Too often we have unreal expectations of God, and when he doesn’t meet them we get indignant. We complain when he doesn’t answer our every prayer in exactly the way we want; we complain when life throws a curved ball at us which catches us by surprise, and we whine: “God, why didn’t you do something?” Sometimes we pray for things that are reasonable and very important to us – for a child, say, and we’ve exhausted every means of having one; or the healing of a sick child or a dangerously ill parent; or the resolution of a serious problem in the church – but there’s no response from God. So we get disillusioned and instead of questioning whether our understanding is right, we question God and blame him. Why doesn’t he answer? He can, so why doesn’t he?
I’m not saying God doesn’t answer prayer in the most wonderful and astonishing ways – he does. I’ve had some lovely answers to prayer and I’m amazed at his kindness that he would bless so wonderfully; but then I’m reminded that I’m his child, purchased with the blood of the Only Begotten Son and adopted into his family. When I was a member of a Christian students’ group at a NSW country university, our group was very small. I was just coming out of a very abusive and controlling sect and had been cut off from mainstream Christianity for over two decades. My soul felt numb and I no longer even knew what the gospel was. So when I found employment at the university I got involved with as much Christian activity as I could. I tried the larger Christian student’s groups but found they were impersonal, and I got discouraged. So I joined the Charismatic group which only had about 6 or 7 members. I was really encouraged by their attitude to prayer – an important issue for me because in the abusive church we were virtually forced to attend the weekly prayer meeting, and I grew to hate them; they were just gossip sessions with a pious gloss. So to hear these young people praying so personally and trustingly was a real lift to my spirit, and I decided I would pray for an increase in numbers for our group. I decided to pray for three new members by the end of term. Is that all, you say? Well, for me at that time it was a big thing. Anyway, by the end of term we had three new members. I can’t express how encouraged – and humbled – I was by that.
I was really wound up by my Charismatic friends so I started praying that God would baptise me in the Holy Spirit. Nothing happened in the way I expected it, so I asked them to lay hands on me. They did, but still nothing. I remember walking around the campus at lunch times, pleading with God to baptize me with his Spirit; I don’t know how long I continued doing this but eventually I realised it wasn’t going to happen, and I started being resentful at God. “Why can’t he do such a simple thing for me? I keep hearing about wonderful and miraculous experiences that people around me testify to; I hear of unbelievers going to church, hearing the gospel and getting saved, then they get baptized in the Holy Spirit and their new Christian life starts off with a bang. But I’ve been saved for years and I’m desperately in need of a spiritual boost and he won’t give it to me. Why? Why? Why?” I thought as I inwardly stamped my feet in a tantrum. I didn’t dare say all this to God but I thought it…..as if he didn’t know anyway.
I’d been getting involved with the Charismatics as much as possible, and I watched Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland, Marilyn Hickey, Joyce Meyer, and any others on TV that I could; I read all the popular Charismatic books, went forward for prayer at Charismatic church meetings, listened to music from Hillsong and other Charismatic churches, and basically immersed myself as much as possible in anything and everything Pentecostal. But it was all to no avail – God just would not answer my prayer.
Then one day during this time I decided I had been reading too many books (I love reading) and I felt I should be reading my bible more – I was already reading it every day but I just felt I needed to read only the bible for a while, and give all books a miss. So I made a pledge to God that I would stop reading books altogether and only read my bible for a set period, devoting the time I spent to reading books to reading the bible, apart from my normal times spent in God’s word – I think it was a month. I had originally thought about 3 months but I wasn’t sure how well I’d go with that so I decided on a month as a starter. Every day I went to work an hour early and sat in an empty lecture room and read the bible. By the end of the month I felt so different, so spiritually alive, so much closer to God and aware of him – it’s hard to describe, but after a while I realised that this was the answer to my prayers, and I was so glad. I was glad that God hadn’t answered me in the way I wanted, in a spectacular “slaying in the Spirit”, outburst of tongues, and all of that. He had answered me through his Word, and I was glad he chose to do it this way, because I had confidence that it was God who had done it. I was always concerned that in anything spectacular it might be a different spirit and that I wouldn’t recognise it as such until too late. But this new joy I had found was of God and I knew it. God answered me after all, but it was in his way and his time; and when he did it, I was glad that he hadn’t listened to me.
