349. you CAN handle the truth!
Kaffee: I want the truth!
Col. Jessep: You can’t handle the truth!
I’ve written before about how I’ve felt estranged from God (and these posts go way back) because for most of my life as a Christian, I attended churches that spoke of hearing from God in basically audible ways. The phrase, “God told me…” was commonly heard both from the pulpit and from the pews. This sort of talk was ubiquitous and so I just figured that God spoke to everybody with that kind of clarity.
But there was a problem. I never sensed (let alone heard) God speaking to me that way and so for a long time I wondered what was wrong with me. Why not me? Was I not trying hard enough? Was I not good enough of a Christian? Did I not pray enough? All these questions of worth and inadequacy ran through my head for years.
And then I finally just came to the conclusion that God played favorites and that I wasn’t one of them. I mean I really thought that God favored some people and not others. He spoke to the former and not to the latter. In part, I justified this view from passages like Mark 9:2 which point to Jesus’ inner circle and John 21:20 which references Jesus’ most beloved disciple. Jesus is God incarnate so if he had favorites on earth then why not in heaven?
To most people, I think that would be a terrible conclusion to come to but for me it was actually a relief because I didn’t have to berate my (lack of ) spirituality anymore. I didn’t have to wonder why I wasn’t good enough. I could stop striving so hard for something that wasn’t there. Basically, I could just be myself and not have to worry about why I wasn’t hearing from God the way other people seemed to.
I probably could have lived with the thought that God played favorites for the rest of my life. I really was fine with that state of affairs, but then something totally unexpected happened. I felt a call to plant a church back in Hawaii. And I knew that my idea of God playing favorites (and my not being one of them) would not be a sustainable way to do ministry. But I still wasn’t “hearing” from God. I mean, even my call to church plant wasn’t so much a call as it was a vague, unexplainable sense that it was the right direction for my life and that was a far cry from the tangible, palpable, almost concrete sense of God’s voice that I had heard people talk about while growing up.
I think some of the anxiety I expressed in a previous post, where I wrote that I was considering switching back to the Counseling track instead of the Divinity track in grad school, had to do with just this question. How do I work towards a life of ministry when I think that God plays favorites and that I’m not one of them? Clearly I had to rethink my theology but I didn’t know how.
One of the classes I had this semester was a spiritual formation class. I’ll admit that when I first saw that on the required course list, I groaned thinking that I would be in for a long, spiritually frustrating class. But when class started I found that it was taught by a remarkably kind, caring professor/spiritual director named Tom Cashman. Through the course of the semester, through lecture, classroom exercises, and class readings, I started to discover that the way I had been taught to listen for God was not the only way that Christians throughout the ages have experienced God. This seems like such an obvious conclusion now, and to be honest, it seems a bit embarrassing to admit that I had lived for so long with such a narrow, myopic view of what connecting with God means. I really did get fixated on the sole idea that experiencing the presence of God meant hearing directly from Him.
But here’s the thing. Even as I was growing in my awareness of other ways to grow my spirituality, I still wasn’t finding any sense that God was there on the other side of the spiritual practices I was experimenting with in class. Even though I wasn’t expecting God to speak in a “voice,” I still wanted to feel something. But time and time again it was just a lot of nothing.
I mentioned this to my counselor last week and he said something that blew me away. I can’t remember exactly how we got to the point but I know we were talking about faith and trust in God. We were also talking about my lack of intimacy with God and that’s when he dropped this truth bomb on me. He said, “you know, you might never find the intimacy with God you’re wanting.” He said it in a very matter-of-fact kind of way. And to be clear, he wasn’t saying that God didn’t like me or that God wasn’t a good and loving God. He wasn’t even saying that God played favorites. All he was saying was that for whatever reason, not everybody finds an intimate relationship with God. Some people do, some people don’t and that’s just how it goes. Just ask Mother Teresa. (Disclaimer: those aren’t his words, exactly – it’s just how I remember and understood what he was saying.)
Honestly, I marveled at his statement. I think it takes a particularly robust, healthy sort of faith in God for someone to say that – that I might never find the intimacy that I want from God. And in part, I get why I’ve never heard it before. For one thing, maybe other pastors who don’t “hear” from God don’t want to mention it because they don’t want to appear unspiritual. Or maybe, because they just assume that not hearing from God is a normal part of Christian life, they just don’t bring it up. For another thing, other pastors who claim to regularly hear from God (and I don’t necessarily disbelieve that they do) probably figure that if they hear, then those in their congregation should hear as well and if they aren’t then they must be doing something wrong.
There’s another, more cynical reason I think pastors don’t mention this. For some, it’s because the church is so immersed in the American consumerist mindset that Christianity is just another commodity to be marketed and as such, its shortcomings need to be hidden while perceived benefits are emphasized. Because if the truth gets out then maybe we won’t get people to buy in.
You know, I so wish someone had told me the truth about spirituality earlier in my life. That would have saved me so much grief and frustration. It might even have prevented this lingering bitterness towards God that continues to lie just beneath the surface of my faith.
I needed the truth but the church said I couldn’t handle the truth.
But I could.
And I did.
And you know what?
The truth has set me free, just like Jesus said it would.