Downstream grace

Have you ever found yourself in a sticky situation, praying for a way of escape?  Or confronted with what seems to be an unsolvable problem, asking God for help?

A couple of weekends ago, our pastor related a story (which, given my Swiss-cheese memory, I will probably mangle) about a short-term mission team which needed to have a plot of land cleared before beginning their building project.  The property was studded with large stones that would have taken an entire day to clear by hand.  In faith, they prayed for a solution–and to their joy and delight, opened their eyes to the arrival of a bulldozer.

An answer to prayer?  Or a happy coincidence?

“Oh, come on,” a skeptic might say.  “Obviously it must have taken time for the bulldozer to get there, unless you’re claiming that God simply materialized the thing out of thin air.  It was already on the way before they started praying.  So how could it be an answer to prayer?”

It was actually this story that reminded me of the tale from Joshua 3 which was the subject of the last post.  The people of Israel, ready to enter the Promised Land, had first to cross the broad and overflowing Jordan River.  Joshua tells them that God will do a miracle so that they will know that God is going before them into this new and dangerous land, a land filled with people who won’t welcome them.  And sure enough: as soon as the priests carrying the ark of the covenant obediently set foot in the water, God stops the flow of the river–but miles upstream.  It would have taken a while for the waters to recede enough for Israel to cross on dry ground, leaving the people to wonder if God had done the miracle or not.

There’s a metaphor here for what we sometimes experience in prayer and the life of faith.  I call it downstream grace.

We may be prone to thinking of prayer in overly instrumental terms: it’s something people do to move God to do something.  We ask, plead, or pound on heaven’s door.  And sometime later, whether a millisecond or a millenium, God responds.

But what if, from time to time, the this-and-then-that, cause-and-effect way of understanding prayer gets it all wrong?  What if prayer, instead of prompting an act of grace, opens our eyes to an act of grace already in progress?

Remember, for example, what Jesus taught his disciples before the Lord’s Prayer:

When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.  Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.  (Matt 6:7-8, CEB)

God already knows.  And he may already have exercised his providential grace in ways we can’t foresee and often don’t notice.

We who stand downstream can only pray in faith.  We get our feet wet.  And wait, humbly but expectantly, on the mercy that may already be flowing our way.