Monthly Archives: October 2020

Sunday Laws and Bible Prophecy (14): Ellen White, A Classical Prophet

One thing I have come to realize in recent discussions is that many people who read Ellen White treat her writings as if they were apocalyptic prophecy, and therefore not subject to the Bible’s principles for interpreting classical prophecy. There are visions she describes that remind one of Revelation 4-5 (heavenly journeys), but nothing like Daniel 2 or Jewish visions like 4 Ezra and 1 Enoch. Her work fits the pattern of classical prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah and Hosea. She addresses her immediate situation with passion and a desire for change on the part of her readers. When she projects into the future, it is never a detailed account of specific things beyond her time, but a natural extension of the world she is living in.

The important implication of this is that her predictions of the future, insofar as they concern human affairs, are conditional upon those affairs. This principle is stated unequivocally in Jeremiah 18:7-10: “If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, 8 and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. 9 And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, 10 and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it.” This is God speaking directly and explaining how He operates (Jer 18:6). When speaking about the interactions among nations and powerful entities, God’s predictions are conditional upon the response of those nations and entities. To take such prophecies as outlining the future with absolute certainty is to take them too far. They may, in fact, be fulfilled in exact detail, but they also may not. God is not always predictable. As Ellen White herself frequently stated, “circumstances alter cases.”

In my research for this series I ran across a statement of Ellen White that shocked me. It was completely counter to the strong emphasis of Great Controversy on the topic. But when you note the date of the statement in light of the prophetic principles we outlined earlier, the statement makes perfect sense. “Then I saw the mother of harlots. . . . She has had her day and it is past, and her daughters, the Protestant sects, were next to come on the stage and act out the same mind that the mother had when she persecuted the saints.” MS 15, 1850. When she speaks of the “mother of harlots” she is clearly alluding to Revelation 17:4-5, which she applied consistently to the papacy. In her view, as of the year 1850, the papacy “has had her day and it is past.” Protestant America would play the role in the end-time that the papacy had played in the Middle Ages.

This statement makes perfect sense in 1850. The population of Catholics in the United States was about 5% in 1840. They were a small, insignificant player on the stage of American politics. But immigration from places like Ireland, Italy and Poland changed that dynamic in the decades that followed. By the year 1890, the proportion of Catholics in the US population had reached 17%. They could no longer be ignored. But in 1850 the papacy appeared to be a spent force, having just gone through the humiliating captivity of 1798. Since the demise of the “mother of harlots” is stated in Revelation 17:16, Ellen White may at that time have placed Revelation 17 in the past as Uriah Smith did. If the end had come in the 1850s, it appears that the papacy would not have played the role in the end-time that Great Controversy portrays for it in the 1880s. Her 1850 prediction is a natural extension of that time and place.

Another surprising statement comes from 1886, a little before the peak of Sunday agitation in Congress. “. . . the Christian world has sanctioned (Satan’s) efforts by adopting this child of the papacy– the Sunday institution. They have nourished it and continue to nourish it, until Protestantism shall give the hand of fellowship to the Roman power. Then there will be a law against the Sabbath of God’s creation. . . .” RH, March 9, 1886. In this statement, the key element is not so much a law requiring Sunday observance, but a law forbidding Sabbath observance. Here she follows the anti-Sabbath option for Revelation 13 that we have mentioned previously. This emphasis would increase in the 1890s and early 1900s as the drive to legislate national observance of Sunday lost steam. When local Sunday laws came to her attention, instead of telling people to resist them, she said use the day for missionary work. Don’t arouse the ire of neighbors and authorities by conspicuously doing manual labor on that day. It is no direct threat to your keeping of the Sabbath.

As you look at all the statements Ellen White makes regarding Sunday laws, the key statements regarding Sunday legislation in Congress are clustered in the year 1888, when that was a live and national issue. As you observe the trend of her statements over seventy years, it fits the pattern of the classical prophet: speaking directly and prophetically to the living issues of her time. As with Scripture, this in no way diminishes the value of such prophecies for today. It simply impacts the way that we read them and apply them today.

