The Nature of God – Part 10
[If you are just now stumbling onto this post without having read the various parts in this series from the beginning, I strongly urge you to go back to the start and continue on from there through each successive post. None of these individual entries stand on their own, and you may wind up with little but confusion and unanswered questions by starting here. That is easily done by entering “The Nature of God” in the search box on the home page, which will list links to all available parts.]
The next long segment of my life was a couple of decades of turmoil, most of which was simply the playing out of my having made some very poor decisions early on, truth to tell. Well intentioned, but poor. Some mistakes create instant results that are quickly over and done with, while some slowly well and continue their payback for life.
My relationship with God was a weird mix of intimacy and distance. I just couldn’t seem to get the hang of receiving the kind of daily inward guidance that the Bible seems to suggest, at least not as I pictured it. But as I read, some content would always stand out as if it were written especially for me, or I would begin to understand the hands-on applicable meaning of things which had been irrelevant stumpers before. Sure, sometimes I’d read and wonder, “Why is this in here?” Yet, the culture and attitudes of the people in those early times and places stood out as so different that I would then begin to wonder, “Why would they feel the need to do that?” They were a pretty rough crowd, always complaining and always angling for the take in some form or other. I couldn’t help but look down on them at times, since they seemed locked in never-ending cycles of futile New Year’s resolutions and grudging promises to abide by an agreement, leading to reneging on them and trying hard not to get caught while doing so. Lip service. Where was the sense of personal integrity here? It was much more like the fleshing out of “what’s in it for me?”
I got pretty snooty about it, over time. I felt that I may have my faults, but at least I wasn’t as bad as them. How they chose to live their lives had no relevance to me. Trouble was, I kept reading over time, letting it soak for a good long while. Eventually, I had first the suspicion and then the certainly that I wasn’t actually standing on some kind of higher moral ground. I wasn’t “modern” and they weren’t “ancient” or irrelevant. I was a lot closer to them than I cared to consider, let alone admit. The only real difference was in the particulars of circumstance and opportunities to act out. Sure, the realm I operated in was very different, but deep down underneath that mannered veneer of Civilized Man, well, I no longer had much standing to condescendingly pity and point fingers at them.
I could sense that God was pointing this out not as a guilt trip or as a “feel bad about yourself” rally, but as a simple reality check. There was a mismatch between how I perceived myself and how I really was, deep down. My sense of moral superiority came from an ignorance that I found comfort in clinging to. Such noble knights of the round table sentiments as “keep your word” and “treat all persons with respect” and “live honorably” were admirable points to try to live by, but my circumstances had always been such that these values had been tested on a superficial level, but not cudgel-and-shield tested. It sunk in who I was, and how I could not simply “be a better person”, try as I might. It hammered home that my life was the way it was because that cloaked inner self had done its thing and screwed it up, bit by bit. It also hammered home the certainty that I needed God in my life even more than I had first thought. I realized that my hope for change on a new course set by Him was set in something deeper and more impossible – in human terms. Some resolutions, a patch job and some self-talk would simply not cut it, yet I still needed to be myself.
Lofty goals in living were great, and the incremental “how-to” was pretty much laid out for me, but as I kept bouncing up against my personal limitations, I realized that I would still leave a continual trail of damage, and still need forgiveness as much as I would need internal changes and a better awareness of the effects of my thoughts and behavior. You see, I began realizing that little actions and comments that I’d considered minor, inconsequential and forgettable were none of those, and that their impact on others was potentially much greater than I had thought. And my errors in judgement were worse. For better or worse, and despite good intentions, I was leaving an unseen wake behind me, too much of which was simply adding to the churning misery of the world, my world. Small scale? You bet – but not small scale to the lives of the people that my own actions and comments actually affected, for better and for worse. Applying external rules of behavior on myself would help, but not really cut it. I needed to accept responsibility. Then I needed an inside-out change.
