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God makes many promises regarding prayer.
God spoke through the psalmist, “Call upon me in the day of trouble. I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.”
The Lord Jesus said, “Whatever you ask in my name, that will I do.”
These and other promises create faith.
We take God at his word, and we pray to him as his dearly loved children.
We ask God to give us daily bread, to protect our loved ones, to guide our nation, and he ordinarily responds affirmatively.
Sometimes, however, he might delay his answer or, even worse, instead of giving us what we ask, he seems to give us the very opposite.
In fact, he may give you the very thing you dread.
For example, God promised Abraham that through his son Isaac, his offspring would be as numerous as the sand on the seashore.
Then, mysteriously, before Isaac had married and produced any progeny, God commanded that he be sacrificed.
Why? Why would God act in a way that seemed to contradict his promise?
Consider the patriarch Joseph in the book of Genesis.
God promised Joseph in a dream that his father, mother and 11 brothers would bow down to him.
However, God allowed Joseph to be sold into slavery and eventually imprisoned in Egypt.
So what of the promise?
Martin Luther, the great reformer, struggled with this question and noted that God’s counsel and will is far above our own counsel and will, as God spoke through the Prophet Isaiah, “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
And as the psalmist wrote: “The Lord knows the thoughts of men, that they are vain.”
Therefore, Luther concluded, when we pray, and God begins to give us what we wish, he gives to us in a way that contradicts our expectations, so that he may seem to be more offended after our prayers and to do less for us after we have asked than he did before.
“He does all this,” Luther writes, “because it is the nature of God first to destroy and tear down whatever is in us before he gives us good things, as the Scripture says, ‘The Lord makes poor and makes rich, he brings down to hell and he raises up.’”
“By this most blessed counsel, he renders us capable of receiving his gifts and his works. And we are capable of receiving his works and his counsels only when our own counsels have ceased and our works have stopped and we are made purely passive before God.”
Did you catch that? Before I am capable of receiving and bearing God’s blessings, he may need to change me.
Luther’s thoughts reflect the words of the Prophet Hosea, “Come, let us return to the Lord. he has torn us to pieces but he will heal us; he has injured us but he will bind up our wounds.”
And as Isaiah has written, “I am the Lord, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity. I am the Lord who does all these things.”
This is the most difficult challenge to faith: when God gives you the opposite of what he has promised.
He may seem to be more enemy than friend.
But his ways are higher than yours.
Sometimes, he must first tear us before he heals us and injure before he binds us up.
Sometimes, he must uproot what is in us before he replants, and he must destroy what is in us before he makes new.
He does this by giving us that for which we have not asked and that which we least want.
This is ultimately realized in the life of the Lord Jesus Christ who, though he is without sin, stands in the place of sinful humanity.
In him, that is, in his flesh, sinful humanity is judged and destroyed, so that in him all humanity is also made new.
The Rev. Richard Bucher, a Lutheran clergyman, has observed that when God allows the opposite of what I have asked to happen, it does not mean that he rejects me or is saying no to me.
Rather, it is his strange way of answering my prayer and keeping his promise, even if in a fuller and higher way than I imagined.
Yes, the world around me needs to change, and I pray that it will.
But the Father of us all knows that the world is also in me and that I need to change as well.
The Rev. John Armstrong is pastor at Columbus’ Grace Lutheran Church, and may be reached at gracecolumbus.org.
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