Big Questions You Asked
I am continuing to answer questions that were submitted during our “Big Questions” sermon series. In particular, there were questions related to prayer, infertility, and parenting.
Two questions that came in were, “Why do my prayers go unanswered?” and “In the church, it is commonly said that the answers to prayers are either yes, no, or wait. Given that, how do we know prayers are actually being answered? This seems very much open to confirmation bias. For example, if a loved one is gravely ill and I pray that they be healed, what could possibly happen to indicate that prayer is not working? If they are healed, I can assume the answer to my prayer was 'yes', if they die I can assume the answer to my prayer was 'no', and while I wait for one of those two outcomes, I can assume the answer was 'wait'.”
These are both common and insightful questions and to answer them, I think the first thing we need to do is remember what prayer is all about. While we often use prayer to submit our requests to God, we need to recognize that we should also use this prayer time to talk with God. Our prayers should be filled with praise of God and also confession of our own sin, not just requests for Him to do something -- whatever it is that we think is best in a situation. When we ask God for something, we can do so boldly, but also need to recognize that His perspective is different from ours. When God says “no” to a request of ours, it does not mean that He doesn’t love us; at times, it may come from a sin that is in our lives (as 1 Peter 3:7 talks about how husbands are to treat their wives and indicates that not treating them correctly could lead to prayers being hindered). It may also come from God having a better plan for us; Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane for the Father to take away the cup of suffering that he would face (Matthew 27:39), but God does not. Jesus notes in his request that he will submit to God’s will in this - and we should too. When we ask for God to do something and we see it happen, we know He has said “yes”, when we do not see it happen we know He has said “no”, but that there is a good and better purpose for the “no”. The idea of “wait” is a reminder that the “yes” might not be immediate; at times we will wait and should not grow discouraged. In fact, at times we see God answering prayers in the Bible over long periods of time. Above all, our prayers should lead us to depend upon God and not ourselves, so when He says “yes”, we know it is because of God and when He says “no”, we need to remember that His ways are best.
A number of questions came in on the topic of infertility, asking “How does God decide who is able to have biological children?” “Why do some women who really want a family experience infertility while others have children who don’t want them and mistreat or abandon them?” and “How do we know when it might be time to stop spending money on fertility treatments and start an adoption process or give up on the dream of having biological children?”
The number of questions that came in on this topic reminds us of how many couples struggle with infertility, with the CDC reporting that approximately 10% (1 in 10) of women experience infertility. When you read through the Bible, there are stories of godly women who struggled with infertility - Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Manoah’s wife (the mother of Samson), and Elizabeth (the mother of John the Baptist). Therefore, it is clear that it is not a lack of faith or godly character that leads to infertility. While these stories all feature women who eventually had children, not all are promised that. Why some are able to have biological children while others are not is a mystery (one that often has no biological answer). There is also not a specific answer regarding whether to continue to pursue treatment, begin the adoption process, or give up the dream of having children. When it comes to these big decisions in life, it is important to consult God’s Word to make sure that we are pursuing what honors Him, spend time in prayer to see what He is laying on our hearts, and also to seek the counsel and guidance of godly individuals who know and love us. If you are looking for a book on the subject, this recent book by Matthew Ardo offers biblical insight and wise, sensitive counsel that may be of help.
Parents and Parenting
There were a number of questions submitted regarding parents and parenting. Someone asked, “Why isn’t there a commandment to honor your children as there is to honor your father and mother? Isn’t it more important to value your children than to not covet your neighbor’s goods?”
Three things came to mind as I pondered this question. First, I think it is helpful to remember that the commands and prohibitions that we see in the Bible are the things we seem to most struggle with in terms of doing or not doing -- there is no command to breathe (as we do that naturally!). Perhaps there is no command to honor your children because this seems to come naturally (though there are struggles in it). However, there is a command to honor our parents because we are more likely to struggle with respecting authority and honoring others than we do with loving their children (parents are also more likely to covet than not to love their kids). A second thing that came to mind is that the 10 Commandments have often been viewed as the summary of all the Old Testament laws, almost serving as headings that you can put above all laws. In this scheme, the command to honor your mother and father is connected to all commands and laws about authority; therefore, it makes the “top ten list” because of how it functions in this regard. The command to love your children is reflected in the commands as a whole, as we are called to love our neighbor as ourselves. A third and final thought comes from studying Reformed catechisms - teaching tools in our faith tradition. These catechisms remind us that the 10 Commandments are not just “don’ts” but also include the inverse of what we should do as well. It is not just “don’t kill people”, but seek the good of your neighbor. In discussing the fifth commandment, the Westminster Larger Catechism notes that it features both duties and sins of inferiors to superiors, but also superiors to inferiors - implying that embedded in this command would be needed for parents (superiors) to honor the inferior (children). Therefore, while not explicitly saying in the 10 Commandments to love and honor your children, it is inherent in the commandments that are listed. (For more on this, look at Westminster Larger Catechism Q & A 120-132.)
