Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much. James 5:16
Have you ever felt like the life you are living, is not the one you were supposed to live? Or how about some nagging, persistent notion that your life is off-kilter, or out of step, with your reality?
Personally, I’ve felt like this since at least 2007. It appears as it were, like the small, seemingly, inconsequential decisions I have made along the way, have somehow altered my timeline in very significant and unintended ways. Not that the end results were bad, but, very different from what everyone (myself included) expected. Although I haven't run into too many people from my high school days, the ones I have were/are always surprised at the person I have become.
One of the most iconic movies in American history is “It’s a Wonderful Life,” (1946) starring the late Jimmy Stewart playing the role of George Bailey. If you are one of the handfuls of people left on the planet who have never seen it, at its most basic essence, the movie is about a guy whose facing financial ruin, prays to God wishing he had never been born. God answers his prayer and reveals to him in an alternate version of his life. An angel shows him what his hometown of Bedford Falls would have been like if he (George Bailey) had never been born. Although it is most commonly associated with Christmas, the fact that it is dealing with the spiritual realm and alternate realities puts it a lot closer on the Twilight Zone spectrum than anything else.
In the early 1990s, an iconic country song was published by the then world’s most famous country music artist, talking about the exact opposite thing. The song was titled “Unanswered Prayers,” and in it, the song describes a scenario where the singer ran into his old high school flame at a football game while attending with his wife. He describes how he had (back then) prayed unceasingly to marry this young lady, but now, thankful he never had. He concludes (in hindsight) that some of God’s greatest gifts are in fact, ‘unanswered prayers.’
Although both examples are works of fiction and not meant to be taken literally, the premise for what they represent is very real. There is a real God who really answers prayers. And those prayers, can alter our reality in ways we very rarely, appreciate at the time they are happening. In fact, we can usually only see them in hindsight. I suppose we don’t think about prayer in the light of what if. What if God answered our prayers the way we asked? What if prayers by others (on our behalf) have also changed our destiny or the course of history? What if prayers are changing the very nature and fabric of our reality? Well, allow me to give a brief, personal example of this.
[Side note: I only recently confessed this to my mom ahead of time so she doesn’t have a heart attack reading it here for the first time]
Thought 1: Divine Intervention
One day in high school, I remember standing on the corner of a major intersection during lunch. We had an open campus so we could come and go as we pleased, and I had just finished lunch at the bowling alley across the street. That day I decided to walk back early to get a jump start on some classwork that was due that day. As I was standing there at the crossroads, a car ran the red light and collided with another car traveling in the cross direction. Even though the event was over in a matter of seconds, I remember watching it like it was in slow motion. I even recognized one of the drivers as his car ricocheted towards me at a high rate of speed missing me by mere inches.
I remember standing there both perfectly still and calm during the incident as if my feet were cemented to the ground. I know I wasn’t afraid because it happened so quickly that I didn’t have time to process it. Secondly, it wasn’t a lack of reactive instinct either, as I’ve had enough experiences in the woods with Rattlesnakes and other deadly vermin to move quickly when needed. Rather, it was as if something in my core told me not to move.
After the event, admittedly, I was a lot more rattled as I began to weigh the gravity of the situation. I was left with two options to explain what had just transpired- either this was a galactic moment of sheer dumb luck, or God was watching me out of the corner of His eye. Looking back on it decades later with a better understanding of the spiritual world and God’s Providence, I firmly believe an angel was holding my shoulder and keeping me in place. Had I moved, I may not have been here to write about it.
In that same vein, what if I had moved, gotten struck by the vehicle, and either been killed or severely injured. What if things had played out that way, and my reality (had it happened), would have been the world we/I now know. Maybe I would have died, or been paralyzed, or put in a coma only later to become mentally and/or physically invalid. But because many faithful people had prayed for my safety over the years, perhaps God saw fit to answer their prayers and preserve my well-being for His own purposes. He chose to answer my parent’s prayers for safety and instead of dying, I lived. Am I now living in an alternate version of my own life?
