When I was about to graduate from seminary I had one last hurdle to jump over: the oral theology exam. This delightful exercise is how I know my theology will fit into 20 double-spaced pages.
After turning in my paper, the date for the exam was set with two professors who would read the amazing work of theological brilliance and prepare to pepper me with questions. On the appointed day I entered the office, took a seat, and nervously sat down. The professors welcomed me, explained a few procedural items, and then asked the first question.
“Does God change?”
Oh good! A softball.
“God never changes in He essential character or purposes,” I said. They were satisfied but I wanted to add more. “I have to believe, also, that God is a personal being and does change His mind. He responds to prayer. Anything less and God becomes a machine.”
The professors, happy with this answer moved on and did not ask any further questions on the topic. An hour and a half later they informed me I had passed the exam. Insert crowds cheering here.
The experience sticks in my mind because at that moment I realized the implications of a personal God. Many theological systems treat God as if He is a machine. Too much Christian preaching does, too. As much as I wish it were not so, many of my own attempts at building a relationship with Him are marked by a “pull this lever, expect that result” mentality.
God’s people have always struggled with the difference between having a mechanical god and a personal relationship with God. In fact, a wise prophet once challenged another god to make this exact point. I’ll share the story with you and draw some applications for us.
Elijah Issues a Throwdown Challenge
The days were dark in Israel. The kingdom promised to Abraham and ruled by David’s family split in two. The queen was a Baal-worshiper and the King went along. Everyone went along it seemed, all except Elijah. The prophet grew weary of the people worshiping other gods so he decided to do something about it.
He called the prophets of Baal to a throwdown sacrifice. This was before Bobby Flay made throwdowns cool. Each would prepare the sacrifice of a bull as usual but with a twist. (Every good story has a good twist!) The fire for the sacrifice had to come from the deity they served. Elijah graciously offered to let the Baal worshipers go first.
The prophets of Baal cut up their sacrifice, placed it on the alter, and began to pray to Baal. It took awhile. They got a little worried so they shouted. Then they danced. They cut themselves in an effort to get Baal’s attention. They carried on like this all day while Elijah taunted them.
It was getting late so Elijah decided to take his turn. He repaired the alter, which had fallen into disrepair from disuse, and prepared his sacrifice.
Then Elijah did something strange. He dug a trench around the alter and ordered large amounts of water poured on the sacrifice. It would be impossible for it to catch fire without a miracle.
At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.
Can you hear Elijah’s heart for God and the intimacy they shared? The passion for God’s name, the repeated “answer me,” and the desire to see others worship God again show Elijah’s love for the Lord.
God answered Elijah’s prayer. He sent fire and the entire sacrifice including the bull, the stone, the wood, and the water were consumed.
God is Not an ATM
Did you notice the difference between how the prophets of Baal and Elijah interacted with their deities? The prophets of Baal tried increasingly desperate tactics to manipulate Baal into doing something. Elijah merely prayed and trusted God to send fire.
How often do you try to manipulate God as if He is a machine? I call it “God is my ATM syndrome” and it happens to me all the time.
I believe that if I insert my faith card, punch in my “PIN” of Bible reading, prayer, and holyish living that God will be obligated to spit out the blessings I ask for. In the process, I’ve made God a cosmic ATM, a machine to be manipulated, just one more device in my life to help me get what I want which sound suspiciously more like the prophets of Baal than the prophet of God.
You do not have to squint too hard to see the attraction of a god like Baal. Do a little dance. Sing a little song. Shout a bit. Earn a scar or two and he’ll do anything you want. You just have to find out what gets his attention today.
God is nothing like that. He notices genuine faith and has compassion on His people. No need for manipulation with Him.
If you want your relationship with God to grow then you have to stop manipulating Him and begin interacting with Him on a personal level.
What does that look like? Here are a few ideas:
- Stop trying to manipulate God and trust Him. No more negotiations. He wants to bless you and, in fact, already has. He loves you and paid the price to bring you close. His desire for you is not dependent on your church attendance, the number of minutes you spend in prayer or the Bible, or what you have done for Him so stop expecting God to bless you because of what you do or avoid doing.
- Accept that God is in control even when you do not understand Him. How do you approach a friend when they do something you don’t understand? If the person is really a friend you talk to them and see what they were thinking. Things do not always turn out the way you want them to. It is hard to understand why God does intervene in some situations and not others. But the answer is not trying to control Him or worse blame Him for illness, divorce, or death as if everything ultimately rests on your shoulders. Rather, follow the example of so many in the Bible who took their complaints to God and see what He says. He just might surprise you.
- Build God’s Kingdom not your own. Intimacy is inherently other-centered. Elijah’s prayer shows his heart for God. “Answer me, Lord, answer me…” Elijah longed for God to be glorified and worshiped in Israel. The good news is God will probably not ask you to build a huge, soaking wet, bloody alter so He can destroy it with fire. But He is asking you to use your gifts and abilities for His name wherever you live. Maybe you have a step of faith in mind now that God wants to use to bless someone else? Just trust Him and do it.
The fact that God is a living God, personal, and relational sets Christianity apart from other religions. It also will bring your faith to life.