For the week of August 9, 2003 / 11 Av 5763
Torah: Devarim / Deuteronomy 3:23 - 7:11
Haftarah: Isaiah 40:1-26
God Is Not a Vending Machine
But because of you the LORD was angry with me and would not listen to me. "That is enough," the LORD said. "Do not speak to me anymore about this matter" (Devarim / Deuteronomy 3:26).
God answers prayer. Isn't that wonderful? But did you know that sometimes he answers our prayers with, "No"? That's what happened to Moses. God had told him that he would not be allowed to enter the Promised Land. That was due to how he handled one of the times the people complained that there was no water. Even though God had made his decision, Moses pleaded with him at least to allow him to cross the river briefly and see the Land. But God still said, "No."
Some may try to carefully analyze all the ins and outs of this situation to understand why Moses got a negative response from God. Maybe the more we can understand about prayer, the more often our prayers will be answered to our satisfaction.
Other people don't concern themselves about whether or not their prayers are answered. For some, prayer is a religious activity that fulfills some sort of nebulous cosmic need. We may pray because our parents did or expect that we do. We may think our prayers only affect the big picture such as the preservation of our families, our communities, or perhaps the whole world. But as for personal answers to specific prayers, probably not.
Now for those who do believe that God answers our personal prayers, I get the impression that some think of God as mechanical. Of course they wouldn't say that God is a machine, but once we begin to think our prayers will get answered when we meet a particular set of criteria, then we miss a basic aspect of who God really is.
God is not a thing. He is a being. He has a will. He has desires. He relates to people. He has personality traits. Prayer is a fancy word for talking to God. God, who knows everything, even before we say it, knows the difference between our thoughts and wishes, and when we are actually addressing him. He hears our prayers and responds. His responses are based on his personal decisions. We cannot predict how he will respond to our prayers.
I know there are scriptures that refer to this subject. I know there are things we can learn about what and how to pray, and under what circumstances we can expect either positive or negative responses from God. But when it comes down to it, God is a free agent, who does what pleases him, and we don't always understand or are able to predict how he will respond to our prayers.
God is not a vending machine, who will give us whatever we want when we press the right buttons. While he delights to hear and answer our prayers, we need to be prepared that he may not respond exactly how we may prefer or expect.
Having said that, there is still one more important lesson we need to learn from God saying, "No" to Moses. Even though Moses didn't get the response he wanted, he did get a response. Even though the answers we get may not be what we want, God does answer prayer. He does want to communicate with us.
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