I so easily fall into the trap of thinking that I can somehow manipulate God and force situations to turn out the way I want them to by doing the right thing. I am often under the illusion that if I fast enough, pray intensely enough or use the right words, come to the right point of surrender, or obey fully enough, then God will grant me what I want. The outcome will be good, and by good, I mean the way I want it to be.
You often hear versions of this thinking in Christian circles. A common saying is that when you’re fully content in Christ, God will give you a spouse. This is the Christian version of the cliche that when you’re not looking, you find someone (which I’ve also heard Christians say). Or I’ve had people say to me that if I surrender the thing I most want, God will give it back to me.
It’s possible there is some truth to those sayings, but the way I tend to take it is that if I try hard enough to get to the right place spiritually, then God will give me what I want (but I have to pretend not to want it in the meantime).
That’s not faith, it’s simply a means of control. It’s not trusting God, it’s an attempt to use him as a way of getting what you want. The end result is that if and when you don’t get it, you become bitter and disillusioned with God. You lose faith when in reality your faith wasn’t based on God and his promises, it was based on yourself and your efforts. When God doesn’t see your goodness and reward you, you give up on him. Your goal isn't God and relationship with him, it's getting what you desire. He's just a means to that end.
God’s gifts are gifts given freely by grace, as and when and how and to whom he chooses. We know that we can’t earn salvation, we receive it as a gift given freely to sinners who don’t deserve it but simply trust him. The same is true of God’s other gifts.
Jesus told a parable to this effect (Matthew 20:1-16). In the story, the owner of a vineyard goes out several times during the day, beginning in the early morning and ending one hour before quitting time, to hire workers. At the end of the day, he pays everyone the same wage. Those who started in the early morning are enraged at the apparent unfairness of being paid no more than those who worked for only one hour. The owner of the vineyard says to one of them: “I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
Jesus’ point was that God’s gifts and resources are his to do with as he pleases. If we think we can get an edge on him by working harder or being more spiritual, we are wrong. We can’t manipulate him into giving. We can’t force his hand or complain that he’s unjust.
“Faith” is not drumming up enough sincerity or the right attitude or the magical formula so that God will listen. It’s not trying to twist God’s arm by giving him what we think he wants so he’ll give us what we want. It’s not “obeying” to gain enough points to earn what we're really after.
Faith is the recognition that in the face of our circumstances, we are truly helpless. We have no hope but God. Faith is coming to him totally empty-handed, like a beggar seeking bread, and asking him for what we need knowing that it must come from him or not at all. Faith doesn’t manipulate, it interacts with God honestly and freely like one would with a trusted friend or a good and loving Father. Faith trusts that even if we don’t get what we want, or when we want it, or in the way that we want it, God is still good. That greater good will come out of the way he does things than if we get what in our limited perspective we think is best. Faith continues to obey him knowing that doing the right thing will lead to the best outcome, even if it isn’t the outcome we desire. It is truly and honestly letting go of our desires and wishes and saying to God, “Your will be done.” It is accepting what he gives us.
Christianity isn’t a cosmic avenue for escaping the pain of this world. Some sections of the church teach this, for example what is known as the “prosperity gospel” that many televangelists preach. However Jesus said, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we know one day he will make all things new. Death, sickness, suffering, pain, and tears will all vanish. Until then, we take part in his victory by becoming new on the inside, and experiencing his grace, strength, peace and joy even sometimes in the middle of the worst things to happen to us.
This isn't a pie-in-the-sky way to feel better. None of us has control. Control is an illusion, and it can be deeply frightening to recognize that we are in the grip of forces completely outside our ability to influence. In the middle of that, the only answers are denial (and renewed attempts to control), despair, or faith in a loving God who IS in control. As humans, we naturally attempt to control when faced with the impossible or unacceptable. Control leads to anxiety because it attempts to do the impossible. Trust leads to peace because it accepts reality. It’s a much saner and freer way to live.
(Disclaimers: This is a lesson I’m LEARNING, and I fail in it again and again. Thankfully there’s grace, and there’s progress, even for a slow learner like me. Also, this isn’t to say that God doesn’t answer prayer, or never gives us what we ask for, but that’s a different topic.)