100 Answers in 100 Days

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Sharing answers to the various questions of faith I have faced, and which others have been challenged with also.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Should We Pray For The Sick?

Yesterday I wrote that it is more like God to give us faith and righteousness than to heal us of our physical ailments. Does this mean we shouldn't pray for God to heal us of our sicknesses? And what about James chapter 5, which says "And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick"?

First of all, we should certainly pray for the sick. How can we not pray for the sick? If we love and care for people as we should, praying for their sicknesses should be something we can't help ourselves from doing. But I would say that, rather than pray for a miraculous healing, we should be praying that we find the right treatment, find skillful doctors, pray for those doctors who treating our loved ones, pray about the emotional endurance of those who are sick... there are all kinds of things we can pray in regards to sickness. But as I mentioned in yesterday's post, taking away our sicknesses and diseases is not God's plan for this time; the removal of these physical ailments is what we long for when Christ returns. And if it were a reality in this life, where would be our longing? The Bible uses the term "hope" rather than "longing", but it's not "hope" in the sense that we typically use the word "hope" where we often mean "wishful thinking", which is why I use the word "longing". But Romans 8 says this...

For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Romans 8:22-25)

So "hope", in this sense, is a longing for the things we "wait eagerly" for, and for what we "wait for with patience". Things like sickness are supposed to be a present reality, keeping that longing alive. And of course, this comes just after Paul has said "For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us." We are, in fact, supposed to suffer in this life; and God's purpose for that is for us to maintain faith in the promises of His Word.

But what does James intend when he tells us "the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick"? The first thing we need to recognize is that sometimes God uses sickness as a disciplinary measure. That is to say that sometimes, if we are disobedient towards God, He may cause us to become ill. We have an example of this in 1 Corinthians 11...

Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. (1 Corinthians 11:28-30)

In the Corinthian's case, they were not behaving as they ought in regards to the Communion. Not all sickness is a result of sin, though. In John 9 the disciples ask Jesus about a blind man, asking who's sin caused this man to be born blind. But Jesus essentially tells them that the man's blindness was not the result of anyone's specific sin at all. But in the case of James chapter 5, I believe he is speaking of those who are sick because they're being disciplined by God. James is calling his readers to sincere repentance. James has been speaking to them throughout the book of their various sinful ways, and his assumption, then, is that some of them will be sick as a result of their sinful ways. James is saying that it's time to repent, and that sickness which God has given them in order to bring them to repentance, will be taken away. Let's look at the passage in this light...

And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit. My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. (James 5:15-20)

We can see here that James is speaking more about confession of sins ("that you may be healed") than simply about healing of any kind of sickness at all. James also uses the illustration of Elijah where, in 1 Kings 17-18, God (through Elijah) brings a drought upon Israel as judgment for their sin of idolatry. After the idolaters are dealt with, God (through Elijah) takes away the drought. So likewise, God does sometimes inflict us with sickness because of our sins. But if we deal with that sin through repentance, the sickness can be taken away. Is this a common thing? That, I don't know. But examining ourselves to see whether there's sinfulness in our lives is something we should be doing continually, regardless.

But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world. (1 Corinthians 11:31-32)

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Does Prayer Work?

Atheists often say they can prove that God doesn't exist because "prayer doesn't work!" And from memory, I think that prayer is about the only time Richard Dawkins discusses any kind of scientific experimentation to prove or disprove "The God Hypothesis" in his book "The God Delusion". In his book he demonstrates that prayer doesn't work by having people pray for healing, only to discover that there was no significant effect of that prayer. Now, I suppose that on the one hand we could criticize the study by questioning the faith of those who prayed; and that's where many Christians would tend to go, I think. But I tend to wonder whether the expectation of healing in response to such prayer is even valid. To people who say "prayer doesn't work", I would ask "and how do you think prayer is supposed to work?" ... Because I think that what is often at fault is people's expectations of prayer. After all, we cannot expect that God exists to do our bidding and to make all our wishes come true. But it seems to me that's how many people expect prayer to work. 

