I was talking to my mom this afternoon and she told me something that a small group leader told their home group over 40 years ago that really rings true still today: “GOD is NOT a formula — even though we really want Him to be.” People look desperately for the perfect combination of pre-defined actions, words, environment, prayers, religious observations and so on that will bring about the ideal outcome and make life flawlessly perfect. Problem is no such thing exists — GOD does not work that way!
The thing is too many well-meaning Christians hang onto this idea so tightly, usually subconsciously so they don’t even realize nor can admit that’s actually what they think, that even when things don’t turn out the way they hope for in spite of their best efforts to “do everything right,” they still preach an oversimplified faith. They reduce faith to a series of Christianese platitudes and holy sounding advice and dispense it to the hurting and people facing complex situations as if it is the “magic formula” that will solve all their problems, if only they do it “the right way.” They fail to actually listen deep to the whole story and hear the human behind the mask. They fail to do more than to paint over the entire situation in broad brush strokes of religious platitudes, placebos and faux panaceas.
Too many Christian articles, speakers, movies and even church leaders though are guilty of this. They illustrate broad base Truth and make solutions to complex and difficult situations seem simpler than they actually are. The stories are inspiring and uplifting at times, but ignore the reality that whatever “program” or action they are promoting as “The Answer” will somehow magically produce the desired results, even if “The Answer” actually requires another person’s cooperation who may not, in every case, be willing to hear and obey GOD’s lead and let Him change their heart and accept their correction or change their actions/behavior. Even if it worked for someone else, you can’t box it up, replicate it and guarantee the same results. This isn’t a science lab!
I can testify from first hand experience that praying for someone whose heart is not right, for years on end and with the support of many others, does not always end the way you want it to–or if it is going to be answered, it may take 30, 40, 70 years and in some situations, just hanging around in faith waiting for that time, may not actually be safe or wise. Yes, GOD is willing and prepared to answer any prayer to lead someone to Him because it is His heart that ALL would hear and believe and declare Him as LORD. However, there ARE people who are so resistant and rebellious toward GOD that they actually don’t really care what He has to say or what He wants or expects of them. They don’t care about “loving their neighbor” either; they just cling to the notion that “I can do whatever I want” and run rough shod over whoever gets in their way no matter what — and don’t care who gets hurt in the process.
GOD wants to answer, wants to change the heart of stone and is completely capable of doing so but He will not force Himself on anyone who does not want Him to come in and renovate their interior landscape. Which means sometimes the prayers go unanswered and insisting that someone “just pray and believe” can sometimes create safety concerns — whether emotional, physical, financial or all of the above — that necessitate removing yourself and anyone else in your care from the relationship as a matter of self-defense. Yes, GOD can still work to effect change but sometimes, time runs out for Him to do so while maintaining the relationship. Sometimes you just have to step away and let Him continue to work in His own time without remaining in the danger zone, being a door mat for all kinds of wrong in the name of faith.
That’s only one possible complex scenario — the one I am best qualified to describe — but there are as many complexities as there are people. So you cannot reduce the demonstration of faith, loyalty, trust, commitment, etc. to a simplistic formula of holiness or righteousness and expect it to fit or work in every situation. Yes, prayer needs to be a key strategy of any battle — but you aren’t always going to get instantaneous answers of all your dreams come true. Even persevering in faithfulness for years and years does not mean you are going to get every answer you want.
It is not under my control nor yours and GOD can only intervene if those involved allow Him into their lives. None of us can control anyone else’s choices and that means even if it breaks GOD’s heart and mine, “you don’t always get what you want” — even if it is what GOD truly wants too. Sometimes I just have to let Him work on other people’s problems without staying in the firing range, without my proximity. Just step aside, away and let Him do His thing and let Him decide when or even IF there will ever be any restoration of relationship at some point in the future, without limiting the present possibilities and the direction He wants to take me now.
My entire life is not on hold waiting for someone else to soften their heart and ask forgiveness and show intentional and sustained signs of a real heart change. I have had to, as I saw posted recently “accept the apology I never received and forgive the one who isn’t sorry” and move on. That chapter is closed and if GOD, the Author of my life wants to write that person back into my life in the future at some point, He will have to make it happen unexpectedly because I am not looking for it at this point, not expecting it, nor particularly even wanting it — while at the same time not harboring anger and bitterness or unforgiveness. It was, it’s past and this is my present in which I am looking to GOD to guide each step without knowing the end of the script.
