What He Knows and We Don't

A common question or challenge about prayer is, why tell God what He already knows? If He knows everything, including your every thought and feeling, what's the point in possibly wasting His time by repeating this information to Him?

One assumption people usually have when asking this question is that we have sufficient, if not perfect, knowledge of our own thoughts and feelings. Because we have a front row seat, because they are our own thoughts being thought within our own mind, we think it reasonable to assume that we have the best awareness anyone could have of those thoughts and feelings.

But what occurs to me now is that we don't have the best awareness that anyone could have of our own thoughts and feelings. We are fooled on a regular basis regarding our underlying motivations for doing, thinking, or feeling a given thing. We hide motives and rationales from ourselves on a daily basis.

But God knows. In the physical realm, God maintains in existence every force and subatomic particle in the physical realm, and thus knows in every picosecond the exact location, force, direction, (and probably other characteristics we don't know about) of every one of them. When we give the best account that we can of a given physical situation, God's understanding and utterly immediate awareness of that same situation has an immensity far greater than any we could have.  If there exist in the spirit realm the equivalent of atoms, then He also keeps every unimaginably tiny element of that realm in existence by His continual free choice, and knows everything that can be known about that realm as well.

So He knows everything that's happening within us as we move through the chain of thoughts that lead us to offer a given prayer to Him. So even though we feel like we know what we're praying to Him, and out of our ignorance often approach prayer in the same way as we approach telling a human, finite, mortal friend about this or that, He already knows immensely more about what we're talking about than we do. Unless He voluntarily blocks some knowledge from some part of His awareness (if that's possible), it's impossible for us to know more about anything, even what happens within us, than He does.

And so, often God enables the experience of prayer, of our genuine personal encounter with the one true living God, primarily so that we can learn what we really think and feel, who we really are. In prayer we become more of who we really are, especially as we seek and accept His revealing of such things to us.

The Tension in Listening to God

In listening to God, as in so many other areas of life, there is a tension.

On the one hand, God is sovereign. He makes the rules. When we think about listening, attempting to hear Him, attempting to receive the communication He offers, we need to be humble. We need to keep in mind whatever He has said about listening and approaching Him, and obey Him with those things in mind. He is holy, non-contingent, and in some sense, in His essence, wholly other. With Uzzah in mind, there should be a healthy measure of fear and trembling in how we approach the listening.

On the other hand, God wants us to hear Him. In addition to being holy, He is also love. He longs for relationship with us, is always taking efforts to reach out to us, serve us, accommodate us in various ways, starting with the very consistency of the physical universe.

He knows your particular weaknesses (and mine). He often adapts what He wants to communicate to us so we are more likely to receive it. We are not dealing with Someone who is trying to trick us, trying to trip us up, hoping we'll make a mistake so we don't hear Him. The true and living God is always with us. He always wants us to live our lives with the continual acknowledgement of His loving presence, not so we'll be frozen by perfectionism, afraid to choose and act because we might make a mistake. He wants us to live actively and boldly, knowing He is with us, guiding us, cheering us on. Our awareness of His presence should add both peace and confidence to how we see each moment.

We cannot forget that He is God, that He is sovereign. We are not the masters, the ultimate owners, of our own lives. But He is joyful, eager for our active involvement in the world He made, the world He continues to make, the world He continually keeps going. He looks at us with eyes of love, not demanding perfectionism, or critical trickery.

These two poles--holy sovereignty and joyful love--are always in tension, always true, and should shape how we see the world, how we live our lives, and how we continually listen for the comforting, guiding voice of God.

Soft and Drifting

There's an astounding arrogance that is common among many people today. It is the assumption that generations that came before us were essentially stupid. Yet in many (most?) cases those people had more knowledge and wisdom than we do. They were constantly exercising their brains to store and retrieve information, while we only know how to ask our phones for answers.

If you took even people we call "ancients" and raised them today, put them on the shoulders of the giants we're camped out on today, I have every confidence they would do just fine. And I even wonder if the people of greatness from the past were great in part because of their struggles. Raised in our cushy environs, they would become like us, soft and drifting.

Turning to a Trustworthy God

When I sit down or lay down to just rest for a moment, I don't look to myself for guidance, for stability, for directions as to what I need most in that moment. I turn my attention to the living God, ever-present with me. And I trust that He who loves and cares for me like no one else can will do whatever He has to do to guide me to what I need most. I make myself open, in however imperfect a manner, and He honors my intention by meeting me where I am. He is faithful, that is, He is trustworthy. He will give me what I need. 

The Scent and the Truth

On the rare occasion I run into a scent like what my first girlfriend wore in 1988, I am delivered back to that time, whether I want it or not.

