The ancient philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BC) struck upon a novel idea for attaining happiness. Pagans typically lived in fear of the gods and scrambled about like so many unabashed brown-nosers placating the deities at every opportunity. Epicurus drew the conspicuous conclusion that such a life-orientation was the mother of all sorts of misery. Little argument from anyone on that point, but what was a pagan to do?
Epicurus proposed two ideas to sidestep this misery. First, he insisted that although there were indeed many gods flitting about the supernatural realm, they had no interest in the natural realm. His point: Don’t waste your life appeasing the gods when they broker utterly no influence.
But what about the afterlife? Won’t we face an angry phalanx of gods then? Allaying this fear, Epicurus proposed his second idea: that the human soul ceases to exist at death; which is to say we are free of accountability to the gods in this life and the next. Thus Epicurus liberated pagans to eat, drink, and be merry because there was nothing to lose and all sorts of temporal happiness to gain.
A remaining problem
Epicurus failed to deal with one thorny problem, however. Liberation from responsibility to the gods might be well and good when all is well and good, but what about those times when all is far from well? If the gods care nothing about you when you wish them to leave you alone, can one rationally expect them to suddenly fly to his aid when he needs their help? Hardly.
Deism—a philosophical system in full throttle at the time our nation was founded—took up a similar position. Evolved well beyond crass paganism, deists nonetheless purported the Epicurean-like notion that God created the natural realm (He exists), but then severed all ties with it, never to be seen or heard from again. Deists thus perpetuated the Epicurean dilemma, infusing it into the American bloodstream. It remains integral to our nation’s DNA to want a God who is on vacation when all is well, and then to feel rather hypocritical when we suddenly need His help.
Agreed, it’s pretty miserable to move about this planet with the overwhelming sense that you are always annoying some deity somewhere and will pay for it dearly if you don’t figure out how to squelch that god’s anger against you. But are we restricted to the advanced secularists’ notion (mature Epicureanism/Deism) that any urge to cry out for divine intervention is an embarrassment conscionable only for those in desperate straits?
The God revealed in the Bible blows all this drivel away. The Bible reveals the one and only God who rules the universe with sovereign authority and remains intensely concerned about the world He created. Animating His creatures with His own eternal spirit, we do not cease to exist at death but live on eternally. Endowed with God’s spirit, we are created in His image in order to find intimate communion with Him—to find everlasting joy in His presence, not momentary happiness in the notion that the divine realm turns a blind eye as we seek pleasure on our own terms.
The ethical implications are evident. As the perfection of holiness, God cares how His creatures live. He loves us enough to be angered by our sin. As a just judge He punishes wrongdoers for their own good and/or for the essential expression of His moral splendor. But He is also a God of immeasurable love and grace toward all who repent of sin and seek Him as their soul’s eternal joy. Rather than demanding that His creatures placate His wrath against their sins, He pays the penalty Himself and gives to those who trust Him the righteous standing of His perfect Son, Jesus Christ. Reconciled to God by faith in Jesus, God then invites His children to pursue intimate communication with Him (see Gen. 2, Rom. 1-8).
Anyone holding to an Epicurean, deist or secular humanist view insists there is no intercourse between the natural and supernatural realms. Yet history records not a few of these floating a prayer of desperation on occasion, just in case God might be there after all and might care.
Conflicted descendants of Epicurus
I am reminded, for instance, of a self-proclaimed atheist friend who called me recently asking that I pray to God about a very desperate situation in her life. She sought to be consistent with her philosophy—that is, in my way of thinking, passionately wanting to maintain the delusion that God cares nothing about how she chooses to order her ethical life, she found herself in a spot where she desperately needed God to care.
Well, He does. And anyone looking for lasting joy may find it, in part, as he or she learns to pray, not pagan-like prayers of desperation—“if you are out there, God, please help me”—but prayers that consciously synchronize with who God is and His revealed purposes for human history. Jesus taught His followers to seek a prayer life, not of occasional 911 calls, but a prayer life marinated in the macro-implications of His micro-prayer: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:9-10).
