It’s a big IF.
We like if’s, when they are skewed in our favour, something called padding our bets. Winnings go in one direction because the House rules. It’s also how we like to think of God.
The story of Jacob in the Bible is like this. When he has his dream of angels ascending and descending from Heaven, he wakes up and makes a pact. “If God will be with me and (if) he will will watch over me... and (if) he will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s household, then the Lord will be my God” (Genesis 28: 20) He likes the odds, of having an angel army in his back pocket.
But if not? Now that’s another thing altogether. “If not” comes up up in the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, found in Daniel chapter three. They are prisoners of Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon, and have been commanded to bow down and worship a statue of the King, or be burned alive. They tell the king, “Oh King, we believe our God has the power to save us from the fire. But if not, we still will not obey the king’s command.” They were willing to follow their faith, even to the point of a terrible death.
So they get thrown into the fiery furnace, but are miraculously saved by the presence of a mysterious fifth figure, what theologians refer to as a Christophany. A pre-incarnate Christ appears in their midst, protecting them. Moreover, their clothes don’t even smell of smoke afterwards.
We like those feel-good kind of stories we were taught in Sunday School, as object lessons about faith. There are some real page-turners in the Old Testament, where people are miraculously snatched from the jaws of death, or saved from an encroaching army. Forget Shakespeare. We had King Jehosaphat who won a battle without raising a finger, Daniel in the Lion’s den, and a host of others. We were transfixed. Don’t worry. Keep calm and trust God.
Then there is the story of Elisha the prophet in Second Kings chapter six. A fearsome army approaches. Elisha’s servant is alarmed and terrified. “Then Elisha prayed, “O LORD, please open his eyes that he may see. And the LORD opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw that the hills were full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.” They were protected. Another happy ending. Those invisible angel bands are very convenient. Like Elisha, we all want to be able to pull out that can of angel whoop-ass on command.
Having grown up in the Word-Faith tent, this theme was expounded from the pulpit as practical theology for the chosen. You just had to have enough faith. If you didn’t get your miracle, it was your own fault. People wiser than me, have pointed out that these preachers don’t have faith in God, they have faith in FAITH and it is not exactly the same thing. It is as if faith is some kind of powerful metaphysical essence that the initiated can access with the right magic words. In their worldview, you don’t obey faith, faith obeys you.
There are plenty of other stories in the Bible where the ending is not so good, where people are called down to the wire to act as a witness. Consider the story of Peter. At one point in his life, he is miraculously sprung from prison by a shining angel and an earthquake. He finds the place where the believers are gathered. Rhoda, the servant girl who answers the door, is so terrified that she will not let him in, despite that the believers are praying for his release. She thinks it must be a spirit, and that Peter is already dead. They didn’t really expect to get what they were praying for. Miraculous interventions, we love them.
But Peter is the same guy who was ultimately imprisoned in Rome, and famously crucified upside-down, in a manner that would glorify God. No intervening angels that time. According to word-faith theory, it looks like poor Peter just didn’t exercise his faith properly. I have been to Malamar prison in Rome. It is not a hotel you might want to spend any time in. It looks like this. Let us just say the amenities are minimal. You might not be praying for a long stay.
Saint Paul was also imprisoned there. It is the place where he penned a lot of his epistles to the early church. He didn’t seem to care much about his own welfare. He just wanted Timothy to bring him a warmer robe to stave off the cold, and some good news about the believers. He pointed out happily, that he was in chains, but the Word of God was not in chains.
When Jesus talks about his glorification in the New Testament, he is not talking a crown and a Cadillac. He is talking about his coming death, by which he will glorify God. Never mind the legion of angels at his command. Father, take this cup of suffering from me, but nevertheless not my will, but thine be done.
So here’s the big IF. What if you pull the short straw in life, and God calls you to glorify him by your suffering? That is one to contemplate because it’s the deal many people in the world get, even in this present day. Numbers are in for persecution, and in 2019, Christians top the list for being under duress worldwide. They don’t fit the script we have come to love, those heavenly hosts at our beck and call.
I recall a conversation with an old neighbour. I was commenting how sad and unfortunate it was, that her husband got sick and died before his time. She looked at me quite plainly and said, “Well, it’s not like we get to choose, is it?” No indeed. We do not get that right and we don’t have that power no matter what anybody might name and claim. And so we get back to Jacob.
“If God will be with me and will watch over me... and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s household, then the Lord will be my God”...
It sounds good, but it might not be the deal we get. We might never really know what kind of faith we have, until it is put to the test. It is not a situation most people are lining up for. It could be that in the end, the deepest truths we get from life are taken from our suffering, and yet we are still in the palm of God’s hand. “If” faith comes pretty cheaply. “But if not” faith, now that is something that will make you sit up and take notice.
But if not...? It’s a big IF.