Thursday, July 4, 1996

Reason vs. Prayer

A Second Look at
Personal Integrity and the Plight of Christianity

Copyright 1996 Stan Williams
All Rights Reserved

Tonight, as my family conversed at dinner, we shared a number of anecdotes which underscore why many rational people want nothing to do with Christianity. After a few stories, it’s clear why Christianity is so often demeaned in our society: Individual Christians too often lack the ability to demonstrate accountability for their actions. Our stories this night demonstrate how Christians, at times, refuse to admit their mistakes and instead explain events in terms of Scripture, God’s will, or prayer —subjects too hallowed to debate. Such deflections of responsibility inhibit personal and global evangelism and the full development of God’s kingdom here on earth.
Two months ago one of my daughters applied to a Christian missionary school and as requested submitted a medical report and requested three acquaintances to complete character reference forms and mail them into the school. Two weeks after she believed everything had been mailed to the school by the doctor and the acquaintances, she called the admissions office to confirm the forms had been received; and she called nearly every week thereafter. Inevitably, she was told that the medical report and the reference forms had not yet arrived. Finally, she called those that had filled out the reference forms and discovered that all the forms had, in fact, been mailed to the admissions office over a month earlier. She then decided to make a polite pest of herself to the admissions office. Finally, after the third call in 30 minutes, the misfiled forms were found. They had been there for over a month. What was the admission office’s response? Did they admit they were negligent, or that they needed to fix their system for tracking incoming forms? No. Instead they quoted a Bible verse to my daughter suggesting that she needed to “wait on the Lord.” Hmm? Did God misfile the forms? I doubt it. Instead, it appears we were waiting on human error to be discovered. From that event, my daughter learned what many non-Christians already know: When Christians make mistakes they often pass it off, not as a mistake or an error in need of correction, but rather as God’s sovereign will over their lives. Phooey! Such talk demonstrates irresponsibility; it excuses Christians from personal responsibility, and God is blamed, through a back-handed compliment. Such disavowal of responsibility, to the non-Christian, is a sign of dishonesty, . . . even stupidity. Few people want to be associated with individuals who blame God for their own mistakes.
A similar event occurred to my other daughter when she applied to a respected Christian liberal arts college several years earlier. In that situation a character reference form was misplaced as well. She had met all the minimum requirements for admission and had done so on time. When the form could not be found she was told that she had missed the deadline and her request for admission would be held up and possibly denied. Some Christians close to her suggested that perhaps this was God “closing the door.” “It must be God’s will, that she not go” to this particular Christian school. What irked me, and what turns off many non-Christians, is that such an attitude is too gracious for the situation — it doesn’t allow for human incompetence. As it turned out the forms were submitted on time but had somehow been misplaced in the Financial Aid office. When we insisted they look for them, they discovered their error and our daughter was admitted. (She graduated with honors four yeas later, by the way.) But, again, what was human error was described as “God’s will.” When Christians start admitting their faults and stop blaming God, perhaps non-Christians will begin to see the Christian life as one filled with credibility and honesty. What a novel idea.
Another example that made national headlines was the New Era Foundation debacle, where a supposedly philanthropic organization was uncovered as nothing more than a pyramid scam. A number of Christians associated with the duped institutions were not so easily fooled. Their advice, that something “too good to be true” was probably just that, was not heeded. Greed got in the way, and many reputable Christian organizations fell for the get-rich-scheme, invested millions and lost. When the scheme collapsed and our church’s school lost hundreds of thousands of dollars, our pastor delivered a sermon that disavowed him and the elders from any responsibility and proclaimed that it had all happened due to God’s will and His leading of our lives in ways we do not understand. Not! Instead of admitting their mistake and greed, they placed their misjudgment at the feet of God and said to the world, “God’s will is never wrong even if we don’t understand it.” What they refused to admit is what non-Christians readily know — God doesn’t make mistakes, humans (even smart ones) often do. Yes, God’s sovereign will was involved but not like our pastor and the editor of a major Christian publication concluded. Let’s face it, smart people can make stupid decisions. And when stupid decisions are made God’s sovereign will says there will be dire consequences. And that’s just what happened. When thinking, non-Christians saw how the church responded to this, with claims that God’s will was involved, some thought correctly: “If Christians are that stupid, then they must be worshipping the wrong God.” No wonder many people cast off Christianity.
The apologist Hugh Ross, in a recent newsletter, wrote about what he perceives as the reason for the difficulty Christian evangelism faces in Japan. He discovered, much to his chagrin, that some Christian missionaries fiercely oppose rational explanations of God’s creation (e.g. intelligent design and natural processes versus instantaneous overnight creation). This serves “only to expose one reason the Japanese people have been so closed to the Christian faith — it doesn’t seem rational to them.”[1] Why should they embrace Christianity and deny what they see in creation? Obviously, to the Japanese at least, the Christian God isn’t the God of the universe.