Yes, it is gloriously liberating to know that God hears our cries of desperation—even concerning matters that might seem insignificant to others. But what is more, we are invited to move beyond microscopic prayers about matters to which God has not spoken specifically, and to engage in seismic petitions rooted in His revealed will for the ages. In other words, God invites us to join Him in transforming the world by praying according to His will—to labor with Him against where things stand, in sync with His promises concerning where things will eventually end.
Blessed are those who discover the joy of such communion with God—in times of trial and happiness, in this life and the next. Followers of Jesus Christ who believe not only in God’s care about this life, but also anticipate standing before Him in eternity, should grow increasingly desirous of entering his presence, not as an immature child who was always asking for his or her way in matters God has not revealed, but as a mature child whose interest in the purposes of God grew increasingly conjoined with revelation about those grand purposes.
A macro-prayer parable
Perhaps a small taste of the eternal joys of the macro-praying follower of Jesus can be experienced in a parable of a king and his two daughters.
Wearing flowing royal robes and a bejeweled diadem, the King walks alone with measured steps and furrowed brow down the main corridor of his magnificent palace. Today, the king convenes a delegation of dukes with hopes of brokering peace for his dominion. The summit will require all of his leadership skills, all of his rhetorical abilities and a full measure of God’s grace. His heart pulsates with anxiety, sensing that the future of the entire realm is at stake. Will the summit lead to peace or will war ravage the realm? Will his kingdom endure this test?
As the king strides toward the stateroom where the delegates will soon assemble, he happens upon his youngest daughter huddled on an ornate staircase. Having just scraped her knee, she whimpers, “Daddy, will you kiss it and make it all better?”
Although the specter of war and the gravity of the negotiations before him that day weigh heavily upon his heart, the king is a good man and stoops to tenderly kiss his daughter’s knee. “O thank you, Daddy” she says as a faint smile begins to outshine her tears. Her father draws her close and hugs her, looking into the eyes of a little girl whose future unwittingly hinges on her father’s success at the summit. With a depth of emotion she cannot comprehend, he says simply, “You are welcome, my child. I love you so much.”
As the girl returns to play, her burdened father trudges on. Further down the corridor he sees his older daughter seated on a luxurious couch with a rather distressed look on her face. “Daddy, my dress is caught on the foot of this couch. I’m afraid if I move I will rip it. Will you please free me?”
Despite the triviality of the request the good king stoops to one knee and gingerly frees his daughter’s dress from the ornate metalwork adorning the couch’s foot. “Thank you Daddy,” she says as she rises from her seat. She hugs her father as several aids approach the king. So that they will not hear, she gently whispers in her father’s ear, “O Daddy, I know what you are doing this day and I think it is just grand. I love you, Daddy and I hope that all the delegates who come to the summit today will see the wisdom and goodness of your plan and that the realm will be at peace under your wise rule. I am praying for you, Daddy.” With moist eyes, the king buries his face in her long, silky hair and chokes out the words in her ear, “Thank you my dear daughter, I love you so much.”
Later that week the difficult summit ends. The king emerges victorious in the negotiating room then enters a season of battle against those who opposed peace. Finally, returning home from the last battle, the realm now safely under his guidance, the king rides his steed past cheering crowds. Suddenly he sees his eldest daughter break from the throng and run toward him waving. He dismounts his steed. She leaps into his strong arms. And the king buries his bloodied face in her long, silky hair and whispers into her ear as tears well in his eyes: “We did it! O my dear daughter, we did it.” With no less love for his younger daughter, the king recognizes a unique bond with his eldest daughter, forged by their shared interest in his conquest.
When you enter eternity, how will it be for you? Will you stand before the conquering Christ as His enemy and face His judgment? If, on the other hand, you know you will stand before God as His child reconciled to Him (John 1:12), never forget that it is well and good to bring our micro-concerns to the Lord who rejoices to hear our prayers and bear our trials. But if our hearts are possessed of a deep love for our Father, we will offer big prayers as well.
Are you connecting the trials of your life into the larger, global purposes of God? Are you putting your hand to the rudder of God’s grand, redemptive purposes in Christ? Are you laboring in prayer against things as they are in the interest of what God promises they will someday be? Are you praying the future reign of Jesus into being? When you see Jesus, might he legitimately embrace you and whisper into your ear: “We did it!”?