Wednesday, November 10, 2010

does EVERYTHING happen for a reason? on prayer & providence

To listen to this teaching copy/paste the following link:

Proverbs 16: 1-4, 9, 33; 21:5

The plans of the mind belong to mortals, but the answer of the tongue is from the Lord. 
All one’s ways may be pure in one’s own eyes, but the Lord weighs the spirit. Commit your deeds to the Lord, and your plans will be established. 
The Lord has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble. 
The human mind plans the way, but the Lord directs the steps. 
The lot is cast into the lap, but the decision is the Lord’s alone. The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes to want.

I imagine tonight’s talk will generate a lot of small group discussion, not because my talk is all that good but because tonight’s topic is – guidance. How does God guide us? Does everything happen for reason? If God has a plan, do our choices matter? Do our prayers matter?

The reason we’re talking about guidance is because the bulk of our prayers often have to do with guidance. Is this the right job to take? Is this the right person to date? Should I switch majors? Should I confront this person or just let it be?

We’re all young. Kind of. We have a lot of choices ahead of us, and the vast majority of them are moral. But that doesn’t mean all of them are wise. And so we need guidance. We need guidance to make wise decisions. This isn’t a talk about learning to make choices that are morally upright. This is a talk about learning to make choices that are wise – choices you can live because, well, we have to live with the choices we make.

Now, before we talk about the guidance God gives I want to look at the guidance God does. And I’ll warn you ahead of time, the guidance God does – the Invisible Hand guiding our every step – this is something we can trust, but it’s not something we can understand. To see this let’s look at our reading from Proverbs.

“The plans of the diligent,” Proverbs says, “lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes to want.” In other words, being diligent – attentive, persistent, thoughtful, proactive –this is going to work out a lot better for us than being hasty. Diligent plans turn out well. Hasty plans do not turn out well. In other words, our decisions matter. We’re responsible for making wise choices, and we know from experience that hasty people – people who are impulsive, shortsighted, thoughtless and reckless – they tend to dig themselves into holes they can’t get out of. Proverbs is clear – our choices matter. But are our choices all that matter?

“The lot is cast into the lap,” Proverb says, “but the decision is the Lord’s alone.” Lot casting was a way of making decisions in ancient Israel – kind of like flipping a coin or drawing straws. For example, the church cast lots to choose the 12th apostle after Judas committed suicide. And according to Acts 1:26, “the lot fell on Matthias.” As a side note, several days later the church received the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit’s presence in the church makes casting lots obsolete. But in the Old Testament lot casting was pretty standard. The Israelites used something called Urim and Thummin – two stones that could be used to discern God’s will. Urim and Thummin functioned like a magic eight ball. If a priest wanted to ask God a question he’d get out Urim and Thummin and the answer could be yes, no, or “not sure.” I’m not making this stuff up. My point is this – “the decision is the Lord’s alone.” Every single coin-flip, every lot that is cast, is determined by the Lord. Nothing surprises God.

Now, wait a second, you may be wondering. Do our choices matter? Or, does the Lord determine our life? It’s got to be one or the other. No it doesn’t, the answer is both. Human categories can’t hold this together. I warned you – God’s guidance is something we can trust, but it’s not something we can understand. Now, most of us embrace only one of these perspectives. Either our decisions matter, which means that the future is completely open. How the drama of life will unfold is anyone’s guess – including God’s. Or, we tend to think that God has a plan and because of that our choices are insignificant. But it can’t be both, can it?

Well, the Bible offers what Anglicans have always called a via media – a middle way – between these two views. Ruling out an either/or view of guidance I’d argue that what the Bible offers is a both/and perspective. On the one hand, we are absolutely free to make choices. God doesn’t coerce us or force us or fool us. On the other hand, we live completely under the providence of God – even down to the smallest coin flip.

