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Response to "Prayer is Not Enough" Part 2

In the first part of my response to Steve Kindle’s article on the recent school shooting in Florida, I talked about some of the factors that make this issue so divisive and difficult even to the point that there is disagreement over the actual problem. Along those lines I would point out that since part one of my response we had another school shooting, this one in Maryland. However, rather than a large death toll, only two students were wounded before an armed officer was able to stop the shooter. This would argue against the concept of gun free zones.
Beyond the political questions, however, Steve raised some questions about prayer and God that I would like to address. The first is his claim that “Prayer is not enough.” Here I agree. It is vital and important, but it is not enough. 1 John 3:18 says, “Little children, we must stop expressing love merely by our words and manner of speech; we must love also in action and in truth.” We are to pray, but we must do more, we must act and what we do must actually be effective. Where our disagreement is, is over what actions would, or would not, be effective.
Steve had 3 “unanswered questions.” The third I addressed last time. Here are the first two.
1. If an angel could warn Joseph so Jesus could escape, why not have an angel kill Herod and let all escape? After all, an angel killed all the first-born sons of the pharaoh. Why not send an angel to kill all mass murderers? (Yes, I know, God works in mysterious ways.)
This is a good question, and in its various forms we could ask that of any number of situations. Ultimately it comes down to the problem of evil, i.e., why does God allow it, which is the most difficult question that Christians face. We believe in a loving and all-powerful God, so why does He allow evil? There is no completely satisfying answer. We can go a long way towards an answer by pointing to freewill, but even with freewill problems remain.
So again, I agree with Steve, at least to some extent that God works in mysterious ways. How could it be otherwise? To effectively judge the actions of another we must be in a position to understand the situation and alternatives as well or better than the one who made the decision. But how can we ever be in that position with an all-knowing God?
Say the angel had killed Herod and let all escape. God certainly could have done that, but then what? There are things that seem good to us in our limited understanding, that ultimately turn out to be horrible. Neville Chamberlain thought he was doing good by avoiding war. Now we know that what he really did was allow Hitler to grow in power to the point that a vastly larger and more destructive war was inevitable. He tried to do good, but ultimately made things worse.
Of course, one could argue, why doesn’t God send an angel to kill all the Herods and Hitlers, would that solve the problem? Perhaps, but then we would be focused on those still left, and the evil they did. After all, it is possible that the Herods and Hitlers are only the worst, because God did remove those who would have been even worse than they were. If, on the other hand, God were to remove anyone who does evil, there would be no one left.
We know that God allows freewill and thus evil. We also know that God has a plan. Ephesians 1:9-10 speaks of God’s “plan that he set forth in the Messiah to usher in the fullness of the times and to bring together in the Messiah all things in heaven and on earth.” How our freewill and God’s plan fit together is beyond our ability to understand, and least this side of eternity.
2. Why do so many of our urgent prayers go ignored? Pastors, think of all the times you prayed over spouses whose marriage was falling apart, to no avail; think of all the parents you prayed with whose child needed relief from drugs, crime, etc., to no avail; think of all the times you prayed for God to heal only to learn of continued chronic illness or death? Just to mention a few. (I know, God says, “No.”)
The answer to this question is strongly related to the first question. However, there is another factor here. To see this, turn the question around, what if every prayer was answered? Would that really be a good thing? Strange as it sounds Hollywood has dealt with this question in the movie Bruce Almighty. Have a problem with your spouse, just say a prayer and its fixed. Have a child in trouble, just say a prayer and its fixed. If you are sick, say a prayer and you are better.
Put this way the problems become clear. Should we raise our kids giving them what ever they asked for? Of course not, and neither does God. In fact, if it did work this way, God would be more the Great Vending Machine in the Sky serving us, rather than the God to whom we seek a relationship with.
So the question really is not why so few get answered (i.e, the way we want), but rather, why any get answered at all. They do because He is a merciful God.
Finally, Steve writes, “The doctrine of the Sovereignty of God, which refers to God being in complete control as he directs all things, has to go. Sure, you may tell me that God allows humans their free will and therefore accepts, consequently, innocent deaths. If, then, the survival or not of the people at Stoneman Douglas is finally left to chance, then prayer is not a factor at all.
The problem with Steve’s statement is that is assumes God’s actions are all or nothing. We do not know what God did that day. What we know is that that He did not completely stop the killer and that 17-people died and 16 were injured. Maybe He did nothing. Maybe He did a lot and many more would have died, but for His intervention. We simply do not know. Nor can we know why those 17 and not others.
What I believe has to go, is not the Sovereignty of God, but the belief that we must be able to understand everything. As science has removed much of the mystery of nature, bringing it under the control of human understanding, the belief has developed that our understanding trumps everything. This is not really new. You can see it in all the various attempts to transform the nature of God into something we can understand, but now it has taken on a new importance.
In many respects, science and reason are the new ultimate, and everything must conform to our current scientific understanding or be discarded. This view has many problems, particularly given the increasing blurring of the lines between science and agendas. But the biggest problem is that this is in and of itself an irrational position when it comes to God. It is impossible for the finite to understand the infinite, and to demand that he infinite fit the finite, is irrational. So yes, God does work in mysterious ways.
One final comment; however right or wrong my understanding is here, I fully acknowledge the emptiness and futility of such explanations to those who are grieving. These are explanations of the head and completely ill suited to comfort the heart. Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, once said that when dealing with those who are grieving we should “show up and shut up.” To this I would add, and pray.
by Elgin Hushbeck, Jr., Engineer, teacher, Christian apologist, and author of Preserving DemocracyWhat is Wrong with Social Justice?Christianity: The BasicsA Short Critique of Climate ChangeChristianity and Secularism, and Evidence for the Bible.
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  1. I appreciate that the learned Mr. Hushbeck takes the time to respond to my posts, and to this one in particular, “Prayer Is Not Enough.” He always offers cogent analyses, even if they come from the “tried and true” vault of Christian apologetics. I believe my article speaks for itself and doesn’t need any further comment. However, Elgin relies on an argument that is so injurious to many people that I must respond. At its base, he maintains that, since God is sovereign, whatever happens in our world is the best outcome. In particular, he argues that King Herod’s murder of the innocent children in Bethlehem couldn’t be improved upon, given that God knows more about the facts on the ground than we do.
    Does this apply to the murder of 6,000,000 Jews in Hitler’s ovens? Or the 10,000,000 Ukrainians whom Stalin starved to death? Or the over 1,000,000 Cambodians who died in just four years at the hands of the Pol Pot regime? Never mind the millions of spina bifida babies, or Or! Or! Or! (Make up your own list here.)
    Do we live in the “best of all possible worlds”? This is not a direct quote from Elgin, but it sums up his general point of view. I, for one, look at the world and must conclude that a loving God would not allow these horrific situations to occur, given the ability to countermand them. Therefore, I am driven to conclude that it is not possible for God to do so. And it will remain this way until we humans decide enough is enough and finally live the way God intends for us. This is why the doctrine of the Sovereignty of God must be set aside as raising more problems than solving them. Everything is possible for God that is possible, and nothing more. The problem, to paraphrase Shakespeare, is not in our God, it is in ourselves.
    I know that the idea that God can’t do everything is heresy. How could such a being be God? That we need such a God is on us, imperfect and powerless as we are. As Voltaire put it, “If God has made us in his image, we have returned him the favor.”
    We desire a God that can interdict at will and can make all things right. The real issue is, is this the God of the Bible? The God who destroys humanity because of a failed beginning, who couldn’t shape Israel up even with two captivities and a succession of prophets, and has Jesus wonder if when the Son of Man returns will there be faith on earth, doesn’t seem to be in total control. This is the God of the Bible, and our God even today.
    So, I would amend the adage to say, “We live in the world that is possible up to now and look forward in hope that God’s influence in the world will ultimately create the best of all possible worlds.” This is not inevitable, but certainly worth working for. After all, this is “being about our Father’s business.”

