, I am wrestling with this (and Him for that matter)!
I wrote this 7 years ago, so I was a completely different person then… But you might enjoy this? https://theboeskool.com/2012/05/18/perfection-truth-and-finding-your-porpoise/
BOESKOOL…but…as I’ve mentioned to ya in my irritating posts before,…You yourself have used the argument, concerning the existence of deity, that “since most do people believe in the existence of God, how can they all be wrong?”
Well, c’mon — most people not only believe in the existence of “God”, but also believe that that “God” is powerful-and-intervenes-and-answers-prayer.
But, you’re saying, they’re all wrong and that “God” is a Higher Power-LESS.
So, I’ll ask you with what you argued: “HOW can all those people be wrong about ‘God’ being a powerful-deity-who-intervenes-and-answers-prayer?”
Have I used the “a majority of people believe it, so it has to be true” defense before? That doesn’t sound like me…
September 12, 2018 at 12:34 pm
BOESKOOL…’course, your either/or dilemma (which does honestly and logically face the reality of, “if ‘god’ is omniscient, omniprescient, omnipotent, omnipresent, infallible, eternal, loving, and just, then why is the human experience of pain and suffering ‘the best he could do’ ?”) is necessary only if you’re desperate to salvage theism.
A simpler explanation is, “based on the reality we observe and experience, there is not sufficient evidence for the existence of any deity”.
September 15, 2018 at 8:08 am
There is only “not sufficient evidence for theism” if you define God using that litany of superlatives. But think about how deeply the vast majority of people are compelled to believe — independent of one another — in similar concepts of goodness and justice and love. And how the vast majority of those people credit that phenomenon to the existence of a higher power. I’d say that is statistically relevant.
If a Higher Moral Law, then why not a Higher Power?
September 16, 2018 at 7:13 pm
However, they don’t do they? The same vast majority disagrees and even conflicts among themselves about what those concepts mean in concrete. What love, justice, and goodness actually mean is ultimately “in the eyes of the beholders”, with groups, families, and individuals specifying variously. “One person’s terrorist is another’s liberator”…”Trump is the savior/trump is the anti-christ”…”spanking children is love/spanking children is abuse”. Reality is, humans on the same road of life employ the same term “traffic law”, but some sincerely see a speed limit sign posting 40 MPH, others, 55 MPH, others 70 MPH, and others sincerely see no posted limit at all. You yourself have lamented this disparity among professing Christians.
Is the fact that the majority use the same terms, “love, goodness, justice” yet define them differently and even conflictingly evidence of one “Higher Moral Law”? Or, rather, is it evidence against the existence of a “Higher Moral law”?
As far as majority opinion — the same vast majority who believe in a deity believe in versions of exactly as you termed, “Higher POWER”. They believe in deities who are powerful enough to intervene in and control weather, illnesses, accidents, other tragedies, and human lives. If what the majority believes is important evidence of the existence of deity, then where does that leave you with your contrary version of “god”?
[To which you didn’t reply]
Me using the existence of morality and of a common understanding of “goodness” to point at the plausibility of a higher power is FAR from me making a case that “since so many people believe it, it has to be true.”
“But think about how deeply the vast majority of people are compelled to believe — independent of one another — in similar concepts of goodness and justice and love. And how the vast majority of those people credit that phenomenon to the existence of a higher power. I’d say that is statistically relevant.
If a Higher Moral Law, then why not a Higher Power?”
Meaning, the fact that the “vast majority”, of the “vast majority” believing in a Higher Moral Law, also believes in a Higher Power, is statistically IRRelevant to you??
I’ll take you at your word you’re not hedging now, which leaves me unclear of your thinking. If what the majority believes or doesn’t is essentially irrelevant, then why did you use “majority view” as your primary “evidence” in response to my statement: “A simpler explanation is, “based on the reality we observe and experience, there is not sufficient evidence for the existence of any deity”?
Again, nowhere did I say that consensus or something close to it is “irrelevant.” Relevancy does not equal “proof that God exists.”
I would say that there is empirical evidence of—at least add a very base level—a common understanding of “goodness.” For me, logically, this is akin to a “higher” moral law. Which is what led me to say “if a higher moral law, why not a higher power?”
It is basically saying that many atheists refuse to acknowledge the existence of a shared morality, because they know that that can be used to try to push them into acknowledging the possibility of “something higher than ourselves.”
“I would say that there is empirical evidence of—at least add a very base level—a common understanding of “goodness.” For me, logically, this is akin to a “higher” moral law. Which is what led me to say “if a higher moral law, why not a higher power?”
So, if I’m understanding you correctly…your thought is, that the majority holding concepts of at least a very basic level of “goodness” is empirical evidence of a Higher Moral Law, but, that the majority holding concepts of at least a very basic level of “intervening, prayer-answering deity” is not likewise empirical evidence of a Miracle-Working Higher Power?
Yeah, I have a lot of thoughts as well. The first being, “We should totally be friends.” Hah! I’ve had to reconcile some of these issues by actually doubling down on the idea of an all-knowing God who knows what’s best for us as a whole and unfortunately, it often doesn’t align with what we think is best for us personally. I think that telling God he’s, ‘Doing it Wrong” makes it seem like somehow we know better than he does? I dunno, that’s my two bits on the problem of pain. I trust that he knows what he’s doing, it’s ultimately in our best interest (even though it sometimes doesn’t feel like it) and he doesn’t owe us an explanation.
When I sense a bond with an author I always write to them. Sometimes they write me back. But when I try to keep the conversation going they always blow me off.
I’m sure that people like Rachel are being pulled in 1000 directions at once… It’s got to be very hard. I’m sure it’s hard enough for her to respond to all of the people she actually knows, without having to worry about responding to all of the people she DOESN’T now… You know?
Plus, she has had to deal with a ridiculous amount of toxic masculinity from complementarians and online assholes. And something like that can certainly leave people with a little bit of PTSD regarding dealing with more men.
Chris, I agree with everything you said about Rachel. She’s wonderful. Somehow I’d missed the news of her medical condition. My first reaction, I admit, is to pray for her. Will that do any good? Well….
You mention the book of Job. The point of Job is that God is so much bigger than us, we can’t even imagine the super-big picture view that he sees. The point of the whole Bible is that God loves us fervently, unconditionally, and endlessly. So, even if we can’t see the super-big picture, even if we don’t know why he heals one person and lets another die, we can trust him because we know how much he loves us.
It’s hard to trust him like that, because from our vantage point the world is so unfair and so full of evil. It’s hard to trust him, so we need to encourage each other, to hold each other, to cry with each other. I appreciate you, Chris, because — like Rachel’s — your faith is authentic and honest. No bullshit, no platitudes. No false bravado, like the faith healers. Just a persistent reliance on God’s love.
One last thing: Like you, I was appalled by that “not asking nicely anymore” tweet. That’s the exact opposite of trusting God. We pray, not to boss God around (as if we ever could!), but because he can bring healing, because he told us to cast our cares on him, and because it brings us some comfort just to know he’s listening.
You said exactly what I was trying to say above. Thanks
I agree with you I never pray for a miracle – not sure I actually believe that we would know a miracle if we saw one. I thank God and Jesus for all that that have given us, I ask God and Jesus how I can be of service, how I can do their will. I love Rachel and Nadia and I have seen the love
And admiration that they have for each other, I was at their “why Christian?” Conference less than a month ago with both in attendance lifting up all of Gods people. There was a lot of discussion at the conference about what “Healing” means it is not always what we would like. So I also, pray for healing…
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