June 10, 2018, But I Want It Really Really Bad – guest speaker, Carroll Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000084
The topic today is prayer, and that is a tricky topic. So let’s begin with something we all understand: a mother who simply adores her young daughter and would just do anything in the world for her. A conversation might run a bit like this. “Mommy, will you give me a really special present for my birthday this year.” “Yes, honey, of course, anything you want. What would you like?” Now here is where it gets tricky, and you can see where this is going. If she is three years old she might ask for the moon, which of course wouldn’t quite fit in her room. Or she might be more realistic and ask for a pony; and living in the middle of town in a little house with a small yard that is just not going to happen either. It is not that the mother doesn’t want to give her a pony, or even the moon, because she does, but she knows that neither the moon nor the pony would make the girl happy in those circumstances. Or the girl might say something like, “Jenny got seven presents for her birthday so I want you to give me twice as many.” What she is asking in this case is just wrong, and granting that request would only serve to teach her to be greedy and spiteful. Or – and this one is harder – she might ask for a puppy. There’s nothing wrong about asking for a puppy, but she really doesn’t understand all that getting a puppy would mean. The mom knows that the girl is not old enough, perhaps not responsible enough, to feed and walk and train and take care of a puppy, much less the dog it will grow into. But the girl doesn’t understand what is involved in having a puppy. She is asking for a good gift but the mother might not give it to her anyway. In the best case, the girl will ask for something like ballet shoes and everything is perfect because the mother really does want to give her everything and both of them will be happy.
The little girl is in the unfortunate and unavoidable situation that she knows what she wants but she doesn’t know what it will mean if she gets it. Spiritually, we are just like a little girl when we pray. We know what we want, but we don’t know what it would mean if we got it. Sometimes we ask for what would positively be dangerous to us, like a young single person might pray earnestly that God would let her marry Fred, the football star, not realizing that no one who married that guy would ever be happy or safe. Sometimes we ask things for purely selfish reasons, like asking to be richer or more popular than someone else. Sometimes we ask for perfectly good and right things but we just don’t know what it will be like if we get it, like asking for a particular job. It might be beyond our skill or there might be a co-worker whom we could not get along with. These are all examples that are good and legitimate reasons for God to not answer our prayers. And I will bet that everyone here has some prayer or other that God has not answered.
We also make it harder for ourselves. We quote to ourselves verses like “If you ask anything in my name it will be done for you” or “If you have faith as small as a grain of mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Go and be thrown into the sea’ and it will be done.” Then we feel guilty that we just don’t have enough faith, that we are not very good Christians, and why would God give anything to people as pathetic as we are anyway. Now it is important for you to realize that God never withholds any good thing from one of his children. He said that about the mustard seed as an exaggeration to get you to quit thinking about how much faith you have. The amount doesn’t matter. He wants you to think about the kind of faith you have, not how big it is.
So what do we do if we have a really important prayer and God has not given us what we want and it has been a long time? One thing we might do is just give up, and from God’s viewpoint that is the most hurtful thing we can do. It is the same as thinking that he doesn’t care about what we want, that we aren’t important to him. Imagine how the mother would feel if the little girl decided that the mother didn’t like her and quit asking for things and walked away. Don’t do that to God.
A second thing we might do is to try to take control of the problem and make God give us what we want. That is the same thing as playing at being God and there is very little we can do that is more insulting to God than trying to manipulate him into obeying us. If we forget that we are not God, we are in a world of trouble and a frustrated non-answer to prayer is the least of them.
A third thing we might do is get louder and more insistent and demanding and whiny. You all have experienced how unattractive it is to be around someone else’s whiny kid. But oddly enough, being whiny with God just might do the trick. The child gets whinier and louder and the mother might get to the point where she decides that the child needs to learn a lesson from this. God may also decide that same thing if we are obnoxious enough and demanding enough. It is not that God ever gives us something bad because he doesn’t. But he may give us what we want even though we will not be happy with it when we get it. He does promise that even when we are total spiritual brats and we discover that our request was not satisfying like we thought it would be, he will still make something good and satisfying come from it in the longer term. But it may be pretty unpleasant in the short term.
It was this third response that Israel had in I Samuel 8 which Charlie just read for us. Asking for a king was not wrong. Deuteronomy 17 specifically allowed them to ask for a king and gave rules the king would have to follow if they got around to asking for one. It was not what they asked for that went wrong in I Samuel; it was how and why they asked for it. Samuel warned them what it would mean to get a king, but they didn’t care. They wanted a king no matter what and if Samuel didn’t find them one they were going to find one for themselves. God had been their only king for 300 years and they were tired of him. They wanted to be like the other nations and get a real king. God was just not what they wanted anymore.
And so he gave them one and for the next 500 years their history was mainly miserable and full of drama. They wanted to be like the other nations, and so they became like the other nations, and it wasn’t the swell thing they thought it would be. But of course God made good come of it. One of the second king’s direct descendants was the Messiah, Jesus.
But there is a fourth way we can respond to unanswered prayers: mature faith rather than immature faith. Mature faith means two things: first it means that we are humble enough to remember that even at the best we have no realistic idea what it would mean to get what we want; second it means trusting that God really does love us and will never deny us anything that is truly good for us. Don’t give up. Don’t get whiny. Don’t try to make it happen on your own. Admit you are something of a fool and trust his wisdom.
It is all very well to say this but it is hard to do. For myself I once had the opportunity to get a tenure track job at a college. I really really wanted it. The alternative was being unemployed and I was so tired of not knowing how we could pay our bills. So I prayed that I would get the job. And I didn’t. Instead I got three years of part time work and constant money issues. Then I got a second chance at a full time job so I prayed again. But I didn’t get that one either. Instead I had a full year of unemployment. It has been fifteen years and I begin to see how it was best that I didn’t get those jobs. I wasn’t suited to that work, I would have been unhappy with the committee work and the other duties, and I would never have had the opportunity to write – which I love doing. I didn’t get what I wanted, which was a regular paycheck, but I did end up getting my heart’s desire.
As that great theologian, Mick Jagger, once said, “You can’t always get what you want.” There are things right now that I really really want and God is not giving them to me so far. It is a constant temptation to be whiny and complain. It is a constant temptation to try to take things into my own hands and make God give me what I want. It is hard for me and it will probably be hard for you, especially if you are praying for healing or some other rescue from pain. You will be frustrated, you will find yourself getting discourage and even depressed. The right thing to do is this: don’t give up asking; don’t be whiny; don’t try to make things happen like you want them to; but do be mature in your faith; remember how big a fool you really are, and hold on to your trust in God’s goodness and kindness to you. He promises you the desires of your heart and he means it. Like the mother in the story, he wants to give you everything. And eventually he will.
I believe one of the most important verses in the whole Bible is Psalm 27:14, “Wait for the Lord. Be strong and let your heart take courage. Yes, wait patiently for the Lord.” I admit sometimes I don’t like it much either, but it is what loving children do for the parents they trust, and it is what mature Christians do for God. So this week, go out, be strong, be courageous, and wait patiently.
We have an excellent prayer in the prayer book that you should use to help you along. It is the prayer of St. Chrysostom found on page 102 and I’d like us to end by saying it together.