    1. Steve, thank you for your reply, and you have raised some very important issues, however I must point out that I think you have has misunderstood my position, probably due to the abbreviated nature of my response. You wrote, “Do we live in the ‘best of all possible worlds’? This is not a direct quote from Elgin, but it sums up his general point of view.” However, close this may or may not be to my position, I would certainly never say that, at least not without a lot of qualifications. We live in a world corrupted and ravaged by sin. A world in rebellion against God. You point to just a few of the atrocities and horrors of the 20th century, and “conclude that a loving God would not allow these horrific situations to occur.” This is not an illegitimate conclusion.
      Why, after all, would God have allowed this? But I would argue that the harder question is why does God allow any evil? And harder still is the question of why would he forgive and redeem us? If you believe that God allows some evil because he allows freewill, or for any other reason, then the question becomes a matter of where does he draw the line?
      I do agree with your paraphrase of Shakespeare, that the problem “is not in our God, it is in ourselves.” Most, but granted not all, of the 20th century horrors are traceable directly to the actions of people and movements that abandoned the God of the Bible, if not God altogether. Many of these movements, and even the some of the people, still have their supporters. Many still think highly of Stalin in Russia, and many supported Venezuela’s dictatorship.
      Should God protect us from the problems of such movements? Should he have just prevented them from ever existing? Evil is not a discrete act, but interconnected web of pattern and practice that has bad outcomes. If so how far back should he have stopped them? Though they did not intend it, much of the evils of the 20th century are traceable to Marx and Darwin. Should God have stopped them from publishing? Or should he have stopped, for example, Lenin, or Stalin from coming to power? Perhaps, he should have just stopped evolution developing into the ideas of eugenics and theories of a Master race? Just where and when should he have drawn the line, and exactly what should he have done? Churchill warned against Hitler and called WWII the unnecessary war, because it so easily could have been prevented. Just how much is it God’s responsibility to act when we will not? How much is it God’s duty to protect us from ourselves when we abandon him? And no, this is not an argument that the people who suffered deserved it, but that we, as humanity, have the responsibility for what we do and what we allow.
      Still, this is not a complete answer, and even following God, to the extent that we can, does not mean that things will go well. There are, for example, sickness and disease as “all the rest of creation has been groaning with the pains of childbirth up to the present time.” So while I do not believe that we have a complete answer to the problem of evil, I do believe the biblical answer is, to paraphrase Churchill’s definition of democracy, the worse answer, except for all the rest.

  2. Prayers help those who want reassurance and guidance. And you’re right, it shouldn’t be only thing we do. Better gun control with no backdoors is a popular opinion across the aisle. Prayers should definitely come jointly with actions.

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