I have a desire, perhaps idealistic, that my life could have been monolithic, been a single story, consistent, moving in one meaningful direction, without diversion or division.  But those days, months, and years that I committed myself to ideas and people who ended up being, at least in my life, dead ends, are for me segmented parts of my history, inconsistent, non-contiguous with the rest of who I am today.

The point I take from this is that as much as the whiff of that ancient scent takes me back to a good feeling, it takes me back to a connection with someone I didn’t commit my life to.  I see, so clearly now, what a bad idea it would have been for her to have married me, in the immature and relationally destructive state I was in at the time.  I look back and wish everything in my life, my decisions, my choices, my commitments, could have all flowed consistently and naturally into the commitment I made to the woman who ended up as my wife some fourteen years later, and the life she and I have made together.  Those broken-off segments of my life are some of my regrets.

If I teach my children to hold back, to not commit to people and ideas that might be false, would that be foolish?  Are we better served by more of a risk-taker’s attitude that always tries different things?  Or is this another area where tension serves the Truth?  Maybe the best answer is in the tension between striving for purity, for a narrative of our life indicating deep and consistent commitment to Christ and following His leading, on the one hand, and on the other hand realizing the value of trying and failing, to learn more about who we are and who God is, learning in ways we couldn’t learn without the risk.

We All Will Die

We see lives limited only by age and medicine, shaking our heads to throw off thoughts of tragedy. We have our reasons, our assumptions about these lives, this era, this country and culture, that lead us to conclusions about our future.  Sure, bad things can happen, but we can't live by assuming the paranoid worst, day after day. Or so we say, raising the straw man of an extreme.

The answer, perhaps, is in how we hold on lightly, cradle our vision of the future gently in a balanced hand. We have to assume something. But can we assume a spectrum instead of a point? Can the point we stare at be the faithfulness and loving companionship of the Father, and not a narrow pattern of comfortable  circumstances where we are in control?

Poverty and the Government

If the primary actor in society that is caring for the poor is the government, they will ultimately fall back on the threat of violence (the very essence of government) to address poverty.  The system functions, not because the wealthy reach out relationally in love to the poor in ongoing, face to face interactions, but because the government's implicit threat of violence forces the wealthy to pay their taxes.

If a society is relying on the government to address poverty, it has already failed. The government is not equipped for this task.

Poverty is never a simple problem. It is always and everywhere complex, emotional, and messy. Financial poverty is often just a way to externally measure a whole host of deeper, bigger problems. And usually there is more than one underlying problem. There is a tangled mess of problems.

Love, that is, the ongoing sacrifice of oneself and one's resources for the benefit of another over the course of time, all from a position of privilege in one or more areas, is the only basis for effectively addressing poverty.

The enemy Loves the Welfare State

  • The enemy wants to hinder the work of the church.
  • Fighting poverty, leading people to glorify God by helping them fulfill their created potential, is part of the work of the church.
  • To the degree that the government takes the lead in fighting poverty, the church is lulled into neglect of their role in this part of their mission.
    • Paying taxes is immensely more passive and less participatory in the work of helping the poor than "getting one's hands dirty" and loving the poor face to face.
  • Therefore, the enemy wants the government to take the lead in fighting poverty.

Of course, this is consistent with "Give to God's what is God's, and to Caesar what is Caesar's," and the commands in Matthew 25 that say caring for the poor is a role that belongs to the body of Christ, not the body of Caesar.

Listen

Listen. 

You're sure they're wrong, but listen anyway. 

Just listen. 

You'll discover more about them by listening to them unburden their soul. And maybe they will learn more about themselves as well. We often learn what's inside of us, who we really are, when someone opens the door to letting us open up. 

So listen. 

If you don't understand, ask clarifying questions, not to cross-examine them, but to open the door further, to shed more light, to see more details of what they care about, how they see the world. 

Exert your strength through generosity. Give them the space to bloom, to open up and show you the beauty that God has planted within them. 

At the end of it all, maybe you'll be just as convinced of how wrong they are. But hopefully you'll understand more of why they believe and think and act the way they do. 

Maybe you'll never see eye to eye with them on these matters. But knowing someone on the other side, someone you know as a person and not just an anonymous slur, will enrich your soul. And if you are challenged by the person and ideas you encounter, perhaps through the process you will be stronger, and just that much more aligned with what is, just that much more deeply rooted in the Truth. 

So listen. 

Part of My Vision

I'm sympathetic to liberals and others who feel like society is always ready to fall apart at the seams, that chaos is shaking and tearing at our country all the time, and that the government seems like the skeleton, the structure, the source of stability that will prevent a complete meltdown. In that worldview, the effort of conservatives and libertarians to reduce the size and reach of government feels like an attempt to abandon the future and promise of society to the forces of selfishness, to a dog-eat-dog, Darwinian natural selection that can only result in the destruction of civilization, the victory of the vicious over the vulnerable.