Sunday Laws and Bible Prophecy (13): The World of Ellen White

The world that Ellen White experienced in the 1880s was soon to change dramatically. Proestantism remained a major, if not dominant, force in American politics for a number of decades. But after the failure of national Sunday legislation in the period of 1888-1890, Catholicism retreated from being a major player in the American political scene until Vatican II and the rise of John F. Kennedy in the late 1950s. And while spiritualism has remained at the fringes of American consciousness, its role in the public square rapidly diminished after 1890. With Ellen White’s death, a new threat to the American way of life became increasingly powerful, the rise of secularism/liberalism. It offered a direct threat to the “Protestant government” of the United States that was largely taken for granted when Great Controversy was first written. Protestantism fought back during the Liberalism/Fundamental controversy, but the Scopes trial in the 1920s and the collapse of Prohibition in the early 1930s signaled the death knell of Protestant dominance in American politics. The three main threats to the American way of life in the 1880s were now supplanted by a much greater threat, that the Christian values upon which America was founded would be totally set aside in favor of a pluralistic, secular order.

Another major feature of Ellen White’s world was colonialism. Virtually the entire world was either ruled by nominally Christian powers like England, France, Spain and Germany, or deeply influenced by the economic and political power these European nations wielded. The concept of an international Sunday law was very conceivable in the colonial era. But the colonial era began to unravel in the wake of World War II, and European dominance of Africa and Asia had almost totally evaporated by the early 1960s. The world today is a very different world than the world of Ellen White in the late Nineteenth Century. And that is a serious problem for anyone who wishes to project the details of her world into the Twenty-First Century. God meets people where they are. It is reasonable to expect that a prophetic voice arising today would say at least some things that would surprise us.

The scenario Ellen White projects in Great Controversy is deeply embedded in the very specific politics and issues of the 1880s and a little after. It addresses the very things the nation at large was discussing and includes all the major political players of the time. It is not the story of some far future for the United States of America, that story is a natural extension of Ellen White’s time and place. I remind you of her own statements in that regard. What she wrote about in GC concerned “movements now in progress” (GC 573). “In the events now taking place is seen a rapid advance toward the fulfillment of the prediction. . . .” (GC 579). What she was describing was a “soon-coming conflict” (GC 592). In fact, “The decree. . . . has already gone forth” (7 SDABC 976). And it would be enforced by “a Protestant government” (RH, December 18, 1888). The world has changed massively in the last 125 years. Like the writers of the New Testament, Ellen White did not perceive the long period of time that would come after her. In fact, there is very little in her writings that directly describes the world in which we live.

Like the biblical prophets, when Ellen White describes the future it is in the language, time, place, and circumstances of the time in which she wrote. This is illustrated by the fact that language about a national Sunday law in Congress only appears in the immediate context of a bill in the Senate to establish a national Sunday law. Before that she speaks in very general terms about Sunday legislation, language appropriate to a time in which there were many local Sunday laws, but no push for a national one. As noted earlier, there were seven editions of the Great Controversy vision and she updated each edition to reflect the changes in the world current in that time. This is exactly the pattern that you find when you look at the fulfilled prophecies of the Bible.

You will look in vain for any clear description in Ellen White’s writings of the world in which we live. There has been more change in the last hundred years than in the previous 6000, but you wouldn’t detect that in any detail in her writings. Yet you won’t find any explicit descriptions of nuclear war or nuclear power. There is no mention of computers, the internet, or cell phones. There is no mention of space travel by human means. There is no description of Communism, the two world wars, or Islamic terrorism. There is no specific description of an America that is becoming increasingly secular or post-modern. This is exactly what you would expect on the basis of fulfilled prophecy in the Bible. Prophecy was not given to satisfy our curiosity about the future. It was given to teach us how to live today. When we use prophecy for other purposes, things inevitably go wrong.

Sunday Laws and Bible Prophecy (12): Ellen White and Prophetic Principles

The standard assumption among many Adventists is that every single prediction made by Ellen White must be fulfilled at some point in the future, without conditions. This position is similar to that the Pharisees applied to the Old Testament in Jesus’ day. We all know how that worked out. Considering both the principles of prophetic interpretation of the Bible and the realities of history since the 1880s, I would suggest we exercise a little caution before uncritically embracing the standard assumptions about future Sunday laws in the United States and elsewhere. If Ellen White were alive today, there is at least a chance that her depiction of the End would be somewhat different than it was in the 1880s. Let’s look at the evidence for that caution.

