Why might God not answer prayers for good weather?’

I am indebted to a great truth that was imparted to me at school and has informed every fishing trip I have ever undertaken since – wisdom from a geography GCE revision sheet that offered the astute observation that:

The climate of the British Isles is best described as changeable.’

There you have it! Years of meteorological research culminates in a theological understanding of why some prayers for fine weather go answered for many believers. The reality of what happens when people pray for sunshine is not about whether God does or does not answer prayer, but rather it is about random chance. In other words the prayer request aligns with the variability of the British climate for that day. In much the same way that when I flick a coin into the air and call ‘heads,’ I hope that it will spin at such a rate and be caught at the very moment that allows it to be rendered portrait side up.

Now, I appreciate that some believers will struggle with what I am saying here so let me suggest a foolproof method by which the possibility of God controlling the weather might be  tested and observed. This method involves setting up of an experiment to provide the scientific conditions by which God might be observed to intervene in a ways that run contrary to the vagaries of weather:

Of course, the experiment would require a multiple number of weddings to be scheduled for different days of the week in India during the monsoon season – a period in which it rains constantly across the country for days, weeks and even months on end. The respective families would be encouraged to pray in advance for good weather for their wedding day with particular instruction to pray for the exact hour when their ceremony is scheduled to take place. The evidence of whether God has answered these prayers would be determined by how many instances of dry weather occur at these specific times within the monsoon period.

Naturally, my own belief is that very few (if any) of these weddings would occur without wedding party and guests getting wet because this is what happens when you hold outdoor events during the rainy season. This isn’t to say that God couldn’t but rather ask the more reasonable question of:

‘Why would God intervene and what higher Divine purpose might this serve?”

Interestingly, when believers attempt to justify God controlling the weather they often cite instances in the Bible in which God has intervened and affected the physical climate in some way. Among these examples are the events of the flood detailed in Genesis 6 or the day the sun reportedly stood still so that a battle could be prolonged and victory secured (Joshua 10:13-14). Other examples include a rain cloud that appears in response to Elijah’s prayer (1 Kings 18:44) or the storm at sea that affects Jonah’s escape (Jonah 1:4). Although all of these examples are used to show the way God has been proactive in the world – intervening and affecting our weather system – it should be noted that most of the ones that are recorded document acts of judgment and not the type of blessing associated with weddings.

 

Does God answer prayers for sunny weather at weddings?

The seminar at its end, people dispersed, save for a few conference delegates who lined up to speak to me about what I had just presented. As I chatted, I became aware of two teenage girls waiting at the side. Finally, with the last person away, the girls came over and asked if I would explain something that was troubling them – namely, my assertion that ‘it is a redundant act to pray to God to provide sunny weather for a friend’s wedding day.’

Of course, what troubled them was not my statement so much as the idea that God might not be as they imagined Him. By that I mean, the uncomfortable notion that God may not answer these sort of prayers or least, not in the way they want – an idea totally at odds with what many Christians believe about God and the way He acts within our world. After all, what is more important than the bride’s wedding day and a loving God would surely want to intervene and make it as joyous as an occasion as possible – wouldn’t He?

Now, aside from the fact that there is no meteorological evidence to suggest that Saturday is the sunniest day of the week – which it should be if God is answering prayers for fine weather for weddings on these days – there is also the very real issue that although some people petition God for good weather, it still rains on their special day. Which begs the question:

  • ‘Does God favour some people’s weddings over others?’ (OR)
  • Is it just simply the case that God does not answer prayers for this sort of thing?’

If the first were true, people would be right to challenge God because scripture informs us that the Divine is not given to favouritism (Acts 10:34) but loves all people equally. Now, while some families may have fine weather at the wedding of one daughter, they might encounter poor weather on another occasion, suggesting that a parent, daughter, son, fiancé(e) or other family member had transgressed God in such a way that He is now unable to bless them. This does not even consider the more ludicrous anomaly of how it may rain on a couple marrying for the first time yet not for those remarrying for the third, fourth of fifth time? – people whose lives might be frowned upon by some yet enjoy the hottest day of the year for their wedding and, by inference, the greater blessing of God?

