Our Answering God
The eighteenth chapter of I Kings contains the story of the most remarkable contest ever staged on this earth. For three and a half years there had been no rain. There were those who said Elijah and his Jehovah worship were the cause of this judgment. Elijah himself claimed it was the idolatrous worship of Baal that was to blame. The proposition was to be settled by practical test. On the top of the ridge which ended in the brow overlooking the sea known as Mount Carmel the stage was set. On one side were eight hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and Ashtoreth. On the other side was the lone prophet Elijah. The eight hundred and fifty were assured of Queen Jezebel’s favor, and they also had the tacit backing of King Ahab. And because of the royal favor; the court, the army, and the rank and file of the people could be counted on that side. The conditions were simple. Each side was to prepare his altar in his own way, and every provision was to be made, except that no fire was to be kindled. Then the question was to be decided in favor of the god who answered by fire, and such god was to be God. Elijah had proposed the plan. The King had immediately agreed to it. And the prophets of Baal could not refuse to accept, since Baal was the sun god, and fire was his special element. The test began:
Elijah gave way to the eight hundred and fifty, giving them the first chance, on the ground that “ye are many.” All the natural advantages were with this group. The prophets themselves were a favored, well-fed, well-groomed, almost royal group. Their ritual was faultless. Their zeal was intense. There could be no question of their sincerity, for they cried aloud, leaped upon the altar, and lanced their flesh with knives, entreating, “Baal, hear us.” Elijah made the situation the more exasperating by his taunts, and by his suggestions that Baal was talking, musing, on a journey or asleep. Everything was right but one — no fire came down. And without this answering fire, the case was lost.
The time came for Elijah’s part. The very fact that he was alone was a poor recommendation, for men honor crowds. The altar of the Lord was fallen down, and required to be repaired. But Elijah added to his handicap by pouring water in great abundance upon his sacrifice until the trenches about stood full. The ritual was simple. The prayer was only sixty-three words in length, and required no more than one minute to be spoken. But the decision went to Jehovah and to Elijah, for there was response from heaven whence fire came down to consume the sacrifice, the wood, the stones that made up the altar, the water in the trenches and to lick at the dry dust at the people’s feet. It was this answer that made all the difference. Up to the point of the divine response distinctions were incidental. But with the coming of the fire Jehovah’s claims were established, and the people fell on their faces exclaiming, “The Lord, He is God! The Lord, He is God!”
Just on the basis of comparisons, the Christian faith has nothing to fear. The history of the Church in the world abundantly justifies the high claims Jesus Christ made for himself and for His people. No other religion can so freely and safely say, “Let results speak.” The founding of the Christian faith involves miracles, but these miracles are reasonable, as far as reason is able to follow them. The Founder of the Christian faith was himself spotless, and even His enemies have to say, “I find no fault in Him.” And all the ages testify that men have always been better men when they were Christian men, and that the faults and weaknesses of Christians have always been in spite of their religion, and not because of it.
The doctrines of Christianity present the noblest ideas about God and angels and men that have ever passed through the minds of men. The Christian philosophy of life is the most worthy that has ever yet appeared. And all who object to Christianity have to admit that it would be better if it were as Christians say it is, and to depart from fidelity to Christ is to become an infidel, and by all true logic, to become a pessimist.
The ethical standards of the Christian way commend themselves to men everywhere. The Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, and the thirteenth chapter of I Corinthians present principles that are both superb and practical. To be a true Christian means to be good and to be useful, “Our enemies themselves being the judges.”
The sacraments of the Church, baptism and the Lord’s supper, are beautiful and full of meaning. They are exceedingly simple, and yet they are adequate symbols of both the inner experiences and outer implications of holy religion.
But even though its history is true, its doctrines unanswerable, its ethics of the highest standard, and its sacraments the most beautiful and full of meaning, the heart and substance of Christianity does not consist of any or all of these. Like the men on Mount Carmel, we come to the crux with the question, Does God answer? Is there a response to the call? We cannot properly ask, Does God hear prayer? for the answer to that is a secret in the Infinite mind. But we can boldly ask, Does God answer? and we may find the reply in our own consciousness. We must find it there if we are to be assured that the Lord is God.
Today, as on Mount Carmel, comparison of talent among leaders, of beauty of ritual, of popularity with the crowds and of human conditions in general do not prove anything. Based on these things, the decision may often go to the wrong side. But now, as then, it is the answer that counts. It is the fire from heaven that decides the debate.
But we must not leave this question on the broad plan of mere comparison. To say that Christianity is better than the others does not say enough.
