How should we pray if God is more concerned about our souls than our bodies?
As I continue to read and re-read your book "Hearing Jesus Speak into Your Sorrow," I find it a very new thought that God isn't so concerned in saving our earthly bodies but in protecting our souls for eternity. We spend so much time praying for healing and safety and think that is the way to pray. If we think that God isn't as interested in that as our souls, how then do we pray? Do we pray for "little" things? What if they don't seem to be "kingdom advancement?" And, what if we don't see how an answer is "kingdom advancement?" I find it odd that the whole idea isn't preached about more and taught more. You are the only one who has pointed this out. Otherwise, we are taught to pray for everything and pray continuously for earthly cares. Why don't we hear more about this "soul" priority? It is starting to make sense to me, but it is a shift in thinking to be honest.
You are wrestling here with some very significant and essential things. I applaud you! I think we can't work through the loss of our loved ones without thinking these things through. Most of us settle for some limited understandings of the Bible and what God is doing in this world until something happens that upsets it all. Then we have to move from swimming around in the shallow end of the theological pool and be willing to dive into the deep end to make sense of it. Your loss is pushing you deeper into seeking to understand what God is doing in the world, and that is a good thing. It is the same for me as I continue to be a learner and have previous misconceptions corrected. The truth is, there was much I didn't understand about God's purposes in the world and specifically about heaven when I wrote Holding on to Hope and The One Year Book of Hope. I understood more when I wrote Hearing Jesus Speak into Your Sorrow. But as I continue to learn and grasp a deeper understanding of the Bible, that understanding continues to be shaped and refined. And it probably will be until I die.
There are really two issues in your e-mail, and I'll try to respond to them both clearly and concisely, although I'm finding that difficult and have re-written this response several times. One is the issue of what the focus of the Christian life and prayer is all about, and the other is what is beyond this life for us as humans who are both body and soul.
First, your questions about prayer. You say that we are taught to pray about earthly concerns. And I think you're right. At least that is what we can gleam as being important from how prayer is practiced in the typical church. But if we look at the Bible, prayer is not primarily about practical concerns but about spiritual concerns. It is mostly about inviting God to have his way in the world and in our lives. Take a look at this list by John Piper on what we should pray for based on the prayers recorded in the Bible. Prayer is spiritual work toward spiritual ends. Perhaps part of the sanctifying work God wants to accomplish in our lives through the loss is to move us past praying only or primarily about what matters to us and more about what matters to him.
But what matters to him? Certainly we matter to him. He is our Father. And that is why he invites us to bring our requests to him. But we do so as a child who trusts our Father to do what is right, not as a child who seeks to manipulate him or demand from him. And we pray in a way that welcomes him to accomplish his purposes in this world and in our lives. What are those purposes? What is his "kingdom agenda"? To answer this, we have to have a clear understanding of the big picture story of the Bible. I don't know about you, but for most of my life, while I have known a lot about Bible stories and lots of parts of the Bible, I have had a very limited understanding of the overriding story of the whole Bible. So while this may seem like overkill in answering your question, this understanding of the bigger picture and purposes is essential for understanding that smaller picture you are asking about in regard to body and soul.
Genesis begins with the creation of the Kingdom of God in the Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve lived in willing obedience to God's word and rule. But a rival regime established a beachhead in God's kingdom. Evil infiltrated the kingdom when the serpent successfully tempted Adam and Eve to sin. And when they sinned, Romans says, "all creation was subjected to God's curse" (8:20). How will this curse be dealt with? Only by God becoming man in the person of Jesus, and taking this curse upon himself on the cross. Christ did what was necessary at the cross to put an end to the curse. But we are still living under its effects. That passage in Romans continues:
"Against its will, all creation was subjected to God's curse. But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God's children in glorious freedom from death and decay. For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us" (Romans 8:20-25).
Notice that Paul does not say we wait eagerly to be taken away from this world to live forever in some ethereal heaven that is away from this earth, but that we wait eagerly for the new bodies he has promised us (8:23). We know that to be "away from the body" is to be "at home with the Lord" (2 Corinthians 5:8). This is what some theologians describe as "the intermediate state." This is our souls in the presence of God after we die as we await the resurrection when Christ returns to earth. Our final destination is not living as disembodied souls somewhere away from this earth without our redeemed bodies. Christ will return to this earth and will "bring with him those who have fallen asleep" (1 Thess. 4:14). We will return to this earth with Christ and be united with our resurrected, glorified bodies to reign on this renewed earth with Christ. This is what is described in Revelation 21:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared. And the sea was also gone. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, "Look, God's home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever."
This is the story of the Bible coming full circle. This description of the future is the being restored to a garden-like paradise much like it was for Adam and Eve before they sinned, but even better.
