What has religion done for you? Have you ever stopped to take a long deep breath and asked yourself this question: Just what has religion done for me? Let me hasten to say that I know this is a self-centered and extremely selfish way of thinking about religion. It produces the image of a person standing before God... hands on the hips... scowl on the face demanding to know what God has ever done for him. Now that's a pretty low level on which to approach religion... I'll admit that. It is precisely at that level that a lot of people are getting interested in religion today. People are encouraged to try religion on the basis of what they will get out of it.
Recently I read something that gets at this in a specific way. A Presbyterian pastor in North Carolina tells about a woman who came to see him on her lunch break. Nicely dressed, dignified, late thirties woman. Her face revealed a mixture of indignation and great sadness. There was a woman in her Sunday church School class, a teacher, who was always talking about how wonderful it was to walk and talk with Jesus. She would tell how everything she asked Jesus for she received. She prayed that her blueberry muffins would be perfect and they always were. Jesus, she would say, is wonderful to have around. She told of rushing somewhere to do the Lord's work and she would say: "Lord you know that I am coming down here to do your work and I am running late so I need a parking space and always someone would be pulling out of the space at exactly the right time." Jesus was so good to have around, she would say!
Then the minister said that the woman in front of him did not know whether to be angry at God or crushed because God never answered her prayers. She admitted she had never pestered God for tasty muffins or parking spaces, but for ten years she had been praying for just one thing. She liked being married but she wanted to have a baby but her prayers were never answered. Then she asked: "What kind of Jesus was this who like that other woman so much he would jump at her beck and call and grant her silly requests, but who did not like me enough to give me the one selfish thing I prayed for... a baby. It makes me angry and it hurts!" What would you say to that woman's anger and hurt?
One thoughtful person who believes that God always knows what is best for us was fond of saying... "God may not give us what we request, but God does give us what we need!"
The book of Job reminds us of the dangers of believing in a God who rewards piety and virtue with prosperity and success. This is a popular God in America today... millions of people base their whole belief system on the thought that if you think positively, wear a winning smile, show your religion publicly, tell people how much Jesus has given to you... then you will be a success and have peace of mind and you will be spared of all painful experiences. But into the midst of this distorted picture comes this incredible story of Job to remind us that life is just not that way.
Job was the wealthiest man in the entire Middle East, a deeply religious and pious man, a man who feared God and turned away from evil, and through no fault of Job's, God and Satan make a kind of crummy deal and Job is the brunt of the deal. God was very proud of Job and one day in a conversation between God and Satan, God said to Satan: "Have you considered my servant Job, there is no one like him on Earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil." But Satan taunts God saying: "Job is weak... put forth your hand... take away everything you have given to him and He will curse you to your face." So God and Satan enter this meaningless bet... God said: "Job will remain faithful no matter what you take away from Him or what you do to Him!"
So Job is stripped of everything, all of his possessions, his holdings, even his children, seven sons and three daughters all die, and ultimately his health is attacked. Job is afflicted with loathsome sores from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head.
What Job received from God was the wisdom, the courage and the strength to live through the unwanted experiences of his life so that he never lost his faith. He declared, "I know my Redeemer lives."
But the question lingers... What about those times when God does not answer your prayers... Or does not answer them the way you want them answered? Let me introduce you to one who did not pray for blueberry muffins and parking places, but one who struggles with God's answers to more profound prayers. Paul, apparently, had a dramatic vision and revelation of God which caused him to be arrogant... as he writes about himself he says this:
"To keep me from being too elated by the abundance of Revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger from Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I prayed to God about this, that it should leave me, but He said to me... My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness."
It is very clear that God heard Paul's cry for help and that God answered his prayer but not in the way Paul wanted it answered. Sometimes life is like that. Sometimes the only thing God can say is my grace is enough for you; For where there is weakness, my power is shown the more completely.
Paul makes a marvelous response to this... Henceforth I am well content, for Christ's sake, with weakness, hardship and frustration... For when I am weak, Christ makes me strong.
I have not met him, but I know of him... his name is Bob Davis. On August 2, 1987 as the pastor of Old Cutler Presbyterian Church in Miami, Davis made an announcement his congregation wasn't ready for at that moment. They were aware that his sermons were tending toward more and more stories. For several Sundays he had been preaching on the healing power of God. As the members listened to this fifty-two-year-old former All-American football player who had been their pastor for fourteen years their eyes filled with tears as he told them he had Alzheimer's Disease and must resign at age fifty-two. Listen to what he said:
"As a Christian I belong completely to Christ. My life is not mine but Christ's. Today my ministry draws to a close and I can say with Paul, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now I stand at the finish line in victory, because God set the distance I was to run... and I am finished at fifty-two!"
Bob Davis, a six-foot-seven-inch hulk of a man was no match for Alzheimer's Disease but through this experience his faith was shaped so that his final word to the congregation was:
"Pray for Betty, my wife, as I turn guardianship over to her. I will not suffer nearly as much as she will. Pray that I in no way inadvertently disgrace our Lord, this church or the people I love. Finally, when I get to that stage where my mind is gone, pray that the Lord will take me home quickly. The glory of being with Christ makes me gasp with joy."
When asked, "What about miracles?" Bob Davis said I am like Paul whose thorn in the flesh God did not remove and I don't expect God will remove my Alzheimer's thorn... But I have made up my mind to find joy in my weakness because that means a deeper experience of the power of Christ.
Maybe the question is not what has my religion done for me... but what have I learned about God from my experiences of life? Authentic belief in God won't let you pray for blueberry muffins or parking places... but authentic belief in God will encourage you to pray for enough of God's grace to help you through the most difficult experiences of life!