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We need faith in Jesus, not formulas we expect Him to follow: The truth that saved one woman’s testimony

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Melancholy, by Odilon Redon, wikiart.org

Despite fervent prayers, Emily felt that God was gone—she could feel nothing from Him. That quietness first brought doubt, but then she began to see it was her perception of God that needed to change.

As I began to see divine quietness as a way to expose my problematic ideas about God, one of the first ideas that came to the fore was that, deep down, I believed that if I did certain things, then God was obligated to respond to me in a certain way. Of course, I’d been taught that God worked within His own timetable and in His own way. But I also heard a lot of emphasis about God’s promises if I did certain things and processes I could follow to repent or receive personal revelation or pray (or any other gospel principle). In many ways, these formulas were good: they reduced amorphous gospel principles down to concrete steps. And those formulas conveyed that God was not arbitrary, was responsive to my behavior, and was a keeper of promises.

Those formulas became problematic when I slowly turned God into a formulaic God—if I do a, then God will do b. In other words, I began to believe that my behavior dictated how God responded to me. I had become, as monk Thomas Merton observed, “so obsessed” with the formulas and doing the formulas correctly that I “never [went] beyond the words to the ineffable reality which they attempt to convey.”1 The formulas had become the “ends in themselves” rather than the “means through which God communicates His truth.”2

Rather than seeing formulas as one way—of many—to connect with God, formulas became The Way to Get God to Do What I Want. Tom Christofferson reached a similar realization in his own faith journey. He noted that he “had transformed the promise, ‘I, the Lord, am bound when ye do what I say’ (Doctrine and Covenants 82:10), into a sense that [his] righteousness could obligate Heavenly Father to do what [he] asked in the manner and timing that [he] wanted.”3

I believed, however subtly, that by following a formula I could require God to respond to me in a certain way. This formulaic thinking did not seem harmful at first, because I was not asking for God to give me something material (money or a house or a job) or to interfere in another person’s agency (such as changing someone’s heart). I was just asking God to send me an answer to a gospel question. In my mind, that was a righteous desire that God should grant if I asked in a certain pre-calibrated way. …

Elder D. Todd Christofferson explained that “some misunderstand the promises of God to mean that obedience to Him yields specific outcomes on a fixed schedule.”4 This type of thinking turns God into a “cosmic vending machine where we (1) select a desired blessing, (2) insert the required sum of good works, and (3) the order is promptly delivered.”5 My desire for a controllable, transactional god turned God into a vending machine. I put the right amount of money into the machine, push the right buttons, and the thing I want pops out. The vending machine has no discretion. I ask and pay, and the vending machine gives. The vending machine is predictable, consistent, and completely responsive to all of my requests. If I want something from the machine, I get it.

But God’s most compelling characteristics are incompatible with a vending-machine god. …

The question, then, became what to put in place of the formulaic faith and a formulaic god. As I thought about this question, I was drawn to the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.

When Lazarus got sick, his sisters— Martha and Mary—sent word to Jesus about the illness. In that message they reminded Jesus that He loved Lazarus: “Lord, the one whom you love is ill” (Wayment, John 11:36). Jesus knew that the sickness would lead to Lazarus’s death, but He said that Lazarus’s sickness was “for the glory of God” (John 11:4). The scriptures mention that “Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus,” but despite that love, Jesus “abode two days still in the same place where he was” (John 11:5–6). Jesus loved this family, but He did not immediately respond to their request. While Jesus waited, Lazarus’s sickness took its natural course, and Lazarus died (see John 11:14). Only after Lazarus had been dead for four days did Jesus walk into Lazarus’s town (see John 11:17).

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Reflection by Odilon Redon, wikiart.org

Imagine how Martha felt as she sent for Jesus, hoped for His arrival, watched her brother die, and realized that Jesus had not come. She knew that Jesus had the power to heal Lazarus. In fact, Jesus had healed several people without even being in their presence or without being asked. He had healed the nobleman’s son with just a few words: “Go, your son will live” (Wayment, John 4:507). Jesus never saw or touched the son; He just said those holy words to the father, and the son was healed at that moment. He healed a blind man and a man who had an infirmity for 38 years—neither of whom even asked to be healed (see John 5:5–8; 9:1–6). His healing, in some cases, was not contingent on people being aware of who He was or what He could do; He just healed because it helped those in need. Jesus had the power to heal from afar, and He had the disposition to heal those who did not even know He had that power. However, in the case of Lazarus—a man He loved from a family He loved—Jesus chose not to heal even when He was asked to do so.

From the perspective of a formulaic faith, this story does not compute. Even though Martha, Mary, and Lazarus lived righteously and asked properly, Jesus did not respond to them in the way that they had hoped; He had not prevented Lazarus from dying. Their righteous behavior did not require Jesus to respond to their request in a certain way; they were not in charge.

