Yesterday’s post discussed patience and in it I talked about our tendency to fear the end of God’s patience. Today I want to thrum a different chord in the same song.
Snakes in the cradle
Almost every child has the same fear of their disciplinarian parent. You feared your dad coming home to find out what you did because “maybe this is the time he’ll decide to actually take me out.” Rarely does that actually happen, but we point to stories of Job or Uzzah or Sapphirah or Moses as proof that God does, indeed, smite His children. Cruelly. In Matthew 7:9,11 Jesus asked,
“Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will you give him a stone? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in Heaven give good things to them that ask Him?”
But I don’t think most of us believe this, because we ALL have a story where we asked Him for bread and got a stone. “I asked for strength and lost my job!” “I asked for patience and got passed over for that job!” “I asked for healing but my daughter still died.” The list goes on. Very, very, very often when He answers a prayer for fish He gives you a stone to club the fish with despite the fact you’re in a desert. He gives bad gifts, OK? He’s often a terrible gift giver. We make this worse for each other because we say well-meaning but ridiculously stupid s*** like “the Lord works in mysterious ways…” Non. Sense. The Lord’s ways are higher than our ways, His thoughts higher than our thoughts, but His ways are anything but mysterious.
Have you ever noticed there are only three people in the Bible that line up with these kinds of experience — where He answered prayer “incorrectly”? It is chock full of answered prayer that was right in line with the request except for three. The first is Saul, the second is Jonah, and the third is Christ. The majority of answered prayer we see today is contrary to our wishes, and yet the entire book portrays something very different. It’s as if He gave us this cherry-picked set of stories to trick us into believing the false premise that He grants requests.
Wake up, Little Suzie
The truth, of course is that our frame of reference for things is wrong; too tight, too narrow. Saul didn’t get what he wanted because he was trying to glorify himself over the Lord? No, he was trying to order God around; he was trying to tell the Lord that Saul was in charge. Jonah got forced out of his laziness? No, he was also trying to order God around. “My plan is better so You use mine now.” Same thing. Christ’s plea in the garden to “take this cup” was unanswered for the same reason: His flesh called to Him that there was a different way and so He capitulated and asked God for reprieve. It was quiet, it was tender, but it was an attempt to say “I know You told me Your plan, but it’s wrong so let’s try my way.” In what relationship has that ever worked? Try telling your spouse that once.
We use words like “prayer”, “supplication”, and “intercession” to sound scholarly with our Christianese, but all those words really mean is “asking God for something”, “asking God for something for you”, and “asking God for something for someone else”. If you frame it that way you can clearly see what’s behind this grand “mystery” of prayer to God: how you ask and why, how well you know your partner, and how you receive the response. It’s like any normal relationship, not some unknowable contortion.
So when you ask for bread and He gives you a stone, what then? When I ask for strength and then my car breaks down how do I see that as a gift? Well it leads into the second quality listed in 1 Corinthians 13:4…
God is kind
The word used here: χρηστεύομαι, chresteuomai, does mean kind, but there’s something hidden there, as is usually the case with Greek. The word has a very complicated etymology, but let me try to summarize to the high points. The original root is a form of χαω, chao, which means “to gape” or “to yawn”. It really means to create an empty space, a void. That idea was built on to make χράομαι, chraomai, which means “to borrow or make use of”. From a void to making use of something. See the connection? It means chraomai is rooted in the idea of filling a void. So the word in the verse, chresteuomai, really means “one who renders assistance that fills a void”.
In case that is still too obscure: kindness is not just “being nice”, it is about being useful, about filling the empty hand and healing the hollow heart. This statement, God (Love) is kind, isn’t a passive throwaway notice that God likes you and is polite. No, this is a declaration that He fills a void, that He serves you. Not in a vague, abstract way that is objectively deemed helping, but in a personal, subjective way you see as helpful. If you need a babysitter and I wash your car instead it was not chresteuomai. If you order pizza and I politely deliver a blender I am not chresteuomai. You can’t fill a void for me that I don’t consider a void; this word requires that the help is useful as seen from the person receiving it. Consider the implication of that.
This is declaration that He has a role to play to assist in your life in a way you find useful. He is not some watch-maker whittling away time on some far-away world, and He is not a stern authoritarian giving you the help you don’t want; He is right here with us, sitting in the space between my intent as I write this and your interpretation as you read it to make us see that He is always working for us. His work is to constantly help us along. He has ordered your days, and when you need help He will provide it. Wow.
“But,” you ask, “how does that in any way help me understand this whole bread / rock thing?”
I See a Little Silhouette of a Man
Did you ever see that commercial where the woman and her husband are in the bathroom getting ready and she is lotioning her hands while he brushes his teeth and she accidentally bumps her wedding ring into the toilet? Without missing a beat the husband reaches into the toilet with his other hand — still brushing his teeth — grabs the ring, rinses it in the sink and hands it to her. That’s chresteuomai, but notice something: in her view that ring was just in the toilet and a quick run under the tap did not clean it. It was kind, but now she needs to wash it and ease her germaphobia.
You know how we have that thing now where someone makes a pun and we go “I see what you did there!”? It was humor, but we had to work for it; their craftiness wasn’t blatantly obvious.
That’s the frame with people and that’s the frame with God: He is going to answer in kindness and you’re going to need to be an active participant. He didn’t give you an answer, He gave you an answer you can make use of. For that very thing you’re asking for. That means you may need to widen your view. If your kid asks for food you may hand them a frozen pizza. If you ask Him for food He may give you a stone to mill wheat or a pole to spear fish, but that doesn’t make it not an answer or not a good answer. We somewhere got this spoiled brat idea that gifts have to be free of work. But even a toy needs to be played with, even a flower needs to be clipped, put in a vase, and viewed.
What’s really at issue with God’s “bad” gift-giving is that we are little prima donnas who don’t want a gift from the heart; we want that specific necklace we saw in that one store and we told Him about, but He got a different one so He sucks. If you have a child this has happened on some Christmas or birthday, and it made you want to slap the fire out of that kid. We see adults do this and we stop getting them presents because they are a tool. And yet we feel perfectly justified doing that to God. Constantly. I can’t imagine how frustrating that must be. I’m glad He’s patient!
God is kind — helpful — despite our stubbornness, despite our griping, despite our ungratefulness. He isn’t mysterious, He just Loves you, and He wants you to Love Him back. More: He wants you to understand and believe that He does Love you. Stop saying He’s mysterious, stop saying He’s invisible, stop treating Him like a servant, stop being a back-seat Creator. Maybe, just maybe, you could even think of how you can be chresteuomai to Him…