Praying for things instead of using common sense seems also to be a common malady affecting Christians. My daughter, the missionary to be, attended a Christian liberal arts college for two years before dorm life became intolerable and she moved out. Not the sole reasons, but definitely a contributor to her dorm life problems, was the moral mess her roommates those two years turned out to be. In both cases sexual immorality was afoot. Both girls, two different years, let their studies slide and became pregnant, dropping out of school. Beforehand, we had earnestly requested that the room selection committee find students with good study habits as role models for our daughter. How did the school do that? Those matching roommates "...prayed over the dorm rooming lists” before assignments were made. Who was to argue with such “spirituality” without sounding anti-Christian? In this case, was prayer an excuse for not using good hard work and close examination of transcripts and personal reference forms? Many non-Christians are turned off by our typical response, “I’ll pray for you.” What the non-Christian may in fact need is some good hard work and labor of love on our part. Prayer has its place, but it is no replacement for common sense and, a little research, and hard work. Non-Christians know that, why don’t Christians?
For most of my upbringing I’ve been taught the time honored Christian tradition of praying before an event in which I’ve had some leadership responsibility. That seems reasonable, and I still do it. The more critical the event, the more I pray. But, too often what goes hand-in-hand with such prayers is a lack of proper preparation for the event itself. My experience is that Christians pray too much and prepare too little. If something isn’t quite right I’ve seen graciousness and prayer take over, leaving behind mediocrity and an embarrassing witness. Rather than learning the skills necessary for a job, the typical Christian response is one of prayer and Bible study, as if prayer and Bible study were sufficient replacements for skill development and knowledge.
Recently, a Christian we know applied for a job for which she was not fully qualified by state standards. Yet, came the defense: “God is in this and we should pray that she gets the job.” Luckily for the church’s reputation, the person was rejected. Yet some Christians believe that Christians deserve certain positions simply because they are Christians. Such thinking is silly if not arrogant. Being a Christian has absolutely nothing to do with knowledge, skill or ability. At its root, being a Christian simply means we are “forgiven.” When someone fails to prepare for a particular goal and instead prays for it, they give evidence that they are lazy stewards or worse yet arrogant fools. They are like the servant in Christ’s parable who buried his talents in the ground afraid they would be lost. Such Christians produce insufficient return on God’s investment and risk being cast into outer darkness. Non-Christians recognize such laziness and arrogance, why don’t Christians see it? When Christians are honest about the need to develop their gifts perhaps the Christian life might have more attraction to non-Christians who too are concerned with honesty and excellence.
I am not the only one that feels such angst at Christians' embrace of incompetence, arrogance, laziness, and mediocrity. Annie Dillard in Holy the Firm reflects on the immensity of God’s grace when a “wretched singer” visited her island church and to “faltering accompaniment” sang an entirely secular song. Dillard reflects: “nothing could more surely convince me of God’s unending mercy that the continued existence on earth of the church.”[2]. Franky Schaeffer in Addicted to Mediocrity focuses on Evangelical Christianity's rejection of the artistic talents of so many and the elevation of spiritual “charlatanism and buffoonery” of church leaders.[3] Hugh Ross laments the rejection of rational thinking that turns many away from Christianity, the most rational of “faiths.”[4] Charles Colson in The Bodyrecounts how Amy Grant was lambasted by Evangelical Christians because she crossed over to the secular music industry and supposedly lost her “Christian message.”[5] Never mind that she had suddenly become salt and light in a dark and desperately needing industry. Speaking of “salt and light” I can not forget Bob Briner who in Roaring Lambs reminds Christian Colleges that their job is to develop young minds and not involve students in so many “Christian” ministries that they have “trouble finding time to study.”[6]
That reminds me of a dear young man rooming across the hall from me in a Christian College as a freshman. Jack (not his real name) was our floor chaplain. He was smart and articulate. Unfortunately, Jack was “such a committed Christian” that he spent most of his time in Bible study and prayer. The result? Despite great potential he flunked several classes for failing to turn in work and during the second semester had a nervous breakdown forcing him to drop out of school.
Finally, Eugene Peterson, translator of The Message has said, “One of the devil’s finest pieces of work is getting people to spend three nights a week in Bible studies”[7] implying that Christians are so heavenly minded they are no earthly good. The voices are out there crying in the Christian wilderness for personal integrity and accountability. Is anyone listening?
When are we as Christians going to wake up and start using common sense and prayer instead of prayer alone; when will we embrace rational thinking and God’s sovereignty instead of blaming God’s sovereignty alone; and when will we pursue knowledge, skill building and the Bible instead of just Bible study? When will we, as the church, wake up and pursue excellence and reject arrogance? When will we as Christians again be worthy of being society’s role model as God intended? I hope very, very soon. Until then, many non-Christians would rather use the rational mind God gave them and accept their share of responsibility for mistakes and blunders. When Christianity rises to that level of accountability, then maybe pagans will take a second look.

[1] Hugh Ross, Newsletter (Pasadena, CA: Reasons to Believe, February 1996), 1.
[2] Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1977), 58-59.
[3] Franky Schaeffer, Addicted to Mediocrity (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1981), 75.
[4] Hugh Ross, Creation and Time (Colorado Springs, CO: Navpress, 1994), 8-15.
[5] Charles Colson, The Body (Dallas, TX: Word, 1992), 375-376.
[6] Bob Briner, Roaring Lambs (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1993), 157.
[7] Michael Cusick, “A Conversation with Eugene Peterson,” The Mars Hill Review, 3 (Fall 1995), 83.