Wednesday, November 4, 2009
Whose Goodness Faileth Never
It seems to me that more than anything else, faith is trust in the goodness of the Lord that never fails. We tend to confuse confidence in specific outcomes with confidence in His divine and fatherly goodness -- especially when we pray. When it is the outcome that is the focus, then prayer becomes rather mechanical. The power and success of prayer are then defined by the mechanics (what you say, how you say it, from what perspective you say it, what are your motives for saying it, and how confidence you are that you will get what you ask for).
I remember once going to the home of a faithful supporter to ask that person for a major gift to an institution. I was on the board at the time and this was the first such call I had made. A senior member and I sat in this man's living room to ask him to consider giving $250K toward a church organization. I was extremely nervous and uncomfortable. It went very easy and the man was more than willing to make such a gift. We left with check in hand thinking that we had succeeded. Then by the door, the man said "I am surprised you asked only for $250K. I was prepared to give you $500K." And then our hearts fell. We had failed because we placed bar too low. Suddenly the check in hand seemed like failure instead of success.
If I were to compare prayer to that experience, I might say that the prayer is the encounter with a generous and giving God. It is the arena in which I make my case to ask Him for what I need. When I bring Him my request and explain to Him the reasoning behind it and convince Him of the goodness of my cause, then the Lord responds. Could it be that I might make the same mistake in prayer that I made in the donor's living room? Could it be that I ask of God less than God is prepared to give? Does this outcome mean that my prayer was a failure instead of a success?
That is what happens when we measure prayer's success by the outcome. It is a distortion of what prayer is and it turns prayer into a negotiating session in which our best guess of what God is prepared to do is the goal of the whole encounter. This is a terrible way to look at prayer, at God, and how God works.
The purpose of prayer is not to achieve the desired outcome (healing, lengthening of life, material goods and resources, certain feelings, etc.). The purpose of prayer is for me to trust in the goodness of the Lord which never fails and which can never fail me. It is my confidence in this goodness that is the object of my prayer.
I am not out to wine and dine God into giving me something He could but should not. I have learned to call Him "Father" because He has invited me to call Him "Father" and to know Him as "Father" and to trust in His fatherly divine goodness for all my needs -- earthly and spiritual.
One of my favorite hymns is "The King of Love My Shepherd Is" and the second line of that hymn has it just right... whose goodness faileth never.... That is what I pray for -- to know with confidence His goodness that fails never and fails me never. This is what we learn from the lesson of the Psalms -- how they begin with complaints and lay out the situation and by the end of the Psalm they have become reconciled to God's goodness and His will. Now this is either because the Psalmist wrote each Psalm in stages and waited to finish the Psalm until he saw how God would respond -- what the outcome would be -- or it is because through the writing of the Psalm the author faced his need and God's goodness that faileth never and came down on the side of that goodness. It is enough for me to know God's goodness. That is all I need to know in order to proclaim my "Amen" to the words of my prayer.
There are always those who fear such prayers. I have had people say to me "I am not going to pray 'Thy will be done' because that is not what I want -- I want my mother healed!" Or "What good is it for us to ask God for healing if we end the prayer 'according to Your will?'" It is exactly this fear that is the reason God has given prayer to us and why we Christians are to make use of it regularly -- if we fear God's will, we have lost confidence in His goodness and His grace and there is little left of faith. Learning to overcome our fear of His will, learning to have confidence in His grace and to trust in His goodness is the most important outcome of prayer.
The whole of Christian life is lived within this tension -- who knows best for me? who can I trust most of all? in whom can I rest my fears? The goal of Christian life is to learn from God's providential care through history, His merciful love at work from promise to fulfillment, His goodness when we were not good, His incarnation as one of us to embrace of our great need even at the cost of His suffering and death, and His resurrection to bring to eternal completion what His kindness began.
The great litany of Psalm 136 makes us repeat over and over again "His steadfast love endures forever" as His might acts of deliverance and His goodness is rehearsed before us line by line, generation by generation. God is not so much arguing His case among us but presenting us with the evidence that supports the claim: His goodness faileth never.
In the face of that which I cannot control, in the context of that which I do not understand, in the circumstances of that which I cannot see the ending, in the darkness and shadows of sin and its death, in the face of His fatherly acts of mercy from Eden forward, and in the flesh and blood of His own Son, given to us as Good Shepherd and Savior, faith leads me to but one conclusion -- His goodness faileth never. So in the conversation of faith that we call prayer, I learn to exercise this confidence in words that lay before Him all the desires and burdens of my heart, knowing that whatever His answer, it will be the right one, the one overflowing with goodness and grace, and the one that holds only good for me... eternal good.
Individual outcomes are not important but confidence in His goodness, His divine providence, His fatherly wisdom, His abundant grace... this is what is all important. I do not need to keep a scorecard of prayers answered. Everyone of my prayers is answered. And by the Spirit's leading and power I learn to see that the answer is good and right, beneficial to me now and profitable to my salvation. This is enough. That I learn to trust in the King of love whose goodness faileth never. If the lines on Jesus face were words, that is what they would say...