Now the Bible does tell us to expect answers to prayer when we pray according to God's will. Part of prayer is actually discovering God's will. But this does sound like a complete cop out, doesn't it... if I pray for something and it's answered, then that must have been God's will; but if it isn't answered, oh well, it clearly wasn't God's will. But in fact, God is not capricious, and His will can be known. He's revealed His will in the Bible. His will is for people to believe and trust in Him, and for His people to live righteous lives. But to be healed from all sicknesses? In a sense that is His will, though not for the present. God has said that He will take away sickness and disease in the "New Earth" after He returns. But in the present we are still to suffer these things. So I think that if you want to understand how prayer is supposed to work, you need to read your Bible to discover God's purpose for prayer, and to discover God's will. I can certainly testify to the effectiveness of prayer in my life when I've prayed for the strength to resist temptation to sin, or when I've prayed for the ability to share the gospel with others. On that latter point, for example, I have experienced many times when unbelievers have asked difficult and challenging questions, and it has been nothing short of a miracle that I've understood how to answer them on the spot. 

Sometimes the way we think prayer should work is misguided. The television program "Glee" gives us an apt illustration of this. In the episode "Grilled Cheesus", Sue is opposed to God because as a child she was grieved by the cruelty people showed toward her sister, Jean, who has Down's Syndrome. Her prayers as a child to heal her sister were never answered, and so she, like many others, considers prayer a false hope. At the end of the episode, however, Sue is sitting with her sister, Jean, and asks her if she believes in God, and explains how she doesn't believe in God because of the cruelty she witnessed towards Jean. But Jean replies, "God never makes mistakes; that's what I believe. ... Let me pray for you, Sue?"

Now, I don't know whether the writer intended to convey this message, but I think this episode shows us the error we often have in our attitude towards prayer. Sue saw a problem and she saw a solution... her sister was experiencing cruelty because of her condition, and the solution, in her mind, was to heal the condition. Well, that's human wisdom. But we cannot be upset with God because He's wiser than we are! No, I watch this episode and consider that God did hear Sue's prayers, and understood the concern she had in her heart for her sister. But His solution, rather than to heal the condition, was to give Jean faith in Himself, and that faith would allow her to endure that cruelty! This is a far more Biblical expectation than for Jean to have been healed of her Down's Syndrome. As I said before, God's will, as He has revealed it in the Bible, is for us to believe and trust in Him. And this is why I say that part of prayer is actually discovering God's will. When we pray, we need to ask ourselves whether we're praying according to God's will as it has been revealed. Are we praying with Biblical expectations?

For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him! (Luke 11:10-13)

Monday, January 23, 2012

To Be Challenged Is Good

In recent news, schools in Britain will now have their funding cut if they teach Creationism/Intelligent Design in their curriculum. It seems that it's ok to teach Creationism so long as you call it "blind faith" or "myth", but it's as soon as you start to provide evidence for it that you get into trouble. Of course, what is preferable in my opinion, is for both to be taught together, allowing children to see the strengths and weaknesses of both arguments.

Now, based on various discussions I've had with atheist folk, I think that most atheists would assume that if the tables were turned, Christians would gladly push for the same policy against the teaching of Evolution. I'm not sure that this is the case. Furthermore, I think that atheists typically view Christians as simply believing what they believe "because their parents told them it is so", or "because their pastor tells them it is so". Well, in some sects of Christianity I think that's true, but certainly not in my world. I think that most Christians within the Reformed tradition would have a similar story to mine... my experience of Christianity has been to question everything! This has been true at every Church or Bible Study Group I've attended, where all doctrines are discussed according to Scripture, and differing views are respected (at least most of the time). I think that this would surprise most atheists, but it's honestly been that way for me all of my Christian life.

Now I'm not a Seminary graduate, but I have listened to all of the recordings of all of the lectures provided online by Covenant Theological Seminary, as well as Reformed Theological Seminary which are available on iTunes U. So I can tell you with some credibility that even in Seminary, which is really a "University for Christians", this same attitude is apparent from every lecturer. Lectures in every course would always present various views and interpretations of Scripture for discussion. I even remember Systematic Theology Lecturer Robert Peterson, for example, discussing Limited versus Unlimited Atonement. He believes in Limited Atonement, but he wasn't the least bit shy of putting forward a counter argument to his position for which he had no answer! You see, the proper Christian attitude for teachers of theology is this...