This is hard for most people to understand. Most who know the story think I should be feeling, thinking, doing something else because that’s how they would feel, think or do. I can’t really speak to that — I am not you, I am me and this is where GOD has led me, prepared me, taught me. I think deeply about most things, I feel keenly. But when it’s time for action, I take definitive and prompt action and I move forward with confidence that GOD is directing the show and I don’t dilly dally with regrets, loneliness and wish-it-would-have-beens, insecurity and lack of confidence or indecision or half measures. I don’t waste time feeling sorry for myself or second guessing what I should do. I just do it– even if most people can’t understand the logic behind it because it’s a GOD thing. That kind of confidence baffles most people and some mistake it for pride and arrogance even when I make every effort to conduct myself with grace.
Because if I have learned anything through my trials and troubles, it’s just what the title says here — GOD is not a formula. He works in all kinds of unexpected ways and they aren’t all easy and delicious as pie. But He takes me through it all. When my prayer doesn’t seem to be answered in a predictable way or the way of my wishful thinking, I usually find that whatever does happen actually did answer the actual need behind the prayer, stripped of most of the unnecessary wants that try to put preconditions on how God will answer the prayer because of my human imagination of what would be “really awesome!”
GOD is more interested in “the content of my character” than giving me every particular that I could dream up and put on my heavenly wish list. And what He brings about is always better in the end so I have learned just to appreciate His actual answers rather than waste timing pining for all the details to which He said “no.” Because it isn’t about making Him conform to a “formula answer” that I dream up and which makes light of and marginalizes the reality of the human behind the suffering. It’s about trusting that HIS answer, no matter what it is, is good and good for me.
No matter how faithful I am, no matter how much I pray and take a stand against the enemy and declare myself on GOD’s side and under His protection — even if all that is 100% True and Right, GOD is not thereby obligated to do my bidding. Bad things may still happen, trials and troubles will certainly come — Jesus said so. I am not under some kind of invincible shelter that will keep out and away all the bad stuff. This is NOT heaven, yet!
So no amount of inspiring platitude and “appropriate” Christian sentiment or formula prayer will make the difficult circumstances and emotions just magically disappear and if that is how Christian friends and leaders are counseling one another and purporting to “encourage and lift one another up,” then they are heading down a misleading road and taking with them the unsuspecting and hurting people who turn to them for real comfort and advice only to find fluff and skin deep bandaids that do nothing to actually solve the problems of real life nor acknowledge that life doesn’t fit a nice neat formula either. In an “ideal” world, perhaps the “solutions” would actually work every time but then we’d be living in Stepford and that would be a whole other nightmare.
I can’t offer you the “perfect” thing to say to people you meet in difficult situations because every situation is different so a formulaic answer does a disservice to everyone and betrays a lack of true concern or interest in walking with them through the problem. I’m sure I just stepped on somebody’s toes but oversimplifying your response, even with the best of intentions is honestly just a way of pushing people away and saying “I don’t want to think about this. I just want sunshine and roses and to go on thinking that the world is easy and the answers are simple because it’s just too hard to think otherwise. At least if I give a rote answer, I can feel I’ve done my compassionate duty and I can go away without guilt and pretend I didn’t hear that nor feel obligated to get more deeply involved; and guilty because I don’t really want to even if I know I should and am looking for the quickest way to escape the awkwardness and discomfort of the exposure of the ugly truth about where my heart truly lies but don’t want anyone to know about.
All I can say is that Jesus’ relational model while He walked the Earth was authentic relationship, real involvement, solving real needs, one at a time, based on the specific circumstances of each person who came to Him with no pre-made formula or broad stroke assumptions of who they were because of their circumstances or social class or standing. It’s more time consuming and emotionally draining to do it that way to be sure, than a pat on the head, a few polite words of advice and the “I’ll pray for you” walk away as you are already onto thinking about your to do list while letting out a sigh of relief that you got away without having to make any commitment that costs you anything — time, money, physical or emotional energy.
Yet, personal involvement is the example Jesus set. He didn’t set up government programs to take care of the needy. He didn’t send them to church-sponsored counselors for several sessions of psychologizing and platituding or pull out a long list of criteria they had to meet before qualifying for “program help.” He didn’t shoo them off with a referral to someone else or another agency so He didn’t have to get involved. No–He did it Himself. The buck stopped with Him. That’s the kind of compassion that the church (that means you AND me, We the People, not the corporate entity) needs to show those who need help and stop with the formulaic platitudes that masquerade as “help” but don’t actually help! If God is not a formula, His people shouldn’t be either!
Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous for the LORD your GOD will go with you wherever you go. Joshua 1:9
I am not ashamed for I know in Whom I have believed and am convinced that He is able to guard that which I have entrusted to Him until that day. 2 Timothy 1:12