Now, I can what if things with the best of them, but it would be an exercise in madness to try and retrospectively investigate every possible outcome of past events. I’m not attempting to do that; I am simply reflecting on and perhaps, appreciating the way things have turned out.
Thought 2: Personal Consequence
I can also acknowledge the many decision points in my life (forks in the road), where I have had to choose between going this way or that way, and how those decisions have altered where I ended up. At least in terms of career choices, this is where I think I feel more off-kilter than the average person. In this case, I am alluding more to a form of divine Butterfly Effect (ala Chaos Theory), than I am to fate or randomness.
This is where the small, seemingly inconsequential decisions we make on a daily basis, have ripple effects that play out later throughout the course of our lives. For instance, a seemingly inconsequential decision to delay my officer classes by one month has had, a ripple effect on the timeline for my entire military career. Of course, I wouldn’t have known it at the time, but looking back, I can see it quite clearly. As for Chaos Theory, here is a quick and generic definition:
Chaos theory is a branch of mathematics focusing on the study of chaos — dynamical systems whose apparently random states of disorder and irregularities are actually governed by underlying patterns and deterministic laws that are highly sensitive to initial conditions. Chaos theory is an interdisciplinary theory stating that, within the apparent randomness of chaotic complex systems, there are underlying patterns, interconnectedness, constant feedback loops, repetition, self-similarity, fractals, and self-organization. The butterfly effect, an underlying principle of chaos, describes how a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state (meaning that there is sensitive dependence on initial conditions). A metaphor for this behavior is that a butterfly flapping its wings in Texas can cause a hurricane in China. (Wikipedia)
Perhaps I am reading into my experiences too much, but I think if you and I look back at our lives, we can find those pivotal moments where one decision, has come to plague (or bless) us for the rest of our lives. This is not even referring to those major life choices we make, such as where we went to school, or work, who we married (or didn’t), or where we decided to buy a house or live. These are those decisions before those, who lead us to that point like a chain reaction.
Furthermore, those decisions may not have been even yours to make in the first place, but external circumstances channelized you to said decision. There are simply too many variables to factor in here to analyze, but just remember that the small decisions that we make, are often the first step on the paths that lead us to the pivotal moments we are faced with later in life.
So where does God factor into all this seeming randomness? Well, as I've used the example of "the parade" for my own children to explain this in terms they could understand. In this scenario, we (who are now living life) are both like the participants in the parade, as well as the spectators standing on the side of the road watching it go by. If we choose to run the race, we are in the parade, becoming spectacles for both man and angel for what God intended for our lives (1 Peter 1:12). While we can't see where the parade ends, we put our trust in the direction of the director who does see it. If we choose not to live the life God intended, we become the spectator in the crowds pressed in on the left and right, only seeing what the part of the parade passing directly in front of us.
However, God is like the parade director in a helicopter in the sky a thousand feet in the air watching it all. He can see all of the parade, all at the same time. He can see where its starts and where it finishes. He radios down instructions to the front vehicle so they know when to turn and what to avoid and when to stop or keep moving.
Not exactly the perfect example, but it works.
Thought 3: Divine Order of the Ages
There is within Dispensationalism, a system of patterns in the outline and outcomes, which emerge time after time. Each dispensation consists of a challenge to man (from God), the failure of that challenge, and the ensuing judgment (from God). However, there are variations within those dispensations due to the evolving progression of mankind and the unfolding plan of God. For example, the dispensation of innocence consisted of the challenge (do not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil), the failure (they ate from it), and the judgment (sin, death, cast out of the Garden of Eden, having to work the land, pain in childbirth, etc.).
