Didn't receive what you thought you were getting? Welcome to the world of unfulfilled expectations.
I know, it hits me often, and I once almost walked away because of it. The problem, of course, is me (if I accept the premise that God is perfect). So to face any shortcoming I need to look inward and question the basis of my expectations.
This is a process of re-calibration -- adjusting my understanding to match reality. We all have poor perceptions, constantly bombarded by biased experiences, prejudice, cultural indoctrination, unthinking acceptance of what we've been taught, and of course our personal desires that tempt us into confirmation bias. I'm a perceptual coward ... many times I don't want to see what is in front of me. I can get so used to looking the other way that reality slips past like the proverbial elephant in the room.
Life is a constant process of re-calibration, and I wonder if those we call wise are simply the people better calibrated to reality.
So let's recalibrate our view of Christianity.
The Catholics have long framed Christianity around "doing"; going to mass, giving, confession, taking communion, etc. Then along came the protestants protesting, and substituted a new regime of doing; don't drink, don't dance, dress demurely, suffer in silence, do charity, etc. Well, maybe that is a bit generalized, because of course there are exceptions. However, it seems that in general we're measured by what we do.
Let's challenge that idea. Hamlet never said "To do or not to do", he said "To be or not to be, that is the question." If I focus on doing, then I have no energy or time to simply be. If I focus on being, then I can't help that all the doings get done; for to be is to do, but to do is not to be. Do-be-do-be-do?
Some examples, first from life and then from the thorny issue of the Bible.
If I focus on doing husbandly things, I've no time to be a husband. But if I focus on loving my wife, my husbandly doings uncontrollably follow.
It's like some medical students who want to be plastic surgeons, dermatologists, or obstetricians, all because its a prestigious career (sadly, there seems to be too many like this). But this doesn't make them real doctors inside. Sure they can do the work, but their motivation is not rooted in compassion for healing; they're doing it for ego, ambition, or something else. They are not being-doctors, they're doing-doctors.
Or training to be lawyers for the money, instead of being passionate about justice.
Likewise, I could try to do the things an engineer does, but that doesn't make me an engineer. I could learn the skills, acquire the knowledge, but I would simply be "doing an engineer", not "being an engineer". Doing engineering things might forcibly turn me into being an engineer, but only by killing off what I already was inside. The external does not easily dominate the internal, for the internal is always fighting to be expressed. But this sad world chokes our insides, and tries to clone us into crude replicates of an idealistic vision that has no grounding in reality.
It's about humility. Humility is to not try and be more than I am (by doing things that are not me), and humility is not to be less than I am (by not doing things that are me). Humility is to be merely what I am, and from what I am all the true doings will flow as naturally as a tail wags behind a dog (animals are so good at simply being). Humility is the process of recalibrating our being to reality, correcting the distortion of doing what we're not.
OK, you might say, "so what's this got to do with Christianity?" Well, lets recalibrate the distortions we've been taught.
So many times we see the Bible as the "do-things" for our life: "Go and make disciples." "Love one another". "Tithe your income". "Don't covet". We even apply the same mentality to God and say "Why doesn't God DO more?" "Why won't he intervene and DO something about this mess?" Its because it's easier to measure life by the doings. But the doings have little relationship to the beings, and relationship can only exist between beings.
Recalibrate: Is the Bible really about doing? Zoom out and look again ... the Bible is a story of being ... it's all about being.
Genesis: God says "Let there be ..." And when he gets to making Man and Woman he says "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion ..." Let, Be, Have ... not so much about doing. Of course there are actions involved, but they flow from being, they don't define being. The work is all about letting the inside out. God let his creativity be expressed. Man and Woman were fruitful and multiplied because that is their being. They have dominion because their being was authoritative. God first and foremost wants us to "be", he has no need for our "do."
Skip forward, consider Moses: a man of justice, growing up in a palace of power and authority, he reacted to injustice and killed a man. It was not a right action; he was badly expressing the "being" that he was inside. Yet throughout his life, and despite his failings, his focus on being was expressed in doings that changed the future.
Skip forward, consider Ruth: her nature was kindness, loyalty, diligence, and faithfulness. Ruth's actions express her being ... she lived outside from what she was inside. Boaz saw the external expression and knew her inside.