First of all, an unconditional approach to Ellen White’s predictions is contrary to the evidence of fulfilled prophecies in the Bible. We noticed there that (2) God is not always predictable, that (4) God meets people where they are, that (6) God uses the language of the prophet’s past and present to describe the future, and that (7) fulfillments of prophecy are best understand as or after the fulfillment. I would argue that an appropriate interpretation of Ellen White’s unfulfilled prophecies would be and should be very much in line with the biblical evidence.

Let’s look briefly at the context of her most specific statements regarding the national Sunday law in the late 1880s. At that time, both SDAs and many other Americans see three great threats in the public square. The first was the fear of Protestant apostasy; that Protestantism in America would lose focus on the principles of the Reformation, which also undergirded the founding principles of the American nation. The second major threat was the rise of Roman Catholicism in the United States. In 1840 Catholics made up about 5% of the US population. By the mid-1880s, due to massive immigration from places like Ireland, Italy and Poland, Catholics made up 17% of the US population and Catholicism was flexing its political muscles in the US for the first time. This alarmed both Protestants and Adventists. The love for bars and carnivals that Catholics brought with them from Europe caused many to feel that the social order was being undermined. The third major threat was the rise of spiritualism as a major influence in the political discourse of the time. Ellen White’s famous statement about “reaching hands across the gulf” names all three of these threats (GC 588). A union of these three forces was seen as the greatest threat to both Adventism and the American republic.

Protestantism reacted to these developments in two ways, one more popular than the other with Adventists. First was the drive to ban the production and sale of alcohol in the United States, a movement that came later to be called Prohibition. Ellen White found common cause with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union on this issue and she sometimes spoke at their rallies. But the WCTU and other Protestant entities also saw Sunday legislation as a way to preserve America’s character as a Protestant nation. They sensed that the country was changing and felt that Sunday laws was a way to hold back the tide. Ellen White’s most famous statements on Sunday laws were written in the midst of the above developments. Thus, they are to be understood in the light of the biblical principles outlined at the beginning. God was using Ellen White’s past and present language and experiences to paint a picture of the future. Her outline of that future was, therefore, a natural extension of her time and place. Her visions met her squarely where she was. Given how much the world has changed in the last 130 years, it would be surprising if the outcome of the end-time turned out to be more predictable than the prophecies fulfilled in Bible times. “The promises and threatenings of God are alike conditional.” LDE 38.

Sunday Laws and Bible Prophecy (11): The Key Statements of Ellen White II

Ellen White returns to the issue of Sunday laws at the end of time on page 592 of The Great Controversy: “The dignitaries of church and state will unite to bribe, persuade, or compel all classes to honor the Sunday. The lack of divine authority will be supplied by oppressive enactments. Political corruption is destroying love of justice and regard for truth; and even in free America, rulers and legislators, in order to secure public favor, will yield to the popular demand for a law enforcing Sunday observance. Liberty of conscience, which has cost so great a sacrifice, will no longer be respected. In the soon-coming conflict. . . (Rev 12:17).” This statement is less specific than the previous one. In GC 592 Ellen White foresees church and state working together in America toward universal observance of Sunday. This observance will be supported by “oppressive enactments” in the plural. But her use of the singular in “a law enforcing Sunday observance” is compatible with the previous idea of national legislation. In this passage she once again underlines her understanding that this is a “soon-coming conflict,” and this time supports the term “conflict” with a quotation of Revelation 12:17.

A brief statement on this topic was included in the Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary: “The decree enforcing the worship of this day is to go forth to all the world. In a limited degree, it has already gone forth. In several places the civil power is speaking with the voice of a dragon, just as the heathen king spoke to the Hebrew captives.” There are two elements here that are not in The Great Controversy. First, she states that the decree enforcing worship of Sunday is to be worldwide, not just in the United States. Second, even that development was already in progress at the time she wrote this statement. It was a live development in the time when she was living.

The final statement I will share with you here is the most specific of all. It was included in the Review and Herald toward the close of 1888. “When our nation, in its legislative councils, shall enact laws to bind the consciences of men in regard to their religious privileges, enforcing Sunday observance, and bringing oppressive power to bear against those who keep the seventh-day Sabbath, the law of God will, to all intents and purposes, be made void in our land; and national apostasy will be followed by national ruin. . . . If, in our land of boasted freedom, a Protestant government should sacrifice every principle which enters into its Constitution, and propagate papal falsehood and delusion, well may we plead, “It is time for thee, Lord, to work, for they have made void thy law.” The United States, in its legislative councils (the House of Representatives and the Senate), will enact laws to enforce Sunday observance. Such a possibility was right before her at that time, in Senator Blair’s bill. But she makes one additional comment that will prove interesting. In her understanding, this legislation will be the action of a “Protestant government,” which was also a reality in her day.

