254. my state of the soul address
Just a warning, a kind of disclaimer if you will, before I begin. If you’re the sort of Christian who likes their belief system nice and tidy – summed up in three Gospel presentation points – then you might want to skip this entry.
What follows (or at least what I intend to write as I begin) is a kind of a personal spiritual State of the Union address – a State of the Soul address if you will. There’s a program on NPR called This I Believe. In this program, people from all walks of life share something about what they believe. The program is very diverse. The topics range from what people believe about death, about love, about peace, justice, hope, about a wide variety of topics relating to the human experience. It’s an amazing program and I’ve more than once been driven to tears listening to it because it’s people talking from the heart about something they’ve come to understand (often something at odds with the norm), often through episodes of tragedy.
After listening to an episode, I always think about what it is that I believe about God. The unvarnished, religiously incorrect, honest truth about what I believe about who God is and how he relates to me and I to him.
I’m going to try to do that tonight (or in the next few nights if I don’t finish in one sitting) but I must issue another warning before I begin. It’s not like I’ve already got my ideas worked out beforehand. I’m going to be piecing things together as I write them so this entry might jump around a lot and don’t be surprised if I contradict myself from time to time. This is almost a kind of stream of consciousness, free writing exercise so don’t expect something concise and ordered.
Here we go.
There is one thing I can start with which I know for certain. God is God and can do whatever he wants to do. He’s God, that’s his right, that’s what it is to be God. I don’t see how anyone who believes in a Biblical God can dispute that.
Now as obvious as that is, it’s something I only came to understand a couple years ago. See, for most of my Christian life, I attended churches that preached what you might call Transaction Theology. This is a view of God that says that X, Y, and Z will happen if you do A, B, and C for God. The most common expression of this theology can be seen in this popular Gospel presentation: “If you accept Christ into your heart, you’ll never feel alone again (or) your life will be filled with a sense of purpose and direction (or) God will set things right in your life.”
This kind of Transaction Theology was ubiquitous. It was drummed into me at church retreats, in church services, in Christian books, on Christian radio, all over the place. It always took the form of, if you do this certain thing for God then you can expect God to do this other thing in return.
And of course, I wanted to be blessed, I wanted to have God fill the void of loneliness, to give me peace and understanding, I wanted to see my cup overfilled with the oil of joy. And so I did the A, the B, and the C to the best of my understanding and ability and waited for the X, the Y, and the Z, but far more often than not, I’d be left waiting for the other shoe to drop. Waiting and waiting and waiting.
I’ve since come to understand that God is not a salesman. His gifts and his blessings are a product of his unearned and undeserved grace, not a result of anything we might do to entice or earn them.
To sum up this first point, maybe I can restate my first idea this way: God is God and there’s nothing we can do to make him do what we want him to do. I wish someone would have shared this with me earlier because it would have spared me years of frustration as a Christian.
Well, what does that mean for the act of praying? I mean if there’s nothing we can do to earn God’s favor and if God can do whatever he wants to do then why pray?
Honestly, I don’t know what I believe about prayer. I know prayer is supposed to be central to the Christian life. I know Paul encouraged the Thessalonians to pray without ceasing, and that he told the Ephesians the same thing. I know there are references to Jesus going off on his own to pray (see Luke 6:12, for example). I know all the Christians who ever made a difference in this world would say that prayer was absolutely essential to them.
I also know that prayer has never been easy for me. It’s not something that makes me feel closer to God. It usually feels forced and odd. Unfortunately, the only time prayer feels real for me is when either lashing out at God over something I’m frustrated with him about or when I’m asking forgiveness for something stupid that I’ve done. If prayer is a kind of conversation with the Almighty, then ours is a pretty dysfunctional relationship.
But I try to pray when I can, when it’s all I can do. And I suppose I’m glad for this avenue even if I can’t always find my way through. I wish I had the kind of vibrant prayer life that I’ve read about but I’ll take what I can get.
You know, I’ve heard it said that men usually relate to God the way they did with their father. That’s certainly been the case in my life. I love my father. He’s a hard worker and he always goes above and beyond to make sure the job is done right. He’s also very quiet. A whole week going by without he and I saying anything to each other is no big deal. For all the years I lived at home, we never really had much in the way of conversation. Most of what I know of him I overheard in conversations when my uncle and aunty would come over for dinner and they would talk about growing up in Hawaii.
There was a time, maybe ten years ago, when I did try to talk to my father. It was hard. It felt really weird, probably as much for him as it was for me. I can’t remember what it was that we tried to talk about, I just know I felt a lot better after it was over, not because I had learned something about him but because the act of talking to him just felt so unnatural and I was glad we were back to our usual silences.
I know he loves me. I’ve never held anything against him. I’ve never wished he’d talk to me more. That’s just the way it’s always been between him and I.
And that’s pretty much the way I see God. Well, not exactly. For a long time, I really longed to hear from God. I’d hear all kinds of stories in church about how God told someone to do something or how God led them to do something – all these stories about an intimate relationship with God.
But not anymore. I’ve come to understand that some people somehow do interact with God in ways that are as real (some of them might say more real) as the way they do with their best friends. I’ve also come to believe that this doesn’t happen for everyone because it doesn’t happen for me. And maybe that seems unfair, but as I said above, God is God and can do whatever he wants.
I said I’d do my best to speak the unvarnished truth about what I believe so here it is. I believe all Christians are children of God, that we’re all a part of this huge family. God loves us all as his children but he has his favorites. When Jesus was here he had both his inner circle and a most beloved disciple. This all probably sounds harsh, but I believe it’s just a messy, earthly way of understanding something that has higher, heavenly design. Maybe some Christians are more needy than others and so God makes himself more availab
le to them. Maybe some Christians have already been blessed with a healthy self-image or they already have a healthy support network surrounding them so God doesn’t have to hover as close and micromanage.
Maybe in my case, he wants me to be a voice for those other Christians out there who’ve heard the same Transaction Theology that I did and are still waiting for their returns to come in. I’m sure they’re out there, probably not in churches anymore, but out there somewhere. I don’t know if this is the case, but I like this idea because it makes some kind of sense of my life, gives it a purpose. I wish he had taught me this through personal tutoring rather than sending me to Hard Knocks University, but God is God and maybe this was the only way I could have arrived at this understanding.
To sum up, here’s what I believe about God.
God is God and can do whatever he wants to do.
Prayer is a mystery.
God has favorites, sort of.
Maybe I’m God’s advocate to those who feel spiritually neglected because of some variation of Transaction Theology or to let Christians who also don’t hear from God that they’re not the only ones.
Not exactly an uplifting state of affairs, but it is what it is. I hope my faith isn’t always so bland and mediocre. I don’t know.
Just to be clear, I believe in the essential tenants of the Christian faith, essentials that are best expressed in The Nicene Creed. I don’t think anything I’ve written would fall outside of the creeds or (more importantly) anything written in the Bible, but I know I’ve written things that fall outside the common fundamentalist’s understanding of Christianity, but I don’t mind that so much.