The Wrong Definition of Having Faith

I’ve been wanting to comment on a certain strain of American evangelical culture for a while now and haven’t been sure how to get into it, but Mike Cope broached the topic, so I’ll take this as my opportunity to jump in.  He’s commenting on Jason Boyett’s new book O Me of Little Faith: True Confessions of a Spiritual Weakling, and I’ll re-quote part of the book Mike quoted:

“When you live and work within the American Christian subculture — especially the less liturgical, more conservative, evangelical, megachurch sub-subculture — you hear a lot of people talking casually about the intimacy of their relationship with God. The way they tell it, they get frequent, distinct impressions from the Holy Spirit. They get personal promptings from Jesus. They get very specific answers to prayer and detailed directions about even the most trivial aspects of their lives.

“I’ve heard someone tell a friend, ‘I woke up in the middle of the night and thought of you, and it was definitely the Holy Spirit wanting me to pray for you right then and there.’ I’ve overheard a middle-aged woman say, ‘It was totally a God thing that my flight got cancelled, because I got to share my faith with the lady next to me. Talk about a divine appointment!’

“I’ve heard musicians credit God with having written their song lyrics. I’ve heard businessmen give God credit for finally coming through with the promotions for which they’d been praying. I know a few people who don’t hesitate to reveal that God told them to quit their jobs and go into full-time ministry.

“One Sunday I overheard someone give this breathless recap of a worship service: ‘The Lord totally showed up in church this morning. When we got to that key change in “Breathe,” you just knew God was moving.’

“You’ve heard this kind of talk too, maybe coming out of your own mouth. Please understand me: I’m not telling you — or them — to stop. I’m pretty sure most of those kinds of statements express a sincere and real faith in a personal God who is intimately involved in our lives. That people talk this way is not what bothers me.

Unlike Boyett, I am asking them to stop, and I’m not at all sure those statements reflect a sincere and real faith in a personal God who is intimately involved in our lives.  I think it reflects a sincere and artificial faith that mistakes predictable responses to certain stimuli as the work of God.  Far from being more spiritual, I think that people who are always going on about the latest thing that God has said to them are less spiritual.  One of the keys to authentic life with Yahweh is not taking the Lord’s name in vain, which I take to mean, in part, not acting as though your own thoughts and purposes necessarily have divine approval.  If it’s wrong to falsely proclaim that God has damned something, surely it’s also wrong to falsely proclaim that he has blessed something.  I’m not going to be as generous about this stuff as Boyett is.  We seriously need to knock this stuff off, and we definitely need to stop sending the signal that that real Christians hear from God on a regular basis.

Why does it bother me so much?

1)  It’s unbiblical.

Search the scriptures are closely as you can.  You aren’t going to find any instances of God leading someone through a coincidence, or a gut feeling or an intuition. That never happens. No one ever tries to discern God’s will for their lives. His general will is communicated through the scriptures, and if he has a specific mission for someone, he sends a message that can’t be missed–an audible voice, an angelic visit, something like that. As soon as someone says “God laid a message on my heart” they have departed from all Biblical precedent. You can, of course, argue that not every Christian practice needs to have Biblical precedent, and for some matters, I would agree. But on the central question of “how does God communicate with people?” I’d sure like to see a verse or two that supports our practices.

2) It “defines divinity down.”

Another problem with hearing from God every afternoon is that when your way of hearing from the Lord is completely indistinguishable from the routine products of your own imagination, the experience of God has became so meager and small that the glory of God is inevitably diminished. Frankly, I’d much rather worship a God who communicates clearly through overwhelming personal encounters, but rarely, than a God who works in my life exactly the same way coincidence and personal insights work for atheists.

We’ve gotten used to speaking about the presence of God and the voice of God in casual ways that don’t knock us down to our knees (and that certainly doesn’t line up with the biblical testimony). I’ve often thought about that when I’m in a worship service where they sing “Open the Eyes of My Heart, Lord”

Open the eyes of my heart, Lord
Open the eyes of my heart
I want to see You
I want to see You

To see You high and lifted up
Shinin’ in the light of Your glory
Pour out Your power and love
As we sing holy, holy, holy

The sounds great to sing, but do we realize what we are asking for? When someone sees God high and lifted up, it isn’t a fun or casual experience, and you don’t leave feeling good about yourself. Just ask Isaiah.

