by Ken Gardner

A few months ago lightning struck a number of people at a soccer match in the country of Congo in Africa. At least 30 spectators were injured, and, tragically, all 11 players on the home team were killed. Amazingly, none of the players on the visiting team were even injured.

A tragic story, to be sure, and also an astonishing coincidence. At least you and I would call it a coincidence. But people there blamed the incident on witchcraft. According to the newspaper account I read, "Sorcery is often used in the region in an attempt to influence soccer games. Witchcraft is frequently blamed throughout western and central Africa to explain natural phenomena and illness." How unusual! How odd it seems to us living in 20th century America that there are still people today who believe in witchcraft! Yet the thought occurred to me that many religious people, even here in the US, treat God as if he were some kind of witch doctor. Whenever people want something, they turn to God. They may for the most part give little if any thought to worshipping God regularly, or praying daily, or complying with biblical instructions. But when they want something, to God they go. They say, Please help us win the ball game (or, thank you for helping us win, or helping me score a touchdown), please give me a good job (or at least a pay raise), please help me make this sale, please fix my car, please help me get over the sniffles, please pay my electric bill, please help me decide whether to vacation in the mountains or at the beach, in fact, please make all of my decisions for me, please don't ask me to make any kind of decision on my own, please don't let me have any kind of stress or pressure or anxiety, please don't ask me to use my brain, please do everything for me, please, please, please. But I guess people have always been this way. In Job's day, Elihu, according to one commentary-translation (more commentary than translation), said, "In times of trouble, everyone begs the mighty God to have mercy. But after their Creator helps them through hard times, they forget about him" (Job 35:9-10, CEV).

And if this is not bad enough, that is, treating God as if He were some sort of personal servant, many attribute everything that happens to God. People say things like, "I dropped my keys trying to unlock the door--hmmmm, I wonder what God is trying to tell me? Maybe I shouldn't go to work today, maybe God is telling I should just stay in bed all day." When they're under the weather, they ask, "Why is God punishing me? Was it something I said?" Even worse, when things are going well, they figure, "Let's see, I've got a good job, two cars, a home in the suburbs, my bills are paid, my family's healthy and happy, I'm healthy and happy, life is wonderful--God must approve of what I'm doing, how I'm living my life, where I go to church, what I believe, looks like I'm in good shape." Even religious organizations make the same mistake: "We're growing, we're adding on to our building, we're building a new building, we have many activities, there's no serious church problems--we must be doing everything right, God must be pleased with us, our beliefs, our worship practices, God is on our side."

Thus many people try to determine what God's will is by how well things are going with them. Their prayers are more materialistic than spiritual. "What does God want me to do?" they must reason. "I'll pursue this course of action, buy this house instead of that one, take this job instead of the other, marry this one and not that one, and then--if things go well--I'll know that I've made the right decision, that God has answered my prayers." Such is the foolish thinking of many! Instead of simply listening to what God has told them in the Bible, they try to "figure God out." Instead of obeying God's commandments in the Word, they look for some kind of sign from God. Ancient, pagan people used to cut animals open and examine their internal organs to learn the will of the gods, and today people dissect their blessings and misfortunes to determine their approval rating with God! Such individuals have never read the book of Job, or if they have, they haven't even come close to understanding it's basic message.

Consider another example of very shallow thinking regarding prayer. On one of "our" broadcasts, the "Amazing Grace" television program, supported by churches of Christ, there was a story about a soldier who ran through enemy fire to rescue a fallen comrade. Oddly enough, however, he hadn't rushed to his buddy's side the moment he was hit but had deliberately waited until it was 9:00 a.m. He knew that his mother prayed for his safety fifteen minutes every morning beginning at nine o'clock, so he knew, he explained, that he would be safe from 9:00 to 9:15 a.m. Oooooo kaaaaay. I think if I were that soldier I'd ask mom to pray for me . . . thirty minutes a day, or maybe even an hour or two. Oh, why not all day long, and all night, too. Don't go to sleep, Mom--that may be the very moment I need your prayer. I guess God must be pretty picky about how long we pray and when. Does God say, "Opps--did I hear an Amen? OK, watch out below! All bets are off!" Is this the way God is? And shame on that mother of the wounded soldier, and mothers of all soldiers wounded and killed in battle. Why weren't they praying and protecting their sons? It's their fault their sons died--they weren't praying! What kind of mothers are they?! And another thing--this soldier seems to be a little more concerned about his own safety than that of his friend. "I'm not risking my life for you, even though you may be bleeding to death," he seems to be saying. "I'll just wait till 9:00, when I know I'll be safe." Not a very sacrificing fellow, is he? Just how much of a hero, is he? I can just see him now, looking at his watch: "Hang on just five more minutes, it's too risky right now. (I wish I could phone Mom and ask her to go ahead and start praying now)."

Now I don't mean to sound harsh or in any way disrespectful, but I ask you, is this the correct view of prayer and God's providence? Is this the understanding of prayer that we should be gaining from the Scriptures? No, of course not, but this is what people like to hear, and there will always be those who are eager to tell people what they want to hear. Again, have people not learned the message of the book of Job? Have they forgotten that Christian martyrs like Stephen died with prayers on their lips? Where were the families and friends of Old Testament prophets when they were imprisoned, tortured and killed? Shame on them for not protecting the prophets! Where does God ever guarantee our safety while we or others are praying? For that matter, where does God guarantee our safety period? As the song says, God never promised us sunshine without rain, has He? Has He ever said that we would never know tribulation or sorrow or heartache or death or sickness as long as we are faithful to Him? Has He promised His children a carefree, happy-go-lucky life? If so, that's one promise Job, Paul, Peter, the rest of the apostles, Christian martyrs, and the prophets all missed out on. He has, however, again as the song says, promised us strength for the day and rest for our labors.

Yes, I do believe in the providence of God, I know we must pray for our daily bread, and I know God answers prayer. I'm convinced that in our private prayers we should "talk things over" with God--that's not to say we should be casual with God or fail to reverence Him, but that we should express to Him our deepest feelings and requests and longings. We should feel free to pray as did the psalmist, who at times expressed his doubts and confusion and even seemed to be complaining to God. But our attitude must always be, "Not mine, but thine, thy will be done." We must remember that we today, just as people in Biblical times, do not fully understand God's providence and can never precisely pinpoint God's interventions. All that we know about God, His nature, His providence, His will for us, is found in His Word, the Bible. We learn God's will not by looking at what's going on, but by reading what has been written down. We learn how God demands we live our lives, not by searching for ambiguous signs, but by examining carefully the Holy Scriptures. I'm afraid we've read about Job's suffering, Paul's thorn in the flesh, the prophets' poverty, the apostles' deaths, and haven't learned a thing. We're still praying for touchdowns and home runs.