I was watching an episode of West Wing the other day, and Toby, the sulky, dark, idealistic character, quotes an Italian proverb to C.J, the Press Secretary:
Quando dio vuole castigarci ci manda quello che desideriamo — “When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.”
Interesting quote. But it got me thinking: Thank God, my God is not like that.
It reminds me of something we hear all the time in pious circles: don’t ask God for patience. Patience comes through suffering — and you sure don’t want that.
You know, I suppose there is some biblical basis for that statement. Doesn’t James tell us, “the testing of your faith develops perseverance”? Sure, we can learn patience through suffering and difficulty, but isn’t it also one of the fruits of the Spirit? “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal 5:22). It’s a characteristic that is developed in us by God’s Spirit as we mature. Maybe it doesn’t always have to come as the result of long suffering. Maybe God isn’t always that harsh: “I want you to grow up, so I’m gonna throw a bunch of hardship your way …”
I’d rather think of God in the terms Jesus described him. “Who among you who, when your son asks for a loaf of bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!” (Mt 7:9-11).
What kind of parent would say, “Ah, son, Ah daughter. You ask for a good thing, like patience, so I must torture you now”? The same goes for other things in our lives. If we ask for something that might harm us, do we think God would punish us by actually giving it to us? What kind of Father is that?
What if we take the flipside of Jesus’ saying? “If your hungry son asks for stone, won’t you give him bread instead? If he ignorantly asks for a serpent, will you give it to him? If he mistakenly asks for a scorpion, won’t you give him an egg for breakfast instead? If you, as messed up as you are, wouldn’t give something harmful or dangerous to your children even when they ask, how much more would your Father in heaven also not do such a thing?”
We gotta stop thinking of God as some kind of impersonal machine, dolling out trouble when we ask for a virtue because that’s the formula: trouble leads to patience. This God, who loves us so much he actually came down to physically walk and talk with us in the flesh, we gotta stop seeing as a ruthless, heartless Cosmic Force.
If I ask for something that might harm me, if I’m desperately praying for an answer that might actually be dangerous for me, or cause me greater pain, I’m comforted to know that my Father — a wise and loving parent — cares enough to say “No”. He has no problem saying, “you don’t need that now” or “no, that’s not good for you — you can’t have that.”
I wanna turn that Italian proverb upside down. This is the truth I embrace. “When God wishes to bless us, he doesn’t always answer our prayers.” I’m happy God sometimes says “no.”