Skip forward, think of Hadassah / Esther: she was a national beauty, concubine, strategic, cunning, brave. She was willing to be these things, and from her being flowed actions that restored a nation.
Skip forward, remember Elijah. Fearful and exhausted from all his doings, God brings him to a cave to let him encounter being, and once he could be, the doings could begin again.
Ok you say, that's old testament stuff. What about Jesus' time and all the instructions he gave. Fair enough, let's look at that. Probably his first command was "follow me". What does it mean to be a follower ... it means not being firstly a do'er ... to follow is to be a follower. A follower is all about becoming. Or the Samaritan woman at the well ... Jesus says to her go and sin no more. Nothing about doing, only about being. Then there's Mary and Martha, the one focused on doing, the other on being. Guess which one was commended.
He says be perfect, be holy. I can't do perfect, or do holy. He says be salt and light. Salt and light don't do anything, they simply be and their very nature changes all they interact with. So when Jesus says "go and make disciples of all nations" ... he is saying "be salt and light in the world", because salt draws out the flavor, light reveals truth, and so to make disciples of all nations we only have to be.
Jesus doesn't send us out to do, he sends us out to be.
The Bible from start to finish is the story of people trying to recover what it means to be, and it's the story of God trying to open peoples eyes to what he is ... the ever-present-tense "I AM" ... his very name is all about being, not doing. Being exists outside of time, doing happens inside of time.
Sure some are called to a very visible doing purpose ... Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah and others. But they were only really called the let their internal being be available to a greater purpose. They were called to be a leader, be a soldier, be a king, be a prophet. They didn't "do" leadership, or "do" kingship. And so our call is to live in the simplicity of "Be", according to God's first word to us: "Be ..."
Each of us does "Be" differently, because each of us is made uniquely. Some be a scientist, some be a farmer, some be an engineer, some be a minister. My own father wanted to "do missionary", but he learned to "be a doctor" and changed the course of lives and organizations. Each has a call on their life to be what they were made to be in the grace of God's restoration. By being we are able to be a light to the moths, be a salve to a wound, be compassion to the hurt, be a creator of new things, be a discoverer of knowledge, be a lover to the lonely, be a help to the helpless, be a leader to the lost, be a singer to the silent, be a scientist to society, be an explorer of the unknown, be expressive of what we are ... no more, no less, only ever on a journey of recalibration.
It's a journey to be.
The challenge is to know what I am meant to be. For that, first stop. Then I consider my desires, consider my capabilities, consider what I am when I stop doing. God has no urgency for me to do, only a desire for me to be what he made me. So I let myself be and become, and before I know it, my being will have accomplished more doings than I can imagine.
It's not an easy journey. It's hard to know what it means to be in God, and to be means giving external expression to what God has rooted on the inside. It takes a life of continued recalibration, but each course correction brings a joy and wholeness we've never known before.
(Is this your experience? Do you agree?)
One of leading Christian dichotomies is that of "planned freedom". On the one side "planned" seems to be about a predetermined life, while "freedom" implies a self-driven, anarchistic, beautiful and creative expression. One is boring, the other is exciting.
No wonder people rebel against the perception that Christians who "follow the rules" are boring people. Yet, like most of the many apparent paradoxes in Christianity, it's really only a false dichotomy, one that has been poorly communicated, poorly understood, and misses the deeper and joyful insight that is to be found in true planned freedom.
Yet this remains a problem for many Christians and they wrestle incessantly with the notion that they must hear from God about every decision, lest they possibly miss his "plan". Many a time one hears Jeremiah quoted "For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope." Often you hear this when someone is wrestling with difficulties and one hopes to comfort them, the implication being that God will sort out the affairs of your life - colleagues, friends, finances, work, marriage, whatever - and so one should take comfort in this assurance. But the reality is that our material life does not always fall into place no matter how close we walk to God, stuff still happens! And then the feelings of condemnation start; "I must be a bad person", "God doesn't love me", "What am I doing wrong", or even "God is nowhere near me."
The blame for this I place squarely at the foot of neo-Calvinism: the truth of the sovereignty of God has been blindly layered onto thoughtful orthodoxy and left a distorted understanding in it's wake.
