“When all else fails, try God” is not how Christianity works.
Let me reiterate: There’s nothing at all wrong with asking God for things. Jesus teaches us to do so in the Lord’s Prayer: It’s all prayer requests. (Even the parts Christians claim are “praise before the requests.” Asking that God’s name be blessed, his kingdom come, his will be done, are meant to be stuff we want.) When we need something, God expects us and invites us to turn to him for help.
In contrast, our culture encourages us to be independent. Do for ourselves, then ask for help. And you wanna avoid asking for help as long as possible. The world isn’t kind. They don’t help you without first asking, “What’s in it for me?” Strings get attached. They expect cash, or a quid pro quo… or at least a pizza.
As a result, a lot of Christians only turn to God when we need help with big things. The stuff we can’t handle. The stuff we need help with—and other people aren’t willing to give it, so in desperation we turn to God as a last resort. Or a long shot. A “hail-Mary,” as it’s called in football. (And that saying implies they still haven’t turned to God yet: They’re calling on Mary first!)
Pagans in particular. When things are going fine, they tend to ignore God. When things are dire, suddenly they “get religion” and try to bargain with God. And to many pagans’ surprise—’cause we’d never offer ’em grace on those terms—God regularly takes ’em up on it, and brings ’em into his kingdom as a result. How many testimonies have you heard where people came to Jesus because of a crisis?
But even Christians have a bad habit of only calling upon God when it’s a crisis. God was a last resort when we were pagans; God’s still the last person we turn to when we’re totally stuck.
When we’re shopping for phones, we don’t pray. When we’re buying a house (assuming we’re not so wealthy, such transactions are no big deal) we pray a ton. When we have an ache or pain, we pop an aspirin and go on. When it’s cancer, we’re calling the elders of our church to lay hands on us.
Heck, I’ve heard Christians teach this. In church. “When there’s no one else to turn to, you have God.” Isn’t that nice? He’s our safety net.
He doesn’t wanna be our safety net. He wants to be our support. He wants to carry us. Help us. Love us. Provide for us. Our first resort.
We don’t trust God to be our first resort.
Yeah, this is a faith thing.
Desperation isn’t faith. It’s actually the opposite of hope. Our other options have played out, we have no further options, we’ve given up… so we’re gonna try something ludicrous, on the tiny chance it might work.
Like the basketball player with two seconds left in the game, who wildly flings the ball at the basket on the slim chance she actually makes it. Or—to get away from all the sports similes—like the man who would ordinarily never buy lottery tickets, but he really needs money bad, and figures, “What have I got to lose?” Well, the $1 you spent on the lottery ticket… or the $100 you spent on 100 tickets.
On the rare occasions these desperate attempts actually succeed, they’re always met with shock and surprise. It’s this unbelieving surprise which exposes how little faith went into the last-resort behavior.
Same with last-resort prayers. We don’t really expect God to come through for us at all. Like the surprise last-second basket, if God ever does help us out at those times, our typical response is stunned amazement. We never thought he’d do it! In too many cases, people still don’t believe he did it. It had to be some bizarre coincidence or dumb luck. See, the request was never made in faith. Stands to reason it wouldn’t be received in faith.
And yeah, this is true of Christians too. We think we have faith, ’cause we believe in God and do religious things. But too often, we do religious things ’cause we’re used to doing religious things. Our “belief” is a learned behavior and an automatic response. It’s not actual belief. “I believe in one God…” is a creed we memorized, not the core of our being. If we did believe in the Almighty, we’d have turned to him immediately!
But we turn to him last because we don’t believe. It’s not a belief. It’s a theory, which we doubt too much to really put to the test. We’re comfortable with accepting it, but doing nothing more with it. Sometimes we embrace cessationism so we never have to test it. If we thought it was solid, we’d stand on it; but we imagine it’s a thin balloon, and don’t wanna poke at it and pop it and destroy our illusions. This barely counts as faith. Arguably it’s not.
The holy veneer.
Those who choose God as a last resort, often claim they do so have faith. Because at least they turned to God in their desperation. They didn’t give up and turn to no one. That’s something. Right?
