The word genie has its origins in 17th century France, but in 1992, it exploded into our vocabulary because of the Disney animation, Aladdin. The main protagonist, Aladdin, is a streetwise hustler who teams up with Genie, a powerful wish-granting being who lives in a mysterious lamp, to win the heart of a princess and defeat Jafar, a power-hungry villain who wants to be the Sultan. Genie’s value lies in his ability to grant the bearer of the lamp anything they wished for, so both Aladdin and Jafar are keen to possess the lamp.
I remember watching the movie in the early 90s and wishing I had a genie too. I was a teenager, so my wish list then requires very little imagination. As I watched the 2019 remake, which I thought was a fun movie, it occurred to me that I can sometimes treat God as a genie. I go to Him with my wish list and expect Him to grant them. Sometimes I reason that what I want would benefit others too. For instance, some of us have prayed: “Lord, if I win the lottery, it would solve my financial worries and I could be a blessing to others. Surely that is a good thing?”.
Last week I mentioned that God has given all of us the dignity of causality. We can effect change in the world through work and prayer. Our power to change things through work is thankfully limited but it’s also ruthless. For example, if you drink excessively, you will destroy your body. If you have an exam and don’t study for it, you will fail regardless of how fervently you ask God to help you pass it. Genie, if he did exist, might help you get something you didn’t work for but God doesn’t do for us what He has given us the ability to do for ourselves. On the other hand, the change we bring about through prayer is not limited by anything but it is God who decides and sometimes He doesn’t do what we expect.
Like many people, I have my struggles with unanswered prayers. Sometimes the things we ask God for might be detrimental in the long term, especially things rooted in our own desires. So in His loving mercy, He denies us. While I am not suggesting that God doesn’t answer prayers for material needs, I can understand why He may deny us things that might shift our focus from Him. I have no idea why some prayers are answered and some aren’t. I ask God why He didn’t act when someone I know dies from illness or experiences misfortune despite fervent prayers. I question each of my unanswered prayers especially when I am convinced that what I asked for was a good thing [Matthew 7:11], did I ask in faith [Matthew 21:22]? I honestly don’t have the answers. I look forward to understanding why God didn’t intervene in these situations one day [1 Corinthians 13:9-12] but I have to trust that God knows what He is doing.
I often hear people quote “ask and you shall receive….” as a decree to ask God for anything. It obviously doesn’t imply we should ask for anything like one would say: “Genie, I wish for…”. Every time “ask and you shall receive…” is stated in the Bible, it is within a context. Jesus did not just come out one day and exclaim, “ask me for anything you can think of and I will do it for you”. In Matthew gospel, Jesus says “ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” [Matthew 7:7 NIV]. However, He says this within the context of His Sermon on the Mount teaching. In Luke when He says something similar [Luke 11:1-13], and it is in the context of His teaching on prayer and the object of the request is His indwelling presence. He is promising those who believe in Him that they will receive the Holy Spirit if they ask for it.
Ultimately, our relationship with God is based on trust. We bring our requests before Him knowing that He is a Good Father who desires to give us good gifts but trust enables us to accept that what we might consider good isn’t necessarily what God considers good for us. His eventual purpose is to make us like Jesus [Romans 8:29] and if we surrender our lives to Him, He will do just that. This might mean we have to die to certain desires as we submit to God’s will. I believe this is why when I summoned the courage to pray “Lord what do you want me to change in my life”, I felt God readily answered me by revealing things in my life I needed to address.
In the movie, Genie makes it clear that Aladdin is his master and he will grant whatever Aladdin wishes. It is the exact opposite with our relationship with God because with God, He is Lord and Master and the relationship is on His terms, not ours. We are to submit to God’s will even if we feel it is detrimental to us rather than insist on our desire. A genie grants wishes regardless of the consequences and as Aladdin and Jafar found out in the movie, we can get trapped and enslaved by our desires. However, with God, we are never enslaved by anything He does for us.
I am slowly understanding that God wants a relationship with me that will outlast anything I could ask of Him and if I pursue that relationship above all else, He will add everything else good I could ever wish for [Matthew 6:33].