Speaking of “different spirits”, when I first started praying for the baptism of the Holy Spirit, I was in my house praying that God would fill me with his Spirit, and almost immediately I sensed that a spirit had come. It seemed to be about 4 metres away and was moving towards me. I was very uncomfortable, and felt a “wrongness” about it, so I immediately stopped praying and pulled back. The presence then went, and I was relieved. It didn’t have the same overwhelming sense of evil as the one which I had previously encountered as a new Christian, but it didn’t seem holy either and I was afraid of it. I didn’t understand why an evil spirit would come in answer to my prayer for the Holy Spirit of God, but I do now. I don’t believe the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement is of God because of the blatant false prophecies, the false teaching, the rampant sexual immorality, bizarre, degrading and disgraceful behaviour of people when the spirit falls on them, the lust for money and power, occult and New Age techniques used in the meetings to bring the spirit upon themselves, and other problems displayed by its practitioners and leaders.
I know that there is no such thing as the “perfect church”, but although there are many lovely Christian people caught up in Pentecostalism, it is hard to find anything in it that is biblical, and even harder to find a single leader who repudiates all these things.
God and the spectacular
So, does God do “spectacular”? Of course he does. The bible is full of spectacular – creation is absolutely spectacular; the Ten Plagues of Egypt; the crossing of the Red Sea; the slaying of the Assyrian army as they lay asleep at night, encamped outside Jerusalem ready to raze it to the ground; Jesus’ feeding of the 5000 and the 4000 with a few loaves and some fishes – there is so much spectacular in scripture. But does he do it in our time? Yes, of course, but not necessarily on the same grand scale as he did with, say, the exodus of his people from Egypt. He even does it for individuals today, and we can read some of these incidents in Christian accounts from history.
But I don’t think it’s as frequent or matter of course as we’re sometimes led to believe. If you’ve ever watched Marilyn Hickey’s TV show you’ll be told that for a donation of so much you’ll receive a vial of oil that has been blessed by Kenneth Copeland and other well-known Charismatic leaders, and with it you’ll be able to perform miracles. Of course, if you try it out and there is no miracle (and I’d be surprised if there was), it’s not the oil that’s at fault, it’s your lack of faith.
And if you take Joyce Meyer seriously you’ll be having conversations with God on a face to (invisible) face at any time of day. She’s always saying “I said to God…..God said to me……”, and she seems to have great old conversations with him (but who is she really talking to?).
I’ve come across too many people who have been given wrong expectations of God through the teaching of Charismatic Christians, and when he doesn’t do what they expect him to do they get angry, stop going to church, and fall away from him in disillusionment. But he remains serenely above all our pettiness. We can’t manipulate God; we can’t box him into a corner where he has to answer according to our will; we can’t “step out in faith” and box ourselves into a corner so that he has to show himself in the way we want him to and rescue us from our folly or save us from embarrassment. Too often we think of God as our fairy godmother who will grant us three wishes; or as a genie who must fulfil our every command and wish. But God is not like that. He is God. He is the potter, we are the clay. He is sovereign over all creation: “Alleluia: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth” (Rev 19:6). When he answers our prayers, it is because of his grace and kindness; he answers according to his will; and he answers for our good. How often have we asked something that, whether we knew it at the time or not, would have ultimately been bad for us?
God uses means
So, while God can and does answer in the spectacular, his normal way of working is through means – and that is the way we should expect him to answer. For example, can we or ought we to pray for healing? Yes, most certainly. God has given us talented and caring men and women who work as doctors, nurses, dentists, people dedicated to research and finding cures for incurable diseases, and yes, even drug companies. These are God’s everyday means for healing sickness, and we pray that he would guide the surgeon’s knife, give the doctor wisdom to diagnose the disease, bless the medicinal drugs we take to the healing of our bodies. But can we pray that God would heal us directly? Of course we can; there is nothing wrong with such prayer, and God loves us to come to him in dependence and faith; he has answered such prayer many times. As a matter of fact, a few years ago, my mother had a serious problem with her neck which later required massive surgery, and it was necessary for her to wear a neck brace. She was almost in despair with the discomfort and pain. I suggested to her that she go to the Healing Service at the Anglican church she attended. She did, and while her neck was not healed, it immediately improved to such a degree that she no longer needed her neck brace, and she was enabled to walk her dog every morning, an activity which she missed because of her neck issues. She later had surgery and the doctor was astonished that she was still functioning. But we should not shun medical practitioners because we think it is lacking in faith to seek help from them. We should also protect our health by balanced diet and exercise and by ensuring we get sufficient rest, and having the right balance in our lives between work and recreation.