This is a summary of, in my view, the five most pertinent statements regarding the subject at hand. Will these predictions necessarily be fulfilled simply because she said so? From a believer’s perspective that would be the simplest answer. But the scholar raises the uncomfortable point, do the biblical principles regarding fulfilled prophecy suggest some caution in drawing that conclusion? Stay tuned.

Sunday Laws and Bible Prophecy (10): The Key Statements of Ellen White

The first of the best-known statements of Ellen White on Sunday laws at the End is in The Great Controversy, page 573. I will quote the full statement and then make some brief comments: “In the movements now in progress in the United States to secure for the institutions and usages of the church the support of the state, Protestants are following in the steps of papists. Nay, more, they are opening the door for the papacy to regain in Protestant America the supremacy which she has lost in the Old World. And that which gives greater significance to this movement is the fact that the principal object contemplated is the enforcement of Sunday observance–a custom which originated with Rome, and which she claims as the sign of her authority. It is the spirit of the papacy–the spirit of conformity to worldly customs, the veneration for human traditions above the commandments of God–that is permeating the Protestant churches and leading them on to do the same work of Sunday exaltation which the papacy has done before them.”

Note first that this statement concerns “the enforcement of Sunday observance” in the United States. It is something that had been commonly done in Europe when the Roman Church had much more authority there than she ever had in the United States. But in this case the driving force behind the drive for enforcement was the Protestant leadership of the US government in the Nineteenth Century. Ellen White is not talking about some distant, future event, the movements to enforce Sunday observance were “now in progress in the United States”. She was speaking about current events in her context and the outcome of those current events for the future.

She returns to this matter on page 579 of The Great Controversy: “It has been shown that the United States is the power represented by the beast with lamblike horns, and that this prophecy will be fulfilled when the United States shall enforce Sunday observance, which Rome claims as the special acknowledgment of her supremacy. But in this homage to the papacy the United States will not be alone. The influence of Rome in the countries that once acknowledged her dominion is still far from being destroyed. And prophecy foretells a restoration of her power. . . . In both the Old and the New World, the papacy will receive homage in the honor paid to the Sunday institution, that rests solely upon the authority of the Roman Church.
“Since the middle of the nineteenth century, students of prophecy in the United States have presented this testimony to the world. In the events now taking place is seen a rapid advance toward the fulfillment of the prediction.”

In this statement she is clearly making reference to Revelation 13 when she mentions the beast with the lamblike horns (Rev 13:11). She indicates that this prophecy will be fulfilled when the United States as a nation shall enforce Sunday observance. In some form this will also occur in the “Old World”, a common reference in Ellen White’s time for Europe. And, once again, she makes it clear that this is not some distant, future event. The movement toward Sunday enforcement is already in motion and moving rapidly toward an outcome that would include both the United States and Europe. Her prophecy of the future was a natural extension of things occurring in her day.

All in all Ellen White makes perhaps a hundred references to Sabbath-Sunday issues at the end of time. But this statement is different from all the earlier ones. What is different about this statement is that it is not referring merely to Sunday legislation here and there in various states, but something that would occur as a whole nation. To see the significance of this, it is helpful to know that the story of the Great Controversy came in seven editions (Early Writings, Spiritual Gifts, Spirit of Prophecy, Story of Redemption, and three editions of The Great Controversy—1884, 1888, 1911). What may surprise some is that the first five editions (through GC 1884) speak in general about Sunday legislation without the specifics of a national Sunday law legislated in Congress. It is only in the year 1888, the same year that Senator Henry Blair introduced a national Sunday law into the US Congress, that we see the addition of a national move to enforce Sunday in her projections of the End. I have gone through two collections of all of Ellen White’s statements on Sunday laws. There are actually only two statements about a national Sunday law, and both of them were written in the year 1888 (later statements, like the 1911 edition of GC, are reprints of the earlier statements). We will come to the second statement in the next blog.

