[Canon Mark has been telling the story which begins this article at his workshops for the past several years. Many have encouraged him, “Write it up as an article.”]
I had been scheduled to be the speaker at a church in a large metropolitan area. The conference organizer told me that during the Saturday mid-morning break the religion reporter from the major regional newspaper would conduct a brief interview with me. I was looking forward to being interviewed. I anticipated how this would be an opportunity for God to receive glory and for readers to be drawn closer to Him. I thought an article in a major newspaper might be good publicity for the work I do. It might even be my “fifteen minutes of fame.” I had finished my first Saturday morning talk and took a few questions from conference participants. One person asked, “In a sentence would you describe what God is like and how He works today?”
“Sure!” I thought to myself. “In one sentence! Could you maybe give me a month to think it through and come up with a carefully crafted statement?” Since I didn’t have a month I blurted out, “God is big and He does stuff.” Everyone laughed. With that we went to our mid-morning break. Ten minutes into the break I realized we would soon be re-gathering for the second morning talk. I asked where the reporter was. “Oh,” I was told, “she came early, listened, and left. She wrote down a few things and told me she got what she needed.”
I’m sure you have already figured out what happened next. That’s right!
The next day, in a banner headline across the top of the front page of one of the inside sections of the newspaper, were the words, “Boston Theologian Asserts “God Is Big and He Does Stuff.” Needless to say I felt glum. It was more like my fifteen minutes of embarrassment!
But God was up to something. Over the next few months a number of people found their way to that church and to lasting Christian discipleship because of the headline. Here was a plain and simple statement about God.
Too often talk about God is way over people’s heads — answering questions no one is asking and using language too difficult for the average person to grasp. Other times the headlines are grabbed by some theologian or denominational leader expressing disbelief about God or the Bible. As a result, people stay away from God and from the Church. They believe there is no reason to trust that God can make a difference. Even many in the Church are not confident about Christian things. I often see this weak trust in God expressed when I pray with people.
Someone is ill and I offer to pray. The person will say, “Please pray God gives wisdom to my doctor,” or, “Please pray the medicines will work well.” Of course I will pray for those things. God uses medical people and medicines to help us.
My problem is not with what such people say but with what they do not say. They do not ask that God would supernaturally, instantaneously take the sickness away. When I ask them, “Don’t you think God could do something like that?” the response is often an acknowledgement that, yes, this could theoretically happen. There is, however, usually no sense that this ever would happen.
Let’s look at another example. A couple has an unruly teenager. “Would you pray that she gets off drugs?” they ask me. Yes, I’ll pray that. It’s a good request. But, I ask the parents, could we not ask for more? Could we not also ask that she breaks off with her horrible boyfriend with whom she is living, that she gets a job, and that she is polite and respectful of others? Their response to me was, “Don’t you think that’s too much to ask?”
Why would anyone say things like that, and what can we do to help them?
1. Their God is Not Personal. Many people who say they “believe in God” actually believe in a force or power, not in One Who personally responds to our prayers. Such people do occasionally pray, but such prayer is more a superstition or a cultural habit, not a heartfelt belief. When bigger things are at stake, these people do not usually pray, believing it to be a waste of time.
How can we help our friends who believe this way? Point them to some of the numerous places in the Bible where God clearly relates to people personally. Show them that God so wanted a personal relationship with people the Second Person of the Godhead became a human being, Jesus. Share with them how you know that God is personal.
Or 2. Their God is Too Small. Most people will theoretically grant that God is immense. But on a practical, real level, they do not believe He is that big. In 1961, Church of England priest J. B. Phillips wrote a book Your God Is Too Small. This was not an evangelistic book designed to lead people to faith. This was a book for Christian believers whose God was, of course, bigger than people are, but not by all that much. I call such a deity “the sixteen foot tall God.” He can do things we cannot do, but there’s much He cannot do, so why bother asking? It, too, is a waste of time.
How can we help our friends who believe this way? Remind them that God created the universe in its vastness and the human body in its complexity. Point them to various “miracle stories” throughout the centuries of the Church, occasions when it would take more faith to believe that what happened was a mere coincidence than to acknowledge the hand of God at work. Tell how God has done a blockbuster thing or two in you.
Or, 3. Their God is Not Truly Loving. Often people project onto God their experiences of male authority figures in their growing-up years. What if one or more of these figures had been mean? If this is God, such people reason, why ask Him for anything? The best you can hope for is to stay on His “good side,” and avoid being harmed.
How can we help our friends who believe this way? Gently, lovingly tell them that God is not a big version of their earthly father. Instead, our heavenly Father models what earthly fathers should be. Point them to Scripture passages that illustrate how good a Father God is. Since Jesus makes the Father known, encourage them to read a Gospel.
Or, 4. Their God Does Not Seem to be At Work in Others. When I have told people about God working supernaturally in the lives of people I know, some have responded, “I don’t know anyone who has experienced the things you’re talking about.”
How can we help our friends who believe this way? We can talk about what God has done in our lives. We can introduce them to others — especially people like themselves — who have similar stories to tell.
Perhaps those who do not believe God is at work in others actually do know such people, but those people are not talking about their experiences of God. Maybe we are not talking! Perhaps they and we are afraid of being laughed at. The fact is, they and we will be laughed at by some for talking about God, but others are starving for the good news that God is at work today.
Or, 5. Their God Has, to Their Recollection, Never Done Anything Supernatural in Them. One reason for this might be that no one has ever taught them how to recognize the hand of the Lord at work. Once when a voice came from heaven, some thought an angel has spoken while others thought it had merely thundered (John 12:28-29).
How can we help our friends who believe this way? We can encourage them to pray in the words of a modern Eucharistic Prayer, “Open our eyes to see your hand at work in the world about us.” We can tell them some of the ways we have learned over the years to recognize God at work.
Another reason for their failure to recognize God at work in their lives might be the forgetfulness from which we all suffer. Encourage them to pray, “Lord, bring back to my mind a remembrance of the things You have done in, through and for me.” Encourage them to ask Christian friends who might remember. A third reason might be they have intentionally been keeping God at arms length. This could be for many reasons, including the knowledge that if they let God have His way, they’ll have to change some of their behaviors. Indeed, they will, but it is a price worth paying.
How can we help our friends who believe this way? This will be the most important thing we could ever do for anyone: we could lead them (back) to personal commitment to Christ as Lord and Savior.
“God is big and does stuff.” More than anything, He wants to save their souls for all eternity and He wants to help us now. +