This idea that God has mapped out your life for you in glorious detail - where you'll live, what job you'll have, who you'll love, etc., etc., is a dangerous and irrational approach. For it infers that your free will is only the freedom to choose against what God has pre-ordained. It says you have no choice in the good things because God has planned them already. But that is not free will, that is only giving you the option of rebellion. And so when things go wrong the thought "I must have made a bad choice" comes quickly following.
Part of this problem is because people don't think. Really think. About the deep meaning of what they are saying.
Part of the problem is that this treats the Bible as a recipe book; do this, do that, and it'll all make for a happy life.
But the story of God is just that, a recount of experiences woven around a deep reality. The Bible is simply (!) the leading and reference compilation of this story. And the story is unique among all religions, and it's theme is about restoration and rescue from our alienation. This is what our life is about, what God's plan is about, an opportunity of reconciliation for a changed future.
Thus God's plans are first and foremost, above all else, about restoring our relationship. Everything else is for that purpose. And if we know him already, then his plan continues on perfecting that relationship to release us to be what we were created to be; creatures of free will, creative and innovative, expressive, inquisitive and thirsty to know, designed for relationship with the ultimate in creativity, empowered by his presence - that's Grace!
The plans are to let us exercise our free will all the more creatively, and moreover all the more joyfully. I can choose this job, or that one. I can decide to go on holiday or not. I have options to pursue love with one person or another. But behind all these choices is the real plan of God, the plan to dive deeper into intimacy, the plan to be who we were created to be, and this plan is the backdrop to all our choices.
When I choose, I can choose paths which take me further from God, or towards God. That is the real choice, the only fundamental choice. In the same way that a young couple make choices to deepen their relationship toward intimate love, choosing from many paths of pursuit how the way one will chase the other. It could be through roses and fine wine dinners, picnics at the top of a mountain, long distance emails and calls over Skype, but they choose options and use these to grow their relationship. A boy may make a choice to teach his girlfriend how to surf so they can share this together. Or she may introduce him to hiking so they can do that together. Surfing or hiking: is only one "planned" by God? There's no right and wrong in surfing or hiking, only how they are used in the relationship.
For many choices, perhaps even most of our choices, these choices are neutral. The key issue is only whether those choices detract from or contribute to God's plan for our deepening relationship with him.
This is freedom; the freedom to choose from a dazzling array of opportunities and to live these choices for the betterment of our relationship with God.
[PS: Of course, the deeper the relationship, the more the natural inclinations of our choices will align with God's greater purposes]
I met another atheist last week.
I like atheists. They're usually so honest.
This one, well, I've known him for a long time but only last week did I learn he was an atheist. It happened, as it so often does, while drinking good wine under the stars, satiated by generous platters of fire-grilled meat. We had a good conversation trying to explain our polarised positions.
My friend is not one of those “new atheists” – those Dawkins-types who have turned atheism into a religion of militant evangelism – I call such people faux-atheists, faux-skeptics. No, my friend was someone I would call an honest atheist; one who has looked at the facts despite what he might find. And I hope I did not come across as a faux-Christian – like those who have never questioned their faith and live in fear of admitting doubt.
Naturally I think he is completely wrong, and he thinks I'm unbelievably wrong, yet we're still friends. Our debate was not a battle to win, nor was it out of that all-too-common fear of being shown up as wrong. We are equally passionate about our respective positions, but our passion is rooted in a belief that we think our conclusion is the better one to live by, a better one to understand our existence, closer to truth.
However, our meat-and-wine-conversation rekindled a thought I have long pondered: why is it so hard for atheists to grasp what Christianity really means to me? Why do I struggle to convey the reality I know? One reason, I suggest, is that we talk about the wrong things.
Christianity comes in so many external expressions; we have the intistualionalized cultural Christianity, the indoctrinated fundementalist un-intellectual unreasoned Christianity, the mystical-spiritualized introspective and meditative practice, the closely related ritualistic religion, the stand-up-and-dance-to-rock-music performance type of Christianity, the legalistic and rule-bound forms, and many, many others.
These are the external faces of Christianity – the ones the media tend to report on, the ones our pre-conceived notions tend to concoct. This diversity of expression is not itself a problem - it would be surprising if it did not exist. People differ, so expression differs; its ok as long they are all infused by the same unseen commonality. Sadly, for many people of the “faith” these expressions are all too often an empty shell of habitual behavior that serves as a comfort blanket for an unsettled existence.
