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God in the Second Person

My Christian Theology class discussed today an interesting book called A Little Exercise for Young Theologians by Helmut Thielicke. With only 41 pages, it truly is “little,” barely long enough to count as a book. Quick readers could finish it in under an hour. It’s worth the hour.

The book warns theology students of various dangers that can come about from theology study. Thielicke was a German professor who used this as an introduction reading for his classes to guard against what he calls theological “puberty.”

For the sake of time and space, I’ll touch only one of his many valuable points. He expresses a fear of slipping into thought of God in the third person. Instead of studying theology to know God personally, it’s easy to distance yourself and read the Bible without remembering it was written to you. The first time the Bible records someone speaking of God in the third person is when the serpent asks Eve, “Did God really say?” And we all know where that led.

“In contrast with this, the crucified Jesus, out of the uttermost darkness of abandonment by God, does not speak to men, does not complain about this God who has abandoned Him,” Thielicke says. “He speaks to Him at this very moment — in the second person. He addresses Him as My God and even expresses His complaint in a word of God, so that as it were the circuit between Him and the Father is complete.”

When we have trouble in our lives, do we first ask, “Why is God doing this?” or, “God, why are you doing this?” Jesus turned first to God, and so should we. I’ve often prayed before reading this little book that God would not let me slip into that pattern of thinking. I don’t want to think about God. Why should I when I can speak with Him personally in every moment? That is also my prayer for this blog. My blog isn’t just for friends and strangers to read and leave comments. This is my conversation with you, God.

 
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Posted by on February 15, 2012 in Books

 

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C. S. Lewis Part 2: An Answer to Prayer

The search continues.

With a little googling, I found another essay on prayer by C. S. Lewis. This one, titled “The Efficacy of Prayer,” printed in another collection, The World’s Last Night and Other Essays. You can read the essay on Scribd, so you have no excuse to miss out. I’ve never heard of Scribd before, but apparently it’s “the world’s largest social reading and publishing company.” Sounds interesting. I’ll take another look later.

But back to Lewis. “The Efficacy of Prayer” again tackles (or at least arm wrestles) the two patterns of prayer the Bible gives us. He focuses more this time on the confusing connection between praying and getting what you ask. He starts off by making the clear conclusion that prayer isn’t something we can test and prove scientifically. We can’t run experiments to see whether prayer actually does anything for us.

Lewis suggests it might help comparing prayer to our usual requests of other people. One example he uses that I particularly liked was a man asking a woman to marry him. Even here, there is no way to prove causation between the proposal and engagement.

“As for the lady who consents to marry you—are you sure she had not decided to do so already?” Lewis wrote. “Your proposal, you know, might have been the result, not the cause, of her decision. A certain important conversation might never have taken place unless she had intended that it should.”

An accurate observation, Lewis. Well done. He then draws the relation between asking something of your lady friend and requesting something of your Lord. We must have the same doubt of causation when we receive something from God. Our prayer may have already been something he intended to give us. Going on, Lewis points out that really we shouldn’t even discuss prayer as in whether it “works.” That suggests that prayer is some form of magic to use to get what you want. Lewis corrects this thinking.

“Prayer in the sense of petition, asking for things, is a small part of it; confession and penitence are its threshold, adoration its sanctuary, the presence and vision and enjoyment of God its bread and wine,” Lewis wrote. “In it God shows Himself to us. That He answers prayers is a corollary—not necessarily the most important one—from that revelation.”

So petitionary prayer is interaction with the living God, not a scientific process that obtains wishes. God isn’t a genie. And here comes my most serious question: “Can we believe that God ever really modifies His action in response to the suggestions of men?”

As Lewis explains: “For infinite wisdom does not need telling what is best, and infinite goodness needs no urging to do it.”

Why would God need or want to hear human requests? What good could they do? Then again, God often uses finite means to carry out his infinite will. He allows us to act in his plans, even though an all-powerful god would not need our help. He allows us to impact the world with our actions.

“It is not really stranger, nor less strange, that my prayers should affect the course of events than that my other actions should do so,” Lewis wrote. “They have not advised or changed God’s mind—that is, His over-all purpose. But that purpose will be realized in different ways according to the actions, including the prayers, of His creatures.”

We are not watching a movie of life without any power to decide the story. We are players in the greatest video game. God allows us choices. Even with this understanding, Lewis still resists a firm conclusion like he did  in “The Problem of Petitionary Prayer.”