To say that one Christian is better than another does not prove the point. For it might still be that all are false, and what is gained by simply being more nearly true, if the best must yet fall short? No church or group has any corner on the way to God, and that man who thinks of himself as being the only one who has attained has either rated himself too highly or has charged the Almighty with substituting concealment for revelation. Every group and every individual must meet the fire test. It is not the effort any one makes to awaken the unresponding Baal that counts. “The God that answers by fire” is our God.
We have known a man who was reputed to be a man of prayer.” It was his claim that he prayed hours every day, and those who lived near him attested his claims. Still this man was the victim of tormenting doubt. His daily life bore witness to limited grace. He was critical of others, and bore something of the attitude of spiritual pride. To many he was a stumbling block, for they asked, “How is it that so much prayer does so little good?” The answer of course is that it is not the exercise of asking that makes the difference, but the measure of the receiving that counts. In its essential content every man’s religion is a personal affair. Men do not apprehend God by the nation, race, family, or group. To every one the question is personal: Does God respond to my call?
A woman who had been a member of an orthodox church for forty years was aroused to the consciousness that she had never been truly born again. At first she was resentful, and wished she might have been left alone to take whatever consolation she could from her formal Christian life. But as she prayed, the Lord helped her so see His mercy in her awakening. She confessed her need, the Lord graciously came to her rescue, and she found joy and assurance in the inward witness of pardon and peace with God. It was not that her prayers were more meritorious at the last than in the beginning. The difference was accounted for in the fact that a new factor, the divine response to her call, came into her life.
We were sitting at the dinner table with Mr. and Mrs. Holmes. The host was called to answer the telephone. Putting the receiver to his ear, Mr. Holmes said, “Yes.” After a short pause, he said, “No.” There was another period of waiting, and then came the sentence, “I don’t think so.” After time for some other conversation, Mr. Holmes said, “All right, then,” and hung up the receiver. I was of course not at all interested, but soon Mrs. Holmes asked about the telephone conversation. The husband replied rather nonchalantly, “Oh, that was just a long distance from Mr. Jones out in the west side of the state.” And when he did not seem ready to volunteer more information, the wife asked why Mr. Jones had called. “Oh,” said the husband, “he was just talking about buying our farm out there in his community that we have been offering for sale.” By this time I had become mildly interested, and furtively watched the face of Mrs. Holmes to see if she was satisfied. But after a pause, Mrs. Holmes asked, “Did Mr. Jones buy the farm?” Her husband answered, “No, he didn’t buy it.” The conversation drifted to other themes, but after awhile Mrs. Holmes said, “Husband, if you do not mind, I wish you would tell me what Mr. Jones said in that conversation about the farm. I know what you said, but I cannot figure out how you could say, ‘Yes’, ‘No,’ ‘I don’t think so’, ‘All right, then’, and yet Mr. Jones not take the farm.” “Well,” said Mr. Holmes, “when I went to the phone, Mr. Jones asked, ‘Is this Mr. Holmes?’ and I said, ‘Yes.’ He asked, ‘Have you sold your farm out here yet?’ I said, ‘No.’ Then he asked, ‘Will you take any less for it than you have been asking?’ I said, ‘I don’t think so.’ Then Mr. Jones said, ‘Well, then, I have decided not to take it.’ And I said, ‘All right, then.’ ” The conversation was quite intelligible when one knew what was being said on the other end of the line, and it is like that with prayer and every thing that goes with search for God.
There are those of course who say that prayer and meditation and search for God find their advantage in their psychological effect upon the worshiper, and that we are not to expect a definite and knowable answer. Agnostics have even claimed that it is impossible for God to speak to man because man is incapable of hearing what God says. But the Scriptures answer all this by reminding us that He made man’s mouth, and that He knows and understands all thoughts of the heart.
Well meaning people have reduced prayer to a formula and have ignored the Master’s warning that the use of vain repetitions is to imitate the heathen. Many books have been written on prayer. Many sermons have been preached in the effort to tell men how to pray. But the crux of the whole matter is in the simple question, Does anyone answer back from the other end of the line? If there is no answer, the fault may be in a poor connection. The wires, so to speak, may be grounded. It may not help to simply “cry louder,” although no one should be ashamed for others to hear him pray and to know that he practices prayer. But whatever the trouble, that trouble must be removed and an answer secured before prayer is really prayer. That is what is meant by the exhortation, “Pray until you pray.”
It would not be fair to say that there is no difference in the degree of excellence of mere human religion. But it is true that the differences are incidental. The point of real distinction is the one where there is a divine answer. No matter how commendably men pray and worship, if there is no divine response, there is no fundamental differentiations between those who pray and worship falteringly and those who pray and worship faultlessly. But an answer from God makes all the difference. The humblest cottage becomes a throne room when God responds. “The God that answers by fire, let him be God.”