Sunday Laws and Bible Prophecy (9): The Principles and Ellen White

As we get into the key statements of Ellen White on national Sunday law legislation in the USA at the End, we must keep in mind that it is an unfulfilled prophecy. Human beings have an extremely poor record when it comes to predicting future events on the basis of unfulfilled prophecy. To improve on that dismal record, it is critical to keep in mind the biblical evidence regarding fulfilled prophecies. In the fulfilled prophecies of the Bible we have a record of how God moves from prediction to fulfillment. These fulfilled prophecies pointed us to a number of principles that can help us avoid the mistakes of the past when it comes to prophecies that are not yet fulfilled.

The most important of those principles for our purpose are principles 2, 4 and 6. I will review them briefly here. Principle 2 states that God is not always predictable. The fulfillment is often somewhat of a surprise when it comes. God does not fulfill every detail of His predictions for a number of reasons. The most important one is that most prophecies are conditional (Jer 18:7-10, LDE 38—Ellen White says there that “all God’s promises and threatenings” are conditional). Whenever a prophet speaks of political events on earth those prophecies are conditional, because fulfillment depends on the behavior of the nations or entities involved. If an ungodly entity repents, God will not perform the doom He had promised. If a godly entity falls into apostasy, God will not fulfill the positive promises He has made.

Principle 4 is that God meets people where they are. That means that prophecies contain elements that are particularly focused on the time and place of the prophet. Prophecies need to be read in the light of the original context in which they were given. Principle 6 is related to principle 4. It states that God uses the language of the prophet’s present and past to describe the prophet’s future. That means that prophecy is always a natural extension of that prophet’s time and place. So another reason God is not always predictable is because the language, time, place and circumstances of the original prediction can change enough over time that the outcome will not be exactly as expected. This is evidenced over and over in the Old Testament prophets, with Isaiah 11:15-16 being the most dramatic case, as noted in earlier blogs in this series.

Many Seventh-day Adventists treat the predictions of Ellen White as if they were exempt from these biblical patterns. Anything she says about the future is fixed and unchangeable simply because she said it. But that kind of position on inspiration not only fails to account for the biblical evidence listed above, it places Ellen White’s inspiration in jeopardy. The classical case is her statement in 1856 that some people then present would be translated alive when Jesus returns (Life Sketches, 321). If one sees Ellen White’s predictions as fixed and unconditional, this calls her inspiration and truthfulness into question. But anyone familiar with the patterns of fulfilled prophecy in the Bible would immediately think of Jonah. Prophecies (such as the timing of the Second Coming) that are subject to human response are conditional, even if the conditions are not stated. Her inspiration is not in question should every detail of a prediction not be fulfilled to the letter. With that in mind we are ready to review her key statements regarding a national Sunday law in the US Congress at the end of time.

Does God answer only trivial prayers?

Recently wildfires raged in the relatively Adventist communities of Angwin, Deer Park and St. Helena, California. These communities include Pacific Union College, St. Helena Adventist Hospital, Deer Park Elementary School, and Elmshaven, the last home of Ellen G. White, Adventist visionary and one of the church’s founders. General Conference president, Ted Wilson, tweeted his concern and particularly requested prayer that Elmshaven would be spared from the flames on account of its historical and spiritual value. With the exception of a couple of secondary buildings at the elementary school and the hospital area church, the above institutions were spared. The Ellen G. White Estate in Silver Spring, Maryland tweeted its gratitude for the “miracle” that flames burned all around Elmshaven, but did not harm the property itself.

We, of course, do not know for sure whether the survival of Elmshaven was due to direct divine intervention, but it is certainly a possibility. But many Adventists expressed outrage at this claim in the face of so many Adventists losing their homes in the area. At the time of writing, no member has lost their life, but the loss of property is reported to be significant. The claim that God has acted to spare a historical building while not acting in response to many heartfelt prayers elsewhere was painful to many. What do we make of this reality? Did God answer only a relatively trivial prayer? Was Elmshaven spared primarily because of the courageous work of many firefighters? Or was this a coincidence that should simply have been accepted as such? It is hard to know. But it is likely that many members in the area, praying out of genuine need, were questioning why their prayers were not answered.

