Wednesday, November 4, 2009

God, suffering, and trust...

I'm not sure I like that title for this post, but, oh well...

I feel like (and, of course, starting with those words opens me up to a host of possible issues that I won't resolve in this short post!) a subtle, but perhaps life-altering, shift has been taking place within me over the last several days. A combination of my own thoughts and reactions to circumstances is leading me away from God in certain ways, and drawing me closer in others. I am not certain of the outcome (or of much else, for that matter! :-D), but I think I can state the following with assurance:

1. I no longer believe in the God that I have been holding onto in my heart for many years. This does NOT mean I don't believe in God, or Jesus Christ, but it does mean that something has changed. I think, for some time now, I've been secretly (to all but God!) bitter at God for not responding to me - and to what I perceive as injustice in the world - in a matter that seems sufficient to me. This has recently been boiling over, as I'll explain. I have held onto a view of God that, although emphasizing God's immeasurable love, has led me to think that God is obligated to operate according to certain parameters.

I won't suggest this is true of all Evangelicals, but there is often, I think, an underlying belief that God's goodness is reflected in, to put it bluntly, things going "my way." Even among those who speak with vigor concerning the sovereignty of God, most of my Evangelical experience has been underlined with a sort of "here's how to properly define God's blessing/nearness" mentality.

2. What do I mean? Well, you probably know the dilemma: When everything is going great, when life is wonderful, it's all about "God's favor" or "God blessing us." And then, when things go bad, the response is typically, "Who can understand the mystery of God?" or "God is punishing us for some reason." This has always seemed a bit suspicious to me. First, if it's simply a matter of God blessing us in some circumstances, and punishing us in others, then it naturally follows that we will try to figure out what to do so that we're "obeying" God properly and reaping the blessings while avoiding the punishment. It's completely natural to want to do that.

Second, the problem is, at least for me, that this develops into a cognitive dissonance: If I'm trying to do all the right things, and there is MORE suffering, or when suffering comes to people who don't seem to deserve it at all, the system of works (which is essentially what I'm describing) starts to crack. There are simply too many unexplainable things, from human imperfections as insignificant as warts, to horrific natural disasters, that thwart any attempt to develop a system of obedience that keeps us safe as Christians, or just as people in general. Lately, my anger at God for not "making things right" has led me to lash out him in quite vehement language. It's something I can't ignore any longer.

The issue is simply this: If God is a mystery, then there is NOT a system of law to which we can appeal as providing us with shelter, as long as we obey. This is the story of Job, but I think - at least in my experience - the Western (American?) Evangelical response to Job has been closer to Job's three friends, who try to explain it all, than an honest recognition that God may not do what we want at all.

3. So, we are left with that "Who can understand why God allows X to happen?" mentality, or, as is often the temptation, we can give up on God. We can say - as I have a few times recently - "God, I've been waiting long enough, and you haven't shown up in a way that makes any sense, so... forget it. I'm done."

What I've realized is that, while neither of these is sufficient, if I am going to be honest as a believer, I have to say that I know far less about what God is doing, in both good and evil situations, than I previously thought. I have to admit that there is a greater distance between God and myself than I recognized.

I am sure that some people will, at this point, question my faith, and say things like, "If you're really following Christ, you just sense his presence," or "Don't you feel the spirit of God with you when..." Honestly, I don't have a good answer to those questions. But what I do know is that, as far as I can tell, most people who say things like that really don't have anything to back up their statements. They may or may not be experiencing God's presence, but I have no way to ascertain that. And I'm not going to rely on anyone else's explanation of how God has responded to them.

I have to simply trust, and wait, and see what happens. But I am no longer going to make any claims about how God HAS to operate, in spite of what the Bible, or anyone else, says about it.

Clearly, there is much more to how God does things than what is written in the Bible. It's not a simple "if... then..." correlation. Either that, or the hyper-Calvinists are right: there are a very limited number of people who are chosen by God, and the rest of us are just spinning our wheels, even if we want to know God. If that's the case, well, not much I can do about it. But, if (as I believe) God does want to be in relationship and transform everyone and everything, then that means I have to give up my notion that I can have any ability to predict or dictate what that looks like. And that's not very appealing to me. I want stability and predictability.

So, what is the point of this rambling post? Let's see if I can sum it up in a couple sentences: I am a very self-centered person who is slowly being (hopefully) transformed by Jesus Christ/God into someone who lets God be God and doesn't try to dictate what God's activity has to look like. But this is a very difficult process, because it means letting go of a lot of the "Evangelical" baggage and truisms that are imbedded in my soul/conscience. I'm not sure what to think about God anymore, but I have to hope that Jesus Christ will be all that I need, because otherwise, I'm screwed.

And that's that. (or is it?) :-)


BenMc said...

Thanks for the post -- I could say something more but I think just thanks is enough right now!

Kevin said...

I like this, Geoff, and I firmly believe that you are setting for yourself a trajectory which will lead to a far more powerful and personal faith. Difficult, at times, to defend before the Evangelical world, but far more profound than the faith which we inherited.

"For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways," declares the LORD. "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts."

-Isaiah 55:8-9

SuJ'n said...

Thank you for sharing, Geoff. I think we probably all go through these cycles where we think we left this place and then find ourselves back here again. Each time, our faith looks different.

Better? Deeper? More real? Who knows? It's different.

Hugs to you.