…but He never really does

21 July 2015

“Hey, do you think God could really speak today? Could He reveal Himself to someone with a thought, an impression, a circumstance?”

Sure. Shoot, He could do an audible voice if He wanted to. Nobody really thinks God couldn’t do it. He’s God, after all.”

“Great. Glad we’re on the same page about that. So last night, when I was praying, God said…”

“Wait. What do you mean, ‘God said’?”

“I mean that He talked to me, and I heard it. Look here in my journal — I even wrote it down.”

“Oh come on! How do you know that’s God?”

“Same way I know it’s my Mom calling when I hear her on the phone — I know what her voice sounds like.”

“You’re telling me you literally heard an audible voice, and you know it was God?”

“No, I’m telling you God spoke to me in my thoughts, and I know what it sounds like when He does that.”

“Don’t be silly! How could you possibly tell?”

*****

Interesting, huh? Here we have a conversation between two Christians, both of whom profess that God can speak to individuals today — to whomever He wants, anytime He wants. But one of them is certain, in advance of all the evidence, that He didn’t speak to this particular guy last night. This is the difference between theology on paper and theology in real life: only one of them actually expects it to happen. Last night, only one of them was listening in the expectation that God might speak. Big surprise — only one of them heard anything.

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All I See Is Rocks

11 June 2013

This post is part of the June Synchroblog.

Much is made of having the courage to be authentic these days. This got me to thinking about how we discuss talking to God honestly. The article is on the subject of whether God gives us trials we can’t handle, and I think Mr. Pyle is right — of course God gives us trials we can’t handle — that’s why we flee to God for refuge. He closes the article this way:

I believe expectant waiting can only happen when we exchange our feeble platitudes for an authentic faith that engages God with the full brunt of our emotion and pain. Only then can salvation been seen.

But that exchange takes courage.

My first reaction was, “No it doesn’t.” I proceeded to write a curmudgeonly little essay on the contemporary cult of authenticity and why honest prayer is not a matter of courage — which has been deleted and will never see the light of day, God be thanked. Upon further reflection, though, I believe the gap between my experience and Mr. Pyle’s offers an occasion for reflecting on different forms of courage, and how they relate to one another.

In order to do that, permit me a few paragraphs of autobiographical reflection on how I learned to give up my platitudes and speak honestly to God. Don’t get me wrong; it wasn’t easy for me either. But for me, it was all about being honest and obedient. God began by challenging me to engage the Psalms more fully — all of them. He called me to learn them, sing them, chant them, be saturated with them. (It’s a project I’m still working on.) Saturating myself in the Psalms became a graduate course in prayer, in learning to meet God where I really am, rather than asking Him to meet me where I pretend to be. It was language class — I learned to talk all over again, with an expanded vocabulary that contained theologically “questionable” things like “Why have You forgotten me?” and “How long will You ignore me?” For me, saying these things wasn’t courageous; it was merely obedient. God told me to sing the Psalms (Eph. 5:19, Col. 3:16), and the Psalms told me to talk to God like that. If David and the Holy Spirit thought it was a good idea, who was I to argue?

Courage is about risk, and there’s no risk here. When I engage God “with the full brunt of my emotion and pain,” I am not Jerzy Popieluszko speaking truth to thugs in power, nor even a kid confronting his abusive alcoholic dad. I am not staging a Tiananmen Square protest in the courts of heaven. The specter of the gulag or the wide leather belt does not hang over the exchange. I am coming into the heavenly Tabernacle with the prayers of the Tabernacle. I am speaking to the Father of fathers, who made me and loves me, and I am speaking to Him in the way that He taught me to speak. Finally.

Far from facing danger, I am fleeing the dangers of disobedience and lying for the refuge of obedience and truth. I am escaping the perils of keeping the true state of my soul to myself. I am escaping the hazard of growing more and more isolated as I refuse to admit what’s really in my heart to God, others, or even myself. I am escaping the endless futility of trying to get God to meet me where I pretend to be, rather than where I really am.

Where’s the risk? He isn’t going to hurt me; He’s going to help me. If I cry out for bread, will He give me a stone? Of course not. So I have two choices. I can try to choke down some gravel and pretend that it’s nourishing and I’m grateful, or I can pray, “Look, You said You’d feed me, and all I see around here is rocks!” Which is the dangerous course, and which is the safe one? Crying out for God to save is, well, safe. He loves to do that.

Unfortunately, many of us who were raised in the evangelical world simply did not learn that. We were raised with a god composed of equal parts Victorian Santa Claus — doing nice things for nice people — and somebody’s tight-shoed maiden aunt. Dealing with anguish was just not his department, and heaven knows what he might do if your prayers strayed outside the polite boundaries of country club luncheon conversation. Confronting that querulous godling with “the full brunt of our emotion and pain” must feel risky as Hell. So to speak.

Not knowing Mr. Pyle, I don’t know whether this is his background or not, but many of my friends have come from that background, and they too felt like praying in Psalm-like ways required enormous courage. “I can’t say that!” has been a common refrain.

