Saturday, May 17, 2008

Why a prayer and a shovel is better than a prayer alone

"The hardest thing in this world is to live in it"
Buffy the Vampire Slayer

It’s not easy to be both a Christian and a skeptic. There just doesn’t seem to be much common ground sometime – Christians don’t like skeptics and skeptics don’t like Christians and each side claims the other is blind to the truth. Being a skeptical Christian seems like the ultimate oxymoron sometimes. Normally, it feels like the world’s best example of doublethink*. Of course that’s just normally – then there are the times this uneasy relationship gets strained to breaking point.

Remember Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter? Turns out instead of seeking medical help, his mother sought spiritual help and arranged for an exorcism for him. Bad idea you say? Well isn’t that exactly what you are supposed to do according to Biblical example? In a similar vein, I recently read an article regarding a girl named Madeline Kara Neumann who died an agonizingly slow and completely avoidable death because her parents trusted in God to heal her instead of taking her to a doctor. Crazy, right? And yet that is 100% in line with what the Bible tells you to do. There isn’t one verse in the Bible that instructs sick people to see a doctor. However the Bible does say things like:

Matthew 7:7 Ask, and it shall be given you.
Matthew 21:22And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.
James 5:15The prayer of faith will heal the sick.
John 14:14 (quoting Christ) – If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it.
John 15:7 (quoting Christ) – If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you.
John 16:23 (quoting Christ) – Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you.
1 John 3:22And whatsoever we ask, we receive of him…

And this is just a small sampling. Someone like Kenneth Copeland can sell you an entire audio tape/CD filled with scriptures on healing. In fact I used to own one. See I grew up in a Pentecostal Christian church, so while I utterly disagree with what Seung-Hui and Madeline’s parents did, I can’t fault them according the teachings of Scripture. They did exactly what I was taught to do from the pulpit all my life - they believed every word in the Bible was literal truth and they obeyed it, disregarding all evidence that it wasn’t working, probably dismissing it as a test of their faith. I must have heard the same thing preached countless times – don’t believe the doctors, don’t believe the experts, don’t believe the symptoms, don’t believe reality, its all lies. Just believe in God and He will fix everything in the end, no matter what it may look like right now.

And yet, here we are. Madeline is dead and Seung-Hui Cho murdered 32 people. It would seem faith was not enough. Prayer was not enough. Being obedient to Biblical teachings was not enough. In fact, the reason why we don’t see more cases like this is because most Christians are not that faithful. They might go stand in a prayer line on Sunday but they will most certainly also go to a doctor on Monday. I guess when you get right down to it, I’m not that alone in being both Christian and skeptic!

This is not an easy thing for me to write about as this topic is intensely personal to me. When my mother’s kidneys started failing her, all items with possible links to the occult in our house were burned, prayers were prayed all over the place, demons were rebuked and yet, she died. When my father got the first indications of the heart attack that would kill him a few days later, he didn’t go to the doctor but instead spent time praying in tongues. Even now, as I write this I am in danger of suffering the consequences of my own misplaced faith. Two weeks ago I found out I am in very real danger of dying and that I need urgent surgery – which at this point is also a risky procedure. I have a swelling (not sure what) in my neck that I have left untreated for almost 8 years – partially because I don’t have medical aid and state hospitals in Africa are scarier than any horror movie and partially because I dread hospitals because I subconsciously associate them with the death of my parents, but mostly because in all this time I was stubbornly waiting for God to heal me. Well, I was not healed despite years of prayer, the laying on of hands, getting anointed with oil, having demons rebuked and not looking at porn. Yes that’s right I said porn. According to a “word” from a girl at a prayer group long ago, the problem was caused by porn “coming in through my eyes and getting lodged in my throat”. I kid you not. Best part is that I wasn't even near any porn when the problem started!

Now I’m not relating all this because I need someone to blame. I fully realize that I am in my current predicament because of choices I have made. I don’t blame God or my parents or the church or even charismatic Christianity and all the flakiness it brings. This was me, ignoring the obvious and hoping and praying that the problem would go away instead of taking action. I am not alone in this however and that is the reason I am writing this. Atheists make fun of Christians sometime because of our tendency to modify our reality to fit with our faith. I think the atheists have a point. For me to still believe in God and prayer and the Bible after all of this must seem rather schizophrenic I admit, but it needn’t be the case. I don’t think reason and reality needs to be the enemies of faith. I think that the problem comes in when we try to adjust reality to fit our faith. I think it would work better the other way around. To some of my Christian brethren, this must sound like the biggest blasphemy since Galileo. I disagree. Here is why.

Firstly I don’t believe the Bible to be invalid. However, it is not a document floating in space, disconnected from all things. Rather it was written by people, for people in a very specific piece of space and time. Like it or not, the culture, science and beliefs of the time played a role in what was written. This doesn’t imply that the Bible has nothing to say to us today, merely that we need to understand what it said to its original audience first and why before we can learn from it today. Lets face it, praying for the sick was probably a better option until just a century or two ago! Most of the time, the doctors of old were more dangerous than the ailments they were treating. As for mental illness, we only started treating that with success in the last couple of decades.

