The value of perspective should never be undersold.
It is easy to pray to the God we create. Much easier than praying to the God who actually is. This will always be one of the greatest hurdles in prayer: coming to the place where we submit our desires of being the engineers of our own lives into the hands of the one who created all life.
There are echoes of this epic struggle throughout life and, unsurprisngly, in the Scriptures. There are many of the Psalms, for instance, where David’s cries to God are not just for immediate tranquility, but for the mighty Lord to violently sweep His hand across the span of the world and judiciously destroy every enemy David can count. This is, admittedly, a tempting prayer when you are in battle, being betrayed or anytime things aren’t generally going your way. To imagine “the big hand” sweeping all of the other pieces off of the board so we can finally have it all to ourselves seems like an easy, clean and effective solution to most problems.
And the argument isn’t so much that this isn’t the easiest solution. In many cases it is. The fundamental problem with this plan is that the Hand we are praying to wipe away our enemies, like so many smudges on the windows of earth, rarely ever works like that. This is not a matter of practicality, frugality or pragmatism, it is a matter of character, integrity and nature; namely God’s character, integrity and nature.
In short, the questions that guide our prayers and hopes should rarely be: what can God do right now? More frequently we should be asking: who is God and how does He see this situation?
The first question attempts to use God like a tool or a weapon, while the second question seeks to know God in relationship.
In an old New York Times article I was reading (old being the ancient times of the early 1980’s), there was a description that stood in remarkable alignment with this subject. The article was about the culinary arts, and those food artists whose canvases are pots and plates. Assessing a wide sweep of interviews with chefs and cooking instructors, the author offered this fascinating point:
Repeated references to the tactile side of cooking were one of the most striking coincidences during the interviews. Many remarked that the best cooks, like zealous shoppers in a bargain basement, can’t keep their hands off the merchandise. They are forever fondling food, probing it, pushing it, pulling it.
It was, ironically, one of the Psalms not written by David that started me down this pathway of thought. In Psalm 74, Asaph begins by crying out to God that things are going badly for His people and they need their Lord to step in and stop doing what seems like ignoring them: “O God, why do you cast us off forever?” (Ps 74:1). This cry is followed by remembering what God had done in the past to redeem and save His people. All of which is not unusual in the Psalms.
Asaph even travels down that same path as David, pleading with God to take His “right hand…and destroy” their enemies (Ps 74:10-11). But, in the very next breath, after imagining the hand of God, Asaph seems to be struck by a very different vision of how God’s hand ACTUALLY works. This lucidity is a revelation, and the author spends the rest of the Psalm exploring this new way of understanding how the Lord works.
The turn in Asaph’s understanding happens in verse 12
Yet God my King is from of old, working salvation in the midst of the earth.
He is not the eternal smiter. He is not a holy sniper, taking aim and putting His enemies down before they know what hit them. He doesn’t choose to save His people like a missile saves an army.
He saves His people like a chef saves dinner: by getting His hands into the middle of the ingredients and creating something that no one could ever have expected to be so delightful and satisfying.
Miller, above, says that it’s the good chefs who “can’t keep their hands off the merchandise.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard a more descriptive expression than this about the grace and love of God. God doesn’t indiscriminately sweep away His creation into the bowels of forgotteness or oblivion. He puts His hands deep into the dough of of the world and humanity and spirituality and nature and He works with it like the seasoned and passionately creative Being that He is.
Later in the article, Miller quotes a cookingteacher, and in doing so he says something that, again, parallels with our best understanding of who God is:
”If you watch a good cook or a good chef his hands almost tell you a story.”
Asaph would have liked this. It was in the places where God had gotten most intimately involved, where the Creator’s heart had been moved, that the greatest works of salvation had taken place.
Centuries after the Psalmists were dead and gone this would prove to be more true than any of them could have imagined. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem the Creator embedded His hands so deep into the ingredients that it became difficult to see where He began and the dough ended. But with His hands so intimately connected to the world a story, the story of redemption and beauty, emerged that would create the most satisfying and stunning result ever produced.
So our prayers for every difficult thing to be wiped out, or cast aside or even destroyed by the indiscriminate hand of the war god we seem to want to personally wield like a weapon in our troubled times doesn’t just reflect an incorrect way to see God, it allows for the least amount of satisfaction when all is said and done. Our appetites will only be satisfied when we begin to pray that God would sink His hands deeply into our lives – into all the joy, pain, sorrow, success, confusion and hope – regardless of what the ingredients look like to us, and make something more glorious and rapturous than anyone could have predicted.
His hands, when they are molding and shaping and forming us, tell a story about eternities and cosmic songs of grace. His fingers, smoothing, mixing and collecting the disparate parts of our life, declare His love and wonder and our incredible place within the world. And not least, His work, once finished, is brought to a table. The kind of table that He sat at with His disciples, that declared a new way of understanding God and the world. And also like a table that we will all sit around when we finally see the face of the One whose hands have been working in our lives and our world since the beginning of it all.