But you are not to be called rabbi [or "teacher"], for you have one teacher [Christ Himself], and you are all brothers. (Matthew 23:8)

We know that the Bible is given to us all, and that it is every individual's responsibility to read it and understand it for themselves, for we are all held accountable for what we believe. Teachers of theology are, like brothers (or equals), trying to help you figure it out for yourself, not trying to dictate what you should believe. One of the main principles of the Reformation is "Semper Reformanda", or "Always Reforming". That is to say that the Church must always be active in examining what we believe. It is to say that we all should be little Martin Luthers, constantly asking the question "Is what the Church preaches today Biblical?" Having belonged to the Church for so long, this is such a big part of my character. And I'm happy to say that, as I consider what I've been taught over the years and what I believe, I most certainly am not just a product of what has been fed to me from the pulpit, or from Seminary lectures, or from peers.

I think that this Reformed attitude of always examining our own beliefs generally extends to the things we're taught from secular sources as well. It certainly should. To be challenged is good and often tends to provoke study, the result of which is growth in faith. I, for one, am not afraid to read atheist materials, knowing that they will not sway me from the Christian faith. Atheists often call themselves "free thinkers" because they supposedly form their opinions independently of authority or tradition, yet in a world where authorities dictate that only one view point may be taught, this label is utter pretense.

And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. (John 8:32)

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Ever Wish You Had Super Powers?

So Christmas has come and gone. I find that Christmas is the most hectic time of the year; we're constantly visiting people, and then the kids get Christmas presents and bug you all day long to play with them, or help set up this or that new toy. My son, of course, watches super hero cartoons, and so this year we have all sorts of super hero related toys; the costumes and the figurines and the DVDs. These all to help immerse my son in this fantasy world where he gets to be a super hero. The TV shows present super heroes with super human powers, opposing evil and always protecting the innocent. These shows teach good things to my children. And my son plays pretend constantly that "someone needs saving"! And off he flies to save the day. But he told me that he'd prayed to God, that God would give him super powers for real. And now the poor boy is starting to get impatient that God hasn't answered his prayers!

Now of course, God would never answer such a prayer, and us grown ups all understand why... We know that if there were a man gifted with super human abilities, there is not one who wouldn't use those powers for evil. For me it was an opportunity to explain to my son why sometimes Mummy and Daddy don't let him do things he wants to; that we are always thinking of his best interests even if doesn't look like it. It's a good reminder for us all. It may often be that we are as immature in our requests of God, not understanding what we're really asking for, asking for things we only think we want, not understanding the reality of actually receiving our requests. But it's certain that God will never give super human powers for we are all sinners by nature, unable to handle such power. This is why we have that well known saying "power corrupts". The only one ever entrusted with super human powers over which he had complete control was Christ. Any sinner given too much power will become corrupt.

My son's motives are surely pure; he really does want to save people like his heroes do in the cartoons. My son isn't ready to hear that despite what he expects of himself, he too would become corrupt. But I told him that God won't answer that prayer because being truly heroic is really about helping others even if, (or especially if), it puts you in danger. For what’s more heroic; for an immortal man to dive into a raging river to save a drowning child, or for a man who dives in without regard for his own life which he risks? But we’ve all been given various gifts with which we can be “super heroes” to someone. Our finances are a gift from God which we can use wisely to help others in all kinds of ways. We can use the gift of language to encourage and build people up, and to comfort others. But even with the ordinary human gifts we have, our sinful nature corrupts. We use our words to tear down and destroy lives; and money, of course, is a root of all kinds of evil! If we can’t even be good stewards of the gifts we do have, how can we think that God ought to give us super human powers!? I’ve spoken to adults who think they’ve got a case against God because He doesn’t, or hasn’t, made people “more super” than we are. But let’s consider how much more God has given us than the animals, and realize how wonderful He has made us, rather than how wonderful He could have made us. God has limited us in power because we can’t handle more power. God has limited us in power so that we might look to Him who has all power rather than to ourselves. God has limited us in power so that when we do heroic acts, they are all the more heroic. We believe that some day we who are in Christ will be resurrected in a new body which will be free from sin, and that this body will be without so many of the infirmities we face in life. When we are free from sin, we will be able to handle such a “super human” body. But our lives in the present are, in a sense, a kind of testing ground for us. Jesus said...

If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? (Luke 16:11)