Secondly, I don’t think low self esteem is holy. Why is there this idea in the church that we are helpless, useless, directionless beings who need constant help and guidance? When did we decide that to please God we needed to be like toddlers – unable to do anything for ourselves or to make any good decisions, instead only able to make a mess and always requiring divine help to clean it up? Does the Bible not say that we are gods (Ps 82:6; Joh 10:34)? That we are created in His image and likeness with dominion over all the earth (Gen 1:26-28) and that we are a little less than Eloïm (God) Himself (Ps 8:5 – it is translated “angels”, but check the Hebrew)? Furthermore, does our world not show that this is true? We build, we make, we create, we bring light into the darkness and order into the chaos and we turn dreams and ideas into tangible reality. Clearly God did not destine us to be eternal infants! The evidence is all around us, we have the potential for greatness. All we need to do is grow up and grasp it. After all, the successful people in the Bible did.

Look for instance at King Hezekiah (2 Kings 18-20). When the Assyrians invaded, yes he prayed, yes he asked God to save Jerusalem BUT he also had a water tunnel dug (that stands as an engineering marvel to this day) so that the city would have water enough to survive a long siege. Though he trusted God totally, he made sure that he had done all he could too. And it worked! Though all the other fortified cities of Judah fell, Jerusalem was saved. Doesn’t this just fly in the face of the whole “pray and wait for God to fix everything” attitude? Is it really that blasphemous to suggest that God didn’t make us as His slaves but as His Family? That maybe God wants us to work with Him rather than for Him? After all, this is Earth, not Heaven. This is our place in the universe, our house and its up to us to run it. I’m not saying I don’t believe that God will help us because I do. I am not against prayer either. I am however against the attitude of giving up all personal responsibility and waiting for someone higher up to come make everything better. We are better than that and I think no one knows that better than God.

Why does prayer only seem to work for some and not for others? Honestly, I don’t know and I am the first to admit it. I don’t know why some people get miracles and some get tragedy. What I will suggest is that sometimes we are the answer to our own prayers. When someone is drowning right next to you, would you pray that God miraculously delivers that person or will you try to save him yourself? I really think that sometimes we are looking up for the Hand of God while ignoring the two very capable hands at the end of our own arms. I fully believe that God helps us but I also believe that in many cases He has already helped us, by giving us the strength, the intelligence, the resources and the resourcefulness to help ourselves. After all, we call God our Father and what would make a parent more proud, a child with the abovementioned qualities making his/her way in the world or a middle aged baby that refuses to leave the house and insists on still being waited on hand and foot?

*"Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them." 1984 George Orwell

† For an excellent discussion on this topic check out Nooma video 19 "Open"


TPluckyT said...

My mom got breast cancer three years ago, but caught it early. We live in America where health care is phenominal, so there really shouldn't have been a problem.

But wait . . . A couple days later her whacky, independently-minded, accountable to noone friend gave her a "word" that God was going to heal her and she shouldn't seek treatment. Mom then told the rest of us God had confirmed that to her. After a few months the story became that God told Mom first and then her friend confirmed.

The last three years have been difficult. Last year Mom and Dad moved to the town where I live. Now my wife and I get to take care of them and watch her die. She has given God so many deadlines I've lost count. Currently she can't even go to the restroom without help and is receiving Hospice care. I anticipate that she will die this year.

I believe in God, the bible, and even that God heals. I also believe that when our Faith is formed around what we want to see happen and we refuse to take practical steps, faith becomes presumption and faith becomes deadly.

I knew there was something about you I liked Eugene. Hang in there. My wife and I will keep you in our prayers.

Eugene said...

Thank you Tim, I appreciate that!

I'm very sorry to hear about your mom, it's nothing short of a tragedy. In fact, it's pretty much criminal!

Tania said...

Thanks, Geno... this helped me.

I have not had a similar experience in terms of "waiting for God to heal" coupled with no doctors, but I have been through crises of faith because of healing scenario's.

In 2005, two very tragic things occurred. My best friend's five-month old baby boy died in March(he had been sick from birth), and my mom died of cancer that December.

People all over prayed for that child, and for my mom. They did not become whole, and that was a harsh reality we had to deal with. Despite the fact that these things have caused immeasurable personal growth in myself and several others, such as my friends, it still hurt like hell and I did question God. I did question His goodness, His love, His plans. But I got through that. We all did. My friends' marriage survived, their faith did, too. And they have a beautiful, healthy baby girl that was born this April.

The true miracle, I think, is being able to survive that much pain, and I believe that was a combination of personal strength, the love of God and the love of the people close to us.

Don Miller in his book "To own a Dragon" speaks of how some people get raw deals (I'm paraphrasing), and that makes them "wounded healers". This, for me, translates to an ability to be a source of comfort for others facing certain types of pain.

Maybe that is the answer to our questions.

TPluckyT said...

Tania, I really appreciated your comments and thanks. I have read Blue Like Jazz, but I think I'll check out To Own A Dragon.