We rate our degree of wrongdoing on a relative scale, hopefully somewhere between the best and worst throughout all of history. And/or we just say to ourselves, “Well, too bad, nobody’s perfect, so what?” Unfortunately, God’s scale measures in absolute terms, the wide-gap difference between the two being bridged by Christ – if we are willing to concede the gap. That absolute scale is not arbitrary. It leads right back to the beginning of the world, which was created just as God intended it to be, on many levels. We permanently changed that world and ourselves by acting against it, which also required acting against God’s explicit instruction for the only prohibition – the sole “shall not” in existence at that time. That rebellion, that sin, quickly resulted in a humanity that became so destructive and fell so far out of fellowship with Him that it needed both a near-complete start-over plus the Commandments to counter the worst behaviors having the greatest consequences. Then it needed many more rules to live by in order to fill in what we obviously weren’t seeing as inherently destructive – and all that for a people who swore to be His own. In essence, God was trying to lead them back toward Eden, but they wouldn’t have it. They wanted the end reward, but without the faith and without having to live in the way needed to get them there. Today, we call this an attitude of entitlement, with the goal of gaming the system. They had their own ideas of right, wrong, and improvisational obedience to a standard of conduct that often crimped their style. We now refer to that idyllic Eden-like state as Utopia, and are still trying to build it on our own today, trying to ignore the blowback and the erosion of the flawed foundations we lay. As for me, I was realizing that I was too often going against the flow myself. I recognized what Scripture refers to as “the weakness of my frame”. That bothered me.
So, I relied a lot on reading small amounts of Scripture as kind of an application guide for what to consider over the course of the day, for right now. Not as an explicit activity guide for that day, but as a permanent reference point that needed to soak in. But some other folks in the church talked about receiving “promptings” a lot, promptings being a sort of God-inspired urge to say or do something that would be consistent with the character of God. Whenever I followed what seemed to be a sporadic prompting to take a course of action as an act of faith, it turned out in the end to just be my own lunging whim. Never turned out well, not at all. I even went to a workshop session about it, where much concern was expressed about this lack of the Holy Spirit’s moment-by-moment guidance. They assumed that it was some hidden sin – some secret disobedience – in my life that was distancing and blocking me from God’s direction. That’s a fair assumption. But I couldn’t think of anything specifically wrong, other than being a simple, deeply-flawed human being with an unintentional penchant for screwing up. I was up to my elbows in aftermath, and was sincerely doing my best.
For those who grate at the well-worn mention of “sin”, perhaps a context may help. Sin can be defined as “deviating from a way, path or law; to fail to live up to a standard.” In Christian terms, it is thinking or acting in rebellion against God and His ways. God’s preoccupation with sin is because of its end products: misery, destruction, and all that comes with it. The cumulative harm of sin is how the world has come to its present state and ultimately, sin will consume even itself. Our own preoccupation with sin is because it allows us to live according to our own natures, which we usually applaud for ourselves and condemn in others. Our capacity for self-deception allows us to muffle our consciences and justify our choices and actions to ourselves, or at least to turn a blind eye to them. Some boast that they do not believe that such a thing as sin exists. By this, some of those simply mean that they do not believe that they will be held accountable by any force greater than themselves. Others mean that there is no such thing as right and wrong. They have run the logical course of reasoning that an impartial Universe knows no distinction between a compassionate person and a sadistic mass murderer, since “morality” and “conscience” in such a Universe are personal affectations which can carry no ultimate meaning and no significance.
There are certainly good men and women who follow their consciences and even act as an inspiration for the rest of us, but they tend to lean toward humility because they sense both the internal tug of war and at least a few of their own innate frailties. It’s the ones who don’t realize their own weaknesses that you have to watch out for. A sense of innate moral superiority signals self-deception, often on a grand scale and with grand pronouncements intended to gather followers. On the other end of the scale from myself are those who choose well, live a good, comfortable life without trauma and without God, and who as a result never see any need for Him. Why mess with a good thing? Why is because a consistently “pleasant” life tends to insulate against introspection and the perception of need, in much the same way that a consistently busy life does. We have the sense that some God out there wants to rescue us from something that we don’t want to be rescued from – whatever that may be. But the decisions we make here and then live out as to whether we want God to be in our lives or have no part in them stick. Our future is simply a playing out of the present that we have long since committed ourselves to. God “does not wish that any should perish” (as everything about sin finally consumes itself), while we object to what we picture as a cruel and unfair judgement. Yet it is a judgement that is little more than a confirmation of our own prior insistences. Not understanding or caring about the big picture, we pronounce our own judgements and slam the door. This is unfortunate.
