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Prayer for the Week

02 November 2006

What is before us, we know not, whether we shall live or die; but this we know, that all things are ordered and sure. Everything is ordered with unerring wisdom and unbounded love, by thee, O God, who art love. Grant us in all things to see thy hand; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Charles Simeon (1759-1836)

AT FIRST glance, Charles Simeon's prayer seems enormously reassuring. In a world that is often bewildering, haphazard, and cruel, Simeon asserts that the hand of God is to be found "in all things". The apparent chaos of the world is misleading. In its place, according to Simeon's prayer, a more discerning eye would see design and purpose.

Faith in divine control provides many with comfort, particularly when bound up with the belief that the chaos is not only ordered and sure, but ordered with "unerring wisdom and unbounded love". The intent of the prayer is one that we often pray. We yield ourselves to God's will, and submit ourselves to whatever happens to us, in the belief that it is all part of God's plan for us. In faith, we hope, it will be all right in the end.

The temptation of Simeon's prayer, however, is to fall into a kind of passivism that accepts that everything is the best it can be because God controls it all; therefore, it is exactly as he wills it (who then are we to try to alter or challenge it?). Or the temptation is to fall into cynicism or despair if the evidence of God's love in all things that come our way, or in the horrors that we see around us, runs thin. It would be hard to claim that the evidence points to the world's being ordered entirely with wisdom.

In place of passivism, the Church proclaims its belief in life before death, and in the importance of our help - now - in changing things. Poverty and war are not to be easily accepted as part of a divinely ordered world, let alone as aspects of wisdom and love, but as blemishes on creation, and an insult as much to God as to us. We are called to be partners with God, and participants in bringing about a world that is truly ordered and bound by wisdom and love.

If we were to believe that all things were God's will rather than that God was present in all things, then, deprived of any true self-governance, we might fail to walk hand in hand with God in building his Kingdom. We would be tempted merely to sit back or to obey God's orders like automatons.

Of course, there is greater ambiguity in believing that God is present in all things than in believing that God wills all things. For those who believe that God wills all things, reality is the reverse imprint of God's will, and therefore "self-evident". Presence from which we might draw the same conclusion is harder to pinpoint.

Divine presence, though, allows greater scope for exercising our free will. With free will come responsibility and our part, however minor, in our own sanctification. It is the knowledge that our actions do count, and that it is not God on his own, but God with us and through us (by God's own choice), which brings hope, and wards off passivism. Nothing prevents God from exercising his will, but nothing prevents us from exercising ours, to the extent that we can. With God's help, we can change the world.

There is undoubted poetry in Simeon's prayer, which forms a condensed credo of his Evangelical belief. Slain by God's power and love, he portrays in his prayer a world in which he is convinced that God's power is absolute.

Yet nothing is ever that simple. The Trinity itself stands testament against anything that claims to be a simple Christian faith. It seems that God holds back; that the exercise of power is conditional on the consent of our hearts and minds.

It seems that we are yet far off from a world in which everything is ordered with unerring wisdom and unbounded love. But we are in a world where God stands ready to enter our hearts and minds, and to use our hands and talents to bring about his Kingdom.

The Revd Mark Speeks is Assistant Priest at St James's, West Hampstead, and St Mary's, Kilburn, London.

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