As I will deal with the reasons as to why I believe God does not interfere with our weather in the next post, I will close with the answer I gave to the  girls – much to their chagrin. Namely, that weather is random and unpredictable – particularly in the United Kingdom where it is not unusual for a variety of elements to occur in one day which may include rain, sunshine, and sleet –  within the same hour and even in summer. That believers pray for  sunny weather and it occurs does not mean God has answered but rather the person was fortuitous in praying for it on a day when it was going to be sunny. Moreover, there is no sidestepping the question that if God responds to requests for sunny weather with thunder and hail, what should we make of that?

(extract adapted from ‘A short book of believer absurdities’ – Bob Eckhard)

 

How do we make sense of the loss of loved ones? When I was child, I found myself one evening cycling to the local Roman Catholic church my mother and I attended. Okay, two things need to be clarified here:

  • Firstly, being made to attend catechism (Bible School) every Saturday did not make me in any way inclined to give up my Sunday as well.
  • Secondly, my mother’s inability to get up in time to attend church often meant that I didn’t go either which was pure joy for me.

Okay – on with the story: Now, although I don’t remember much about the journey to the church on my little bike, I do remember the weight of confusion I felt when I arrived there to find it locked and no priest in sight. Thinking someone would arrive, I waited for what seemed like  hours before returning home with my issue unresolved. And what was that issue? What might trouble a child of that age? Put simply….

‘Doesn’t God realise that one day my mother will die and I will be left alone?’

Basically, the realisation that one day my mother would die, shook me to the core. Years later, after the death of a close friend, I came to liken this type of mindset  to the sort of unpleasant  ‘fairground’ ride that you long to be over and away from, except this one involved no way out of it. One in which the words:

‘Stop the world – I want to get off!’

…seem wholly appropriate due to the impossibility of the situation and sorrow one experiences. Now, while the phrase (above) doesn’t do justice to the turmoil I was anticipating nor my inability to sidestep the sorrow and loneliness that separation from a loved one would bring, it does highlight something of the sense of avoidance and deceit that resides within each of us. A desire not to face the reality of death for ourselves or for those we love. And yet – as we saw in the last post – death of every generation in the physical world is a necessity in order that future generations are enabled to grow, flourish, bloom and (as they die) make way for the generation that will follow

Not that this makes the death of a loved one any easier to bear – it can’t nor will it ever. However, confronted with the reality of death as the great leveller, we – like those before us – might question what follows at the end of our finite existance on earth? Surely this is the most important question that humanity faces and yet the one most likely to be ignored or sidelined.

 

Why do we have to die?

Why do we have to die?

Now, while this question is seldom articulated out loud, it is often found in the guise of other questions people ask: questions such as:

Why did God create a world dependent on tectonic movement?

Why doesn’t God remove all the evil people from the world?

Why doesn’t God start over and create a better world without things that harm humanity?

Of course,  at their root of these questions is our own  discontent at the limited longevity of human life. A life that may be further shortened through war, famine, natural disaster, illness or some other danger.

Interestingly, questions regarding the necessity of why we have to die suggests that humans actually appreciate being alive and their overriding desire is for this to continue. Indeed, without this desire and inbuilt drive in every living creature or organism to live and survive, it is questionable whether any species would exist on earth. That said,  it seems that many creatures and organisms in order to survive are often able to sacrifice themselves in some way so that the next generation may advance and have the best chance of survival. A few examples of this are –

  • the returning salmon who mates and dies leaving a dead carcass for their young to feed on
  • ants that absorb poison and in the process give rise to the next generation of ant who may prove resistant to it in years to come
  • a virus that is cured by antibiotics but which later mutates into a more virulent and/or deadlier strain that might be resistant to drugs next time round.