Our individual sins – our wrongdoing – and our mistakes, slights and injuries to others have repercussions that can go well beyond ourselves and the moment, and extend to innocent others. The results of our offenses affect those closest to us, which is why we conceal our wrongdoings, deny them, or boast of them in narcissistic defiance. We often conceal or even fail to consciously recognize our true motivations to ourselves. None of these responses have much if any effect on the repercussions that radiate out, but they do have an effect on us internally. We resent God’s commandments and His telling us what to do, because those things go against what we crave to do by our own natures. We picture God as a bossy, power-mad ogre ordering us to slavishly obey Him or else, when the reality is quite the reverse.
The power-mad ogre is our own nature, and the demand for slavish obedience is to its every whim. We rightly perceive a jail cell door held open for us, but confuse which side of the door we are standing on. The true freedom is found in a relationship with Him. He offers us a way out of destructive thought and behavior as well as the personal and cumulative train wrecks that we’re speeding toward. Our own path feels like a comfortable fit, but so often results in disappointment or snowballing harm, while God’s power and path ends the destruction and self-deception at its source: us. Through obedience to Him, we turn from reinforcing the world as it has become, to making contributions toward the world as it was intended to be. God persists according to His nature. We are not called to obey for the sake of slavish obedience, but to obey for our own sake and for our own welfare. Yet faith in God is not based upon obedience – obedience is merely a recognizable marker of faith. Faith is based upon relationship, relationship with Him, and obedience is the living out of that faith. All along, I had the sense that God was not punishing me for acting according to my own nature, but that I was experiencing the natural results of my own errors in judgement and actions.
As for promptings, I came not to trust this type of close guidance anyway, in time. I obviously had no accurate discernment ability for my own promptings, and I began to notice that many people who claimed to be “acting in the Spirit” were most often either acting counter to Scripture, or were using it to publicly and prominently validate their relationship with God in front of others. It seemed to power personal image instead of highlighting God’s purposes here. I did observe that the real thing just gets the job done quietly, one-on-one. In contrast, prophesy was often re-routed into the equivalent of fortune-telling, and never panned out. Those claiming the greatest intimacy were by far the furthest off base, some putting on a show and charging a fee for it, and some with psychopathic traits finding it as a fine way to manipulate others toward their own ends. Not good. Something was up, and I stopped pining for what I had assumed was standard equipment, for safety’s sake. Possibly, I was misinterpreting Scripture to be what I expected it to be.
Possibly too, I and others had fallen prey to our own hearts. As Jeremiah lamented, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” Who indeed? We delude ourselves with ease, often not seeing our true motivations in what we think and do. We paint ourselves over to create an image in the mirror that we find acceptable, but the heart underneath is just better camouflaged, not changed. While there is no need to discard the popular “people are basically good” mantra, it is a positive hazard to ignore the fact that we are also deeply flawed – even the best of us.
But, I did have convictions or strong impressions rather than promptings. There were two very quiet personal impressions that turned out to actually be confirmed. One was that, as a follower of Christ, I had no interest in being a great crusader and miracle worker. I just wanted to salvage the wreck I had fashioned and get through this thing called life. I figured I’d be just as happy cleaning the spittoons in Heaven than being a high profile charger earning a big gold crown or something. Wasn’t my style. That’s for goal-oriented A-types. I was bereft of daydreams of great faith, great ministries, and putting my whomping stamp on advancing Christ’s Kingdom here on earth. Just to get through this life and get in was enough for me. I had enough problems to deal with here. I was working on the salvage end, dealing with collateral damage.