A young pastor in his first month of ministry re-connected with a newly baptized member of his church at camp meeting. She had walked in the door of the church without warning a few months before. Being raised in a broken, alcoholic Adventist home, she was not a novice to the Adventist Church, but had had no connection with it for a number of years. As her life apart from God spiraled into chaos she remembered church as a child being a relatively safe and happy place. So one day, in a place far from home, she had made the decision to return.

A couple of weeks before camp meeting, the young pastor was assigned to the church as an intern pastor and got to witness Susan’s baptism. So when she approached him at camp meeting with a request to talk, it was not a surprise. They walked down to the boat dock at the camp and sat down to talk. After some generalities, she suddenly turned the subject to her baptism.

“I need to be baptized again,” Susan said.

“Why would you say that?” the young pastor replied.

“Because there are things in my past I didn’t tell the senior pastor,” she responded.

Realizing that this was not a conversation to have in a public place, the young pastor suggested that they walk down a nearby trail along the wooded shores of the lake to a large rock where they could be away from prying ears. In years past he had actually built that trail as a teen-age summer camp worker. When they arrived at the rock she began a tale of woe; there were many things that she had done and that had been done to her. Whether or not she need to be baptized again, it was clear that she had rejoined the church, but had no idea about personal salvation or a living relationship with God.

While he had had college training in theology, the young pastor had never led anyone to Christ. In his mind he turned over the various strategies that he had learned in class and in church seminars. Doing the best he could to lay out a biblical approach to connecting with God he led her into the “sinner’s prayer.”

When they were done, Susan said, “That’s it?”

“That’s it, God loves us and is very merciful. He accepts every sincere soul that reaches out to him. He has cleaned the slate and this is the first day of the rest of your life, a life of walking with God,” he assured her.

Susan did not seem sure whether to believe him or not. Just then, they were startled by a sudden clap of thunder. This was unexpected. It had been a sunny and pleasant day up to that point. A moment later a total downpour ensued. Susan and the young pastor retreated under the largest available tree, but it was to no avail. In a couple of minutes they were totally soaked. But instead of being miserable, Susan’s face was shining with joy.

She looked at the young pastor and said, with delight, “I’m being baptized again!” Any doubts she may have had a moment before were gone. The arrival of the rain shower was just the sign she need to truly believe.

What do you make of a story like that? I know that it is true, because I was that young pastor and that was my first “lead someone to Christ moment”. Did God actually bring about that rain shower or was it just a coincidence? When I think about all He would have had to do in order to make that happen, one wonders why He would do it for a relatively trivial result. And what about all the people who might have been inconvenienced by rain shower? Which brings me to the question that is also the title of this blog: “Does God Answer Only Trivial Prayers?”

The Bible tells us that our God is a God of love (John 3:16; 1 John 4:8, etc.). He is more willing to give good gifts to His “children” than even the most loving earthly father is (Matt 7:7-11). To put it in other words, God enjoys showering His beloved ones with little gifts. Just to say “I love you.” And I believe He loves to do this in some of the most personal and practical ways imaginable. Perhaps you’ve just lost hope of finding a parking spot in time to meet a critical appointment. You send up a desperate prayer and suddenly a space appears. A worried mother wonders where her boy is and sends up a quick prayer. Just then the phone rings and she discovers all is well. Or you survive a harrowing experience and discover later that several friends felt impressed to pray for you at exactly that time. Millions of believers around the world have experiences just like this every day. It is reasonable to suggest from this that God is real and that He loves to make His presence known to those who are open to it.

But just now the skeptic in you is saying, Wait a minute! Are you trying to tell me that God manages the comings and goings in every parking lot around the world just in case one of His followers needs a spot at the last minute? If prayer is sometimes timed to remarkable events, what about all the times when people pray and “nothing” happens? What about all the real heartaches in this world that are met with silence? What about women who are raped and their cries for help go unheeded? What about men who contract terminal cancer in the prime of their life and feel as if their prayers go no higher than the ceiling? What about parents who pray for wayward children and go to their graves without a clear response from God?

These objections have serious weight. Believers often fail to realize how trivial their experience of God’s presence may seem to others who have suffered deeply in this life. Our glib expressions of how God is working in our everyday lives can be like a knife in the heart to someone experiencing the absence of God. We must never forget that the absence of God in everyday experience can seem the norm to most people. It is even something Jesus experienced when He was on the cross (see Matt 27:46 and parallels). In spite of the deep intimacy with God that characterized every day of Jesus’ ministry, in the 24 hours before His death Jesus experienced increasing darkness to the point where He could no longer see the Father’s reconciling face. The withdrawal of a sense of God’s approving presence caused Jesus the deepest anguish (see Desire of Ages, page 753). To experience the silence of God, then, is no indication that a person is actually forsaken by God or is an incorrigible sinner. But at times like that it can feel as if God answers only trivial prayers.

