Not surprisingly, I deconstructed many of my beliefs about God through teaching children. Faith like a little child is so clarifying. It’s so devoid of the systematic, the splitting hairs. A child’s faith calls it like it is.
We were working through a reader on the time Elijah informed Ahab that his whole kingdom would experience famine until he repented of his wickedness. We spent days discussing how the body can survive only so long without food and water. We analyzed the emaciated cows on page 5. We predicted how God would use the crows to feed Elijah. “The eggs!” a couple of them shouted. “Maybe he’ll eat the birds?” another wondered.
Happily, no crows were harmed in this story, and neither was Elijah. “Did God provide for Elijah?” I asked the group of six-year-olds. “YES,” they shouted. “Was God faithful to Elijah?” “YES.”
And because I was curious, I asked, “What do you think happened to all the people in the famine?”
“Oh, they died,” the kids informed me.
“Do you think God was faithful to them?”
“No-o,” they droned.
If that makes you uncomfortable, don’t blame me — I’m not the God who starved an entire nation to rattle one wicked king and then ignored all their prayers for basic sustenance.
Because if we’re defining faithfulness by “God meeting our basic needs” (as we just did in Elijah’s case), then no, he wasn’t faithful.
I didn’t tell my kids any of this, of course. That was my own thought process as I zipped the readers back into the Ziploc bag and all hell broke loose during center time clean up.
But I thought about it again, yesterday, when I read to them a lesson on prayer. “God doesn’t answer our prayers for bad things,” I was teaching them, “but God will always give us what we ask for if we ask for good things that we need.”
Except he doesn’t. He doesn’t all the time give us the things he promises. There are many times when you ask, and it won’t be given to you; you seek, and you never find; you knock, and the door remains bolted from the inside.
And of course, I’ve learned all the caveats — God’s grace is sufficient, God works all things together for good, you have to ask in faith (are you sure you didn’t believe hard enough?).
It’s an elaborate system of caveats and exceptions to the basic promises that God is faithful, he will always come through, and he will provide for our basic needs. But the promises don’t always hold true. His yes doesn’t mean yes, and his no doesn’t mean no. Contrary to Jesus, not all of his children are clothed like the lilies or eating like the sparrows.
And the caveats of spiritual improvement don’t always function, either — the sufficient grace or the peace that passeth understanding down in our hearts. We get emptiness, silence, and angst. We get the joy of wondering where God is and what he is doing and what is the point in believing all of this.
We’re left with famine while God seems busy giving out A plus grades when the student didn’t study and free Starbucks drinks “just because he loves me” and a spiritual insight “right when I needed him most.”
It is, frankly, abhorrent to me that God would prioritize getting a cappuccino to one of his princesses who woke up a little down today while his other princesses are getting slaughtered on the other side of the world. (And how convenient that those who get the most from God materially seem financially positioned to get the most, anyway.) It is abhorrent to me that people attempt to find God’s love in neglect, that God’s perfect plan involves so much hate, violence, and evil.
But this doesn’t make me doubt God’s love. It just makes me doubt that humans have figured out a predictable pattern in this mysterious God’s ways.
I’ve given up on believing in a system of how God works — particularly regarding prayer. In fact, I don’t petition God for anything anymore. There’s nothing more terrifying than being at the end of your humanity and knowing that God might choose to withhold his divinity. There’s nothing more devastating than hoping against hope for a miracle of a more earthly nature and getting the final “no — I think I’d rather work on your spiritual improvement right now.”
What happens happens. If he’s determined to ignore the pleas of innocents as a way to show them his sufficient grace, so be it. Who’s to argue with God, so why try?
And yet I believe in a God of love. And yet I believe in the possibility that God does intervene in this world in a way that doesn’t make him a capricious monster.
That’s the mystery, always — how an omnipotent and loving God can interact with or tolerate or coexist with finite humans and the evil let loose in a once-perfect world. To deny the omnipotence or the love of God or the distinction between good and evil is to leave one utterly without hope. It makes God out to be a monster.
To deny the seeming absence and capriciousness of God is equally hopeless. It makes you out to be a faithless, doubtful sinner.
I believe in God, but I don’t believe in systems about God — and what that exactly means, I’m not sure.
I think it means believing in God as he is, not in God as he does — God as goodness, light, beauty, truth, love. Because there are always some glimpses of them, somewhere, if not in your life right now, than in your past and hopefully your future and definitely in someone else’s life. And those good things are just as real (and hopefully more real) than the bad.
I think it means acknowledging when God is here and when God isn’t here, being grateful for the good and grieving for the evil. God is in the good things. God is not in the bad things, and he hates them as much as you do, so why he doesn’t stop them, I don’t know. Sometimes God answers your prayers, good or bad. Many times he doesn’t, and I’m not sure why.
I think it means that God is hidden and obvious, absent and here, faithful and unfaithful, according to human definitions and human experiences. For some reason, certain faith-filled people experience him one way, and certain faith-filled people experience him another way, and we’re missing crucial information to mesh those two experiences into one, coherent, loving, omnipotent deity.
But here’s the certain hope, often uncertain: in the end, the very end, goodness and love and God will win. Humanity has always known this. We don’t always get eagles ex machina or the free Starbucks or the basic sustenance to survive (or maybe we do), but somehow, someday, when the story ends, we’ll make good on our hope in God.