Likewise, humans have also adapted and learnt how to ensure the continuance of life through a greater understanding and management of those things that would otherwise prove detrimental to health and existence. Now, while they have been hugely successful at survival and technological advancement,  three problems are pertinent.

  1. The limited resources of earth that – with increasing human population size – may not be able to meet the needs of everyone on the planet.
  2. The limitations of the human body that causes it to grow weaker and less productive the longer it lives after its hiatus of productivity.
  3. The limitations of space in disposing of human feaces from people who live longer that will surpass what can be adequately managed.

In summary,  one answer to the question ‘Why do we have to die?’ might be that there is not enough physical space or resources on earth for humans to exist forever. Indeed, it is questionable whether  young could survive or grow without the passing on of a generation, particularly where it ‘frees up’ resources for growth and development. Finally, it seems that unlike humans, organisms, insects, animal kingdom etc are intuitively aware of the need to pass on the baton and provide for the next generation. How much they are cognisant and self aware of existence and what comes after death: that is another question?

 

‘Is God bothered by human death and dying?’

 

The ‘Bigger Picture’

Perhaps the thing that bothers people most about suffering today is the sense of waste or futility when loved ones die as a result of illness, evil actions or natural events. Central to the concern is a sense that the life of the deceased individual has somehow been cut short or left unfulfilled – and even for those who have lived a long life. But this is largely a secular perspective on life because the assumption is that the time we have on earth is the only time we have got. A position that runs contrary to spiritual perspectives that Christians (and others) posit in which:

Life => death => afterlife

Imagine a caterpillar on a branch being watched by someone – let’s call the person Jim. As Jim watches, the caterpillar slows to a stop. A few days later, he returns to the place where the caterpillar was last seen and sees that all that remains of it is a lifeless, indistinguishable object on a branch. Around the body a hard layer of shell has formed, disfiguring the caterpillar’s shape. Outraged at this outcome for the poor defenceless creature – okay I’m going a bit over the top here  – the person speaks out angrily at the unfairness of life and the cruelty of a God who would create an insect whose life was so limited, only to bring it to  an ignominious end. Jim’s rant complete, he enters the house and thinks no more of it until….

… a few days later, as he walks along the path close to the tree and notices that a chrysalis shell has formed around the lifeless body of the caterpillar. Moreover, there is a hole in the shell. As Jim watches he sees the shell being discarded by a beautiful butterfly which eventually spreads its wings and flies away. It’s metamorphosis now complete.

Reflecting on events, Jim sees that the caterpillar has been liberated in a way that could not have initially been imagined. Now, he is forced to rethink how that which was once considered tragedy, is  instead a transitory stage to a different life altogether.

Why do I tell that story?

Well…the Christian belief that death is a stage or transition point by which people transfer from this world into the next, challenges the ideas that some people have concerning the necessity for longevity of physical life. Indeed, it could be argued that this future life (the other side of death) brings release for people who are experiencing pain and suffering in this world right now, then death is not necessarily the bad thing that people might suppose it to be. Moreover, it comes to be seen as a staging post through which people pass into a different type of existence. A transition that carries a degree of fear because death is the great unknown but not necessarily the end of life per se.

Could it possibly be that God’s larger plan does not consider death in the same way that humans see it? Might it rather be a staging or transit point from the physical world into the spiritual realm? If so, then death is no longer a tragedy but a positive and one that provides hope and comfort to people in their times of suffering and grief.

 

Why does God allow illness?

Research over the years has helped researchers to understand diseases and find cures. One example is leprosy which, if left untreated, affects the person’s nervous system, causing damage to skin, limbs and eyes. Although, leprosy was recorded in biblical times, it was not until the last century that it was found that bacteria was responsible for this condition. Before this, many people considered it incurable and managed leprosy by keeping the infected individual separate from everyone else. However, Norwegian physician Gerhard Hansen’s discovery that it was caused by a particular bacterium (Mycobacterium leprae) has since advanced so that today we use multidrug treatments to cure individuals with leprosy.

