I believe that one of the key aspects that has contributed to making me a stronger Christian over the years has been thinking like a non-Christian. It was listening to atheist podcasts that first spurred me on to test my faith, and to own it. But even more than solidify my personal faith, thinking like a non-Christian has helped me to empathize with those who don't believe as I do. It has helped me to feel compassion rather than judgment. Who can't sympathize with those who feel as though an all loving and all powerful God can't exist because of all the pain and suffering in the world? Who can't sympathize with those who think a story about a talking snake and a "magic apple" are just as crazy as all other religious stories? Who can't sympathize with those who have difficulty acknowledging their own sin - when we judgmental Christians look down on unbelievers, forgetting ours? "But by the grace of God, there go I?"
But beyond building up my assurance, compassion, and (hopefully) humility, thinking like a non-Christian has also helped to convict me of inconsistent thinking. It has often reminded me of powerful truths that I have either forgotten or that I have tossed to the wayside as a result of my unbelief. The biggest conviction for me recently has been in the area of prayer.
I have ruminated on this question of God healing amputees for years now, and I think I have finally come to a conclusion. To help explain my conclusion, I want to first explore some of my life experiences as they pertain to prayer. Just keep in mind that in all of these examples, I am not trying to argue whether my prayers were answered or not, I simply want to show the types of things I prayed for.
The first recollection I have of prayer is when I was four. My parents had talked about going to a theme park in our area for awhile, and when the day finally came to go, it looked like it was going to rain. I vividly remember the weatherman on t.v. just 5 minutes before walking out the door. He said it would rain all day, but we decided to go anyway. I remember praying to God before we left, and asked him to hold off the rain so we could take our trip. I asked him to maybe let it drizzle a little, but not to let it rain until we were at the Pizza Hut following the park. God answered that prayer exactly. The whole day looked overcast, and as we were wrapping up our trip to the park, a light drizzle began. We drove to a nearby Pizza Hut, and literally the second we stepped under the awning, it began to pour buckets. It is one of my earliest and most vivid memories, and for good reason. It was such a specific prayer that coincidence seemed out of the question.
The second instance of prayer that really stands out in my mind is in high school. I had a friend whose baby cousin had some serious complications and was in the hospital. I remember praying for his cousin fervently. Every day I prayed for him, my friend would bring reports that his cousin had improved a little. Every day I didn't, there was deterioration in his condition. At some point, we had an extended break and I stopped praying for my friend's cousin. When we returned from the break, I found out that the child had died. The correlation of prayer with health hadn't occurred to me before that point, but it was then that I realized how my prayers seemed connected to the health of my friend's cousin. I am not arguing here whether or not my prayers were causitive or whether this was a coincidence, I am just explaining some of my experiences and thoughts as they relate to prayer.
The third experience happened a few years ago. I was going through one of those phases where I was really convicted about my lack of prayer - and my lack of prayer for the big things. It was then that I began praying very routinely for the conversion and/or capture of Osama Bin Laden, the conversion and/or overthrow of Kim Jong Il, and peace with Iran. I was very convicted that I needed to pray for some big things - that I needed to pray out the faith I claimed I had in God. Within a year of me beginning to pray this way, both Osama bin Laden and Kim Jong Il were deposed. While I would have preferred a conversion, change of heart, and a leading of their people into peace - I felt like God was allowing me to participate in his work through my prayers, as they were being answered affirmatively in a big way.
Fast forward to today, when my prayer life is back to struggling. I say I have faith in God, and I do things that seem to evidence that faith - like taking some major life steps in terms of family, moving, and finances. While I certainly think I have faith, the amputee question that I have hashed out over and over again has brought me to the conclusion that I have always overestimated my faith. While I think faith is one of my strongest gifts, I have realized that, at best, I am really just mediocre.
