God has acquired a bad reputation of sorts over the years, but particularly in modern culture. The old questions of why He doesn’t always interrupt the activities of evil or pain or suffering have always been around, but these questions at least have possible philosophical answers. We Christians seem to have created our own standard of expectations for God that ellicits an entirely new level of questions for what seems to be God’s innactivity in the midst of the struggles of His people. We explain away the evil in the world by pointing at all the evil people, but we struggle to understand why we – who are clearly so much better than all of them – would be held at arm’s length when our bodies are hurting, when we are struggling through our days, when our families are crumbling, when our pockets are empty. Disappointment is often our reaction when the problems are chronic despite our prayers for relief. And we grow frustrated with God’s perceived distance and innactivity.
The disappointment that we feel, however, might not be coming from the right place. Too often we have assumed things about the way God works, or at least inferred things from armchair interpretations of Bible stories. In Luke 18, Jesus, talking specifically about prayer and its ability to end injustice, makes this curious statement,
And will God not grant justice to His chosen ones who cry to Him day and night? Will He delay long in helping them? I tell you He will quickly grant justice to them.
– Luke 18.7-8 (NRSV)
Jesus seems to say that if we will pray God will, like a star customer service representative, get right on handling our requests and needs. It has become something of an accepted rule in Western Christianity that if God hasn’t answered our prayers then we aren’t believing hard enough, or we don’t have enough faith. This is the prevailing modern notion because we cannot imagine a scenario in which God hears our prayers, deems them as acceptable and then does not do what we have asked of Him. We are arrogant enough to believe that God’s chief priority is to wait to hear our ideas about how life is supposed to work and then use His power to fulfill our vision for the world. Basically this understanding of God makes Him into a cosmic power tool, like a heavenly drill or divine circular saw that contributes to the project by doing the things we want done but cannot do ourselves.
This verse in Luke 18, however, is not actually saying that God is looking to jump right on your problems as soon as you tell Him what’s going on. For one thing, God doesn’t need us to “catch Him up” on what’s happening, He knows and knew already, more likely we are instructed to pray daily about our needs because it positions us in honest humility. It seems, in the original language, that the idea Jesus is actually delivering by saying that God “will quickly grant justice,” is not so much about the timing of His action but about the method of His action. So Jesus’ lesson on how God answers prayer has little to do with “how soon,” and a lot to do with “how intense.”
What does this mean?
I think it means that God’s way of intervening in the world is not sluggish. When God determines the right moment to act He doesn’t hesitantly put one toe in the water to check the temperature, He commands the waters to get out of His way as He works in our lives the way lighting works on a pile of dry leaves. Jesus doesn’t seem so concerned with whether or not God does this work right when we ask, He is more insistent as to what it looks like when God does. He works “quickly,” He works with fervor, He doesn’t slowly manage problems, He explodes with mercy and grace and renders problems, pain, sorrow and devastation impotent and irrelevant in His presence! This is how God answers prayer.
We aren’t competing to see if we can get His attention; we already have it. We aren’t striving to believe enough or conjure up enough faith to make God do something good; He’s already good and He’s perfectly capable of acting with or without our ability to believe. And though it is difficult, we must remember, even in the lowest places of discouragement, that justice is coming, that healing is coming, that restoration is coming, that peace is coming. And when those things arrive we will not have to wonder whether it was God or our own abilities, because He works quickly and decisively, unmistakeable, like a volcano. When God works He leaves no doubt in anyone’s mind as to whether or not it was Him. Think of the Red Sea, the walls of Jericho, the lion’s den, and if nothing else think of the empty tomb on the first Easter morning. In each of these scenes there are two things that are true: first, those involved would have preferred God to have worked sooner than He did. Second, in the end there was no doubt that God Himself had miraculously done what no one else could do.
Keep praying, friends. You will soon be able to say without doubt, “God did that.”