Chapter 2 - The Mystery of God

What happened to Neva Rogers? She prayed, but God completely ignored her. If you truly want to understand God, you owe it to yourself to ask a simple question: Why didn't God protect Neva even though she prayed and asked for God's help?

You may have noticed this same pattern in your own life. It is quite common for God to ignore prayers. And that seems odd, because the Bible is clear about how prayer is supposed to work. In Mark 11:24 Jesus promises:

    Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.
In John chapter 14, verses 12 through 14, Jesus tells us just how easy prayer can be:
    "Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son; if you ask anything in my name, I will do it.
In Matthew 18:19 Jesus says it again:
    Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.
Given these verses, and given the fact that Neva Rogers was a faithful believer, doesn't it seem like Neva Rogers' prayers should have worked?

We have no way to know what God is thinking, and his actions at times can be quite mysterious.

Steve's Miracle

Even when a prayer does seem to work, it is often shrouded in mystery. For example, in the May, 2004 issue of Guideposts magazine there is a fascinating story about a huge wildfire that swept through San Diego, California. Steve Homel lived in a subdivision engulfed by that fire. Steve prayed and God answered Steve's prayer, so Steve's story offers a glimpse into the way that God works in our world.

Steve saw the fire approaching and it was terrifying -- "an eighty-foot wall of flames rolling down the ridge that overlooks our street." He and his wife evacuated to the home of Steve's grown daughter about 15 miles away. There, as he watched the news on TV, Steve actually saw the flames reaching his neighborhood.

What is the appropriate thing for a person to do in such a situation? As with Neva Rogers, the answer is prayer. Steve, however, decided to take an innovative approach. According to the article: "Suddenly Steve grabbed a piece of paper. 'God bless this house and the firemen who protect it,' he scrawled." Steve then faxed that sheet of paper to the fax machine in his home.

Days later, Steve and his neighbors were allowed to return to their subdivision. What Steve found when he arrived was absolutely amazing. Despite the raging inferno, Steve's house stood completely unscathed. Even the trees in the yard were protected. It was as though there had never been a fire near the neighborhood.

They found Steve's prayer in the tray of his fax machine. The fax machine had received the message, and obviously God did too.

Since Steve prayed and his house survived, believers know what happened. Having heard Steve's prayer, God reached down from heaven into our world and worked a miracle. When God acts on our earth so obviously like this, it is a source of hope, a testimony to God's grace and a shining example of the power of prayer. This story about God's blessings gets written up in magazines and sent to millions of believers: God saved Steve's house!

The Mystery in San Diego

Steve's story certainly sounds miraculous. But if we probe into this situation just below the surface, we run into another paradox not unlike Neva Rogers'.

The problem is simple: Every other house on Steve's Street burned to the ground in the fire. According to the article, "The only things standing were a few brick chimneys. The rest had been reduced to ash." The 39 other houses on Steve's street were completely and utterly destroyed.

If God reached down to bless Steve by saving his house, did he not choose to curse Steve's neighbors by letting their homes burn to the ground? Why would a loving, all-powerful God save only one house when it would have been just as easy for him to save all 40?

This is where the "mystery of God" comes in. We have no way to understand why God would protect one house while destroying the other 39. In order to understand why the other 39 houses burned down, we are forced to imagine scenerios that are not particularly appealing:

  • Was God specifically cursing the other 39 homeowners because of sins they committed? This is uncomfortable because we are all sinners, and that means God may turn and curse us at any moment. He might burn our houses to the ground or shoot us in the head tomorrow as punishment for our transgressions. It is hard to reconcile that kind of behavior with the traditional "all-loving" God that many of us believe in.

  • Did the other 39 homeowners not pray properly, or hard enough? What if God was only accepting fax prayers that day? This is uncomfortable because it implies that there may be some sort of "magic incantation" or "secret code" that unlocks God's blessings, and it would appear that 39 out of 40 homeowners don't know the secret.

  • Could this all be part of God's plan? Perhaps the 39 other homeowners were all supposed to learn something from seeing Steve's house survive, or perhaps all of their lives were actually improved by losing everything and having to start over. This feels better, but it is hard to apply this theory in many situations. For example, when the 2005 tsunami killed 200,000 people, how did it make their lives any better? Also, it implies that prayer is meaningless. If God's plan is to burn your house down, your prayers are irrelevant, so why bother?

  • Or maybe it happened because Steve prayed too selfishly. Perhaps God wanted to teach Steve a lesson at the expense of his neighbors.

This "selfish" theory is actually something to consider. Think about it: Steve's prayer was incredibly selfish. What if Steve had changed just one word in his prayer so it had said, "God bless this subdivision and the firemen who protect it"? Would all 40 homes have been saved?

What if Steve had prayed "God bless this nation and the firemen who protect it"? Would every fire in the entire country immediately extinguish itself? If so, could we save billions of dollars per year by closing every fire station in the nation and relying on Steve and his fax machine to take care of us?

Most of us understand that closing every fire station in America would be irresponsible. But why? It brings up an interesting question: If you believe that God answered Steve's prayer, then why don't you believe that God would answer a nationwide prayer from Steve as well? Keep in mind what Jesus said in Mark 11:24:

    Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.
If Jesus is God, and if God is perfect, why isn't Mark 11:24 true? Was Jesus exagerating? Was he fibbing? If Jesus is perfect, why wouldn't he speak the truth?

Why, in other words, is God so mysterious?

The Gumball Machine

Many people respond to that question by saying, "God is under no obligation to answer prayers. God is not a gumball machine granting every wish." Yet, if you interpret the Mark 11:24 (and other similar verses) in a normal way, it does seem that God promises to answer prayers. So what is going on? (The article Understanding the Gumball Machine explores this question in more detail).

God's Ratio

In this case, God ignores 97.5% of the homeowners in Steve's subdivision. The ratio is 97.5% not blessed vs. 2.5% blessed.
When we look at Steve's situation, there is something else that is interesting to notice. What we see is this odd statistic: 39 houses not blessed vs. 1 house blessed. Every family on Steve's street needed help, but God saved only one of the houses. It is a terrible ratio -- a 97.5% failure rate. This ratio is so common that we could call it God's Ratio. God was right there, guiding the path of the fire to save Steve's house. Wasn't he? So why didn't God reach over and save the 39 other homes as well? If Steve had changed one word in his prayer, would God have behaved differently? Should we blame Steve for being so selfish when he prayed? Why couldn't God see that, as a believer, Steve would want to help all his neighbors too?

What is God thinking when he allows things like this to happen to some people but not others, even if both are fervently and faithfully praying? What was God thinking when he let Neva Rogers die? We can say, "It is all part of God's plan," but what sort of plan is that? It can become uncomfortable if you think about it -- what if God's plan is to shoot you in the head tomorrow, or burn your house to the ground? How do we make sense of that?

What if you could resolve the mystery of God? What if you could completely explain this mystery in San Diego, and the mystery at Red Lake, and the many other mysteries that we witness each day?

Before we can probe into the mystery of God completely, we should take one small detour. We need to have a clear understanding of who God is. We need to establish the Standard Model of God.

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by Marshall Brain

New York Times Coverage
discussed in a
New York Times piece
by N. D. Kristof.
For a counter-point to Mr. Kristof, please see
Chapter 26.

Recommendation by Sam Harris
Sam Harris recommends WWGHA in his book Letter to a Christian Nation.

Endorsement by Richard Dawkins
In a New York Times Letter, Richard Dawkins calls WWGHA a "splendid Web site."

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