Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Praying Spirit and the Quail Episodes

Reading the Bible in a new translation, I was struck by a verse I've read many times: "...for the Spirit pleads for us believers in harmony with God's own will" (Romans 8:27b, NLT). I often don't know God's will or am foggy on the details, but the Spirit does, and advocates on my behalf. He augments my prayer life with prayers that are able to be more specific, because he sees clearly where I do not. Where I don't get the larger picture, the Spirit has my whole life in view and is holding it up next to God's will saying, "Well, to get from Point A at age twenty-something to Point B at age eighty-something, we need to..."

How true it is that I don't always know what to pray for! Like everything else about me, my prayers are insufficient. Conversation with God is affected by the sinful nature. Even when I think I know what I want, I do not truly know, for wanting is a looking-forward act and we can never fully predict the future.

Nevertheless, God always responds to our prayers. It's never as simple "yes" and "no" (or the third answer, "maybe"). Whoever decided to simplify prayer with God down to Magic 8 Ball answers was stupid. In my experience, that's never the only thing God says, and there are vastly different types of noes and yeses out there. God talks back to us. Prayer is a conversation--if we're patient enough to listen instead of talk-and-go. He responds, and many times he may give us what we ask for--but very often it's not the way we'd asked for it (or when!). And that's a good thing.

Take for instance my prayers for a good job starting two years ago. Practically since graduation I prayed for a job that would allow me to be financially independent and would be moderately enjoyable (at least survivable). But God wouldn't give me one. I didn't get a single callback, even to say no, from any of the companies I applied to. God had bigger plans about where I would work, and knowing I would balk, he had big plans for what I would learn along the way while I made things hard for myself.

My biggest problem was that I believed the Independence Myth. I assumed God wanted me to be financially independent. In fact, I thought this was more important than feeling fulfilled by my job. I wanted any job. But God wanted me to have the job I'm good at and most passionate about--the one that involved a lot of risk and that I wasn't even thinking of pursuing because there was a 100% certainty of it taking awhile to pay off financially. I figured writing would be my pastime or maybe something I did later in life when I had enough money saved up.

The Spirit was pleading in accordance with God's will. I was not. I kept asking for a certain kind of a job, and God kept refusing me. I didn't bother to sit around and find out why he was saying no. It didn't occur to me that there might be a good reason; as far as I knew, God's will was my financial independence. I was praying for a job for the wrong reasons. God wanted to use me and my skills to benefit others and to grow me through my work.

It took a year and a half of me struggling against him until I found out what God was up to. During that time I took two different jobs out of desperation. When it proved that they were a terrible fit, I got mad at God. "I asked for a job, and you gave me a crappy job, and now even that isn't working out?!"

When God tells you to quit your job and relax, you really should listen. But I didn't. I kept applying and striving and stressing and worrying about money.

You know about the Israelites and manna? The people of Israel were enslaved by Egypt for several centuries. God fights off the Egyptians and leads the Israelites on a journey through the desert towards the land on the other side, which is fertile and green and perfect. During the long desert trek, there's no food or water of course, so God makes springs flow out of the rocks and food called manna fall on their camp. Manna meets all nutritional needs and can be roasted, boiled, or baked.

But the Israelites want meat. And they don't even ask God for it; they just start complaining among themselves and talking about leaving God and going back to their slavery in Egypt. "...'Cuz the Egyptians had lots of meat," was their reasoning, not that they got any of it as slaves. But God hears them (he does even when you don't talk directly to him) and sends quail down. Like, a massive swarm of harmless little tasty birds. Yum.

The people dig in. Some of them are practically gorging themselves on quail. They're eating so much, or perhaps they're not cleaning it and cooking it properly, people start getting sick. Divine retribution, natural consequences, call it what you like,* they're getting really sick--people start dying. They cry out, "Aaah, wait, we wanted meat and you made us sick? We don't want this any more..."

Sometimes we really need to listen to God. What's he saying? "You're not ready yet," or maybe, "I have something even better, if you can believe it. You're gonna love this." We need to hear his explanation. If we understood God's plan, we wouldn't balk so much about our circumstances.

I asked for meat and I got quail that made me sick, jobs that broke me down to a tired, weepy mess. It took a long time til I was ready to say, "Okay, how about you come up with a plan," and listen. We get so sure we're right that surety drives us away from trusting in the one who knows better.

Once the quail episode was over God really did bring me to the land of milk and honey, but it took those "forty years" (okay, one and a half) in the desert. Now I have a job, and it's one I love and one where I can help people in the best way I know: by writing to them. And I'll let you in on a secret: I still haven't achieved financial independence. I was 99% dependent on my husband this year. And that's okay. It doesn't make him better than me. I doesn't mean I'm not a true adult. Adulthood, I've learned, is about taking responsibility for your attitude and your heart--and your relationship with God. God takes responsibility for you and your needs.

Think how often we spend our time cowering beneath the weight of impending financial ruin! I'm almost out of money, just like last month and the month before and the month before... Somehow, we make it through month after month. When you count friends and family and most of all God into your budgeting, it's not so scary; you have what you need.

My husband and I got married 3 weeks before his school started, long after the deadline to make changes to FAFSA to account for two of us instead of one. But we made it through, because it wasn't in God's plan, for His own reasons, that we get into more debt than we're already in for undergrad. Because God is the one in charge, of good things and bad things. Maybe it's a "bad thing" to have a tight budget (I thought it was kinda fun), but either way, God is king of the universe and he's taking care of you, no matter what it feels like right now. A tight budget sure taught me trust and how to relax when you shouldn't by any means be able to. Usually if your circumstances feels tight, it's because something in you needs to change.

If God's in charge, we know he'll respond to our requests. And if we walk with him, we won't hear "no" or "yes;" we'll hear him telling us his desires for us, his heart for this season in our lives. We'll learn the things that will help us understand and see clearly. The Spirit is seeing clearly, and he's praying for you. And you can bet his word is truth. We'll find the desires of our heart in him.

* Let's face it, very often natural consequences and God's justice are the same thing. Maybe always the same thing.