Our God is a God of love. He enjoys showering His beloved ones with little gifts. Just to say “I love you.” Perhaps you’ve just lost hope of finding a parking spot in time to meet a critical appointment. You send up a desperate prayer and suddenly a space appears. A worried mother wonders where her boy is and sends up a quick prayer. Just then the phone rings and she discovers all is well. Or you survive a harrowing experience and discover later that several friends felt impressed to pray for you at exactly that time. Millions of believers around the world have experiences just like this every day. God is real and He loves to make His presence known to those who are open to it.
But just now the skeptic in you is saying, Wait a minute! Are you trying to tell me that God manages the comings and goings in every parking lot around the world just in case one of His followers needs a spot at the last minute? What about all the real heartaches in this world that are met with silence? What about women who are raped and their cries for help go unheeded? What about men who contract terminal cancer in the prime of their life and feel as if their prayers go no higher than the ceiling? What about parents who pray for wayward children and go to their graves without a clear response from God?
These objections have serious weight. Believers often fail to realize how trivial their experience of God’s presence may seem to others who have suffered deeply in this life. Our glib expressions of how God is working in our everyday lives can be like a knife in the heart to someone experiencing the absence of God (something Jesus also experienced when He was on the cross– see Matt 27:46 and parallels). Such was Job’s experience with his friends. It can feel as if God answers only trivial prayers.
The story of Job makes it clear that there is no answer to most of the specific objections raised above, at least in this life. The tragedies in Job’s life were unexplainable in earthly terms. They had to do with complexities in the larger universe that Job never came to understand. Even when God came down in person to talk with Job (Job 38:1 - 41:34), He never mentions the real reason for Job’s suffering, a reason the reader of the story is allowed into (1:6-12; 2:1-7). There is a cosmic conflict in the universe that affects all that we do and all that we experience. God’s actions are sometimes limited by larger considerations in that conflict, things we may never understand until eternity. Perhaps God’s intervention in Job’s situation would have upset the whole space-time continuum of the universe in a way even quantum physicists could not understand. God cannot explain what we cannot understand. What we do understand is that larger divine interventions can change things in a way that causes collateral damage at some unspecified time in the future. The good we hope God will do in the present could cause greater harm in the future.
There is an interesting biblical illustration of this. It is the story of Hezekiah as told in Isaiah 36-39. Hezekiah was one of the most faithful kings in the history of Judah. When the time came for him to die, he pleaded with God (Isa 38:1-3). God granted an extension of fifteen years (38:5) along with a major astronomical token of His presence (38:7-8-- how Hezekiah came to have this experience is not explained). Yet during those extra fifteen years two things happened that undid all the good that Hezekiah had done during his lifetime, the visit of the Babylonian envoys (39:1-8) and the birth of his son, who became the evil king Manasseh (2 Kings 21:1-9). In the context of the cosmic conflict between God and Satan major interventions in people’s lives are very complicated. The ramifications are usually way beyond our understanding.
Having said this, I still want to argue that a believer’s experience in a parking lot is not necessarily imaginary. I cannot explain the timing and the effort involved in God’s actions. But I do believe that God would answer every prayer in a positive manner if pleasing us were the only consideration. If finding someone a parking space or timing a phone call will not upset the space-time continuum of the universe, why wouldn’t a loving God intervene? If a woman makes a full commitment to Jesus just as a rain shower happens to be passing, why wouldn’t God arrange that if the stakes were low enough? I guess what I am saying is that the lower the ultimate stakes, the lower the potential consequences of any particular divine intervention, the more likely that a loving God can use the circumstances of life as a token of his love. We serve a God who delights to please His children whenever so doing would not cause harm to anyone. Having said that, those of us who have experienced this kind of intimacy from God need to be careful when and how we share such experiences with others. Our well-intentioned testimony can do harm even when God’s gift did not. I think we need to be aware how often testimonies cause pain.
What do you think?
Jon Paulien, PhD, is the dean of the School of Religion at Loma Linda University. He blogs at revelation-armageddon.com and is the author of numerous books including Armageddon at the Door: An Insider's Guide to the Book of Revelation.