In one of those genie-in-a-bottle stories, a poor man wishes for a million dollars, and he really should have been suspicious when the genie acceded so, shall I say, genially? to his request.
Sure enough, the hapless hero receives one million gold coins in a showering cascade over the top of his head, resulting in death by burial under suffocating treasure. But he did receive his wish.
While the surprise ending is clever, what’s not so amusing is that in many ways, the genie represents the kind of God that many of us unwittingly follow — capricious, cruel, unpredictable, unkind, to the point that when we ask Him for something, we are compelled to add all sorts of caveats:
“Please help me with all this stress at the office with that new manager.
“But don’t get me fired.
“Or on disability leave because I have terminal cancer.
“Or have the manager quit because he runs off with my wife and cleans me out of everything I own.”
If you forget a caveat, you’re doomed, because sure enough that’s the one God will pick, as well intentioned people remind us when things turn really bad and we can’t understand why, to the point that our prayers sound like groans:
“Well you know, God’s ways aren’t our ways, and His thoughts aren’t ours.” (In order to get the full impact of this, you need to hear it with the trill at the end.)
I’m sure if you’ve been slapped by this paraphrase, at a really low point in your life when you were seeking comfort, as in the God of Comfort, you weren’t comforted.
It’s not so odd, however, that many of us battle such a touchily fickle God, since this is the image nudged gently forth, intentionally or unintentionally, by such statements like,
“God’s taking you out of your com—–fort zoooooooone!” (There, I added the trill.)
This favorite phrase, mercifully not found in any holy book, is trotted out with tiresome predictability when recalcitrant group members push their heels in about teaching a class, say, or coming in on their day off to provide hours of free labor, or wondering aloud how they will pay for a short term mission trip without setting the whole thing on their credit card. (Apparently, that’s fine.)
What is not fine is questioning someone else’s idea of what is right for you, and the one verse that could come in handy in cases like this is generally not brought up:
“Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone?” Jesus asked rhetorically in Matthew 7:9-11. “Or, if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you . . . know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him?”
Dragging people out of their comfort zone and depositing their limp bodies on the rocks is not the action of a benevolent father, but then again, the Jimmy Kimmel idea of giving young children brightly wrapped Christmas presents with dreadful things, like rotten bananas, inside, just to gauge their reaction, isn’t such a benevolent deed either. Sure, the kids responded like brats, but the behavior of their parents — who were theoretically grown-ups — wasn’t much better.
Maybe the parents should have put a garter snake in the styrofoam fish-wich box and seen how the kid responded to that.
But I digress. Or maybe I don’t — maybe the reason we follow an artificial God — one that is margarine as opposed to butter: looks like butter, sort of tastes like butter, but definitely isn’t the real thing — is because we allow ourselves to be content with the poor substitute set in front of us, as opposed to putting aside other people’s opinions, other people’s voices, other people’s books and interpretations and sermons and workbooks and study notes and seminars and DVDs — and actually seeking out God for ourselves.
As intelligent human beings, we are free to read, and analyze, the words of our holy books without the distraction of outside voices, which may or may promote valid points, but which definitely affect our final thoughts, if we let them.
So don’t let them.
Strike out on your own and look for the real thing, the real God, the real Father — who loves his children to the point of distraction.
I mean, isn’t that how you love your own kids?