One of the phenomena that evangelicals talk a lot about is “having a relationship with God.” I have always had a little problem with this phrase. For one thing, we can be so glib about it, as if a relationship with God is on a par with a relationship with my wife or my next-door neighbor.
Envisioning our relationship with God in this way works out really well for us, though. Any time we need something, we can go to God. It’s like asking your neighbor for a cup of sugar, only on a whole new level. That seems solidly scriptural. In the New American Standard Bible, Philippians 4:6 says,
Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
This verse seems to be saying, “Hey, if you need something, just ask God.” After all, James tells us, “You do not have because you do not ask.” Oh, sure, He can be a little temperamental sometimes. We just have to get used to His apparently willy-nilly ways of answering our prayers. When He doesn’t come through for us, we justify not getting what we want because, for some bizarre reason that we can’t comprehend, getting what we want would not be good for us. But, man alive!, when He does answer a prayer, well now, that’s something to get excited about!
Read Philippians 4:6-7 in The Message:
Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life.
There is a difference in the way these two translations read. In the NASB, the focus is apparently on me and my requests, on using prayer to eliminate those things in my life that are giving rise to worries and concerns. God is at the ready, waiting to hear what we want Him to “take care of.” Sometimes, we even get demanding. “God, heal Lisa.” Well, ok, maybe we are little more diplomatic than that. “God, please heal Lisa.”
The sense that Eugene Peterson brings to this verse is different, but in a subtle way. He does not deny that worries and concerns are real. Indeed, Jesus not only recognized that we humans tend to worry, he also identified the deadly impact of worry in our lives:
The seed cast in the weeds represents the ones who hear the kingdom news but are overwhelmed with worries about all the things they have to do and all the things they want to get. The stress strangles what they heard, and nothing comes of it. (Mark 4:18-19, The Message, my emphasis)
For most of us, the solution to our problems is to ask God to fix or remove all the things that cause us to worry or that give us cause for concern. Then life would be better. But when we do this, are we not putting ourselves in God’s shoes? Are we not saying to God, “Look, there is a problem here and I know just how to fix it.” The reason we are praying is not because we don’t know the solution to a given problem, but simply because we don’t have the resources to make our solution happen. If we had the resources, would we need God?
A well-known Jewish joke goes like this:
Moshe was driving downtown, looking for a parking spot. Not finding one, he prayed, “Lord, would you please find me a parking spot?” Just then a car pulled out and a parking space opened up. Moshe prays again, “Never mind Lord. I found one.”
In his translation, Peterson shifts the focus entirely from the way most of us understand Philippians 4:6. “To prevent worries from destroying your life, bring them to God. Leave your worries with Him, and He will know what to do with them. Instead, focus on Him. In so doing, you will experience the life-giving wholeness of God’s presence at the center of your life.”
Do you see the subtle shift? The NASB is usually interpreted to signify that my worries and concerns are of central importance and that I should bring them to God, who will take care of them. In this way, my life is improved because God, who is powerful, smoothes the road on which I am traveling. In The Message, it is God, Himself, who is of central importance. Everything else is peripheral. It is God, Himself, who displaces the worries and puts them where they belong so that I can live in freedom. I flourish, not because problems that I face are resolved, but because I face life, with its worries and concerns and problems and sufferings, with God as my sole focus and interest.
* * * * *
Teresa of Avila referred to God as “His Majesty.” Monarchs in Teresa’s day (late 1500s) were essentially dictators. When they spoke, people jumped. Their word was the law of the land. They were rich. They could do anything they wanted. They had absolute power over everyone in their kingdom. I reckon that the metaphor of “His Majesty” was natural for Teresa.
Not for me. I don’t know any kings. Our leaders are elected by and accountable to the people. I like living in a democracy. Having a say in how things are run in this country feels right. The idea of living under a king does not seem all that attractive. Nevertheless, I have latched onto the idea that seeing God as “His Majesty” leads to a far more realistic relationship than thinking of Him as “my bud.”
Envisioning God as “His Majesty” helps me to understand how I should approach Him. I can imagine that it would be an error worthy of death to burst into the presence of a king, and start spouting off about all the problems that I am having while living in his kingdom. And to make matters even worse, I will tell the king the best way to solve all these problems. The fact is, though, that my view of the kingdom is so unavoidably narrow that my solutions will certainly end up benefiting me in some way.
What a dishonor!
It would be more appropriate to come into His presence, silent, ready to become prostrate. When He is ready, only then will He hear my concerns. All the while, I must remember to whom I am speaking. He is the King. He rules with great power. He owns all the resources. More importantly, He knows far more than I could ever dream. He understands the incredibly complex network that comprises the lives of 6.5 billion people, along with their social, religious, economic, and political systems. This network is not just three dimensional, either; it hasexisted over several millennia in the past and extends an unknowable number of years into the future.
My purpose in coming to the King is not to tell Him how to do His business, about which He knows far more that I do. Instead, I come to Him to make sure that worries, concerns, and problems do not take over and destroy my life, and that the focus of my life remains on the King, Himself.
That is what makes life better.1
1 What was your reaction at the end of this post? Was it to wonder, “Yea, but what about all the stuff in my life that I’m really concerned about?” There is a very subtle sub-text here. “What is the point of coming to God? What is the point of prayer if I can’t expect that God will fix my problems, somehow?”
If you are asking this, you have lots and lots of company. Perhaps you, like me, need to “get real” about why you pray. We are repelled by the idea that we might be so selfish that we would pray to get what we want. On the other hand, what is the utility of prayer that does not result in remedies? What good is it to pray to God if all I get is God? Would you be happy with God, Himself? Or are you happy with God because of how He benefits you?
You decide. Just be aware that one of these choices leads to life and the other leads to death.
“What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.” (John 6:30-33)
“This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” (John 17:3)
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (Matt 11:28)