Here it is important we consider a different issue about the nature of these constructs within our world. We encountered this in a previous post considering the advantages and disadvantages of gravity. Just as the benefits of gravity far outweigh the disadvantagesso too our understanding of bacteria. Given that humans are dependent on bacteria which affects human health (in quite positive and negative ways) we might question:

‘would humans truly want to live in a world devoid of bacteria?’

Indeed, we might also ask if:

‘bacteria is not part of the way that God has designed this world to operate?

Recent research suggests the survival of each species is dependent on genetic anomalies that enable them to adapt to new or changing environments. So, in a barren area, the giraffe with a longer neck that can reach the highest foliage hanging from a tree is more likely to survive than the giraffe with a shorter neck. If our tall healthy giraffe then mates with another tall-necked giraffe, the offspring will carry the parents’ enhanced DNA, increasingly the likelihood of producing tall offspring who will be able to survive in future droughts.

The observation that species develop at the expense of others has led some to speculate that a specific ‘selfish’ gene exists within the DNA of every surviving species. A gene that selfishly seeks its own genetic construct be advanced at expense of everything else. From this, it is easy to see the problem facing the Divine. If God creates a world that is too tight in its structure, human life might not emerge. However, if God creates the earth in a less deterministic way there is a risk that it will facilitate a variety of other things in the food chain that will also grow and develop. Things that  may cause disease, illness and death – a world in which humans may flourish along with giraffes, bacteria and other viruses – but at a price.

So in summary, if God makes the world too precisely, there is a risk that life might not emerge. However, if the Divine loosens up control of the world, then there is a different risk that other things will emerge that may develop and survive at expense to human life and existence.

 

 

‘Can all illnesses be attributed to humans ‘meddling’ with their environment?’

Many diseases and illnesses occurr in history at times when there was no obvious link to human activity or interference. Here, my intention is to provide some instances by which we might reason that illness might be a necessary part of the world we inhabit though I also appreciate some may disagree with the argument that follows – and that’s okay.

Over time, there are clearly strains of virus that repeat and modify themselves. One example is influenza – a viral infection that has the capacity to adapt and develop into more virulent strains. Although the recurrence of these viruses can be quite frequent, they may also occur in more haphazard ways, by which they develop into and/or become pandemics.

This is a major concern for governments around the world who are currently aware of the risk carried by bird flu which has accounted for millions of deaths over the years. A characteristic of the virus is the way it develops in other creatures first and only passes on to humans at a much later stage that may have skipped several generations. From this, it is apparent that humans cannot be held responsible for the way the virus develops other than that they are unwitting recipients and hosts, carrying it from one person to the next. This aspect of how infections are passed between people leads us onto our next aspect – the human immune system.

While it is apparent that the immune system of a human is generally robust in dealing with infections, it is clear that there have been periods in the human lifecycle when the body has been less able to manage these events. Two such times are: infancy when the body is learning to fight infection; and old age when the body is not so strong. Another time when the human defence might fail is when a new virus is encountered which the immune system has not had experience of before.

A classic example of this occurred in New Zealand in the late 18th century with the arrival of colonists from Great Britain, who unwittingly introduced the indigenous Maori population to a range of infectious illnesses. These viruses, such as chicken pox, measles and the common cold, had never been encountered by the Maoris before and many were unable to fight off these infections with the result that a sizeable proportion of this indigenous population died within a decade.

Nowadays, humans have developed antibiotics to assist the immune system ito fight infection. However, although penicillin and other antibiotics have saved many lives, present day medicine advises against the repeated use of these drugs for fear they will inadvertently weaken the immune system’s defences. The problem being that the virus – also a living thing – desires to survive and so adapts to these new antibiotics creating even more complex infections that may one day go beyond the capacity of the human immune system to adapt. Of course, a different problem that arises from this is the failure of humanity to keep pace with these viruses, which continually require new antibiotics to be developed and manufactured.