As the months and years progressed however, I began to have the uneasy feeling that I was not going to be able to get away with hiding in the corners and cleaning spittoons. It was good enough for me, but I was not the sole decision-maker in this thing. For the record, it was officially no longer my life. I had given that to Christ to do with as He willed. The impression I had was not so much, “You have to perform above the expected minimum and wear more flair,” as it was, “Nope, this is just Non-Applicable. Life isn’t that way, and you’ll never have a clue about accessing your true impact on the lives of others, anyway. Just be aware that the wake you leave behind you in life does have an effect, whether good or bad. Your wake is not your accomplishments list. It’s you, in the whole. You will not discern it accurately until the time that you stand before Me. Just forget about spittoons, or comparing yourself to others, and follow Me. That’s all you need do.” The wording is mine. The impression itself that produced it is His.
I saw once again that my faith was not a rulebook of do’s and don’ts, a perfectionistic controlling of behavior or an attempt to be a better person. It was a daily relationship with God through Christ, the literal “God with us”, and a willingness to let go and be transformed from within by His Spirit. Easy to say, hard to do. Like anything else, it requires an exercise of willpower, but comparatively little in the manner of New Year’s resolutions. A willingness to be changed is aimed more toward a desire to step back from the familiar, comforting self-direction of our old selves and allow God to transform us into unfamiliar territory. It’s a letting go. That requires an exercise of faith, which is a gift rather than an attainment.
Again, Christian faith is neither earned nor deserved, contrary to the belief of many who tout themselves as Christians. This foundational error is baggage carried into their convictions as a variant of the worldly “people are basically good” principle. They feel that when push comes to shove, that they deserved to be saved because their overall decency level made them more worthy of it than most others, and God noticed this. It was only fair, so in their minds the “gift of faith” is more like a reward earned, and Christ’s sacrificial atonement becomes a mere formality in the workings of real justice. This breeds an air of prideful condescension and waters down the significance of Christ’s life and sacrifice among us here. Such ideas are absent from and contradicted by Scripture, and yet one church has even built them into the foundations of their doctrine.
As recorded in the Old Testament, King David knew the implications of true justice, which was why he earnestly pleaded with God to keep it away from him. He instead implored God for His mercy. People who feel that they somehow pre-qualify for Christ’s substitution often rally under the banner of Christ for various earthly reasons and purposes, but remain largely blind to their sins and thus their need for Christ. I think of this as Country Club Christianity and, spiritually speaking, this is very dangerous ground, with many references in Scripture. Faith is a gift given solely by God’s grace. The internal battle to recognize the old self’s ways and make room for the new can be difficult. A lament by a Godly woman I once knew described the challenge of the process well: “The only trouble with placing your life on the altar of God,” she told me, “Is that it keeps slithering back off again.”
The derisive “crutch of Christianity” is instead a personal challenge to hold to the unique worldview which all of Scripture presents. It’s a worldview contrary to our own natures. To consider it to be a fallback for those who “are too weak to cope with the real world” is a very peculiar error that to me borders on being humorous. It is instead a pointed willingness to step away from the comforting trap of what does not work. It is vastly easier to adopt the world’s viewpoints, manners of living, and value systems. After all, that’s where I came from, and that’s how I got the results that I did. It was easy, and it was disastrous. The real “real world” is much more expansive and dynamic than our physical senses, cravings or intellect can dictate or guide us through. We confidently think that we can see its boundaries and have a handle on it, but we can’t and we don’t. It isn’t ours, we did not create it, and we do not have primacy in it.
Many people agree with this outlook in a generalized sense, content to assign a kind of vague personhood to the creation itself and rest their hope in that whenever it seems controllable, comfortable or consequence-free. Few people look past the creation to unconditionally seek out a Creator, the main problem being that we greatly prefer one that we can deal with on our own terms, which is just another way of expressing that we’re not really interested after all. As Romans 19-21 puts the issue, “For what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood from His workmanship, so that men are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified Him as God nor gave thanks to Him, but they became futile in their thinking and darkened in their foolish hearts.”
As Jim Fleming, a veteran criminal defense lawyer likes to say, “You don’t have to like reality, but you do have to face it.” Whatever type of blinders we may now attach to ourselves to suit our fancies – for example a philosophy, a benevolent, caring universe, an uncaring, cruel one, an organized religion complete with traditions and rituals, an improvised religion, or an outlook strictly limited to the scientific observation of physical phenomena – the full reality of our situation will one day reveal itself with an unavoidable starkness and clarity. No more blinders, no more glossing over. No more deception or self-deception. No more bullshitting ourselves or others. Whatever our personal belief system is, it will inexorably be put to the test, won’t it?