The scriptures do not reveal what went through Martha’s mind while she waited for Jesus. But when Jesus did finally come, four days after Lazarus’s death, the first statement Martha made to Jesus was a roundabout plea to resurrect Lazarus: “Lord, if you were here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now if you ask God for something, God will give it to you” (Wayment, John 11:21–228). Rather than respond to her question, Jesus reaffirmed the general principle that all would be resurrected at some point—including Lazarus (see John 11:23–24). And then Jesus directed Martha to Himself: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, even if he is dead, will live. All who live and believe in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (Wayment, John 11:25–269). Even when Jesus came to Martha, He did not tell her that He would immediately resolve her greatest burden: her dead brother. He did not tell her that He would raise Lazarus from the dead; He did not tell her that all would be better. What He did do is point her to Him and to the promises of eventual healing and life that He carried. And then He asked her if she believed.

Her answer to Jesus was yes, she still believed: “Yes, Lord. I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who comes into the world” (Wayment, John 11:2710). This was Martha’s testimony. Despite Jesus not healing Lazarus or promising that He would resurrect Lazarus immediately, Martha believed that Jesus was God. She could believe even though Jesus had not shown up in her life as she had hoped. Her belief, then, was centered on Jesus and who He was, and what He had promised to do at some future point, even though she did not have a timetable for when those promises would be fulfilled.

Jesus did eventually raise Lazarus from the dead. But Lazarus’s resurrection was not the focus of the story: it was Martha’s declaration of her faith in Jesus after a period of painful waiting. Perhaps that waiting space allowed Martha to wrestle with her belief and doubt in a way that an immediate healing would not. Perhaps there was something that Martha could learn from a space of waiting, hoping, and feeling disappointment that she could not learn if Jesus showed up promptly. And, importantly, her waiting space was not caused by divine neglect or disdain, nor was it triggered by the family’s unrighteousness. Rather, all the scriptures mention about Jesus’s decision to wait was that Lazarus’s sickness was “for the glory of God” and that Jesus loved this family (John 11:4–5). Jesus’s waiting was intentional and born from love and a broader perspective.

I am learning to be more like Martha: to found my faith on Jesus, not on formulas I expect Jesus to follow. Along these lines, Amy A. Wright, a counselor in the Primary General Presidency, wrote that “deliverance from our trials is different for each of us, and therefore our focus should be less about the way in which we are delivered and more about the Deliverer Himself.”11

My focus needs to be riveted on Jesus and who He is rather than what I expect Him to do. …

Just because God has not delivered us from our immediate distress does not mean that the work of deliverance is not going on deep within our souls. In my distress—when God felt very far away—I began to understand more deeply those who felt excluded and abandoned, and with that came greater compassion and kindness. I learned patience and gentleness with myself and others. I leaned into grace more than I ever had before. I had to choose these virtues rather than the magnetic pull of cynicism and nihilism.

And above all, I learned that control of anything or anybody but myself was a complete illusion. No matter how obedient I thought I was, my obedience could not control God. Our actions cannot “force our will upon God,” President Dieter F. Uchtdorf wrote. “We cannot force God to comply with our desires—no matter how right we think we are or how sincerely we pray.”12 My obedience did not require God to respond to me in a particular way. I had to let God be God. Letting go of timing and a notion that God had to perform in a certain way released my perceived control of God and allowed me to embrace a loving, grace-filled Being who wanted me to grow to the point that I could bear an eternal weight of glory with him.


Divine Quietness: Finding Meaning When Heaven Is Silent

Do you ever feel like your sincere, heartfelt prayers are ignored or met with silence? Do you wonder why a loving God would ever refuse to answer? Divine Quietness explores the reasons God sometimes answers our prayers with silence, in spite of our best efforts. Through the lens of her own experience and drawing on literature from many faith traditions, Emily Robison Adams discusses new ways of thinking about faith, doubt, and divine quietness. This thoughtful new book will help you learn to rethink your assumptions underlying what it means to have faith and how to connect with God even in quietness.


Notes
1. Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (1972), 129.
2. Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 129.
3. Tom Christofferson, A Better Heart (2020), 61.
4. D. Todd Christofferson, “Our Relationship with God,” Liahona, May 2022, 78.
5. D. Todd Christofferson, “Our Relationship with God,” 78.
6. Thomas A. Wayment, The New Testament: A Translation for Latter-day Saints (2018).
7. Wayment, New Testament.
8. Wayment, New Testament.
9. Wayment, New Testament.
10. Wayment, New Testament.
11. Amy A. Wright, “Christ Heals That Which Is Broken,” Liahona, May 2022, 84.
12. Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Fourth Floor, Last Door,” Ensign, November 2016, 17.

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