From this, I think it is unfair to attribute all illnesses to human meddling as clearly some viruses originate within the animal kingdom. However, perhaps more interesting is the innate resourcefulness of our immune system that fights, protects against and adapts on our behalf to ensure that humans survive. Perhaps a case of in-built human resilience in a world that is good for sustaining life but never harm-free.

 

 

‘Why is our world full of carcogens, chemicals, diseases etc?’

Four Questions

  1. Is disease and death simply the consequence of human activity in the world that has brought us into contact with substances we might have otherwise avoided?
  2. Could it be the bi-product of a world in which human existence is facilitated by a gas-filled environment comprising oxygen and hydrogen, also contains other elements and substances that are detrimental to life and health?
  3. Should blame rest on human disobedience in the Garen of Eden? Did carceogens arrive as the idyll was lost when Adam and Eve ate of the Tree and their eyes were opened to a world of toil and alienation in which weeds grow and death enters the world?
  4. Or is it something else all together?

Now, read on…

Clearly there is a sense in which human decisions do affect health in very direct ways in the divide between rich and poor and the consequences of economic disparity. Likewise, the lifestyle choices people make where the risk of illness is increased through consumables such as alcohol, cigarettes, sugary or fatty foods,etc. Often, the danger is not known beforehand and people persist because it is addictive and/or enjoyable. These lifestyle decisions are particular to each person and the way they exercise freewill by living healthy or unhealthy lives either through choice or no choice at all.

Of course, this sort of decision making can affect us in less obvious ways – such as when the consequence of what we have done is not immediately apparent to us. A good example of this is passive smoking, where the inhalation of a person’s second-hand smoke has only been recognised as dangerous in the last few decades. The danger being uncovered after millions of people had been exposed to it for many years. Although the danger of passive smoking is now recognised, risks associated with other products and activities are not. Here, I am thinking of products that people have used for a number of years but which are only later recognised as detrimental to health because they contain substances we now recognise as cancerous or harmful. And just as many other things we will discover are harmful tomorrow.

One example of this from history is that of asbestos which dates back to 4,000 BC. Initially, this was added into wicks by people to increase the length of time their lamps and candles were able to burn. Later, in Ancient Egypt, the material was woven into fabric to make cloth that was used to prepare pharaohs for burial with Benjamin Franklin bringing a purse made from asbestos to England as late as the 19th century. Indeed,  asbestos continued to be manufactured and used in the building industry in the UK for much of the last century. That said, it is only in the last few decades that scientists have come to realise the how dust particles from asbestos result in many people developing lung and respiratory problems as they unwittingly absorb it into their bodies.

So, returning to the question, ‘Why are there so many things in the world harmful to humans?’ a better question we might ask is:

‘why is it that so many things that humans use and consume have the potential of being dangerous to our wellbeing?’

For me, this is the far more interesting question as it majors on the environments we inhabit and their suitability for human longevity and existence which brings us back to our….

Four Questions

  1. Is disease and death simply the consequence of human activity in the world that has brought us into contact with substances we might have otherwise avoided?
  2. Could it be that the bi-product of a world in which human existence is facilitated by a gas-filled environment comprising oxygen and hydrogen, also contains other elements and substances that are detrimental to life and health?
  3. Should blame rest on human disobedience in the Garden of Eden? Did carceogens arrive as the idyll was lost when Adam and Eve ate of the Tree and their eyes were opened to a world of toil and alienation in which weeds grow and death enters the world?
  4. Or is it something else all together?

 

 

 

 

‘If God created the world perfect, why is there so much disease within it?’

