When wilt thou save the people? Oh, God of Mercy, when?
Stephen Schwartz, Godspell And he told them a parable, to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor regarded man; and there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Vindicate me against my adversary.’ For a while he refused; but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor regard man, yet because this widow bothers me, I will vindicate her, or she will wear me out by her continual coming.’” And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God vindicate his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will vindicate them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Luke 18:1-8, RSV
I must admit, I find this one of the most troubling passages of the New Testament. Not because Jesus encourages us to pray and not lose heart, or certainly not that God, even more than an unrighteous judge, promises to respond to our persistence.
It is this line: “I tell you, he will vindicate them speedily.”
Now I know God’s concept of time is far different than our own. But speedily?
Israel waited in 400 years of captivity to the Egyptians before the Exodus. Recently, African Americans have endured nearly that same amount of time to endure slavery, Jim Crow laws, discrimination, injustice and oppression in our own nation. Is 400 years what God considers a short time? For Him, certainly. But for us?
I remember listening to a story from a Missions professor during my time in seminary. He recalled serving as a Christian witness to a tribe in a remote part of India. The tribe had little exposure to Christianity or Western medicine. When the tribal leader’s son became seriously ill, they did all they could to bring healing to the boy. Desperate, they asked this missionary if he would pray to his God. Hoping for an opportunity to show Christ’s healing power, the missionary prayed ardently for the boy’s recovery.
The boy died.
Deflated, discouraged and angry that God had not acted, not only for the welfare of the boy, but to demonstrate His power to these people, the missionary continued with his work. Sometime later, the tribal leader came to him and wanted to know more about his God. Surprised, the missionary asked, “Why do you want to know more about my God, when your son still died?” The leader responded, “Your prayer did not work, but you still seem to have faith. I want to know a God that inspires such faith in people.”
Why do we still continue to have faith? Even when Jesus walked the earth, many found His words and ways far too difficult:
After this, many of his disciples left. They no longer wanted to be associated with him. Then Jesus gave the Twelve their chance: “Do you also want to leave?”
Peter replied, “Master, to whom would we go? You have the words of real life, eternal life. We’ve already committed ourselves, confident that you are the Holy One of God.”
John 6:66-69, The Message
Is this why we stay? Because we have nowhere else to go? It reminds me of the powerful scene from An Officer and a Gentleman:
Perhaps we are a people who are desperate, who are so convicted of our need for God, that we are willing to do anything, even wait and wait in faith against all odds. Many people I’ve known have abandoned walking with Christ because they simply don’t see enough evidence of God’s power or existence in the world. Too much suffering, injustice, sins and exclusivity of the Church to keep the faith. It’s hard to argue with them sometimes.
In The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis, the four intrepid journeyers are confronted with the allure of the witch, who challenges their faith in the country of Narnia as pure make-believe. Puddleglum, the gloomy creature of the swamp that often appears to have the least hope responds in this way:
Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things: trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that's a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We're just babies making up a game, if you're right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That's why I'm going to stand by the play world.
The modern-day parable of the movie The Matrix illustrates the crucial choice each of us face when confronting two realities: given what you know now, which path do you take? “I can only promise you the truth,” Morpheus warns Neo. When Neo chooses the red pill, and the reality proves to be too harsh, he says resignedly: “I can’t go back, can I?” “No,” replies Morpheus. “But now that you know, would you want to?”
The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting.
It has been found difficult; and left untried.
G.K. Chesterton, What's Wrong with the World
I can’t go back either. That might seem pathetic to some. That the “opiate of the masses” that religion has been accused of is just that: a foolish dream, an escape from real life. But like Puddleglum, I challenge those as to what is more real. I have found tons of evidence for God, for the resurrection of Christ, and for answers to prayer. But they are hard to explain. I see them in daily beauty, in experiences that are more than circumstantial, and in the eyes of people---yes, even and sometimes especially in those who suffer and must wait too long---but mostly in the lives changed, beginning with my own. I will continue to pray and have faith, even when the prayer is "Oh God of mercy, when?"