Very early on in my ordained life I preached a sermon on our Gospel passage for this morning that basically said, “persistence in prayer pays off.” My message was keep knocking and God will give you what you ask for. It wasn’t a very good sermon, and it was bad theology, but well, what can I say, I was young and dumb. I had not yet lived long enough to work through the ideas about God that I had inherited from others and to figure out what I thought about God for myself. Fortunately for me (though unfortunately for the poor person who was re-traumatized by my sermon), a young woman who had listened to me preach that day called me up and asked to come into my office to talk. I told her to come right over.
She was already crying when she entered my office, so I handed her a box of tissues and asked her to tell me what was going on. I will briefly summarize what she said.
I think God hates me. When I was a child my father repeatedly sexually abused me. He began hurting me when I was six years old, and the abuse didn’t stop until I ran away from home at the age of 16. I prayed everyday to God to make the abuse stop. I heard at church that God is all-powerful and if our faith is strong enough and we pray hard enough, God will do miracles. The abuse never stopped. God didn’t answer my prayers. I think that my faith wasn’t strong enough and I didn’t pray the right way. Can you teach me how to pray the right way and to have a stronger faith?
It was immediately clear to me that I had preached a very bad sermon and that my bad preaching had increased her suffering. I of course assured her that God loves her, hears her and cares about her. I found her a good therapist and added her to my prayer list. But I didn’t yet have an answer for her question, “Why didn’t God answer my prayers?” I still was operating from a premise that most Western Christians operate from: the premise that God is omnipotent, in control of every aspect of creation, including our individual lives, and therefore can change any aspect of creation at any time if God so chooses. A premise that leads ultimately to one of three choices: 1. God doesn’t exist, because a good God would never allow terrible suffering to happen 2. God exists and is good, but we suffer because we are bad and somehow deserve the suffering 3. God is a terrible dictator and doesn’t care about us at all.
I said before that it was fortunate for me that she came into my office, and it was, for though her visit left me with more questions than answers, it was the beginning of my journey into a deeper understanding of the mystery that is God and a deeper relationship with God, though I didn’t know this at the time. And this journey hasn’t been an easy one, but I am grateful that she helped me take the first step.
After that young woman left my office that day, I sat in silence for a very long time. I was deeply troubled by her pain and found myself saying to God, “How could you let her father hurt her for so long?” I found myself feeling very angry with God. And then work called and I got on with my day, but over the next two decades I continued to struggle with trying to understand God, prayer, and suffering.
Much of the time when the questions of who God is and why suffering exists bubbled up from within me, I would avoid the uncomfortableness that these questions created in me by shrugging and saying, “I guess God is just a mystery, suffering is a mystery, but I do know that God loves me and everyone else as well.” There was nothing wrong in this thinking. It is true. God is a mystery. God is beyond our human words and understanding. It is true that the ways and whys of this world are a mystery. We are never able to see the complete picture. It is true that God loves me and all of creation. But it is also true that I was avoiding going deeper, because I was afraid of what I might find. Maybe I would find out that the atheists were right after all. God does not exist and is simply a figment of our collective human imagination. Maybe I would conclude that everything I had devoted my life to, the church, God, and Jesus were nothing but dust and fiction. It was too scary for me to risk discovering these things to be true. But the questions just wouldn’t go away.
Prayer became very difficult for me. Preaching became very difficult for me. I didn’t know what I believed anymore. I didn’t feel like prayer mattered. I entered a true dark night of the soul. And yet, I would still catch glimpses of the Divine. I would have moments when I knew with all my being that God existed and loved me and everything. And then the moment would be gone.
Finally, one day, after spending the night with a young single mother of two children who was dying of cancer, my denial of my questions became more than I could bear. I decided to face the questions I had buried deep inside me head on. I decided that the possible pain of finding an answer I didn’t want to find had to be less than the pain of living with no answers at all. So, I did what I do best, and I started reading and writing and reading and writing. I started listening to other people who had gone through the same struggles as I had gone through, and I started to find a way out of the dark place I was in.
I rediscovered a theology that I had learned about in seminary and forgotten, process theology. Now, I am not a theologian, so please excuse me if I make mistakes in my description of process theology. Basically, at its core, process theology says that God is love and because God is love itself, God is relationship or relational. God’s power comes through relationship with all creation not through power over creation. A healthy relationship, a relationship grounded in love, can never be coercive. Love cannot be forced; it must be freely chosen. God’s will is to be in loving relationship with every aspect of creation, therefore this relationship can never be coerced or forced. Everything must be allowed the freedom to choose to love or not to love. If the possibility is always there for God to control us or any other aspect of creation, then creation (and us because we are part of creation) cannot be free in any meaningful sense.
But this does not mean that God does not have a will or a plan for creation. God’s will for creation is that all aspects of creation freely choose to live in love and harmony. God’s will is that we will become more Christ-like. So, God is always present to all parts of creation offering possibilities. God is omniscient in that God knows all the possibilities in every moment, but God does not know which possibilities will be chosen because the future is not predetermined because all of creation is free. And yet, God is always seeking to persuade all of creation to choose relationship, to choose love. And since to be related to something is to be affected by that thing, and God is in relationship with all of creation, God feels everything that creation feels—both joys and sorrows and is affected by creation as well.
The critics of process theology say that the God of process theology is weak and not worthy of praise and worship. Process theologians say, “but a coercive God is worthy of praise and worship?” I found myself questioning our very definition of weakness and power. The world says that being dependent upon another is weakness, that power is about having more—more stuff, more strength, more control, more independence, more everything. But maybe our definition of power is just plain wrong. Maybe true strength and true power are something entirely different. Process theologians use a children’s fable to explain what I am trying to say.
There was once a rivalry between the wind and the sun. Which one would be able to remove the coat of that man down there on the road? The wind thought that it could, and so it blew and blew and blew with great force. Unfortunately, the strength of the wind was such that the man just drew his coat more firmly around himself. Then it was the sun’s turn. The sun just beamed its rays down upon the man until finally he grew quite warm—and removed his coat.
In process terms, the wind worked coercively, trying to force its will upon the man, but the sun worked persuasively, luring the man’s cooperative action. To be able to elicit the willing cooperation of another is a far greater power than simply to force the other to do as one wishes. Relational power takes enormous strength, we only have to think of some human examples to understand this: The Dalai Lama, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, jr. immediately come to my mind.
An omnipotent deity ultimately is responsible for evil in the world. An omnipotent deity cannot be capable of genuine relationship or love. An omnipotent deity might be worshipped, but is it worship from love or worship from fear? A God of relationship and love can be trusted. A God of relationship and love can be prayed to. A God of relationship and love can be worshipped from a place of love.
Jesus said, “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.”
Jesus is inviting us to trust in God and trust that God is a loving God not a coercive dictatorial one. Jesus is inviting us to be in relationship with God as a child is to their parent through prayer. He is inviting us to approach God with the familiarity, boldness, and trust of a young child. Jesus is reminding us that when we pray, we are praying to a God who is trustworthy and who always leaves the door open for us. And when we ask, search, and knock God will be there and will join us in the adventure that it is to be alive. God will be with us offering us every possibility to make a decision for relationship and love. And when we choose not to love, God will still be with us offering us yet another opportunity to choose love again.
So, I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Amen.