Asking God for Stuff

            When I started realizing how strange God is—that he is no thing, that he is to me as an author is to a character—I then realized I’d have to reconsider prayer. So I asked an Aquinas scholar about this. Aquinas famously draws out the strangeness of God, that we can know that God exists, but not what God is, and so forth. What then, I asked, does Aquinas say prayer is?

            “He says prayer is asking God for stuff.”

            The plainness of the answer surprised me, but in fact Aquinas often is very plain. And behind all the complexities of theological thought, this truth remains: prayer is simply telling God what’s on our heart, asking for what we want.

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            An awful song from my childhood is stuck in my brain. “Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz? My friends all drive Porsches; I must make amends.”

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            One cannot overstate the importance of honesty in prayer. If what you really want is a new car, that’s what you should be telling God in your prayer. Don’t worry if your wants strike you as rather pathetic, self-centered, or “unspiritual.” Your wants are your wants, and it is you yourself, and only you, that can say your prayers. Pretending you want peace in the world will not become a real prayer when what you really want is your neighbor to stop pestering you. (Jesus told a story about prayer in which a man granted someone’s request just so he’d stop pestering him! That’s not a story about God, but about us.)

            And whatever you pray for, don’t worry: God will give you what is good for you. In fact, just by going honestly into prayer, our wants get changed, as do our hearts and minds.

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            Out & About. On Sunday, October 30, I’ll be preaching at St. Augustine’s Oak Cliff, at the 8 a.m. and 10:15 a.m. services, as well as teaching a class at 9:15 a.m.: 1302 W. Kiest, Dallas.

The Giving of the Law

We cannot understand God giving the Law to Moses and his people Israel without remembering the context. And that is: the original plan did not work out. God’s creation failed to do what he had set it out to do, principally through human sin—the rebellion in the garden. (I suspect there are additional reasons, hinted at by the “rule” assumed by the sun and moon in Genesis chapter 1 and by the discovery in chapter 2 that “it is not good” for there to be a sole, lone human. But in any event, human sin is major in creation’s falling-short.)

So, God sets out to try a New Way, involving the formation of a particular people, a nation through whom the rest of the world would find blessing. It is to this people, Israel, that God gives the Law.

Law is a very good thing. Jews celebrate the Torah with ritual dancing: it is God’s gift that marks God’s commitment to us and to the world as his creation. God is not going to abandon what he has made: hence he gives us his law as an earnest of his promise to lead us to restoration.

Nonetheless, Law has a mixed character and is deeply problematic. If we human beings must deal with one another on the basis of law, inevitably some people who are innocent will be harmed, and some who are guilty will escape punishment. The Law in its execution is ever a blunt instrument; it cannot achieve precision application.

Robert Sacks (tutor emeritus, St. John’s College in Santa Fe) has taught me to see Abraham as being tutored by God in how to be the father of the New Way. In his education, Abraham must relive-in-advance the future history of his people; he has to see, as it were, where things are going before he can know how to be this people’s father. You can discern this pedagogical design in, for instance, the significant locations of the altars that he builds. You can see it also in his going down into Egypt, suffering Pharoah’s power, and then returning from Egypt to the land promised. 

But you can also see it in Abraham’s learning about the practice of judgment. This is the importance of the story of God’s destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. God lets Abraham into his counsel, and we see Abraham come to grips with the necessity of punishing extreme, violent wickedness. The problem is: if God destroys the cities, some innocent people will die also. But: if there is no judgment executed, then the wickedness will continue, and many innocent people will continue to suffer.

After his extended conversation with God in which God agrees not to destroy the city if there were as many as ten righteous people in it, Abraham and God go their ways. The next morning Abraham goes to look east, out over the plain where the cities were. And the scripture says: “the smoke of the country went up as the smoke of a furnace” (Gen. 19:28). Judgment has been executed, and for all Abraham knows, up to ten innocent people have perished.

Those words about the furnace are repeated only once in the Bible, and it is when the Law is given. At Exodus 19:18 the text says that when God descended upon the mount, “the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace.” The gift of the Law is a tragic gift; it is something like a sacrifice.

It is not part of what God originally intended.

As long as Law remains external to us, so it will be. We need Law in order to live, but Law is also in a sense a curse of our existence. What Jesus will give us, in the end, is not (as many people say) a deliverance from the Law. Rather, it will be as Jeremiah foresaw, that the Law will be written on every human heart. This—the gift of the Holy Spirit—is the end for which we long, that Law will not be imposed upon us, but will be instead completely internal. It will be that by which we breathe.

And when that happens, there will be no more sacrifice, no sacraments even, for Christ will be all in all.

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The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."