The story of Job may also be instructive here. Job’s experience makes it clear that there is no answer to most of the specific objections raised above, at least in this life. The tragedies in Job’s life were certainly unexplainable in earthly terms. They came from “nowhere” and made no sense to him. They had to do with complexities in the larger universe that Job never came to understand. The fascinating thing is that even when God came down in person to talk with Job about these issues (Job 38:1 – 41:34), He never mentions the real reason for Job’s suffering, a reason the reader of the story is allowed into (1:6-12; 2:1-7).

From the book of Job we discern that there is a cosmic conflict in the universe that affects all that we do and all that we experience. God’s actions are sometimes limited by larger considerations in that conflict, things we may never understand until eternity. Perhaps God’s intervention in Job’s situation would have upset the whole space-time continuum of the universe in a way even quantum physicists could not understand. In other words, God cannot explain what we cannot understand. What we do understand is that larger divine interventions can change things in a way that causes collateral damage at unspecified times in the future. Major actions of God have ripple effects in the lives of many people and their descendants over decades and even centuries. As those ripples play out in the course of history, they can have consequences that we cannot foresee but God in His infinite wisdom can. He may understand that the good we hope God will do in the present could cause even greater harm than His silence in answer to our prayers.

There is an interesting biblical illustration of this. It is the story of Hezekiah as told in Isaiah 36-39. Hezekiah was one of the most faithful kings in the history of Judah (2 Kings 18:5-6; 2 Chr 31:20-21). He was faithful to God in his personal life and devotions. He expanded the borders of the country. He restored the temple that had fallen into ruins. He restored the priests and Levites to their regular services. He restored the feast days. He removed the rival altars around Jerusalem. He ordered the “high places” of rival worship all around the country to be destroyed. He destroyed the idols and images that the people had come to rely on. His prayers protected Jerusalem when it was surrounding by overwhelming Assyrian forces. It would be understandable, therefore, for people to think that Hezekiah’s premature death would be a tragic thing for the nation and a mistake for God to allow. I can almost see the ancient bloggers and pundits questioning God’s character in relation to this development. But it was not to be.

When the time came for Hezekiah to die, he pleaded bitterly with God on the grounds of his lifelong faithfulness (Isa 38:1-3). If anyone ever were deserving of a positive answer to prayer, it would be Hezekiah. And God came through for him in stunning fashion. God not only granted him an extension of fifteen years of life (38:5), he provided assurance that this would happen through a major astronomical token (38:7-8– how Hezekiah came to have this experience is not explained). Everyone seemed to have gotten what they wanted from God. Yet during those extra years two things happened that undid all the good that Hezekiah had done during his lifetime; the visit of the Babylonian envoys (39:1-8) and the birth of his son, who became the evil king Manasseh (2 Kings 21:1-9). In the context of the cosmic conflict between God and Satan major interventions in people’s lives are very complicated. The ramifications are usually way beyond our understanding.

Having said this, I still want to argue that a believer’s experience in a parking lot is not necessarily imaginary. I cannot explain the timing and the effort involved in God’s actions. But I do believe that God would answer every prayer in a positive manner if pleasing us were the only consideration. If finding someone a parking space or timing a phone call will not upset the space-time continuum of the universe, why wouldn’t a loving God intervene? If a woman makes a full commitment to Jesus just as a rain shower happens to be passing, why wouldn’t God arrange that if the stakes were low enough? I guess what I am saying is that the lower the ultimate stakes, the lower the potential consequences of any particular divine intervention, the more likely that a loving God can use the circumstances of life as a token of his love. We serve a God who delights to please His children whenever so doing would not cause harm to anyone.

Having said that, those of us who have experienced this kind of intimacy from God need to be careful when and how we share such experiences with others. Our well-intentioned testimony can do harm even when God’s gift did not. While we should rightly acknowledge the small tokens of God’s favor in our lives and rejoice over them in the right circumstances, we need to also be aware of how often our testimonies cause pain.