Now, just to make sure this isn’t a biblical fluke, let’s look at two more verses from Proverbs. “The plans of the mind belong to mortals, but the answer of the tongue is from the Lord. The human mind plans the way, but the Lord directs the steps.” Now, what on earth is this saying? Well, for one – “the plans of the mind belong to mortals. The human mind plans the way.” In other words, your plans are yours. God isn’t forcing you to do anything. If you do something stupid or evil, people will hold you accountable and they should. God will hold you accountable and He should. Your plans belong to you. Your choices belong to you. You are responsible. If we make a choice, whether it be wise or unwise, we have to live with it.

But, “The answer of the tongue is from the Lord and the Lord directs the steps.” In other words, what actually happens in history – that’s all fixed by God. In other words, nothing happens in our world or in our lives that is outside the providence of God. According to Jesus, every single hair on our head is accounted for. Not one of them, he suggests, falls to the ground apart from the will of His Father (Matt 10:30). And so on the one hand, our plans are ours and our choices matter tremendously. But on the other hand, the outcome – what happens – it’s 100% determined by the perfect Providence, plan and foreknowledge of God.

Now, notice what Proverbs is not saying. It’s not saying that it’s 50/50. That we’re partly responsible for our lives and that God is partly responsible. Proverbs is saying that it’s 100/100, which of course is why it’s utterly impossible to understand. That being said, we don’t have to understand it but we do have to trust it because if we don’t we’ll be in a whole lot of trouble.

For example, let’s say we lean too much on the side of fatalism – that we think nothing we do matters. Have you heard the story of Oedipus? The oracle from birth was that Oedipus would kill his father and marry his mother. Now, this is a fatalistic worldview – nothing Oedipus did mattered and his choices were obsolete. And of course, no matter how hard he tried to escape his fate what did Oedipus do? He killed his father and he married his mother. Now, if you live life with that worldview you will be totally passive and horribly cynical. You’ll have very little hope and very little motivation. Why? Because you’ll think of yourself as a pawn – a pawn in some cruel, fatalistic game. But that’s not the whole story. You and I are not pawns. We’re people. God’s image bearers. People with the capacity to make choices.

And so that means everything is open, right? That our decisions and our will determine the future. Not so fast. If you think that everything being fixed is hopeless, try living with the burden of knowing that your future is 100% tied to the choices you make, and for that matter the prayers that you pray. In other words, try living with the belief that so and so died because you didn’t pray. Now, think about this. If your destiny was 100% tied to your will – the choices you made and the prayers that you prayed – would you really want to get out of bed in the morning? If that were the case, I can tell you one thing. I wouldn’t be a priest. I wouldn’t have gone to the University of Texas. And I wouldn’t know any of you. This may surprise you but none of this was part of my plan. It was God’s. And I couldn’t be more grateful.

Have you seen the movie Bruce Almighty? Bruce, played by Jim Carey, is a bit upset with how God is doing His job and so God – Morgan Freeman – lets him take over. Needless to say, letting Bruce rule the world is a disaster and it raises a great theological question: What fool would want to live in a universe where our future was 100% set by our choices? Especially when we believe in a God that’s a) wiser than we are and b) has higher hopes for us and for our world than we do for ourselves.

You see the Biblical view – paradoxical though it may be – is utterly practical. On the one hand our choices matter greatly. We have every incentive to work hard and be diligent. God expects that from us. But on the other hand, we can relax. We’re held safely in the Father’s hands. We don’t have to worry. Every hair on our head is accounted for. And so when it comes to our lives and our prayers let me say this – Guidance is more of something God does than something God gives. And so if you’re praying for God’s will right now – if you’re looking for God’s guidance – this is what I’d say. You’re standing in it. And nowhere is this more apparent than in Jesus’ prayer the night before He dies. This passage is from Luke 22.

Jesus came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. When he reached the place, he said to them, ‘Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’ Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.’ In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.

Now, let me ask you a question. Jesus’ death on the cross – was it God’s will or humanity’s will? In other words, why did Jesus die? Because of us? Or because Jesus’ death was at the heart of God’s plan to save the world?