 

It is necessary to start by saying this question is not without theological explanation. Many orthodox believers consider disease and illness to have come about as a result of human rebellion from God (aka The Fall). This is the idea that when humans rejected God, they collectively became prone to moral evil – that is they began to mistreat and kill one another. But more than that: the world which was under their stewardship was also affected with the result that their idyl was lost as weeds made work toilsome and disease and illnesses ran riot across the earth until such time that humanity could be restored with God.

Now, the difficulty with this orthodox explanation is that the rational person finds the idea unsatisfactory in terms of the action of a loving God. Indeed, some might reason that if God knew how humans would fail and allow illness and death to enter the world, He should also be held culpable. After all, if God gave humans the task of stewardship, He must have known the irreparable damage that would happen to the environment should they fail in this endeavour.  Author Harold Kushner observes the incidents recorded in Genesis 2 &3 with these words:

‘I can’t remember how old I was when I heard (the story) for the first time, but I can remember that, when I was still young, I found some aspects of it hard to understand or accept…Isn’t this a harsh punishment for one small mistake – pain and death. Banishment from Paradise, for breaking one rule. Is God really that strict? Why did God create a tree that He didn’t want anyone to eat from? 

Was God setting up Adam and Eve so that he could punish them? Was the woman ever told of the prohibition, either by God or by Adam? Why is the story told in such a way as to make it seem that it was all the woman’s fault? What is the significance of the first humans being unashamed of their nakedness before they ate the forbidden fruit, and feeling shame immediately afterward?

And perhaps most troubling of all, if the forbidden tree was the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, does that imply that Adam and his mate had no knowledge of good and evil before they ate of it? If so, how could they have been expected to know that it was wrong to disobey God? And why were they punished if they had no sense of good and evil before they ate of it?’ (‘How Good Do We Have to Be?’ Harold S Kushner).

Today, the more rational among us would think it nonsense to believe the equilibrium of the physical, spiritual and moral world of humans might be affected through the consumption of an apple. That said, it is clear that our growing understanding of human activity in the world has and is resulting in changes to the environment in ways that are detrimental to health and wellbeing of ourselves and the creatures within it. However, this type of change is a long way removed from orthodox thinking of how the world is affected by a spiritual reality where illness and death have been introduced into it. True, human decisions do have outcomes for people in the world, like when rich nations prosper at the expense of the poor, but this is a different question altogether…

 

 

‘How should we understand miracles in the 21st Century?’

As we come to the end of series I’d like to say something about how I believe that miracles have been incorrectly elevated in the 21stC over other types of healing that occur through medicine, physiotherapy, etc every day of the week. Today, life for many in the developed world is often characterised by excess – one in which people constantly seek the next ‘new thing’. Often the ‘new’ thing that is sought is bigger, brighter and bolder than that which went before it. Sadly, churches can and do become complicit with this sort of consumerism in which miraculous healings take preference over less overt experiences of God’s power with the result that beleivers can be seduced into a belief that some healings are better they others – feeding the modern-day titillation for a ‘supernatural’ experience over everything else.

It is also worth noting that many believers consider miracles to be ‘on tap’ as they have been taught that all they have to do is ‘name it and claim it’ – perhaps a healing for Aunt Dora’s bowel cancer? Yet , rather than being ‘standard’ and ‘commonplace, experience tell us that miracles are actually a rare occurrence. So much so that this process of healing is better considered as…

…the exception and not the rule.

In summary, miraculous healing is not the experience of most believers – in fact very few. True, some believers will have valid testimonies about how God healed them or revealed Himself by some other means. But here, we might question

why do some church leaders fail to encourage their congregations to praise God and give testimony about how they have been healed using antibiotics or physiotherapy or counselling or a pacemaker or whatever with the same degree of enthusiasm that they would if it had been a miracle?

Antibiotics, physio, counselling, pacemaker (et al) are all valid testimonies of God’s activity in the world though there is a tendency that some will always consider these inferior to the miraculous event they beleive should be happening all around the world – but more particularly, in their church.