Monday, January 03, 2011

God Is Not Some "Universal Errand Boy"

As we approach the celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday, Lewis Baldwin, professor of religious studies at Vanderbilt University, has showed us that King-scholars have not understood that the foundation for all King did was spiritual and rooted in a phenomenally deep, authentic prayer life. (See Baldwin, Never to Leave Us Alone: The Prayer Life of Martin Luther King Jr.) Note how few have grasped this, or perhaps do not want to acknowledge this, on January 17.

Baldwin's study of King's prayer life is rich and multi-faceted. King had a lot of things right about prayer, the first being that he actually had a disciplined life of prayer. The preacher who tells others they need to pray but has no prayer life themselves is a hypocrite, perhaps even a deist in disguise. King was definitely not that!

I'm reviewing Baldwin's book to prepare for my coming teaching at Payne Theological Seminary. I just re-read Baldwin on when King was a graduate student and wrote "The Misuse of Prayer." King thought praying was natural to human spirit, but knew prayer could be used in "unnatural ways." "Every human need, desire, and aspiration cannot be fulfilled through the habit of praying... King [asserts] that those who "misuse," "abuse," or exploit prayer are apt to view God as some "cosmic bell hop" or "universal errand boy" who responds to every trivial human request and need." (Baldwin, 35)

Does God hear every time someone prays? I think so. Does God grant every request? Of course not. God grants requests that line up with his mission, and with his kingdom. In light of this a lot of prayer requests are trivial. 

I'm thankful for King's position. It defies, among other things, the trivialities of the American "prosperity gospel" and its scandalous misrepresentation of God. "Praying as an act of selfishness," writes Baldwin, "was repulsive to King." (Ib.)