One way understanding this has impacted me is that when people talk about our children having perfect bodies now in heaven, I know that isn't true. They will have bodies that are healed and whole when heaven comes down to earth and we live in what Revelation is describing here as the "new heaven and a new earth," but they don't have that yet. That will come at the resurrection. That is why we must focus our hopes toward resurrection. You will want to read all of 1 Corinthians 15 with this in mind, but here are a few key verses:
"Christ was raised as the first of the harvest; then all who belong to Christ will be raised when he comes back . . . Our earthly bodies are planted in the ground when we die, but they will be raised to live forever. Our bodies are buried in brokenness, but they will be raised in glory . . . our physical bodies cannot inherit the Kingdom of God. These dying bodies cannot inherit what will last forever. But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies." (1 Corinthians 15:23, 42-43, 50-53)
So think this through with me, perhaps letting go of the way we've always thought about the goal of life being to die and go to heaven somewhere away from here where we would live as spirits with God. God is going to give us new bodies, bodies like he had after he rose from the grave. And the goal of history, where the whole story of the Bible is heading, is that we will live with Christ and a cleansed, re-created earth in resurrected, glorified bodies.
So why am I going into all of this? Because if this is what is ahead for us, we are indestructible. We don't have to worry so much about protecting ourselves and our children in this life. We can give our lives away for the cause of the gospel (kingdom advancement). We can be willing to suffer and lose in this life because we are so confident that this future resurrection life will more than make up for everything we've endured and lost here. It gets us demanding less of this life and expecting more of the next. This is what Paul was talking about when he said:
Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. For our present troubles are small and won't last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! So we don't look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)
and why he also wrote:
Everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ and become one with him. I no longer count on my own righteousness through obeying the law; rather, I become righteous through faith in Christ. For God's way of making us right with himself depends on faith. I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead. I want to suffer with him, sharing in his death, so that one way or another I will experience the resurrection from the dead! (Philippians 3:7-11)
Did you notice that he was not all about praying for his life and comfort to be protected but rather he said everything about a comfortable life here is worthless compared to becoming one with Christ and knowing Christ? This is kingdom agenda. And did you notice that he doesn't say that what he wants to experience is to go to heaven when he dies, but rather "the resurrection from the dead"? This is why preserving our current mortal bodies is not our highest priority.
If you're thinking that this is all new and why haven't you ever heard this or understood this, you need to know that that is exactly how I was only a few years ago. It is not that this is some newfound understanding of the Bible. It is the historic understanding of the Bible. But somehow in our modern Christian culture we have so focused on heaven when we die that we've lost this biblical perspective. But don't just take my word for it. Dig into your Bible. Look up every reference to resurrection in the New Testament and see if you see it for yourself. Don't read every reference to "eternal life" as meaning life away from here in heaven but full and unending life the way God always intended it to be when he first created us in a new garden, the renewed earth.
But also, let me go back to what I wrote on the pages in my book you are discussing and trying to make sense of. You should know that I would probably write the section you are asking about slightly differently today. I would not write, "It's our souls that he is most concerned about." I would say instead that God intends to redeem us body and soul. Being both body and soul is what makes us human. And Christ intends to redeem both. These current bodies of ours are going to die. Our souls will never die, but will be in the presence of Christ when we die and will be reunited one day with our resurrected bodies to live forever with Christ on the renewed earth.
But let me also say that what I wrote in the book has had its intended effect on you—to cause you to rethink the modern day church's obsession and over-emphasis on making the Christian life so much about praying for God's protection and preservation of our earthly bodies which is really more about using God to accomplish our agenda rather than joining him in his agenda. I'm trying to get readers to re-evaluate this settled assumption we have that God hovers around us to answer our prayers, which basically makes him our servant. Rather, God has an agenda he has invited us into that goes far beyond our small agendas for our own lives. He is about redeeming all of creation. When we truly believe that we can never really die because our souls are safe with God and our bodies will one day be resurrected in glory, it frees us to live life without so much fear and protectionism. We can live all-out for Christ, sharing the gospel even when it costs us, welcoming his pruning, sanctifying work in our lives confident that we have a glorious future with him. This confidence is what enables us to "grieve with hope"(1 Thess 4:13).
I hope I haven't confused more than clarified things for you. I would like to suggest some other resources that I think will be really helpful to you on these issues. To really figure this out requires that you become a student of God and of the Bible in a fresh and diligent way. But it's worth it. You will never grasp this just going to church.
Spend some time in 1 Corinthians 15, 2 Corinthians 4-5, and 1 Thessalonians 4. Sit down and read through the book of Philippians and imagine yourself asking Paul the questions you asked me about prayer and purpose and body and soul. Based on what you read there, what do you think he would say to you is important about life and death? What would you imagine him telling you to pray about. Maybe you could even make a list of those things as you read through the book as a whole. Here's some other resources for you that have been helpful to me:
John Piper 4-sermon series on what happens when you die.
John Piper on what is called "the intermediate state" which is the time with Christ after we die before our bodies are resurrected.
Randy Alcorn's webpage section of helpful answers to questions about heaven. If you have not read Randy Alcorn's book, Heaven, that would be very helpful.
This sermon by Kevin DeYoung is very clear and helpful: "Heaven is a Place on Earth."
Read this section on "Resurrection and Suffering" and "The Future of the Dance" in Tim Keller's book, The Reason for God.
Here's a John Piper sermon that might be helpful in regard to what I mean by God's "kingdom agenda" that is more important than our bodies.