This article made the rounds recently on a United Methodist-related Facebook group of which I’m a member. Bart Campolo, the son of prominent “progressive evangelical” Tony Campolo, describes how he lost his Christian faith incrementally. The process began during his ministry with the urban poor, when he found, time and again, that God wasn’t answering his prayers.
“It messed with my theology,” he explains. “I had a theology that said God could intervene and do stuff.” But after a period of unanswered prayer, Bart admits: “I had to change my understanding of God. Sovereignty had to get dialed down a bit.”
Campolo admitted that changing his view of God’s sovereignty was “the beginning of the end” of his faith. Why?
“Because once you start adjusting your theology to match up to the reality you see in front of you, it’s an infinite progression. So over the course of the next 30 years…my ability to believe in a supernatural narrative or a God who intervenes and does anything died a death of a thousand unanswered prayers”.
Campolo continued: “I passed through every stage of heresy. It starts out with sovereignty goes, then biblical authority goes, then I’m a universalist, now I’m marrying gay people. Pretty soon I don’t actually believe Jesus actually rose from the dead in a bodily way.”
Campolo went on to say that “progressive Christianity” is a stepping stone to atheism for many others.
Maybe so. But if Campolo believed that God’s sovereignty was proven (or not) by Campolo’s perception of God’s ability to answer his prayers, then I wonder how orthodox he was to begin with.
Speaking from my own experience, the “higher” your view of God’s sovereignty, the less concerned you are with whether or not God grants your petitions in prayer. Why? Because your overriding concern is that God’s will be done, not your own. If something other than your petition comes to pass, you can trust that God allowed or enabled it for good reasons—and the ultimate outcome of not granting your petition will be better for you, for your neighbor, for the world, or for God’s kingdom than otherwise. Whether you can grasp even one of possibly millions of reasons that God didn’t grant your petition is beside the point.
And why should you know what those reasons are? Who do you—a finite, sinful person—think you are? To put it mildly, what do you know that God doesn’t? Who are you to judge what God “ought” to do? It’s preposterous when you think about it—at least for those of us who believe in the doctrine of God’s sovereignty and providence.
After all, from God’s vantage point, which transcends time, only he foreknows the myriad and potentially eternal consequences of granting or not granting your petition.
In his masterful book Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering, Tim Keller discusses chaos theory and the famous “butterfly effect”: that a butterfly flapping its wings in China “would be magnified through a ripple effect so as to determine the path of a hurricane in the South Pacific. Yet no one would be able to calculate and predict the actual effects of the butterfly’s flight.” No one except God, that is.
Now, if even the effects of a butterfly’s flight or the roll of a ball down a hill are too complex to calculate, how much less could any human being look at the tragic, seemingly “senseless” death of a young person and have any idea of what the effects in history will be? If an all-powerful and all-wise God were directing all of history with its infinite number of interactive events toward good ends, it would be folly to think we could look at any particular occurrence and understand a millionth of what it will bring about. The history-butterfly effect means that “only an omniscient mind could grasp the complexities of directing a world of free creatures toward… provisioned [good] goals… Certainly many evils seem pointless and unnecessary to us—but we are simply not in a position to judge.”
Elsewhere, Keller has said these helpful words:
God will only give you what you would have asked for if you knew everything he knows.
— Timothy Keller (@timkellernyc) March 4, 2017
At the very least, we need to approach the “problem” of unanswered prayer with great humility.
Besides, in his model prayer for us, Jesus teaches us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” In his 30 years of drifting toward atheism, was Campolo praying for that? Because if he were, he would have found that God answered his prayer about 10,950 times. Had he been praying for other bare necessities, he likely could add hundreds of thousands more answered prayers for things he routinely took for granted.
“Yes,” the skeptic might say, “but Campolo was going to receive his daily bread anyway—he lives in the most prosperous country in history, after all. He didn’t have to pray for it, and he probably didn’t most of the time.”
That’s probably true. And yet, someone who believes in God’s sovereignty also understands that nothing in the universe “happens anyway”—not apart from God’s providential grace. That you were born in a prosperous country into a middle-class family, that you enjoy life and breath with which to serve the urban poor, and that you receive something so humble as daily bread—all of these are gifts “from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17).
If we forget to ask our Father for these gifts, yet he gives them anyway, can we at least remember to say thank you?
(And thus concludes the grumpiest Thanksgiving message you’ll likely read this year! 😉)
1. Timothy Keller, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering (New York: Dutton, 2013), 100.
2. Ibid., 101.