On this topic of honoring your mother and father, one person asked, “Is it okay to cut ties with parents for the sake of emotional and physical health if you come from an abusive family?” In past sermons, we have noted that forgiveness does not mean restoration, and I would say similarly that honor does not necessarily mean having a relationship or involvement if there has been harm done on your life. You can recognize a parent as the one who gave you life and their place in God’s world, but also not have a relationship with them for your protection and the potential protection of other family members; this may be the best way for you to move forward and also protect others. Something to remember in these situations is to make sure you are not doing this out of vengeance or improper motives in which you actually add to your own pain or keep yourself in the abusive cycle. This is obviously a very difficult and sensitive topic, so it would seem wise to talk it over with godly Christian counselors as you process abuse you have experienced by a loved one.
Another person asked, “Why does almost everyone have (or had) two parents and mine are divorced?”
Unfortunately, divorce is all too common in our world; there are a number of statistics out there noting its frequency and also the fact that many children experience the divorce of their parents (some I have seen note that 25% of children have divorced parents , with 10% going through multiple divorces). There are also a number of studies showing the negative effects of divorce on children. Divorce is not God’s design (Matthew 5:31-32; 19:2-10), and these negative effects support the fact that God’s design is for marriages to endure until death parts the couple. While there was a time in Christian culture where divorce might have felt like the “unpardonable sin,” we need to make it clear that forgiveness is always available because of Jesus. In addition, the Christian community and our faith in Christ can help both couples and children who have experienced the pain of divorce and offer healing and hope for the future. We are not statistics, but individuals with our own stories and are loved and known by God.
In addition to these questions about parents, we also had some questions about parenting. One was, “What if I am raising my kids in the faith but they don’t seem to be following God in their own life? How does God view my parenting?”
Something that parents need to remember is that their children are not robots or machines that we can program and they will do exactly what we want -- they are individuals with free will who make choices. We are called to create an environment in which our children can know the gospel and we must present the gospel as a compelling way to live; we do not want to provide obstacles to prevent them from embracing the gospel, but we can’t force them to believe. Sometimes people use Proverbs 22:6 (“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”) to say that if you parent correctly, then your children will believe in Jesus, but we need to remember that Proverbs provides general principles of what typically happens, not absolute promises. You can be a wonderful, godly parent and still have children who do not come to know Jesus. I have also heard stories through the years of children who reject the Christian faith but love their parents and respect their parents; they understand the way of the faith but choose another way - at the same time, they also know they could return and know where to come to faith. None of us are perfect parents, and parents often take too much credit when things go right (sometimes that is in spite of us) or too much blame when things go wrong (as it is not necessarily your fault). One of the best books I have read in terms of approaching parenting is Parenting by Paul David Tripp, and before COVID-19 hit, my small group was doing an excellent study called The Gospel-Centered Parent that I would recommend.
A final question on parenting noted that we are called to love God above all else, but that as a parent they feel like they love their children the most, and if asked by God to sacrifice their child like Abraham, could not do it. “Does God love and forgive me even though I am unable to repent and change my heart on this matter?”
The story of Abrahm and Isaac is a challenging one, as God calls Abrahm to sacrifice Isaac after he had waited so long for a child. This commandment also did not make much sense because God had said that He would make Abraham the father of many nations (and you need a child to make that possible!). God had also called Abraham to leave his home and go to a land that He would tell him about - taking a bold step of faith. God will never call us to sacrifice our children, as this was something that other nations did and God forbade as the people moved into the Promised Land; this was a unique and special situation (and one that points us forward to the fact that God would send His one and only Son to die for us!). The story should teach us, however, that the most important thing in our life should be God. The way that we best love our children is by pointing them to God and His Word; we cannot actually love our children the way we should if we are not loving God and putting Him first, as whatever we are offering them falls short of God’s ideal. We will struggle to put God first in our lives and things like our children’s happiness or well-being are things that could get in the way. The good news is that God has sent His son for us for when we fall short - and that He has sent the Holy Spirit to coach and lead us into godly living now as well. We need to know we can be forgiven, and we need to know that God can change our hearts even now.
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