I should point out at this stage that, if you are someone who is unconvinced, its important to recognize that Christianity is a religion unlike any other, despite what popular opinion suggests (truth was never a democracy). Syncretism seems to work well among all faiths except for Christianity. There is a unique distinctive core that is utterly incompatible with all other religions. For it is the one religion where God says “NOTHING you do in your own power can bring you into relationship with me.” You cannot climb the mountain, your works are useless in that regard, for God says he is the enabler of personal relationship, and he proactively desires an intimate relationship – he is the hound of heaven.
But to return to my point: why is it so hard for atheists (or non-Christians) to really grasp the essence of Christianity? I've been trying to think of metaphors; it's seems to me that describing Christianity is like trying to describe hanggliding to someone who has never flown, or scuba diving to someone who can't swim, or the pleasures of sex to a virgin, or how having children transforms a parent, or what it's like to have one's parents die. The full comprehension cannot be communicated in words alone and is only attained through experience. Until you've had the experience, you simply can't fully grasp the reality.
So I came up with this metaphor. My wife is like God.
Now before you jump to conclusions, let me explain that a bit more. I think my wife is amazing, truly, but she is human! But I'd be the first to admit she's … lets say, a bit unconventional. She is not a fashion fanatic (far from it), and her dress style is “delightfully interesting”. She keeps bees and chickens. She walks the streets with the poorest of the poor. She makes soap. And so, while I think she is really amazing, and that you would be a better person for knowing her, I am also aware that when I introduce “conventional” people to her I wonder if they find her a bit alien.
So, much as I might try, any description of her can never, ever let you really understand what it is like to know her. Until you spend time with her all you can know is some second-hand and limited account. You can certainly build up a mental picture of her, but it will be distorted, biased, and probably misconstrued.
All of us experience this. For example, I work with colleages and hear of their spouses (spice?), but it is always a mind-stretching event when I eventually meet them, for then the person becomes orders of magnitude more real to me.
That's why trying to explain Christianty is so hard – without the relational experience it seems bizarre, alien, odd, even though fully rational. Like trying to explain my mariage without you ever meeting my wife. Marriage is not defined by the law, nor by the behavior patterns and rituals that all couples have. The unique expressions of my marriage are only an outworking of, a consequence of, my personal relationship; rational but odd.
And so in the end all debates with atheists come to this. All I can do is try to communicate the nature of the God-person behind my faith-practice, to let you understand how the relationship frames my life in the same way my marriage frames my life, only it does so in a much bigger way. To some people my explanations may be scary, irrelevant, idiotic, or perhaps weirdly attractive. On a human level we also see other people as scary or irrelevant or attractive or whatever, and our responsibility is to then know the person and adjust our perceptions accordingly. The difference between knowing other people and knowing God is that in this world people do not define our reality. Yet, if there is a God, then he completely defines our reality whether we acknowledge it or not.
This is the difference, a relationship with a God would be so utterly alien to us, so completely bigger and beyond us, that the best we could hope for is to live in a realization of experience, to comprehend what we can within the limits of our finiteness. Sort of like living with gravity – its a known mystery grounded in evidence.
So whether you find the idea of God scary or irrelevant or attractive, if the evidence suggests the possibility of God, then to be honest with ourselves we need to continually revisit the possibility of relationship with God. We need to put aside the oddities of the expressed practice that we see around us, and look instead at what's behind it all. Likewise for those who do already accept the God-relationship, we also need to repeatedly reexamine ourselves to discard falsehood, and to close in on truth.
For this is the reality; by definition a God cannot be definitively explained, cannot be fully understood, and can only be experienced within finite understanding, in the same way I experience gravity or know my wife (neither of which I fully understand). Yet unlike gravity but quite like my wife (I hope), in Christianity the essence is that the person behind the mystery desires to know me.
Of courses there are complications. In dealing with a God there's always that thorny little problem that perfect love must necessarily go hand-in-hand with perfect justice (its just as well my that wife's love for me is not perfect, else I'd be in real trouble). But that's a very simple (yet tough) problem to deal with, so don't worry about it for now.