Like I said, barely counts as faith. True faith is involving God in our decision-making process long before we have to get desperate. ’Cause we can’t see all the variables like God does. He sees the big picture. He knows the consequences of our actions—not just the logical conclusions, but the wholly unexpected accidents which no one could see coming. We could make the wisest decision possible, but God sees the slip-ups which’ll unravel everything. Or the happy accidents which create whole new opportunities. He can help us navigate these things. He wants to. But if we never consult him, and ignore everybody he forewarns, we’re on our own.
James 4.13-17 KWL
- 13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we’ll go to the city here;
- we’ll work there a year; we’ll trade and profit.”
- 14 You who don’t know how tomorrow or life will turn out—
- you’re vapor. You appear briefly, then you pass away.
- 15 Say this instead: “When the Master wants, we’ll live—and do this or that.”
- 16 Currently you all emphasize your phony plans, and all such emphasis is evil.
- 17 So when one knows to do good, and doesn’t do it, to them it’s sin.
If we truly follow Jesus, we have no business making any serious life plans without first submitting our plans to God. If Jesus were your boss, you know you’d phone him to get permission before starting a project. How much more should we get his okay since he’s our Lord?
God’s solutions have only positive consequences. They may be counter-intuitive, but that’s because our intuition has its limits: We’re only guessing at the future, but God is in the future already. (He fills time, y’know. He looks at it from the inside.) He sees what’s gonna happen, and can help us around the pitfalls. True, from time to time this involves his miraculous power. Also true: He doesn’t always warn us he’s going to do something miraculous. But if we’re following and trusting him, the miracles and the pitfalls won’t shipwreck everything.
We just gotta do our part.
2 Kings 4.1-7 KWL
- 1 A woman, one of the women from the “prophets’ children,” called out to Elisha,
- saying, “Your servant, my husband, died.
- You know your servant respected the L
- A creditor came to take my two children as slaves.”
- 2 Elisha told her, “What can I do for you? Tell me what you have in your house.”
- She said, “Your maidservant has nothing in all my house but a pot of oil.”
- 3 Elisha told her, “Ask for containers from all your neighbors outside.
- Empty containers. Not little ones.
- 4 Come inside; shut the door behind you and your children.
- Pour oil into all these containers. Set them aside when full.”
- 5 The woman left Elisha and shut the door behind her and her children.
- They brought her containers, and she poured the oil.
- 6 The containers were filled. She told her children, “Bring me more containers.”
- They told her, “There are no more containers.” And the oil stopped.
- 7 She came to tell Elisha the God’s-man. He told her, “Go.
- Sell the oil. Pay the debt. You and your children live on what’s left.”
You might remember that story. You might not know the woman herself was a prophet; most translations only figure she was only the wife of a prophet. (’Cause sexism. The idea of a woman prophet simply eludes them, and futzes with their interpretation.) So she knew to turn to God in a moment of dire need. She knew to consult with Elisha, the head prophet, to seek God’s solution to her problem: Her creditor wanted money, and in that culture you could pay your debts through slavery. God’s solution: An oil pot that could miraculously fill much larger containers. A weird solution that would never have occurred to us. Wouldn’t even be tried by us—unless we had this woman’s level of faith.
The weirder God’s solutions sound, the more obviously he’s trying to stretch our faith. His answers won’t always appear to make sense. And he knows it. But we gotta trust him anyway. Our prayers are answered only to the limit we’re willing to trust him. Notice how the oil kept flowing till they ran out of containers. Had the woman borrowed any fewer containers, God would’ve turned off the oil sooner. But she borrowed enough to pay off the family debt, and then some.
As a prophet, this woman had the God-experiences to know Elisha’s instructions weren’t that crazy. She’d seen weirder. It’s way easier to have faith after we’ve seen God work often enough. If we’ve seen nothing, the first leap of faith seems impossible. Hurdle it, and it gets way easier.
So: When you pray, start submitting your plans of the future to God. What does he need to sign off on? What expectations do you have for your ideas—and might God be better able to fulfill them? Where might God need to give his input? Trust him with your future.
If we’re truly following Jesus, it’s the least we can do.