A recent post on snopes.com caught my eye. It relays an urban legend about two young women pursued by menacing men who take refuge in their car only to find that their car won’t start. After they pray, the car miraculously starts and the two escape. Next day one of the dad’s takes a look at the car to find out why it didn’t start. To his surprise, when he pops the hood, he finds the battery missing.
Barbara Mikkelson, who maintains snopes.com, observes that “‘Saved by prayer” tales imply that folks who do fall victim to the machinations of the ill-intentioned either weren’t pious enough or didn’t pray hard enough, else their assaults would likewise have been miraculously prevented.” This is a common error, one I have heard Christians make time and again. While it’s true that God is able to save those who belong to him and “make a distinction” between his people and their enemies, he usually does not do it. Why should we think he would? If God did not save his own son from a cruel and ignominous death, why would he save my son? Why would he save me?
The Jews of Jesus’ day thought they were special. They thought because they were Abraham’s descendants they had a special place in the cosmos. Jesus tried to disillusion them:
I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.
Jesus made it plain that the Jews were not special. God had called them and set them apart. He had given them the law and sent them prophets. He had given them his promises. But none of these things guaranteed their safety or gave them special immunity from the calamities that came on the rest of the world. They could not count on God’s favor just because they were Abraham’s children.
It’s an inescapable conclusion that God allows terrible, even horrible things to happen to those who believe in him. There were Christians in the World Trade Centers on September 11th. There were followers of Christ in New Orleans during hurricane Katrina. And devout believers have lost sons and daughters in Iraq and Afghanistan. Christians all over the world have been tortured, raped, and starved, not because of their faith, but because they were the wrong color or the wrong gender or just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Christians are not special. They are subject to the calamity and illness and death just like everyone else.
So what advantage is there in being a Christian? Just this: we have confidence in God’s love and kindness despite every kind of suffering. Though we cannot depend on special status with God, we can throw ourselves on his mercy and still expect kindness. Even if nothing goes our way in this life, we have a promise of a better life to come. We look forward to “a better country—a heavenly one.”