I write a lot of small group Bible study curriculum, and in the process I work with many different churches, different pastors, and different perspectives. One of my favorite clients is a preacher in Atlanta who leans toward the “spirit-filled” side of the spectrum and often talks to his congregation about God’s favor. He encourages his church members to pray for God’s favor in their families, their business dealings, and their health.
Sometimes I question the theology of those prayers. Sometimes I question whether I am brave enough to pray them.
In the Old Testament we see God “favoring” many of the Bible heroes. Noah finds favor in the eyes of the Lord (Genesis 6:8), as do Moses (Exodus 33:12) and Samuel (1 Samuel 2:26). Throughout the biblical story, from Abel and Abraham to Ezra and Esther, we see God choosing specific individuals to bless.
However, whatever “prosperity” they experienced came with problems. Noah was told to build a boat, which took decades to complete, and then he floated around in it for another year with his dysfunctional family and a lot of manure.
Moses had to put up with a million whiny Israelites for four decades.
Samuel had to lead difficult people and confront a disobedient king.
While these men enjoyed a unique relationship with God, receiving his favor did not lead to the personal happiness or professional success we pray for. God’s favor did not improve their health, their reputation, or even their families; instead, it required significant personal sacrifice and focused on accomplishing God’s plan for God’s world in God’s way.
When I read the Gospels, I am struck at how this is also true for Mary. In Luke 1:28, Gabriel appears to her and says, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” He proceeds to tell her she will conceive by the Holy Spirit, give birth to a son, and have the honor of mothering the long-awaited Messiah. She will carry the “Son of the Most High” in her womb and will raise the ruler of her people. Favor, indeed!
But Gabriel leaves a few things out. Mary will also risk losing her future husband, endure ridicule from her neighbors, and potentially face execution for adultery. And those are just the fears of the first trimester—the following months will bring an inconvenient census, a really uncomfortable journey, a delivery amidst livestock, and a rushed escape to Egypt.
In later years she will watch her penniless, itinerant son lead a ragtag group of fishermen, tax collectors, and zealots and wonder, He’s going to sit on the throne of David? He doesn’t even have a house. His kingdom will never end? When will it start?
Then, after just a few years of this, Simeon’s prophecy is fulfilled and her soul is pierced as she watches Jesus die a criminal’s death.
Interestingly, the word used in Luke to describe Mary’s favor, kecharitōmenē, is used only one other time in the New Testament. In Ephesians 1:6 we read that God has “echaritōsen” us; he has “freely given us” his grace through Jesus. In Luke’s account, Mary is the recipient of great favor from God; in Ephesians, Paul is saying we are too. God has given us the riches of his grace through Christ, and he loves us for all of eternity. We are already favored people. The question is whether we are brave enough for what that might require.
There’s probably nothing wrong with asking for a favor from God, or for a favored position when we face a challenge. Sometimes God might even answer those prayers. But for Mary, the favor of God did not bring health and wealth. She had a relationship with him that is unique in all of humanity, and certainly she was blessed for her role in his redemptive story. But saying yes to that plan meant saying no to her own.
The same is true for Abraham, Noah, Moses, Joseph, Samuel, Peter, and Paul, and the same is true for us. We don’t have to pray for God’s favor, because he has already graced us with it. But we should remember that it requires obedience, and it comes with a cost.
Originally published in the December 2016 Christian Standard.