At the University of Southern California, inside a red brick building with the words "Truth Shall Make You Free" etched in its exterior, Leslie and I found ourselves sitting in an office that looked like the aftermath of a tornado in a trailer park. Surrounding us-on the desk and floor and spare chairs-were papers piled high. Shelves were bursting with heavy books, dog-earned journals, and a variety of mementos. And sitting serenely in the midst of it all was philosopher Dallas Willard, one of the most influential Christian thinkers of our day.
It was a rare opportunity to talk with the author of two of the most celebrated Christian books of recent decades: The Spirit of the Disciplines and The Divine Conspiracy. Our conversation with the gray-haired, bespectacled professor of philosophy was centering on how faith is exercised through prayer.
At one point, as we discussed how people respond to God, Willard made an especially interesting observation: "The issue is, what do we want? The Bible says that if you seek God with all your heart, then you will surely find him. Surely find him. It's the person who wants to know God that God reveals himself to. And if a person doesn't want to know God-well, God has created the world and the human mind in such a way that he doesn't have to."
He reached over and dug through a stack of papers on his desk, withdrawing a single sheet. "This is a handout I gave to the students in my class," he said. I took the paper and read the words:
Next Tuesday morning, just after breakfast, all of us in this one world will be knocked to our knees by a percussive and ear-shattering thunderclap. Snow swirls, leaves drop from trees, the earth heaves and buckles, buildings topple and towers tumble. The sky is ablaze with an eerie silvery light, and just then, as all the people of this world look up, the heavens open, and the clouds pull apart, revealing an unbelievably radiant and immense Zeus-like figure towering over us like a hundred Everests. He frowns darkly as lightning plays over the features of his Michelangeloid face, and then he points down, at me, and explains for every man, woman, and child to hear, "I've had quite enough of your too-clever logic chopping and word-watching in matters of theology. Be assured, Norwood Russell Hanson, that I most certainly do exist¡"3
"So," said Willard, "I asked the class, 'If this really happened, how would Hanson respond?"'
I said, "You think he'd explain it away."
"Absolutely!" Willard replied. "It's very unfortunate, but I think he'd explain it away. We need to be alert to the fact that, in nearly every case imaginable, answered prayer can be explained away if you want to. And that's what people normally do. They say, 'Well, I'm very smart; I can't be fooled by all these things."'
I could relate to that. I told Willard about the time when my newborn daughter was rushed into intensive care because of a mysterious illness that was threatening her life. The doctors weren't able to diagnose it. Even though I was an atheist, I was so desperate that I actually prayed and implored God-if he existed-to heal her. A short time later, she astounded everyone by suddenly getting completely better. The doctors were left scratching their heads.
"My response," I told Willard, "was to explain it away. I said, 'What a coincidence! She must have had some bacteria or virus that spontaneously disappeared.' I wouldn't even consider the possibility that God had acted. Instead, I stayed in my atheism."
Willard smiled at the story. "I don't mean to diagnose your case in your presence," he said gently, "but might it be that your pride got in the way? You were too smart! You weren't going to be taken in by this. Let all the little old ladies be fooled, but not you. As long as a person has that attitude, that's their response."
Bingo! He was right on target. Even if there had been a proliferation of corroborating evidence that God had intervened, I would have come up with any explanation no matter how bizarre, no matter how nonsensical-other than the possibility that he had answered my prayer. I was too proud to bend the knee to anyone, and too enmeshed in my immoral lifestyle to want to give it up.
"I guarantee you," continued Willard, "that it wouldn't take five minutes to explain away a clear-cut miracle like the fire that came down out of the heavens to consume the altar in the case of Elijah in the Old Testament. And do you know what? People did explain it away! If they hadn't, the history of Israel would have been very different from what it was.
"And God has set up prayer in such a way that, if you want to explain it away, you can. That's the human mind. God set it up like that for a reason, which is this: God ordained that people should be governed in the end by what they want. "
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