I am mixing up all my blogging opportunities. I wrote over at Patheos yesterday about how Christians ought to pray, but then, in the early dawn this morning, I got distracted and posted about children, when really, I meant to answer a bitter comment. So, I’m going to answer the commenter here, and then link it back over there. I don’t mean to be confusing—I’m confused. But if I stop to untangle it all, and be truly organized, I will never write again, so there you are.
So yesterday I said this about God and prayer:
The trope, “God helps those who help themselves,” is deeply embedded in the psyche of almost everyone. It comes out in the subtlest ways, in the guilt that people express over praying for themselves, the quick eagerness to say that a lot of prayers have been offered for other people, and also material care, so that, perhaps this once, God will hear a prayer for me as well. As if the selfishness of the human heart will be masked, or hidden, by the plentiful prayers offered up for other people, and all the good works, and God will not notice that you, his creature, is yet going to die, and is poor, and did not keep the law.
There are many things I would like to kill off about American “Christianity,” and this is the chief one. The helplessness of the human creature before death is so hidden by—as someone clever said to me this weekend—nursing homes and hospitals and the complete absence of physical suffering. We have organized society so neatly that the touch of a button, the scroll of a finger produces every desire, fulfills every inclination. Never have ordinary human people had such godlike power over their circumstances. And yet, even so, the intense suffering of life and the specter of death, whether we are able to see it face to face or not, never do cut through the human desire to be acknowledged by God for power, for effort, and most of all for a goodness that none of us actually possess. And so we go on forever, “helping ourselves,” until we are none of us left.
And then I talked to John and Kathy on the Ride Home (probably about the 40 min mark) about it. And then in the evening, I allowed this comment about it all:
No doubt the parents of starving children or those with disease have prayed fervently to no avail. Nine million children a year die under the age of 5 die from starvation and preventable disease, why aren’t their prayers answered?
So, I’ll just give a short answer to that question, because it is a good one. Though I can see in advance that what I say will not be satisfying, because the answer is troublesome, and probably makes things worse.
First of all, God is the one who is good, and not we ourselves, who, all of us, go down to the grave one by one because we deliberately reject him and embrace ourselves. This rejection manifests itself in various kinds of sins, which are so embedded in the heart that even the good that we do is tainted, corrupted, ruined by our primary and complete rejection of God. This is true even of children, unhappily, who are not, by nature, innocent. Children certainly are more innocent than adults, having not had time to accumulate a lot of evil actions and ruinous habits. But their natures are turned in towards themselves, as everyone else who goes along in life. This truth—that the human person is a sinner in rebellion against God—is true of every tribe, nation, sex, age, and ethnicity. It is the one truly inclusive property of humanity. We are all, by nature, in ourselves, “children of wrath.” We pick up and drink out of the cup of God’s wrath on purpose because we want to, we want ourselves rather than him.
Second, there is one exception to this terrible truth. One person is not “by nature” a sinner. Only one man, who did start out a baby, a child, a person of the very ethnicity you mention, did not sin, did not reject God. That one person turned his whole being towards God, rather than in towards himself, and loved God as we are commanded to do—with his mind, his heart, his actions, his strength, his perfection. He was able to do this because, though a man, he was God.
Third, his being a man is important because he is able to understand us in our sin-induced frailty. And his being God is important because he was able to take the accumulated sin of the world into his own self and actually bear it, atone for it, lifting it off of the shoulders of individual human people who turn to him and accept him.
Fourth, when you turn to him and ask him for help, because he is God, and because he has the power to not only remove, but actually forgive you, he is able to help you. But his help is meddlesome. He does not give you the kind of help you think you might like to have. For example, though you ask for help with your present circumstances, he may not always lift or alleviate them. If you are starving because you have no food, and you pray, you are right, you may still die. If someone is threatening to kill you, and you pray and ask for the threat to go away, you are right, you may still be killed. If you are depressed and you pray and ask for God to make you feel better, you are right, he may leave you to go on in your sadness.
Fifth, but he will not leave you. This is something that only Christians know, and if you go and read about Christians who suffered during the Holocaust, along with everyone else, just as you can read about the suffering of Christians everywhere, you will see that though they did suffer and die, God saved them in a peculiar way. For one, when they died, they went into the arms of that One—the Man, the God, who stood in their place in his own death—who keeps them safe forever. They live on with him in eternal life, which does not end, unlike this brief painful time of life on earth. Second, he did not abandon them in their suffering. Living inside of them, as he does, he lifted them, he helped them to endure the horrifying things that happened to them. This happens for children who believe also, and certainly, babies who are murdered and ruined by the hands of wicked men and women, are not abandoned by God.
Six, the merciful presence of Christ for the believer, in every kind of temporal, mortal circumstance cannot be understood by those who deny and reject him. It is a sweet, painful, humbling, joyful thing. It is enough the taste of eternity that they endure in the worst kinds of circumstances, when all the rest of humanity continues to curse God and die.
Seven, is it fair? No. Fair would be that no one grasped the eternal mercy of God. Fair would be that we all went down to hell and stayed there forever, on account of our hatred and rejection of the one who made us, and who would take care of us if we desired him. Fair would be that the whole of humanity, ruined by sin, would cease forever. God is not fair. He, in his great love for us, rescues some out of this wretched temporal fire, and will restore everything to beauty when he comes again.
I pray that you will turn to him and live.