Can we pray for God to get us out of our financial jam? Again, yes. But again, God uses means. He does occasionally provide unexpectedly and seemingly miraculously – he’s even done it for me – but his usual method of financial provision is for us to find a job in the workforce; and then we must use our money wisely. Jesus told the parable of the labourers in the vineyard in which certain men were gathered together to find employment (Matt 20:1-16); Paul urged the Thessalonians to work with their hands, and “that ye study to be quiet, and to do your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you; That ye may walk honestly toward them that are without, and that ye may have lack of nothing” (1 Thess 4:11-12; 2 Thess 3:11-12); and in Prov 6:6 we’re exhorted to be like the ant which gathers its food and stores up for the winter.
And then, the ultimate means God gives us for everyday living, is to walk by faith. Living as a Christian is a hard slog – St Paul says “And when they had preached the gospel to that city, and had taught many, they returned again to Lystra, and to Iconium, and Antioch, Confirming the souls of the disciples, and exhorting them to continue in the faith, and that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:21-22).
Naturally we want life to be easy and whenever possible we’ll take the easy road; but the blessing only comes when we go through the fire and the trials. Peter encourages us “Wherein ye greatly rejoice, though now for a season, if need be, ye are in heaviness through manifold temptations: That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried by fire, might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ: Whom having not seen, ye love; in whom, though now ye see him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory: Receiving the end of your faith, even the salvation of your souls “(1 Pet 1:6-9).
Ever since the fall of Man in the Garden of Eden, God has spoken to us through a mediator. Apparently, he used to speak to Adam face to face (Gen 2:16-17; 3:8-21), but now he speaks to us through the bible, and our one and only Mediator is Jesus Christ (1 Tim 2:5).
Let’s face it – life is hard. As Christians, we can be tempted to think that it would be easier if we just dropped the whole Christian thing and went back to how we were when we didn’t have to worry about how we behave, what we say, and all the countless “do’s and don’ts” we are required to live by. But supposing you did drop it all – what then? Do you think your troubles would drop away as well? Of course they won’t. Life is hard, whether you’re a Christian or not. A car sticker I once saw said “Life’s a bitch and then you die”. I laughed when I read it but its good modern pop-philosophy.
But as a Christian we have someone to whom we can go when the going does get tough – and he helps us. Whether he does it spectacularly or quietly, he still helps. Sometimes he does it so quietly that we wonder if it was really him or just circumstances; would the “answer” have come anyway if I hadn’t prayed? But the bible and our experience tell us that God frequently acts mysteriously; sometimes it feels like we almost have to force the interpretation that God answered our prayer even though it seemed like it would have just happened anyway. But we believe God, and we know he doesn’t lie. If he says he will answer prayer, then he will and he does. And if the answer seems open to interpretation, then we simply trust him and accept it as his answer.
One example of how God deals strangely with us is found in Exodus when he was speaking to Moses from the burning bush. God told Moses he wanted him to go to Pharaoh’s court and tell him to let the Hebrews go. Moses’ response was “Who am I, that I should go unto Pharaoh, and that I should bring forth the children of Israel out of Egypt? And he said, Certainly I will be with thee; and this shall be a token unto thee, that I have sent thee: When thou hast brought forth the people out of Egypt, ye shall serve God upon this mountain” (Exod 3:11-12). I say “strange” because God is telling Moses to do something huge and life-threatening, and that he will know it was God who sent him when he had finished the task. I can understand Moses’ reservations. Gideon at least got to set out a fleece so that he would be assured God would be with him before the coming battle; Hezekiah was asked if he wanted the shadow on the sundial to go back or forwards 10 degrees so he would know if God was telling the truth; but Moses wouldn’t know if God was with him until after it was all over! But, wow, he certainly saw God doing the spectacular in the meantime!
My own testimony
As the people of God, we’re called on to trust him every day. I remember a time a few years ago when the sect/cult to which I belonged wanted to plant a church in an outlying area of suburban Sydney. They planned radio advertising, local newspaper ads, letterbox drops, handing out leaflets at a shopping centre in a notorious and strongly welfare dependent suburb; and our youth were to go to a local shopping centre as a group and approach shoppers. By the end of the first week all the activities had sufficient people to do them, except for handing out leaflets at the main shopping centre. I was planning on doing a letterbox drop, a non-threatening activity, and one which I could anonymously and unobtrusively get done quickly, and my duty was over.