When you look at prayers in my life, I would generally categorize them with the last two examples of prayer I gave. I pray for individuals to be healed and I pray for circumstances to change. While some of my prayers have been sort of big - like praying for the overthrow of Kim Jong Il - I always had a safety net. I only asked God to perform actions that could also be attributed to humans. A child is sick? God can heal him, but if he does, he's using doctors to do it. We might say it's a miracle that someone is healed from cancer, but it's always a miracle, at least in part, of modern medicine. We pray for cancer patients to be healed, but only up until it's terminal and the doctors have nothing left to try. God apparently can't help them past that point. A dictator needs to be judged? God can overthrow him. But if he does, he's using a nation's military to do it. Even my "big" prayers always had a fall back. The atheist could just as easily attribute a sick child's survival to human ingenuity, or a dictatorial overthrow to human strategy and might - or at worst, coincidence. In that light, my prayers have almost always been for humanity's success, with God as the good luck charm in my pocket.
You may notice, though, that of the three examples of prayer that I gave, my childlike prayer held the keys to true faith. See, when I prayed as a four year old, I did so with true, complete faith, as evidenced in the unreserved nature of the request. There was no doctor, no military, no meteorologist, and no human ingenuity that could hold back the storm clouds so they would only release their stores of rain upon command. And certainly if there were a human who could control such things, they wouldn't have held them back for a four year old child. But as a child who believed with all my heart that my God was power and my God was love, I prayed a prayer that only a being like him could answer. And only a being like him would.
So why don't I pray like my four year old self now? Why don't we pray for amputees? I've concluded rather simply that it's because we lack the faith of a child. We believe that God can answer prayers, but not without the help of humanity. Certainly God often uses means to accomplish his will. We are participants in the spreading of the gospel, a message God could declare himself through the rocks if he wanted. But that's not the point. God may use familiar means, but he doesn't always. When we always require familiar, explainable means for God to work, we limit God. We essentially say that if doctors and scientists aren't ingenious enough to heal amputees, then how could God? We only believe in prayers that are answered out of that which already exists - medicines, armies, etc. We don't believe in prayers that must be answered ex nihilo - out of nothing but the will of God. The God who we claim brought the world into existence out of nothing, we believe to be incapable to do so again. Only that which is tied to humanity can save us. God's hands are tied, and only we can save. Nietzsche was wrong. God is not dead. He is deposed. We have usurped him. We are now the gods.
In the end, I can't help but wonder whether such a lack of faith is a Western thing or a human thing. Jesus healed an amputee - the ear of the high priest's servant. Maybe Jesus and his disciples healed other amputees too. I don't know. Maybe God chooses not to do overt miracles in our age. I don't know. Maybe the healing of amputees happens in other countries where there is a culture of faith. Maybe our Westernized, empirical hearts just don't truly and fully seek God. Just as Jesus did not do many miracles in Nazareth because the people lacked faith (Mt. 13:58), maybe that's why he doesn't do it here. This is quite a blow to me, not only because I am a Christian who is supposed to have faith, but because I am a Reformed Christian. I believe that God brings the dead back to life every day, when he regenerates someone. I believe that he single-handedly brings about a nature that was not present. He makes us into new men and women. He brings something out of nothing - life out of death - faith out of unbelief - a bowed knee out of rebellion. If I believe in a God who could - who did - change me by instilling and growing a new nature within me, what is it to believe in a God who can grow a new limb? Surely the directing and transforming of a soul is more awesome than the manipulation of matter.
I think I have allowed the modern, Western, humanistic culture to seep into the inner sanctum of my soul - the place where I commune with God. After dwelling on my question one more time, I have come to the conclusion that many times when I have communed with God in the past, I was merely communing with myself. Prayer has so often been trite self-talk - sentiments and wishes for how I wanted the world to be if my fellow men and women could accomplish it. It was self-talk always tempered with a healthy dose of rationality and realism. I have been deeply convicted by thinking like an un-believer, and it's not because I have guilt for questioning - it's because I realize that I've been thinking like an unbeliever in my heart all along. I have minimized God and elevated self.
As you think about your prayer life in this new year, I challenge you to dwell on the question of what you pray for. Are you asking God only for things that can be ambiguously attributed to a variety of causations, or do you pray for something to be brought out of nothing? It may be that God will never answer such a prayer, for whatever reasons he may have. But if God has not revealed such limitations or self-imposed restrictions, don't you think we should have the faith and practice to at least petition him in this regard? You might wonder where to start with all that. I'm starting by asking God to grow in me belief out of my unbelief, and then to do the same for the rest of the world. The soul is the first place ultimate creation begins, and it's first evidence is faith.