A few adherents to at least a couple of the above examples may claim that, no, the absence of any perceivable existence of any kind after death is its own reality. But just like sincere faith in Christ or any other belief system in the world – including faith in a cruel universe or in an uncaring one where our intellectual candles simply sputter out forever – all will inherently be put to the test as to how they stack up against reality. After all, few will deny that reality will press its irresistible presence upon us at our last breath, one on one, when any delusions or facades that we may hold forcibly end. All we disagree on now is what that reality is, and we vary in our own levels of certainty, conviction and commitment to our various interpretations of it. That conviction determines who or what we shall value and live for in this life, right now. If we don’t happen to have much conviction about our current belief system, then it’s best to examine it further because, once we have expended our lives, our deathbed is no place to have second thoughts as we prepare to face a wholly uncontrollable reality. Any presumption that it will be a continuation of life as subject to our will and whim as this one has been is, as our rationalist colleagues delight in saying, “Not supported by any credible evidence.” Neither is there any scientific evidence to support the popular “candle out” speculations. (Fun Fact: You may be surprised to hear that the Bible does teach a rough equivalent of “candle out”. Thing is, it describes it as lasting until Christ’s return, when all mortal souls are brought back into conscious existence. This is what rationalists deride as myth, while Christians hold it as a Hope instilled by the Creator. As far as you and I are concerned, we will perceive the long stretch between our deaths and resurrections as a mere blink of time.)
At the conclusion of one of Conan Doyle’s series of Sherlock Holmes, the great detective and his associate are forlornly gazing down at two bodies held in the ice of a frozen pond. Facing the confirming evidence of a tragic string formed of of love, simple error, selfishness, deceit, lust and hatred, Holmes opines, “What is the meaning of it, Watson? What is the object of this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must have a purpose, or our universe has no meaning, and that is unthinkable. But what purpose? That is Humanity’s great problem, for which reason so far has no answer.” The character was (and still is) a very popular icon for the Age of Reason. Since the time of publication at the beginning of the last century, Reason has still not come up with an answer, so it simply denies the Problem that Holmes poses to himself. It does not publicize it, but instead simply teaches it to our children in high school biology classes, “There is no object. There is no purpose. We are an accident of random chance, and your life has no more significance than the life of anything else in this world.”
That is a romping 180 from not only God’s Word but from the most fleeting observation, which is probably why I often hear it emphasized that we are just X tiny bits of DNA away from apes. Although the character Holmes has not a speck of room in his considerations for the existence of any Providence, I find myself asking, “What is the meaning of it, Watson? What is the object of this emphatic teaching that we come from nothing and are nothing before we descend back down into a dark oblivion? Why this methodical stripping away of the basis for any human moral standard, and the encouragement to be an animal in thought, conduct and empathy? Why this methodical tearing away of meaning and hope? That is Humanity’s great problem, by which reason has so far sought such ends.” Then we wonder why our culture is clearly more troubled by inhuman violence and pervasive moral failure than at any time in the past. Considering our past, that’s really saying something. Nonetheless, if we really, truly want our world to be completely ours, free of the Creator and His ways, then we’d better buckle up, because living in this culture is going to continue to get much, much more interesting than it is now. There will be no reverse gear or quick swerving away either, because with the forces already being set in motion, it will be like trying to turn a supertanker around a buoy. As the saying goes, “Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it”. We know the goal well, but fail to comprehend all that inherently comes along with it.
All in all, if a god plays a part in any belief system held, it pays to examine just what the nature of that god is that we believe in. Why? Because it would be a shame to expend life energy flipping off a god who does not exist except in our own minds, or to pay obeisance to a god who reflects only our own nature. We should know whom we are addressing, not just by name but by character. After all, the God of Scripture knows us more intimately than we know ourselves, and yearns for us to truly know Him. That indicates something about His nature right there. Something good.