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Do You Want a Vending Machine God?

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"If you let dad die, I'll quit the ministry,” I muttered to myself as I sped down I-205 toward my parents’ house in Portland, Oregon. Up to this point, my life had been one of pleasant memories, successful youth ministry, and happy times with my family. To be sure, we had our moments, but now, suddenly, I was faced with one of the most difficult situations of my life. We had watched as a rather large lump under Dad’s right arm had turned into an ugly, oozing, bleeding, ulcerous tumor that was approximately seven to nine inches across. The diagnosis: melanoma, the worst form of skin cancer. The prognosis: three to six months. 

We prayed. We wept. We encouraged others to pray with us. Thousands from all across the country––even across the world––prayed that Dad would be healed. I felt sure that healing was in the bag. If it had to do with the amount of prayers or the sincerity of prayer, then Dad should have been healed. If it had to do with faith and seeking the Lord, then Dad should have been healed. But he wasn’t. He died.

A few Sundays before Dad died, he could not stand up without two or three people helping him out of bed. I had spent the greater portion of the night praying. I really wanted God to work a miracle. I had read the stories in the Gospels of all the people that Jesus healed. I had read the story in Acts where Peter was walking through crowds and people were clamoring to put their sick in his shadow as he passed, and they were healed (Acts 5:15, 16). I had read the story of Paul walking through crowds who were passing their handkerchiefs and aprons over to him so that he might touch them and send them back, and Acts declares that all of them were healed (Acts 19:11, 12).

Then there were the proclamations of Jesus: “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer” (Matthew 21:22, NIV)1; “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7, NIV); “Then my Father will give you whatever you ask for in my name” (John 15:16, CEV).2

I had believed. I had asked. I didn’t doubt that God could do it. I had prayed hard and long that night, yet somehow was still like the disciples in the Garden. Somewhere along the line, I had fallen asleep. Now doubt plagued me. Would my sleeping preclude my miracle? Never mind that I had only averaged three to four hours of sleep for the previous three weeks as I sat by the bedside of my dying father. Never mind that I was driving 40 minutes one way to go home at least once during each 24 hour period to see my family, usually for only an hour or two. This particular night, I had decided that I would keep a prayer vigil and pray all night. Yet I found myself waking up on the floor of my study at four a.m. loathing the weakness of my humanity. “Lord, I believe!” I cried. “Help my unbelief!”

About six o’clock, I felt an impression to go to Dad’s house and say to him, “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and be healed.” And so now I sped down I-205, wrestling with myself and God. The struggle raged. Inwardly, I said, If I go and do this thing, and nothing happens, I’ll be really embarrassed. How would that look for a pastor?

On the other hand, I thought, But if I don’t, that could be the very thing that saves him. I thought of Naaman’s servant saying, “If you had been asked to do a big thing, wouldn’t you have done it?” 

I wrestled. I prayed. And then the thought came, If you let Dad die, God, I’ll quit the ministry. The turmoil continued to rage for most of the trip. As I turned into Dad’s neighborhood, a peace overtook me, and I was resolute that God wanted me to go in and pray and ask Him to raise Dad up. I was confident that God would do that.

I entered the room. No one was with Dad at the time, so I told him that I felt impressed that we should pray for his healing once again, only this time I felt that God was calling on us to demonstrate our faith in Him by actions. Dad said, “I think you are right. I appreciate that about you . . . always being a man of faith.”

I prayed. Hard. And then I said, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I say to you, get up and be healed.” Without hesitation, Dad, holding on to my hand, swung his feet off the bed and began to feebly stand. About halfway up, he gathered strength from somewhere and straightened all the way up. We both stood there holding on to each other for a magical moment, wondering if indeed the healing was happening, and then he said, “Help me lay back down. God may heal me in stages.” I helped him back into bed, and then he said, “Thanks for your faith. Thanks for your love that would prompt you to pray for me. And don’t worry. God will heal me. Now or then.”

I left the room very bewildered, very embarrassed, and very angry. Angry with God for asking me to do that. Angry with myself for possibly misreading His cues. Angry because it felt as if the devil was just taunting me, throwing my faith in my face as totally preposterous. Was it a lack of faith? Was I acting on what I believed God wanted me to do? Why would God have me pray a prayer that He wasn’t going to answer?

I don’t think Dad ever mentioned it again, and I wondered if he was embarrassed by it. He didn’t seem to be. The thing that got me was that his trust was immediate. He was willing to try whatever means were available because he loved us, and he loved life so much. And he truly believed that God was going to heal him. So to him, I don’t think he was embarrassed, even though I was. 

After much thought, here is what I think the point must be—or at least some lessons that can be drawn from the whole experience. First, I think that God may have been testing me to see if I would trust Him no matter what. I had thought that if Dad died, I would leave the ministry. What use would it be to serve a God who didn’t answer prayers? Why minister to the goodness of a God . . . who wasn’t so good? I think God’s point was, “Hey, no matter what happens, I will still be in control, and you don’t have to worry. I will take care of your dad. And I will take care of you. So, do you believe Me or not?”

Second, I would have regretted never trying it if I had kept silent and Dad had died. I could truly say that I had tried everything, and could rest knowing that God had another plan. If I had never experienced that, I could never have forgiven myself, and so I think God gave me the urge to go ahead and try what I had read in the Bible. I think God wanted me to see that sometimes all of the notions that we have, or all of the “magic” words we want to speak, do not hold the power. Only God does. I figured that if those words worked in the Bible, they just might work now, and that if I didn’t try them, they might have been the words to save Dad. But such was not the case. 

God is not moved by my “magic” words. He is moved by my heart. He isn’t interested in my notions. What He wants is to be loved freely. With no strings attached. With no “magic” words. And He risks being misunderstood and spurned rather than perform to my tune. 

The love He wants me to share with Him is not a love based on manipulation or insecurity. It is a love based on a deep, abiding trust. And the question comes back, “Do I trust Him no matter what?” If I only trust Him when things are going my way, then I have a conditional love. If I only trust Him when He responds to my “magic” words, then I have reduced Him to a vending machine God—put in the right amount, say the “magic” words, and out will pop my desired outcome. That’s not a relationship. It’s manipulation.

When I say to God, “Do this and I will love you,” or “Don’t do this, and I will not love you,” I am basing my relationship on my own immature desire to manipulate Him to get what I want. God has never worked that way. Not even when it would have saved Jesus’ life. Herod wanted Jesus to perform a miracle in exchange for Jesus’ freedom. He didn’t yield because He wanted our love to be from a genuine response to His love, not from a manipulated response based on what we might get.

And so, I am finding a deeper relationship with God, even though Dad died, even though healing didn’t occur the way I wanted. Why? Because I can’t blame God for all of the misery . . . we chose it. We sinned, not God. But He showed His love toward us in this, “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8, KJV). 

Love only wants a genuine response. So Love stretched out His arms and died. To show us He loved us. To show us that though the devil has made death to be a fearful thing, we need not fear it. To show us that He understands even the worst of what happens to us, and yet has promised us a better day. And because of that promise, I still have something to share in the ministry. And because of that Love, I’ll stay in the ministry until that day, a day when all will be made right. A day when we will see why things didn’t work out here. A day for joy instead of tears. And a day when Dad will be raised up. 

1 Scripture quotations marked NIV are from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. 2 Scriptures quoted from CEV are from the Contemporary English Version, copyright © American Bible Society 1991, 1995. Used by permission.

Don Keele, Jr., is a pastor and the associate youth director for young adults for the Georgia-Cumberland Conference. He writes from Calhoun, Georgia.

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