The variation in it was that they had a direct, personal, connection with their Creator. The next dispensation (conscience), had the challenge (to do what was right), the failure (worldwide wickedness), and the judgment (the flood). The variation in it was there was no more physical connection to their Creator (like Adam and Eve enjoyed in the garden). The continued variations began to highlight the differences each dispensation faced, yet, the outline (the pattern) remained the same. In fact, it wouldn’t be until the dispensation of law (the fifth dispensation), that mankind would even have any kind of written Bible.
Within Chaos Theory, there are what is known as ‘fractals,’ which are patterns that repeat throughout nature. A more concise definition defines them as “…a never-ending pattern. Fractals are infinitely complex patterns that are self-similar across different scales. They are created by repeating a simple process over and over in an ongoing feedback loop.” (Source) From what I understand, fractals in simulations, repeat almost perfectly, whereas, in nature, there are variations within patterns (i.e., the exact shapes of frost crystals or ferns). I suppose to the untrained eye, frost crystals all look the same.
However, if you brought them into focus under a microscope or some other form of magnifying lenses, you could see the differences. This is to say that while we remain under some circular system of repeating patterns and cycles (Ecclesiastes 1:9), God is refining His plan on a macro-level, divine, feedback loop through the unfolding revelation of His plan- the redemption of mankind and the fulfillment of all of His word. The purpose of these dispensations is that the human heart is incurably wicked (Jeremiah 17:9) and we are wholly incapable of saving ourselves, regardless of the circumstances.
Prayer, Angels, and Demons
Here is my feeble attempt to tie in all these seemingly disparate ideas into a cohesive conclusion. This life reminds me of the town of Vanity in Pilgrim's Progress, where every vice and distraction known to man and demon, are on display. Through that perilous journey, there are seemingly converging and yet, contrasting, lines of consequences working continuously in our lives that are infinitely more complex than we fully understand. On the macro-scale, there is a cosmic war being waged over the direction of the human race. God wants His plan to play out; Lucifer wants to upset those plans to prevent his own damnation.
Now, that is not to say Lucifer (a created being) can win a war against an all-powerful, all-knowing, Omnipresent, Creator God. What I am saying is that God has set in motion and is stewarding this human endeavor, while Lucifer has been given a certain amount of free reign to corrupt and destroy it, all while maintaining man’s free-will and divine intervention at the center. This is done with the circular and evolving patterns of God’s providential dispensations.
That is sort of the 1:1,000,000 view of the Divine Order of the Ages broken down to its most basic element.
However, when we put the magnifying lenses over our individual lives, we can see the variations due to a variety of factors. Those factors include: free will (which govern which direction our lives will take), external circumstances (often other peoples’ free will being exercised and impacting us), divine intervention (God stepping in), or our own separation (where we depart from God’s plan), and lastly, Lucifer’s plans to corrupt and destroy us (which God allows to a certain degree [see Job 1-2]).
This brings us back to prayer and the idea of alternate realities.
When we pray to our Creator God, we are seeking answers and guidance to questions, we think we understand. However, we often only have a cursory knowledge of the things we are asking for because we have a limited, linear, understanding of what it is we want. This is where God either answers our request or doesn’t. If He doesn’t answer our request to our liking, it is not because He doesn’t care, but because He can see how that yes or no will play out a million choices down the road. For example, that one decision could lead you down the path of personal ruin or spiritual apostasy. However, God wants you and me to be satisfied in this life, thus, our best life now isn’t necessarily our health, wealth, or glory, but can only be found in doing what God has designed us to do. Trust God, He knows us better than we know ourselves. According to David in Psalm 139-
O Lord, You have searched me and known me. You know my sitting down and my rising up; You understand my thought afar off. You comprehend my path and my lying down, And are acquainted with all my ways. For there is not a word on my tongue, But behold, O Lord, You know it altogether
There is not anything you can ask God that He hasn’t already seen play out. And when we are insistent on doing our own will rather than His, a form of an alternate reality begins to play out. This is the life (like George Bailey’s answered prayer) that becomes unsatisfying and downright miserable because we are not doing what we were designed by God to do. In some cruel perversion of this reality, we might even begin to find comfort in this new twisted form of reality. Satan wants you to think that this life is all there is and that you don’t need God to be happy. These doctrines of demons (Materialism, Hedonism, Nihilism, Humanism, Atheism, etc.) are lies from the very pit of hell itself. Our lives here are like blades of grass; here today and gone tomorrow.
