One of the men in my small group planned an outdoor celebration for a large number of people last weekend. In anticipation of the event, he had asked the rest of us in the group for prayer, particularly since the forecast called for a very good chance of rain. Later, he told us in an email:
“God is good; the rain held off and the temps were good for our party last Saturday.” Indeed, God is good. And He is both honored by our prayers and by the thanks that we offer Him. It is good for us, as well, to be thankful rather than take God’s goodness for granted.
There is nothing particularly unique about this scenario. We often pray in circumstances that are beyond our control, asking that events go a certain way. That “certain way” usually has obvious and reasonable benefits for those involved. Who prays for rain during an outdoor party?
But, sometimes, it does rain on our party. What then? It’s only human to be upset. Some people get angry. Others settle into a state of Zen-like resignation, choosing to “go with the flow”. Regardless, what would the email have said if the rains had come? “God is good; the rain destroyed our party,” isn’t something I would expect to read.
When it rains on the party, realism insists that we recognize that the rain truly did destroy the party and made life, at least for an afternoon, miserable for a lot of people. For the Christian, the rain came from God, despite prayers to the contrary. God has disappointed, yet again. We encounter similar disappointments in lots of other circumstances throughout our lives, but we usually explain them away with a programmed theological response: “I know God is good, but He had other plans.” The theology is sound, but the fact that it makes no sense why the party would be ruined by God, who is all-powerful, continues to bounce around inside our heads.
I love my wife deeply, but there are times when I disappoint her. Relationships are like that. We don’t like it when our friends, especially our best friends, let us down. If disappointments continue to mount up over time, even if punctuating periods of high performance, harm is eventually done to the relationship. God, it seems, has an enormous capacity to disappoint us. Who else can rain on a party? How can disappointment after disappointment not bring harm to our relationship with Him? Even if He is good to us most of the time, we never know when He is going to let us down again. Every time it rains on our party, the relationship is strained. Eventually, that strain reveals itself as anger, or diminished faith, or low expectations, or prayerlessness, or… atheism.
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Something is wrong with this picture, but it is a picture that is very common in religious circles. It is a picture that goes back thousands of years. It is a human picture of human religion, a religion that worships a God who is on our side, a God who is there for us, a God who has the power to give us what we want and need. This God is seemingly capricious, but, nevertheless, we persuade ourselves that He is somehow for us, not against us. It is a religion that believes that, since God loves me, He will always take care of me. I am important to Him. And since I am important to Him, He won’t allow it to rain on my party unless He has a very good reason to do so. Maybe you are thinking, “Well… yea! All of this is consistent with what the Bible tells us!” There’s only one problem: this human religion is centered squarely on one person: me.
That perspective changes everything.
Christians, Muslims, and Jews, are intensely religious, as a general rule, and a common denominator is the religion of “me.” Being religious, paradoxically, does not necessarily translate into either faith in God or love for Him. The Jewish prophet Amos, who lived about 3,000 years ago, used burning sarcasm to make this point.
Come along to Bethel and sin! And then to Gilgal and sin some more! Bring your sacrifices for morning worship. Every third day bring your tithe. Burn pure sacrifices—thank offerings. Speak up—announce freewill offerings! That’s the sort of religious show you Israelites just love. (Amos 4:4-5, The Message)
If we were to interview any of the people targeted by these words, we can be sure they would scoff at Amos and his ridiculous view of Judaism. Each would claim to be Jewish to the core, doing exactly what their fathers, all the way back to Abraham, had taught them. They were faithful to their religion, and any notion that they had no faith in God was patently wrong. They would insist that, being Jewish, they knew God and He knew them. To suggest otherwise was pathetically ignorant. God’s view of reality, as conveyed by the prophet, did not seem to carry much weight.
Suggest to a modern-day Christian that their claim to faith in God is without much substance, that their religion amounts to so much “religious show,” and you will get the same treatment that the Jewish prophets received: persecution, ridicule, or death. Regardless, Amos’ words have retained their import for thousands of years because the fundamental issues about which he spoke have not changed during that whole time. Amos did not simply rail on a small group of wayward Jews 3,000 years ago. He was speaking to the human condition.
What if religion was not about “show”? What if religion was not about “me”? What if the purpose of religion was not to get God on our side, to get what we want when we want it, to make sure that we are comfortable, healthy, and productive? What if things that happened to us did not stem from purely random events, but had their root in a divine presence and activity?
I’m the One who stopped the rains three months short of harvest. I’d make it rain on one village but not on another. I’d make it rain on one field but not on another—and that one would dry up. People would stagger from village to village crazed for water and never quenching their thirst. But you never got thirsty for me. You ignored me. (Amos 4:7-8, The Message)
Is God capricious? Or is He so desperately in love with me that He will do anything to wean me away from created things so that I fall in love with the Creator Himself? The next time it rains on my party, perhaps I should take a moment to consider what God is up to and how His goodness is manifest in my life and the lives of those around me, and how He is working His way into my life.
As crazy as it might sound, life is not about the party.