Pulling the Plug

unanswered prayer

“Do not pray for this people nor offer any plea or petition for them, because I will not listen when they call to me in the time of their distress.” (Jeremiah 11:14)

The Bible is packed with encouragements to pray and tons of examples of God answering prayers, sometimes in amazing ways. The prophet Jeremiah promises that God will hear when his people pray. Jesus tells a story to show that his disciples should always pray and never give up. Paul exhorts his readers to be devoted to prayer. The Bible is a veritable propaganda brick when it comes to prayer. Prayer is the reliable, reassuring red phone with a direct connection to the Office of Omnipotence.

So when God himself says not to bother praying, you know that can’t be good. There have been a few times that I’ve given up on things that weren’t working out the way I was hoping. Winning the Pulitzer Prize in Literature was one. Becoming Caesar was another, though that was probably doomed from the start. (I have considered making a run for the Antichrist but it’s not clear that the position is actually open.) Humans give up when they can’t pull something off. When the all-powerful Wizard cans the cause, it’s because he’s fed up with human stupidity and stubbornness. And when God writes you off, you are so screwed.

God has pulled the plug before. The Flood is a good example. Humanity was so messed up that God decided it was easier to flush than recycle. The Old Testament has lots of examples of nations and cities that, because of bad spiritual penmanship, were simply erased. Then there are the near misses when folks survived by the skin of their teeth. At Mount Sinai, God got so ticked at his people that he threatened to obliterate them and start over with Moses. Moses was more reasonable (sometimes God has to be talked down from the ledge) and he squeezed out an uneasy truce, saving the Israelites from complete destruction and the locals from a messy cleanup job. The point here is that God is no sugar daddy. If you push him over the edge you may find yourself on the numb end of divine disinterest.

Personally, I’d take God’s wrath over his disinterest any day. When God is pissed, at least he cares. There’s something deeply reassuring about the divine threat of imminent death and destruction; it tells us that God thinks we’re worth being killed. The agonies of hell are a kind of inverse affection, every brimstone a scorching jewel of endearment, a hunk a hunk of burning love. Wrath is love with jumper cables: the burn hurts so good.

The trick for believers is how to annoy God just enough so he neither kills nor ignores you. I’ve been observing the technique used by my own kids who, against all odds, have avoided both parental neglect and filicide. The secret seems to involve strategic shifts between maudlin shows of filial devotion and feigned ignorance of all responsibility. I need to polish up the act, but I’m pretty good at it already.


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