“The reality is doubtless not comprehensible by our faculties,” Lewis wrote. “But we can at any rate try to expel bad analogies and bad parables. Prayer is not a machine. It is not magic. It is not advice offered to God. Our act, when we pray, must not, any more than all our other acts, be separated from the continuous act of God Himself, in which alone all finite causes operate.”

To leave off, he dispels one last misunderstanding. He says answered prayers, when we receive what we requested, do not prove a stronger relationship with God. The example of the Son of God in Gethsemane should be enough to show this. If God refused Jesus, how can we claim a stronger faith is necessary for answered prayers?

C. S. Lewis has covered most of my struggles with prayer and at least eased them if not gave me a complete assurance. His reasoning makes sense and has given me a new perspective to consider. I agree with his half-hearted conclusion that we can never fully comprehend the reality of God’s world. There will always be questions, and I can be content with that. What would life be like without a little mystery? The point is to keep asking the questions and trust that one day God will help me understand.

The search continues.

 
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Posted by on January 12, 2012 in Books

 

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C.S. Lewis Part 1: The Problem with Prayer

Today’s featured book comes from the writings of C.S. Lewis. Browsing my campus library, I found Christian Reflections, a collection of papers Lewis wrote. A close friend of his, Walter Hooper, gathered together these papers after Lewis’ death and got permissions to print them. The papers come from three decades of Lewis’ work and some had never been printed before.

It looked interesting, and who can turn down C.S. Lewis? Well, I mean, what person breathing Christian theology would? Anyway, one essay caught my eye in the back of the book, which means Lewis wrote it closer to the end of his life. It’s titled, “Petitionary Prayer: A Problem Without an Answer.”

As it turns out, I’ve long wondered about the function of petitions in prayer. One of my favorite verses is Matthew 7:7 where Jesus says, “Ask and it will be given to you.” The only problem is, a lot of times God doesn’t give us what we ask. Many people have left their faith because they prayed for healing but a loved one died anyway. Others get frustrated because they pray and don’t receive a well-paying job, relief from a chronic pain, or peace with their family. I’ve struggled with my own unanswered prayers or prayers that get an answer I didn’t want.

Which has made me wonder, “What’s the point in asking?” Why should we share prayer requests when we meet for Bible studies? Why should we ask friends to pray for us when we’re sick or injured? What difference does it make? Even praying for God’s will doesn’t make an impact on the outside world. God will follow his will whether or not we remember to ask for it.

I believe it’s better he acts on his will rather than granting our foolish wishes. God will always know what is best for us, and you can be sure he’s looking to give you the best in your life even if it isn’t what you want. But how much does God take what we pray for into account? What impact can our prayers have on the mind of God?

Lewis partly addresses this confusion concerning petitionary prayers. Mainly, he asks how we should come to God with our requests. He says the Bible gives us two patterns of petitionary prayer. The first can be seen used by Jesus himself at Gethsemane.

“Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done,” he prayed (Luke 22:42).

Jesus asked that God would provide another way and spare him, and yet, he desires the Father’s ultimate will above his own. This example suggests we should pray with the submission that God may refuse our requests.

“If the faith which is demanded of us were always a faith in the goodness of God, a faith that whether granting or denying He equally gave us the best, and never a faith that He would give precisely what we ask, I should have no problem,” Lewis writes.

The problem starts with the second biblical pattern. This example of prayer encourages that God will accomplish our requests when we have faith in him to do so. Lewis referred to Matthew 9:20-22 when a woman with chronic bleeding says to herself, “If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed.” Jesus then turns to her and responds, “Your faith has healed you.”

The Gospels are full of such miracle-by-faith passages. If these don’t give us enough confidence in the second pattern, Jesus states even more explicitly, “Very truly I tell you, all who have faith in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it” (John 14:12-14).

The Bible gives us clear instructions to pray in faith and receive “whatever” we ask. But of course, any child who    prayed for a pony and didn’t find it in the yard Christmas morning can tell you we don’t always get what we ask for. It isn’t a guarantee. What does that say about Jesus’ promise?

Lewis puts forward a few explanations he’s heard but finds holes in each one. It seems. by all the evidence, these two patterns of petitionary prayer are contradictory. Which is it? Either we’re supposed to seek God’s will first and foremost, acknowledging our prayers may be refused, or else we’re expected to come before God in complete faith so he will reward our faith with our desires.

Surprisingly, Lewis did not find a solution to this problem. Possibly the most well-known theologian of the 20th century had a question he could not answer. In a way, I took it as encouraging to know even C.S. Lewis felt lost sometimes and could admit it.

