Back in the 19th-century pietists within the church had a formula that I wish — desperately wish — were true. This simple formula, one that appealed to Christians who prayed expectantly and hopefully, goes something like this (these are my words):
God promised things in the Bible. Those promises were met. This is because God’s character is such that He never changes. Thus, promises made were promises kept. Because God’s character is consistent and constant, whatever He said “back then” applies to today: the God of yesterday is the God of today and tomorrow, after all. This means that I should be able to “claim” promises of the past as promises to me because God’s character never changes. What He promised to David long ago, He promises to me today. What He said to Abraham, reveals aspects of His character that would be extended to me as well.
On the surface this sounds good. The logic is obvious. It breaks down in practice, however — I’m not convinced that God’s promises to individuals can be “claimed” by me today. It’s not logically inconsistent to believe that God deals with individuals in their place, time and need; what He did for David, for example, may not be what He does for me.
The work-around for the problem of individuality, time-locatedness and a God big enough to not be generic, is the “quickening” of verses, according to pietists. As I read, certain verses are brought to my mind in such a powerful way that I become certain God is speaking directly to me. My problem with this is two-fold.
- First, this has never happened to me.
- Second, if it did, I’d doubt it immediately. I’d suspect that it was my emotional needs and desires that caused me to latch onto certain verses, not the voice of the Holy Spirit in me.
Today’s Lettie Cowman’s devotional reading includes a litany of quotes from individuals who are certain that past promises are valid today if quickened. Cowman herself thinks like this. She says she has claimed verses and that her prayers have been answered, though after a long delay. But … I’m not so sure. It seems that many of her prayers were not answered. I have often wondered if the remainder of her life — after her husband died … after she returned home from Japan … after she endured years of suffering through his severe depression — was a paeon to answered prayer. Reading between the lines, I don’t think it was. There’s too much anguish in her prose. Pain. A sense of being unused, shelved, forgotten by God at the same time her faith wavered but remained intact.
Unfortunately, I share her anguish: fortunately, I share her faith, though not her piety. This which is why I read her devotional. I’m a person who has been deeply wounded in life, disappointed in God, and yet refuses to give up. I want to die faithful as I doubt.
Frankly, I’m far more intellectual than Cowman. And gutsy. I’m not afraid to call out some of these pietists as frauds. I can’t help but look at some of the things that, say, John Wesley wrote, and wonder if, in the end of his life, they proved true. The idea that God is required to answer certain prayers because of the consistency of His character has not been proven true. I have prayed for many things over many years which were in line with the scriptures and were good and moral requests which, sadly, remain unanswered.
“In confident faith” F. B. Meyer writes, I should read the Bible, have the Spirit “quicken” a verse to my mind, then “put my finger upon some promise of the Divine word and claim it.”
“There need be no anguish or struggle or wrestling,” he writes. I simply “present the check and ask for cash, produce the promise and claim it’s fulfillment; nor can there be any doubt as to the issue.”
I’m just not there. Not mentally. Not spiritually. Not in reality.
To me, God is sovereign. This means He can choose not to honor the check. It’s not that His account is empty, but that He chooses not to put His money into my hands. His response is capricious, from my point of view — but it is what it is. I can’t claim to grasp God’s character because, frankly, it’s unknowable. I can glimpse only His fleeing backside, the burning bush, the voice in the sky, the stories of Jesus’s life. I can’t say, with assurance, that God is consistent. How would I know? Because the Bible says so? Because centuries of theologians have claimed this? Because it’s philosophically untenable to have a God who cannot be known and on which I cannot depend?
Prayer should be definite and expectant. Yeah, I get it. But it can’t be fanciful and it can’t presume to know more about God than can be known.
It is the everlasting faithfulness of God that makes a Bible promise “exceeding great and precious.” Human promises are often worthless. Many a broken promise has left a broken heart. But since the world was made, God has never broken a single promise made to one of His trusting children.
Okay. I’m one of His children. God has promised to be a good and loving father. This seems like a universal promise, timeless and reasonably consistent throughout the Bible. Tentatively, I believe this. But the unfolding of my life doesn’t only reflect the manipulations of a good God. I’m not alone in this either. Again, I’m butting up against evil, the evil that persists in the lives of praying Christians.
Many times, it feels as if my good and loving father has put coal in my stocking or a stone-for-bread. That’s the truth.
Here’s the verse:
“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!
Well, answer the question!! Honestly. Do you have bread or stones? Are you eating fish or snake? Have you received good gifts after asking for them?
Here’s my answer. I have received both bread and stones. I have eaten fish and snake. I have received some gifts, but not many.
Ergo, I question the idea that I should be willing to let my mind be quickened by the Spirit toward certain verses, then claim those verses as God’s promise to me while waiting for their fulfillment. My life could end while waiting because those prayers will NOT be answered. God doesn’t answer any prayer He chooses not to answer. I’m certainly not going to demand He answers my prayers. I wouldn’t do this and it wouldn’t matter if I did. God is. He does what He does. He’s far more mysterious than knowable.
His character is ineffable. This, alone, I don’t doubt.
Thank you for your kind notes. I’m fine. I’ve been writing about things that have nothing to do with the Christian life and am exhausted, frankly — this is why I haven’t posted. I’ll be better going forward, I hope.
Please keep me in your prayers.