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Different spiritual gifts

There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. — 1 Corinthians 12:4-6

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Receiving the Message Needed

Light streams on a man checking his mail.

Sometimes we just can’t understand why God doesn’t answer our prayers.

Certainly, the collection of promises and reasoning in Judeo-Christian scripture and tradition may create the feeling that, when we ask for things, God should give them to us.  Our modern sense of ourselves as choice-driven consumers who rightfully select the best option on offer amplifies the sense.  A God who wants us to worship him should make it worth our while, so to speak.  Yet, the transactional view of prayer is among the first misimpressions that one must overcome to grow in faith.

Corrective homilies will periodically clarify that God gives us what He knows we need, not what we presume to request, and that may be a suitable bandage for slight spiritual wounds.  When our faith will largely heal itself from a mild cut, the priest or spiritual advisor need only offer some comfort and aid against infection.  But for deeper gouges — when the weight of life seems unreasonable, while the requests we make of God in response seem modest — something more profound is needed.

Unfortunately, such somethings fall very steeply into deep theology, which a person under duress may find impenetrable.  In a contemplative state of mind, we might agree that free will and Original Sin explain why suffering is necessary, and surely, we can recognize that the promise of eternal life with God is magnificent.  But when we feel most in need of comfort, we long for a taste of the magnificence now, as a mild bit of material mercy in this life, and if God withholds even that, what are we supposed to do?

A good starting point might be to put aside the deep philosophy and the cosmic focus.  Simply put, life is a relationship with God, and in any relationship, you speak or act, and the other person responds.  That’s what a relationship is.  The crisis of unanswered prayers, then, comes when your incredibly powerful Friend not only doesn’t appear to help, but seems not to respond at all.

No general advice will help, here.  Your relationship with God is your existence, and your particular trials are unique to you.  To know what formula to recommend, a human advisor would either have to be very lucky or know you as intimately as you know yourself.  Meanwhile, the problem with asking the Person who knows you most intimately, God, is that He cannot take you aside and explain what He’s doing without changing your very experience of existing.  Unambiguously articulating His advice would change the very world in which you perceive yourself to live, which may or may not be what you need.

“Have you come to believe because you have seen me?” Jesus asks Thomas, who doubts the Resurrection (John 20:29).  Well, “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”  Without having seen God explicitly, such people maintain the intimacy of seeing Him implicitly.  That’s a different relationship, and it’s arguably preferable.

So, while in the shadows of doubt, think, first, in terms of how you communicate with God and, second, how you’d expect somebody who knows you as well as He does to communicate with you. On the first count, because the relationship is your existence, your communication takes the form of your attention, which you direct in four ways:

  • In the choice of where you turn your senses — what object and at what level of detail you choose to observe the world around you
  • In the perspective with which you process what you observe — whether positive or negative, hopeful or despairing, in search of evidence of God’s hand or its absence
  • In the place to which you go in order to observe — inasmuch as you are thereby choosing what will be present to you
  • And by means of acting in the world — whereby you determine what actions on your part Creation is responding to

The joy of a genuine relationship is in getting to know the other person, and to do that, one must account for one’s self.  What aspect of my friend did I turn my attention toward?  What was I looking for when I turned my attention there?  What would I expect to find when I go to this or that room of his or her house?  And to what action of mine is he or she responding?

A recent experience brought these ideas together for me.  The pressures of life have been growing, especially in financial terms, so one morning this week, I woke up asking for support.  Generally, I was praying for a signal from my Lord that He has me in view — that things are fine.  Truth be told, though, I had in mind something like an anecdote from Jonathan Roumie, who plays the role of Jesus in The Chosen.

He’d been trying to make ends meet with multiple jobs while working as an actor and had reached the point of little to show and unpayable bills looming.  So, he handed the problems over to God and simply asked to be shown what path he ought to follow.  That day, several unexpected residual checks arrived in his mailbox, sufficient to cover his short-term expenses, and soon thereafter, The Chosen opportunity arrived.

The circumstances of a single actor are quite different from those of a father of four, but that’s the sort of thing I was hoping I’d receive through my prayer:  a big “yes” to stay on my path or a big invitation to take another.  Working from home, I watched the mailman come and go, and I walked out to the mailbox, not really expecting anything.  Among the usual bills and junk mail, I found an envelope with the phrase, “class settlement,” in the return address.  Standing in the street, I opened the envelope.  I could see the border pattern of a machine-printed check inside; the top fold of the paper quickly explained it was my share of a class-action lawsuit I didn’t realize (or had forgotten) existed.

I looked at the check and laughed!  $5.53.  “Point taken, God.”

A little while later, I doubled down on my folly.  Although even saints and religious, such as Thomas Merton in Seven Story Mountain, admit to having done it, Christians are generally discouraged from testing God with such trifles as opening the Bible and pointing to a line on the page.  Nonetheless, a little while after discovering my underwhelming financial windfall, it occurred to me to see what I might find on the corresponding page, 553, of my desk copy of The New American Bible:

Psalm 11
Confidence in the Presence of God

In the Lord I take refuge;
how can you say to me,
“Flee like a bird to the mountains!
See how the wicked string their bows,
fit their arrows to the string
When foundations are being destroyed,
what can the upright do?”

The Lord is in his holy temple;
the Lord’s throne is in heaven.
God’s eyes keep careful watch;
they test all peoples.
The Lord tests the good and the bad,
hates those who love violence,
And rains upon the wicked
fiery coals and brimstone,
a scorching wind their allotted cup.
The Lord is just and loves just deeds;
the upright shall see his face.

Point taken, indeed!  When the foundations of our material lives are threatened, what can we do?  Only look to God — look for God in everything.  A laughably inadequate bank check bringing humor and a comforting hidden message to put my problems in perspective is exactly the sort of message I’ve grown to recognize as friendship from other people.  It’s not an offer to save the day or solve the problem.  It’s not even so striking that one couldn’t dismiss it as coincidence.  It was only precisely what I needed:  a smile with permission to continue finding my own way forward.  And the next step in this relationship is to decide how to respond.


Featured image by Justin Katz using Dall-E 3.