Many years ago an elderly woman in our church related this story: “When my son was in combat in WWII, I prayed for his safe return every day. One evening I had an insight that if we were going to win this war, some of our precious boys were going to die. That is just the way it has to be. If I ask God to protect my son and bring him home safely, am I not asking God to withhold protection for another mother’s son?”
She made me think about what “love your neighbor as yourself” meant in a way I had never considered before.
But shouldn’t we express to God those things that are on our heart? Doesn’t a loving God listen to our heart’s desires?
Since my friend shared the story about praying for her son, I have tried to understand what Jesus said about preferential treatment from God.
Two verses in particular seem to capture one of the most profound principles Jesus gave us. Matthew 5:44-45 tells us, “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”
To me, Jesus is saying that we should care for others, even our enemies, because they too are important and valuable to God.
This is the point of the Book of Jonah. God sends the rain and sun to all regardless of moral condition.
I believe Jesus is saying that God values us all, in some sense, equally and thus does not give preferential treatment. For me, this means that I cannot expect preferential treatment from God.
I thought about that often while sitting with my dad through his struggle with cancer. Of course I prayed for his recovery. That was my heart’s desire, and I believe in a God who listens to heartfelt prayer and shares our pain.
Even though I shared with God all the reasons why my dad’s life was so important, I had decided not to expect God to give him preferential treatment. That’s right: I asked God to do what was on my heart, but didn’t expect God to do it.
I said many of the same things to my wife who listened and consoled me as best she could, but I didn’t expect her to take responsibility for Dad’s healing either. I knew what I wanted in my heart, but in my head I had concluded that it was unreasonable to ask God to do something Jesus taught us was not consistent with God’s nature.
This change in my expectations has been a wonderful gift, a freeing experience. I never have to wonder that if only I had a closer relationship with God or was more spiritual, somehow I could be more persuasive when asking God to be more benevolent than God would otherwise be.
I never have to imagine that I need to change God’s attitude. I trust that God would be doing everything possible for me or my loved one that could be done without violating the principle of no preferential treatment.
When my dad died, I never imagined that his failure to recover was punishment from God. Likewise, if he had recovered, I would not have interpreted that as a reward for him or me. I never felt that God was indifferent. God refused to grant my request for preferential treatment because to do so would say, in effect, that God cared more for my dad than for others who were also dying, many of whom had people praying for them too.
I know that God’s spirit is always present helping all of us make the best of the situation. This is not indifference on God’s part.
Some friends harass me at this point, saying that the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, is filled with stories of preferential treatment by God. This is true.
Those writers saw God being involved in their lives based on their understanding of the nature and character of the God they knew at that time. I am convinced that a major part of Jesus’ mission was to refine our understanding of the true nature and character of the God he knew so well. NFJ
—Ron Perritt, a leader at University Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, holds advanced degrees in theology and engineering and taught the latter at Georgia Tech and Louisiana State University.