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another:
“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”

At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.

“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.”

One of my big pet peeves is when some human person cleverly designs a worship experience for maximum emotional impact through dramatic lighting and moving song selections, and then, when it is over says something like “God really showed up and showed off tonight!” This bothers me because a) nothing happened here that doesn’t happen in secular concerts or movies every day and b) if God had decided to show up and show off, you wouldn’t be telling me about it over dessert at Chili’s. You’d still be in the sanctuary shaking with fright, and we’d be on our way there to bring you a clean pair of pants.

3) It’s a pagan worldview in Christian language.

In Deuteronomy 30, when Moses has finished passing on to Israel the commandments that God gave him (with an audible voice and written tablets, not a warm feeling in his heart), Moses says:

The LORD will again delight in you and make you prosperous, just as he delighted in your fathers, if you obey the LORD your God and keep his commands and decrees that are written in this Book of the Law and turn to the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.

Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.

In other words–I’ve just laid out God’s will for you. It’s really clear, and now you all know it, and there’s no need to worry about how you are going to know what he wants. He’s told you up front.

This is really, really great news, because it means they don’t have to do what the pagans do, which is read tea leaves and animal entrails to try to figure out what the gods want, or search for signs in the heavens, or–worst of all–go to some witch or necromancer to see if the souls of the departed have any insights. One of the incredible plusses of the biblical tradition is that everything we need is set down in print.

Have you ever noticed that when Jesus encounters someone who isn’t hip to God’s agenda, he never says “you need to spend more time seeking God’s will for your life”? Instead he points them to the Bible. “Have you not read….?” This is one area where the Judeo-Christian tradition is in sharp contrast to the surrounding culture of the ancient world. Having written scriptures is better than having to search for signs of the divine will, and it’s a move backward (and one that mystifies me) to leave the assurance of a scriptural grounding for the uncertainties of analyzing your gut feelings.

I once heard someone say “Faith isn’t believing that God will do whatever you want him to do. Faith is believing that God will do what he has already promised to do.” He never promised to pick out your college, or your spouse, or your job, and whisper the answer to you. He didn’t promise “divine appointments” or messages laid on your heart. No matter how much we might want those things or how great we think they are, it doesn’t seem to be the way that God prefers to operate. And it causes all manner of practical problems. But more on that later, maybe.

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4 Comments

Filed under Bad Theology, Bible, Church Culture, Rants

4 responses to “The Wrong Definition of Having Faith

  1. Hi – I found you via Twitter from Jason Boyett.

    I liked Jason’s book and I like this post. There’s good thoughts written here that will have me thinking for awhile. Plus I’ve read some of your other posts … you speak my language, glad to have found your site.

  2. Excellent–thank you!!! Sharing this now.

  3. joe

    This post is amazing! This is something that’s always bothered me, and I’ve been looking for some good perspectives on this topic. This post delivers in spades.

    The thing that really annoys me about this personal god most christians claim to have is that they’re quite verbal about it. It seems by verbalizing it, it becomes a competition about who’s closer to god, which is a purely vain human game. If they were quiet or more doubtful of their encounters I’d be more sympathetic to this view I think.

    Your post prompts a question about a continuum of communication with god. What you’re implying is that real communication from god is a frightening important encounter. While this is certainly biblical, can’t a more mundane encounter with god exist as well? Of course the bible describes earth shattering encounters with god… It’d be boring to read about anything else. But what if god is also about subtle encounters?

    But maybe that’s just a slippery slope argument that takes us back to paganism. Saying that god can “do anything possible” and allow subtle encounters might just be a perfect cover to justify your own whims as the will of god. Any thoughts?

    • “[S]till small voice” comes to mind–see I Kings 19. It does seem doubtful to me, though, that that passage would be indicating an overarching way that God communicates….

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