“David did,” I say.

“I’m not sure God likes me as much as David,” they say.

So yeah, there’s a sense of risk, and therefore genuine courage. It is vital that we celebrate that courage for what it is without taking it for what it is not. This is not the courage of David confronting Goliath, with his spear haft like a weaver’s beam; it is the courage of an agoraphobe going to the end of the sidewalk to get the morning paper. It is the small deliverance that opens the door to much greater salvation still. Yahweh is not that petty godling we imagine; He will not take vengeance on us for being honest with Him. The danger we feel so keenly is illusory — but we do feel it, and having to face our fears requires courage nonetheless.

I believe there is a progression here, for if we cannot face imagined risks, how will we face real ones? The little boy must learn not to be afraid of the imagined monsters in the dark before he can learn not to be afraid of the real monster in the Valley of Elah. The courage that slays giants tomorrow grows from the courage that slays illusions today.

Or at least it will, if we can maintain both proper celebratory gratitude and a sense of proportion. The act of courage that shreds a long-held illusion is a gift from God, and we ought to celebrate it for all it’s worth. At the same time, we need to remember that being honest with God and others — what we now call authenticity — is not an end in itself, but a beginning, a foundation on which much greater things are built. Let us be grateful for where we are, and look forward beyond authenticity to transformation, salvation, and yes, maybe even thrilling heroics.

***

Other entries in the June Synchroblog include:

This Is Courage by Jen Bradbury

Being Vulnerable by Phil Lancaster

Everyday Bravery: Overcoming the Fear of Being Wrong by Jessica

Moving Forward Takes Courage by Paul W. Meier

How to Become a Flasher by Glenn Hager

Ordinary Courage by Elaine Hansen

Courage, Hope, Generosity by Carol Kuniholm

The Courage to Fail by Wendy McCaig

The Greatest Act of Courage by Jeremy Myers

Sharing One’s Heart by K. W. Leslie

All I See Is Rocks by Tim Nichols

I Wonder What Would Happen by Liz Dyer

What is Ordinary Courage? by Jennifer Stahl

Loving Courageously by Doreen A. Mannion

Heart Cry: The Courage to Confess by Elizabeth Chapin

The Act to the Miraculous by VisionHub

the spiritual practice of showing up & telling the truth by Kathy Escobar

It’s What We Teach by Margaret Boelman


Always?

21 October 2012

Back in the day, occasionally someone in Sunday school would look up at the teacher in all innocence and ask, “How come God doesn’t answer my prayers?”

“God always answers prayer,” the teacher would glibly say. “Sometimes He says yes; sometimes He says no; sometimes He says wait.”

That little Sunday school chestnut has always bothered me. It used to bother me because that’s not what we mean when we talk about answered prayer. When people talk about answered prayer, they mean that they prayed for Aunt Martha’s gout to get better, and it got better. If it got worse instead, nobody said, “See? God does answer prayer! (He just said no!)”

So I always thought it was a little disingenuous, a slippery redefining of the terms in order to avoid having to answer the hard question of how come God clearly heard Johnny’s request that his parents would not get divorced, and — as far as any of us could tell — just decided to ignore it.

*****
I still harbor that same objection, but now this whole “God always answers prayer” schtick bothers me for a different reason entirely: the people who say it don’t really believe it either.

Suppose I ask you for a lollipop. You have the same three possible responses:
“Sure; here you go.”
“Sorry, no.”
“Hang on a minute.”

Suppose you do nothing, and say nothing to me, even though I ask again, and then once more. Would I say that you answered me? Or would I say that you didn’t answer me, even though I asked you three times?

Some of you see where I’m going here, and I can already hear the protests. “I would be answering you in my actions.”

Really? How do I tell the difference between “no” and “wait”? I can’t, except by waiting until you eventually — in ten minutes or ten years — give me a lollipop, or until I die, whichever comes first. Not the most kind and helpful possible responses, huh?

If you treated me like that, even if it was just over something as insignificant as a request for a lollipop, you’d be a jerk. How much worse if it was over a request for a job, for healing my wife, or something else equally life-altering?

But how many of you think God is exactly like that?

Jesus said, “If you, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father give good gifts to those who ask him?” Most of us don’t believe that God is much better than an earthly father; we believe He is incomparably worse — the sort of dad who, when we ask for a fish, would give us a viper, make sure we got bit, and then tell us that it will improve our character. We send dads like that to jail. The early Christians used to mock the pagans for worshiping gods that indulged in adultery, incest, rape, theft and every sort of debauchery while at the same time disapproving of those behaviors in human society. We have become like those ancient pagans, rather than like our fathers who mocked them.

*****
I have good news though. God is not a bit like we think He is. He really does answer prayer. For example, when Paul asked God to take away his thorn in the flesh, God answered him: “My grace is sufficient for you; My strength is perfected in your weakness.” That’s what our loving Father sounds like when He says “No.”

Know what it sounds like when He says, “Wait”? It isn’t the silent treatment; it sounds like “Wait.”

The question is, do we listen?