In days gone by you could walk into most shops and be greeted with the words, “What can I do for you?” Not so much nowadays I’m afraid. It is perhaps appropriate for a shop assistant to ask a client this, but what if you believed that God was saying this to you?
God is not a Genie
Perhaps for people in the prosperity cults and sects, this would be just what they expect God to say to them. Although they would not admit this, their religious experience and expectations are built around the underlying assumption that God is a supplier of goods and services to those who demand. Several jokes have God as some sort of divine genie, so here is one more. It is an old joke with an essential message
, (if there is one) that we should be careful what we wish for:
A married couple, both in their early sixties are walking along a beach when they spot a Persian lamp that’s been washed up. The man picks it up and gives it a tentative rub and to their amazement, a genie immediately appears and asks, “what can I do for you?” The wife says, “Oh, a gold and diamond necklace please, and, ‘poof’, it appears around her neck. The man thinks a little, says to his wife, “Sorry darling”, then turns to the genie and says, “I would like to be married to a woman thirty years younger than myself.” And behold, in the twinkle of an eye, he is suddenly ninety years old!
The Conservative Approach
Most Christians doubt that God would ever ask what he could do for them. Quite to the contrary, we have all been accustomed to the idea that we should be asking God what we can be doing for him. Surely the lesser should seek to serve the greater? In his inaugural speech, John F Kennedy expressed this idea when he intoned, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Ever since then, church pastors regularly exhort church members to have the same attitude towards their church. So we are programmed to think this way. Of course, this is a good and biblical attitude because surely we are called to be givers and not takers and ones who serve rather than being served. A central concept of Christianity is ‘love’ and love is best expressed in unmerited self-giving.
However, I can immediately recall two instances in scripture where God asked someone what he could do for them. The clearest Old Testament example of this is in 2 Chronicles 1:7-12 where God addresses the young king of Israel as follows:
“Ask for whatever you want me to give you.” Solomon answered God, “You have shown great kindness to David my father and have made me king in his place. Now, Lord God, let your promise to my father David be confirmed, for you have made me king over a people who are as numerous as the dust of the earth. Give me wisdom and knowledge, that I may lead this people, for who is able to govern this great people of yours?” God said to Solomon, “Since this is your heart’s desire and you have not asked for wealth, riches or honour, nor for the death of your enemies, and since you have not asked for a long life but for wisdom and knowledge to govern my people over whom I have made you king, therefore wisdom and knowledge will be given you. And I will also give you wealth, riches and honour, such as no king who was before you ever had and none after you will have.”
I have reproduced the whole passage here lest the name-it-and-claim-it boys appropriate this as a proof-text for their materialistic doctrine. In addition, God’s response to Solomon’s request reveals quite a bit concerning how we could approach such an offer. Interestingly, God gave Solomon both wisdom and riches, but only because he chose wisdom to serve his people over the ability to enrich himself. The point, however, is that God actually asked him what he wanted.
The second example is from the New Testament in the Gospel of Mark chapter 10 verse 51. The Lord Jesus (God incarnate) called a blind beggar over and asked, “What do you want me to do for you?” It sounds like a strange question because, hey, the man was obviously blind. However, the point again is that God asked him what he could do for him.
An Offensive Idea
For most of us, the idea that God would want to ‘serve’ us is unsettling and subtly offensive. Ever since becoming Christians, we have been taught to serve God and others and although we may struggle to comply we take pride in the fact that we subscribe to this outward life orientation. I suspect that any offence we may feel is probably because serving God gives us a certain meaning to life and status in our Christian community.
Surely God needs us to get things done… doesn’t he?
Well no he doesn’t. If he wanted to he could send an angel to do what he needs done or even just declare it to be done and it would be done. I think that the reason God gives us ministries and missions (things to do on his behalf) is so that we can grow in character and responsibility.
I have long believed that the divine purpose for all of us is that we come to know him, become like Jesus, and help others to do likewise. Serving God and others facilitates this and prepares us for eternity.
Notwithstanding all this, how would YOU respond if you believed that God was saying to you, “My son, my daughter, what can I do for you?”
In late 2014 I read a book by the Christian country and western musician Doyle Dykes where he recalls the time when he experienced God asking what he could do for him. As I was reading this, I remembered how many years before God had said the same thing to me. It was at the end of a year and I was seeking some direction from the Lord as to what my goals and plans should be for the year ahead.
I asked, “What do you want me to do for you Lord?” and I remember the surprising reaction I received. It was as though God was chuckling gently and then his words flooded my mind “My son, the question you should be asking is what you would like me to do for you.” It unsettled me and made me wonder if I was hearing from God at all. I didn’t know what to do with this strange offer, so I just wrote it into my journal and left it behind in a flurry of busy planning and doing.
Now the decades have rolled by and I am a 74-year-old retired pastor and unemployed theologian, and it seems that the Lord is asking me this question again. A few days ago, I received a note from my son that read ‘At this stage of your life, Jesus might be asking you “what do you want me to do for you?”’ Once again, I just do not know how to respond, but this time I am pondering on it. This article is part of my attempt to process, but it is also an invitation for you to consider how you would respond.
Two main obstacles confront me. One is my mental programming over so many years that asking to receive for myself is somehow unworthy. However, how many times did Jesus encourage his followers to ask? Many times. “Ask and it will be given you…” (Matthew 7:7), “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! (Verses 11-12), “You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it” (John 14:14), and so on. Yes I know there are conditions involved and provisos implied, but, hey, we even have a word for asking God in prayer, Petition.
My second obstacle is that I just do not know what to ask for. If I am going to take the matter seriously and reverently then I need to be convinced of the worth and merit of my request. In any event, God has been very kind and generous to me already and every time we sing the song ‘Goodness of God’ in church my eyes tear up. The chorus part goes: ‘All my life, You have been faithful. All my life, You have been so, so good. With every breath that I am able. Oh, I will sing of the goodness of God’. I have health, sufficient money to live reasonably and to give when I want to, an excellent wife, and two adult children and young granddaughters, all of whom I love and who love me. I am already a blessed man. So, how then should I respond to the question?
It is a Good Question to Answer
Difficult as it may be to respond with anything other than thoughtless superficiality (give me a better, house, car, and smartphone Lord) it is a good question to answer.
It is a good thing to consider what is really important to me, what I value most, and what I am lacking. What would give me the most peace, joy, and satisfaction? What would best please the Lord to hear me ask? Hmmm, all questions I find hard to answer. What about you? How would you answer?