As I was praying for the activities one morning a chill came into my heart; I knew that God wanted me to do the main shopping centre. I froze as I realised what was required of me, and peace left me. I tried to brush off the thought but I couldn’t. I knew that God was laying it on my heart and I had to respond. I did a “Moses” and tried to wriggle out of it but I couldn’t justify not obeying. I knew that doing a letterbox drop was superfluous as others had beaten me to it; and, surprise! surprise! it was the first activity to be filled. Seems like everybody had the same idea as me. I knew that doing the shopping centre was far more significant because it was more confronting, requiring face-to-face contact with everyone to whom I would give a leaflet; and I knew that I had to do it because I was afraid of it. I concluded (very quickly) that if my faith wasn’t good enough to trust in a God who created and controls the universe, then it wasn’t worth anything. So I decided to do it and that it was a great opportunity to actually exercise my faith. I told my wife about what I had just been through and the resultant decision and, to my great joy and encouragement, she offered to come with me. So we did the deed, a story in itself, and I was so glad I had risen to the challenge. I would never have been able to look myself in the mirror if I’d let that opportunity slip by.
Another of the same…
Another personal example of the necessity of faith is when I worked at the above-mentioned university. I was at a lunchtime students group, where the chaplain was advertising an upcoming evangelistic push on campus, a series of meetings in the week leading up to Easter where a Christian lawyer was scheduled to talk about the resurrection of Jesus. The chaplain was asking for volunteers to approach students around the duck pond area, where they congregated at lunch time, and do a three-question survey, and then invite them to the upcoming meetings. At that stage of my life I was overawed by university students because of the false impression that they were brilliantly academic and could make me look and feel stupid if I tried to tell them about Jesus; therefore, I had made a commitment to myself that I would never get involved with any evangelistic activities on campus. I had obviously been too long in my reclusive and comfortable “separated” church, where practically all we did was encourage each other by saying how apostate the other churches were.
As it happened, at the time the chaplain called for volunteers, I was reading through Eusebius’ history of the Church, and I had only just read where he was talking about the martyrs, and that the ones who made a point of telling others about Jesus were the ones who were able to maintain their faith, even to the death; while those who didn’t tell about Jesus were often the ones who caved in and recanted. With this warning metaphorically ringing in my ears I decided to get involved. I saw it as a good opportunity to get some training in evangelism from people who were experienced and knew what they were doing. So I went around to the chaplain’s office and committed myself. There was a student there also who wanted to get involved and receive on the spot training. But to my horror I discovered that we were the only ones to have volunteered; and he was looking to me to lead. Now it would be the blind leading the blind, and I had to face my greatest fear.
The chaplain gave us copies of the questionnaire and sent us out. I shouldered the new responsibility which had been placed upon me, and off we went to the duck pond – after praying, of course. As I saw the students sitting and lounging on the grass in twos and threes, I picked out a likely couple and approached them. I asked if we could do a survey and they agreed. As I spoke I found it much easier than I expected, and at the end of the questions I was able to use them as a lead-in to tell them the gospel, then I invited them to the meetings. I was amazed at how easy it was and I realised that these students were just teenagers, fresh out of school, and respectful to a mature man. That day was a huge breakthrough for me and I learned a lot from it; about me, about people, and about God; and I still regard it as one of the more important experiences in my life.
As for the aftermath, the meetings were very well attended by a lot of students who had never been to a Christian students’ meeting before; the lawyer spoke well and showed how the evidence for the resurrection would be admissible in a court of law. He’s written a book about this entitled “Leading Lawyers Look at the Resurrection” (Ross Clifford, 1991), which seems to have been revised and entitled “Leading Lawyers Case for the Resurrection” (1996), unless this is the American title of the Australian book. He then went on to become principal of Morling (Baptist) Theological College in Sydney. And I went there to do a theology degree years later. Dr Clifford was still principal and the students absolutely loved him, cheering him every time he came into weekly chapel services.
Exercising faith in our great God for every occasion is far more rewarding and satisfying than seeing the spectacular. While spectacular is exciting, it’s not necessarily always God who is behind it, and we can easily be led astray. I’ve seen this happen far too often. But trusting a God we can’t see, purely on the basis of his promise that he will always be there for us, is much better for us and glorifying to him. When we trust God, we demonstrate our love for him; when we refuse to indulge the flesh, refuse to take revenge, forgive those who have injured us, love because he is love, obey him in all things, this is far more precious to God. If we only ever have the spectacular we’re walking by sight, and this is no faith at all. It is by the exercise of faith that our faith and character grows and we develop as individuals. The more we exercise faith and are vindicated the more we are inclined to trust him. But exercising faith will often be hard no matter how many times we’ve had answers to prayer, because each situation is unique and we are faced with “will I or won’t I?” every time; and the flesh will always be working against us. But God is there for us, every day – he is the “Every Day God” because he is always there; and he is the “Everyday God” because he works in the everyday, in the normal and the humdrum of life, and he uses means rather than direct action.