But my vision of society contains an element, makes central an element, that cannot be assumed by secular theoreticians, philosophers, and politicians. I assume that the church will be the church, that Christians will step up and accept the responsibility of obeying God's commands of us. Selfishness can motivate us to work hard and earn a high income, but so can biblical principles of duty and financially ethical behavior. And once wealth has been earned, a society of those earners and others who are looking for ways to truly build up others in their community with love can make an enormous difference in the lives of the poor and vulnerable. A real and lasting benefit can be brought to such lives via a long-term, serious commitment by followers of Christ.

Unlike the image held of conservatives by liberals and progressives, I don't oppose things like single-payer health care or a social safety net because I want to see the poor and vulnerable suffer. I want to see the vulnerable do better than they're doing today. I believe that Christians who are committed to the well-being of all people in their communities can work together, pool resources, and build relationships to bring an uplifting and positive change to a degree that is impossible for tax-funded government work.

Obeying the Voice of God

When God prompts me with the right thing that I should be doing at that moment, too often I treat it like any other option that randomly pops into my head. But it's not random, it's purposeful. And it's not just any option, it's (by definition) the best thing, the right thing to do, because it's God's answer.

The counter question is what if it's not from God? What if it is just another option? Well, first, I started this thought on the assumption that you already know it's from God. Second, though, even if you're not sure, remember this: even when He's silent, God is present to everything that's happening within you, more present and more aware of all of it than you yourself are. So He's completely aware of this thought entering your mind. If you're like me, you need to deepen your obedience. So what you need is to practice obedience. As long as it's not clearly destructive, it's better to obey it (and practice in good faith obedience in the assumption that it is from God) than to not, and thereby reinforce autonomy, cynicism, and the like.

What You Need for Hope

John‬ ‭1:6-8, 19-28; Luke 7:2-35

I wish I could tell you that it will be easy. I wish for myself that it was easy. I wish that following Jesus in every moment, seamlessly weaving His glory and wisdom and love into every action and conversation was as natural as breathing. But I know it's not that easy for me, and I'll bet it's not that easy for you. But was it even easy for John the Baptist?

In Luke 7 we see John, trapped in prison, sending his followers to ask Jesus if He was really the Expected One, the Messiah.  John!  The one who recognized Jesus as “the Lamb of God,” who baptized him!  How could he doubt?  His followers had just told him about Jesus healing someone from miles away, and Jesus bringing a dead man to life.  How could John possibly think that anyone else could be the Messiah?  And if John could think that, with all that firsthand and secondhand proof, then how can we ever be confident and secure in our faith?

As an answer, Jesus quotes variations on phrases from Isaiah 35:5-6, all of which were true: people being healed from all sorts of maladies and infirmities.  But I have to think Jesus knew that John knew what came right before that passage.  In Isaiah 35:3-4 it says “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who have an anxious heart, 'Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.'”

We don’t know the entire terrain of John’s journey, either geographical or spiritual.  We don’t know how deep his doubt was, or how long he held it.  And we know that Jesus, presumably somehow for the glory of God, did not act to spring John from prison.  But to the one who had so boldly prepared the way for the Awaited One, but had fallen into doubt, Jesus pointed forth to the fulfillment of all things, which we still wait for today.

Waiting is not easy.  But God, who knows and loves you infinitely, will not leave you without hope.  He knows what you need to build your hope.  That doesn’t mean easy answers.  But if you want to hope, if you want to find hope in Him, you will be provided what you need to build and cling to His hope, to reach out and cling to Him.

Mimicked Symbols

Does it bring any glory or credit or power to Jesus if someone who's never heard of Him wears a cross, say, as a necklace? If a person owns a T-shirt with a Bible verse printed on it in English, but can't themselves read or understand English, and they wear it among people who also understand no English, does it bring praise or worship to God? Do Bible verses or Christian symbols carry some magic power in and of themselves, or is the power carried by the meaning known to the people who see or read or understand it? If a shaman, completely unfamiliar with the Bible or Christianity, happens to utter one of the many names of the living God in one of his spells, does the spell suddenly carry more power?

Similarly, if a non-Christian religion takes natural objects, objects created by the living God, and modifies and uses those objects in ways that dishonor the Creator and His intent for people and such objects, are those objects or objects like them permanently ruined? Do such objects inherently and unchangeably carry a power that honors the false God? And if the pattern or design of such objects is copied, mimicked by people who don't know the way they were twisted, don't know the meaning that the false religion assigned to the objects or patterns, are those later people inherently and unchangeably honoring the false religion, worshipping the false god?