Well, the Greek word usually linked with Jesus’ crucifixion is paradidomi, which means “handed over.” For example, in Luke 22:6 we’re told that Judas sought an opportunity to hand Jesus over when the crowd wasn’t looking. In Luke 24:20 the religious leaders, and I quote, “handed him over to be condemned to death.” Pilate, after having Jesus flogged, “handed him over to be crucified.” (Mk 15:15) Now based only on that evidence, how would you answer the question, why did Jesus die – because it was our will or God’s?

Humanity. It was our sins. Judas, the religious leaders, Pilate – we are the ones responsible. And so on Good Friday when we read the passion narrative and the congregation screams, “Crucify, Him! Crucify Him!” that is 100% theologically accurate. It was our choice to hand Jesus over – our sins and our decision that brought Jesus to the cross. But at the same time, that’s not the whole story. Reality is always more complicated.

In his letter to the Romans this is what Paul writes. God “did not withhold his own Son, but handed him over for all of us.” Who handed Jesus over to die? God did. And so does that mean that the Father sent Jesus to the cross against his will? This is what Paul says in Galatians. “The life I now live I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and handed himself over for me.” (Gal 2:20) And so here we have it – Paul says that God handed Jesus over and that Jesus handed himself over.

The reason I’m pointing this out is because here we have Jesus the night before he dies praying – pouring his heart into God asking for what He wants more than anything – for the cup to pass, for there to be some other way. Now, I want you to consider how amazing this is. Here we have God made flesh praying through his tears in absolute agony and not receiving what He asks for. Have you ever experienced the pain of unanswered prayer? Not as much as Jesus. When Jesus prays this prayer he’s mentally lost, emotionally crushed, and spiritually confused and so He comes before God and says, “Abba – I need some guidance.” And what you and I know is something that Jesus in his anguish did not know. He was standing right in the middle of God’s guidance. And so it is very true that guidance is something God gives. Pray for it! Seek it! Make wise choices. After all, you have to live them. But, let us not forget that guidance is always first and foremost something that God does.

And so when it comes to making prayer-soaked choices, what does this all mean for your life? In other words, give me something practical to work with. Well, this is what Proverbs says. “Commit your deeds to the Lord, and your plans will be established.” Now, we tend to think that God works the other way around. In other words, we want to focus on God’s plan first, and after choosing the right plan focus on our deeds – or on what we do. But Proverbs says it’s the other way around. First, we focus on our deeds – on being a person of character. Before we focus on learning to pray for the right path, we focus on merely learning how to pray. Commit your deeds to the Lord first, and then your plans will be established. In other words, when we first focus on who we are – on our deeds so to speak – we find that we grow into people who come to naturally make wise choices, who come to know the right path when we see it and who come to know the wrong path when we see it. As Jesus himself puts it, “Seek first the Kingdom of God, then everything else will be added to you as well.”

It’s not that God doesn’t give guidance. He does – through signs, and scripture, and other Christians and our circumstances. But, if we live our lives for ourselves and only seek God’s will when we come to a fork in the road it’s not going to do us any good.

And so let me end by saying this. Pretty soon you’re all going to find yourselves at a crossroads. You’ll be graduating and will be asking some pretty tough questions. Should I take this job? Should I date this person? Here’s my advice. Make a choice. Don’t be anxious. Pray about it, think about it, but make a choice. One of my favorite Bible verses comes from the Book of Jeremiah. It says, “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

I know you all have plans for your life. That’s great – I’ve got plans for mine, too. But at the same time, God also has plans. And it’s very true that our choices matter – we do have to live with them. Like Paul says, “we reap whatever we sow.” But, at the same time, each one of us is standing in the middle of a perfect plan, a good plan, a plan we can’t screw up. And so above all else, become a person of prayer – not just because you want to discern God’s will, but more importantly, because you’re already in the middle of it.


KAM said...

Isn't that something...

Anonymous said...

I read this Blog after reading Matthew 2:13-23, which I found to be another prime example of God's plan overlapping freewill. So I googled "Are we pawns in God's plan" and found this Blog. Your insight is very helpful.