Today's Guest Post in the Account and Countenance Series comes from Ryan, who blogs at Jesus and Venus and can be found on Twitter at @glassblowerscat. _________
My mother has always prayed strangely specific prayers. And I do mean specific. For example, when reselling an item on ebay that she found at a thrift store: “Lord, I would really like to sell this dress for $20 more than I paid for it.” She also prays about everything; no problem or question is too small for God. She prays for cashiers she meets at the grocery store or Goodwill. I’m pretty sure she’s still praying for one of my ex-girlfriends. She’s always done this, as far back as I can remember.
Her theology has plenty of room for that. She thoroughly believes Jesus when he says, “So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him.” She takes this as evidence that God cares about even our tiny problems and concerns and wants to give us what we ask for, and she makes extremely specific requests of him so that when those requests are fulfilled she’ll know it had to be God at work.
Theoreticaly, I agree with her. I can’t deny that God told us to ask him for things; it’s right there in the Bible—ask, seek, knock, bread not stones, fish not snakes, etc. Somehow Mom’s habit of granular, specific prayers never stuck to me, though. Mostly, I blame church.
I grew up in what I imagine to be a fairly typical conservative evangelical congregation. We believed in salvation by grace, through faith; none of your works-based salvation heresy for us, thank you. But we were also wary of “cheap grace.” You didn’t get to run around sinning all the time just because you were saved and had forgiveness for your sins. Unfortunately, you can measure the absence of sin much more objectively than the presence of grace, so everyone in the church lived by a long list of unwritten rules cobbled together from the non-ceremonial Old Testament laws, the parts of the New Testament that didn’t mention taking care of the poor, and movies set in the 1940s and ’50s. As a result, while I believed in grace with my head, I believed in the New Law with my guts.
Augmenting this imbalance, as I got older I began having frequent conversations with my father about the Bible and theology. I’ve always loved these long debates, which continue to this day, but both of us skew analytical and theoretical rather than practical and applicable, and Dad also struggles to truly believe that God wants to be intimately involved in guiding our day-to-day lives. Combining that with a Calvinist theological base meant that I had to grow ever more systematic in reconciling direct statements about prayer and God as a giving father—statements my mother takes at face value—with a more comprehensive view of God’s sovereignty.
“Sovereignty” took center stage in my theology more and more as I entered Christian college (pretty Calvinist) and began attending a new church in my college town (very Calvinist). While not a Bible or Theology major, all students had to take a few Bible courses, and I numbered quite a few of the seminary-bound among my friends. Late-night conversations about theology and hermeneutics presented an attractive alternative to actual work, and being surrounded by Christians kept spiritual questions uppermost in my mental space. As I graduated and accepted a full-time job at my very Calvinist church, I realized that I had realigned all my other concepts of God to fit the constraints of sovereignty.
Oddly enough, working for three years alongside a group of five-pointers showed me how dissatisfying and one-sided systematic Calvinism can be.* Calvinist theology is essentially a series of logical constructs predicated on that one notion of sovereignty, and the more you believe in sovereignty, the more you must believe God is always playing a long game. Everything happens because he wants it to happen—even the bad things—so when something bad happens to me, or something I want to happen doesn’t, I must assume my happiness just does not fit into the plan somehow. It doesn’t make sense to believe God can orchestrate a millenia-long narrative of sin, redemption, and glorification spanning every culture and language that also somehow includes making sure I get that writing gig I wanted.
So, despite my mother’s longstanding practice of taking Jesus’ word for it that God wants to give her the things she asks for, and even though I ditched Calvinism years ago, the God of my imagining—not of my theology—has little interest in my affairs. When he does pay attention to my life, he probably just sees me doing something he doesn’t like, even though I keep that New Law list in my mental back pocket at all times. And if I do manage not to actively displease him, still none of my problems or goals could possibly puzzle into his sovereign plan without disrupting a thousand other events he almost certainly thinks are more important. If not for my mother’s continual anecdotal evidence of his concern for our well-being and even happiness, I’d probably never even pray—and when I did, I would believe even less in the efficacy of my prayers.
By the way, a few months ago, when the renters I had lined up for my house dropped out a few days before the mortgage was due, a pair of new renters manifested themselves rather fortuitously through a chain of events over which I had no control or influence. When the dust had settled, my mother told me she had been praying that I would find renters under circumstances only attributable to divine intervention, and that this would increase my faith in God.
And you know what? It did.
*For me, at least. I don’t begrudge anyone their Calvinism if they find it compelling and spiritually meaningful. ↩