He concludes, “The faith that moves mountains is a gift from Him who created mountains.” So he expects to only pray in the first pattern unless God gives him the faith necessary to pray as in the second pattern. If God gives him the faith, then he would pray with the second pattern. This suggests that God chooses who shall pray in which way. It isn’t a choice we have to make because he chooses it for us. Even with this explanation, Lewis isn’t satisfied.

Neither am I, to be honest. I pray God will answer this prayer for understanding.

More on this later.

 
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Posted by on January 11, 2012 in Books

 

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Common Sense Orthodoxy

G.K. Chesterton 1874-1936

A friend introduced me to the works of G.K. Chesterton for the first time last fall. If this name is as unfamiliar to you as it was to me, stop and visit this website.

Did you take a long look around? Dale Ahlquist, President of the American Chesterton Society, wrote: “G.K. Chesterton was the best writer of the 20th century…. He was very good at expressing himself, but more importantly, he had something very good to express. The reason he was the greatest writer of the 20th century was because he was also the greatest thinker of the 20th century.”

Chesterton had a lot to say and said it well. My friend suggested I start studying Chesterton with “Orthodoxy,” a book he remembered enjoying years ago. A little background research showed “Orthodoxy” is one of the most respected books on apologetics. Philip K. Weingart from The Scholars Corner blog said: “Orthodoxy should be required reading for any modern apologist, for those who defend Christianity in the marketplace of modern ideas.” In the introduction, Chesterton claims the book responds to a challenge to explain his beliefs.

What better way to start a blog reviewing Christian theology than to share a book all about defending Orthodox Christianity? I picked up the short book (only 172 pages) from my college library last week and quickly realized this review wouldn’t turn out like I had expected. I guess it’s my own fault for creating rough judgments from little knowledge. It turns out Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy” isn’t the typical “this proves Christianity” argument. It fails to even directly address some of the most prominent parts of the faith, including a recognizable form of the gospel.

Chesterton’s argument works whether in spite of lacking convention or because of it. His defense of the Christian faith resembled more a memoir of his coming to faith. Instead of a scholarly argument of well-worn reasons, I was introduced to refreshing thoughts and a conversational style. “Because of the autobiographical element, many readers are pleasantly surprised by the wit and humor with which he tackles the difficult subjects in Christianity,” according to Christian Classics Ethereal Library

Chesterton explains his Christian beliefs by sharing how he came to certain realizations as an agnostic and then found Christianity held the same ideas. His journey started with a childhood that painted the world full of magic and mystery. He saw meaning in nature and realized purposeful magic must come from a magician. Obviously Christianity teaches creation and a divine Creator, but Chesterton’s conclusions as an adult continued to unconsciously reflect Christian beliefs.  “Here, I say, I felt that I was really at last on the side of the revolutionary,” Chesterton writes. “And then I caught my breath again: for I remembered that I was once again on the side of the orthodox” (124).

Before accepting Christianity, Chesterton considered the popular philosophies of his contemporaries. He found that the Materialists, Progressives and free-thinkers all contradicted their own claims. He spends a large part of “Orthodoxy” (I’d say too much) simply explaining his thoughts on philosophers who criticize Christianity. It felt as if in the process Chesterton was flipping on its head all logical sense I’ve known in the world. Yet at the same time, his points come from such common sense that I wondered how I had missed these mistaken assumptions before.

These common sense criticisms are followed by how Christianity answers common objections with simple reason and fills the gaps alternative philosophies leave behind. Chesterton says, unlike popular ideas, Christian beliefs support democracy and set people free. Orthodoxy offers a romantic story since it includes theological free will. It presents a god who is a king and yet a rebel.

Ultimately, however, Chesterton wraps up why he believes Christianity with the same reasons he says an agnostic uses to disbelieve. “I believe in it quite rationally upon the evidence,” Chesterton writes. “But the evidence in my case, as in that of the intelligent agnostic, is not really in this or that alleged demonstration; it is in an enormous accumulation of small but unanimous facts” (153). He says the difference between Christians and agnostics is that the reasons of agnostics cannot stand up to truth while Christianity has proven itself over and over to reveal truth.

I now grasp why Chesterton deserves the title of the 20th century’s greatest writer and thinker. It is clear how he influenced such other well-known writers as J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. If you feel curious how this little-known man could be so impressive, I can only recommend reading “Orthodoxy” for yourself. You can conveniently download the eBook right away. Christian Classics Ethereal Library also offers formats to read online, in Adobe Acrobat, as plain text, or by MP3 file. Read an outline of Chesterton’s argument if you want some extra analysis reading material or can’t spare the time for 172 pages.

 
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Posted by on January 8, 2012 in Books

 

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