God loves you and wants a personal relationship with you. Jesus loves you so much He put on the flesh of a man, lived a sinless life, and was willfully and brutally crucified on the cross for you, fully bearing the wrath of God so you wouldn't have to. All this free for the asking and God is never far from those who seek Him. But if you die in your sins, you will be eternally separated from God forever (Hebrews 9:27). If you are reading this, and you are not born again, know this- God knows you better than you know yourself. In fact, God knew you before He created the foundations of the world.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, by which He made us accepted in the Beloved. Ephesians 1:3-6 (emphasis mine)
God wants you to be blessed, and to do well, and run the race He has laid before you. Jesus Christ is the Author and Finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:1-2). He has so much confidence in you to do this, He has created you in this very time and place and chose you in Him before you even knew you needed Him (Romans 5:8). Not only that, but God has prepared us ahead of time, to receive the inheritance beyond even our understanding before we have even done anything to warrant such gracious gifts.
But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. Eph. 2:4-7
And yes, it is true, this world is going to hell in a handbasket, and we cannot control all the external major muscle movements that are shaping the direction the world has chosen to take. But, God did not call you to undo or redirect world history. That history has already been written, we are simply eyewitnesses to Bible Prophecy playing out. Rather, God wants you to have personal victory in your life, by being faithful to that which He has called you to do.
And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified. Romans 8:28-30
In the Meantime
The reason the world feels wrong, off-kilter, or like we are in some cruel version of the Matrix, is because of sin’s negative and atrophying effects upon all of creation (Romans 8:20-21). And even though the pleasures and distractions of this world may appear as some never-ending Vanity Fair, underneath it is a sickness that stinks of death and rot. Dr. Andy Woods had a great saying on this when he noted that the real, reality, i.e., the way things will be for the rest of eternity, is described in Genesis 1-2 and Revelation 21-22. Everything else is an aberration.
Regardless of what the world tells you, this is not the way God intended it to be. I’ve noted to friends in my observations of life, how increasingly and unnecessarily complex the world has become. We can look back throughout history and see how the rise and fall of civilizations have always climaxed to a point and then had some major reset button pushed either by way of supernatural, natural, or man-caused disasters. We are at that point now.
Our history is rife with problems and grievous sufferings that have been carved in blood throughout human existence. In fact, suffering, pain, death, and misery are the only true constants of the human condition. We long to change the world and make it better. I suppose this is why superhero movies are as popular as they are; we want justice, we want someone to make things right. But don’t worry about the world, either past or present. At His return, Jesus will right all wrongs, correct every injustice, permanently end sin and death, and bring this world back to the way it is supposed to be.
In the meantime, we just need to be faithful in what God has called us to do. Whether great or small, important or seemingly inconsequential, our roles were written into this story before the world began. We were not called to be spectators or benchwarmers, we need to be in this parade, highlighting what it is God called us to be. It is only then, can we make sense of our lives and find the answers to our prayers.
In the fall of 2007, I was once again at a crossroads. It was then, at the tender age of 33 and shortly after my decisive come to Jesus moment, I prayed a prayer, that, at the time, didn't seem all that consequential. Before then, I'd prayed for a lot of things, often with mixed results. I never had a George Bailey moment, nor a crooning singer's thankful lament. I wasn't even sure if God was listening to me anymore. However, at I asked God for two things- first, that He would give me a hunger for His word, and secondly, that He would give me wisdom in understanding what I was reading.
The rest, as they say, is history.
And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ— from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love. Ephesians 4:11-16