“Doubt is not the enemy but the companion of faith, we are all Thomas now, in a secular society. And If the church doesn’t have the courage to be honest about [the feeling that every belief is contested and contestable], the rising generation that feels it most is going to feel that we, the church, is hiding something.”- James KA Smith
“Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep, really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell. And when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.”
– Ernest Hemingway
“I would like you to imagine that you own a magic wand which allows you to arrange matters so that everyone in the world today begins to observe to the letter the ideal of respect for others embodied in humanist principles. Suppose that, everywhere in the world, the rights of man were scrupulously observed, with everyone paying respect to the dignity of everyone else and the equal right of each individual to partake of those famous fundamental rights of freedom and happiness. We can hardly begin to comprehend the unprecedented revolution that such an attitude would introduce into our lives and customs. There would be no wars or massacres, no genocide or crimes against humanity. There would be an end to racism and xenophobia, to rape and theft, to domination and social exclusion, and the institutions of control or punishment – police, army, courts, prisons – would effectively disappear. So, morality counts for something, and this exercise suggests the degree to which it is essential to our common life; and, at the same time, how far we actually are from its realisation. Yet, such a miracle would not prevent us from getting old, from looking on helplessly as wrinkles and grey hairs appear, from falling ill, from experiencing painful separations, from knowing that we are going to die and watching those we love die. In the end, nothing will save us from getting bored and finding that everyday life lacks zest. Even were we saints, immaculate apostles of the rights of man and the republican ethos, nothing would guarantee us a fulfilled emotional life.”
- Luc Ferry, atheist
Regardless of one’s stage in life, a Christian should always be able to answer the questions: what do I think Jesus is saying to me and how do I know that he’s saying it to me? These inquiries were advised unendingly by Gordon T. Smith; a scholar who taught at Regent College where I recently graduated. I can still hear him say it from a recent lecture I attended on God’s will.
Before graduate school I frequented a more-than-usual-charismatic bible college that echoed the importance for individuals to “get” God’s will for our lives. I tried, so hard, and for the most part, felt like I failed. I would spend hours on my knees, in silence, in prayer, in Scripture, begging God for a dream, a picture, a word–something for me to share with my peers who, to my wonder, could speak of God’s revealed plan for their lives with beaming grins. Everyone seemed to know their divine blueprint for their lives from start to finish.
I knew there something wrong with the whole endeavour, even though I wanted to believe that God worked that way. One of the reasons for my skepticism was simply because it wasn’t working for me, but another reason, more importantly, was that this way of conceiving God’s way of dealing with us discounted the possibility of being surprised by him. In retrospect, it was evident that the “God told me” language helpfully put accountability from friends, family and peers out of reach.
Upon graduation I went on to listen to what others were saying on the topic. I came across a little book called “Just Do Something,” by Kevin DeYoung. The point was simple: stop waiting for a special “word” from the Lord and get to work–the Bible is enough! The Bible gives us plenty of direction for our lives, so stop “obsessing” over the future. That made sense to me and it made my problem much simpler. We don’t need to waste time waiting, listening, slowing down; just be obedient to what God has shown in Scripture, everything else will follow. And when you have to choose between moving to California or Italy, or studying science or art, as long as you’re not sinning, either decision will be fine.
I have sympathy for those who approach the God’s Will question this way. This answer tells my generation of millennials that our life is vastly different than the lives of our grandparents, and we just need to learn to be grateful for the (too) many choices that we do have, and to stop being cowards who look for fulfilment in the “most ideal choice.” I get that. I too am tired of the millennial problem (or let’s just say realization–it’s a universal problem that we’ve only just seemed to have discovered and named) that humans including myself are in some degree or another ungrateful. Suck it up, make a choice, stop being paralyzed by the fear of not living up to what’s expected of you through your phone. Fair enough, some people need to hear that.
Sadly, this approach is much like the first in that it puts the possibility to be surprised by God out of reach. In both approaches what is complex and difficult is simplified and made easy. In the first approach we get a clear blueprint for the rest of our lives from the mouth of God himself, and in the second approach we get nothing with regards to our particular context or calling. They’re both minimalist attempts to make a difficult burden go away.
The problem is that life is not as simple as we’d like it to be. And it’s not a new problem. God’s people have always had to wrestle with the question of God’s will for their particular, day-to-day lives. We see it expressed in the Psalms, we see it in the life of Abraham, David, Samuel, Paul, Barnabas and John; we see it in Jesus and in the church and its history. The stories of Gideon’s fleece, and Jacob’s wife aren’t exactly imperatives but certainly attest to the universal human longing to hear from God for direction and the far from simple predicament of our lives.
And in the New Testament, we’re told to do things like this: “discern what is pleasing to the Lord,” and “Listen, I am standing at the door, knocking…” and “my sheep hear my voice,” and similar direction. The Gospel holds more than the promise of heaven or right standing with God; in it we are promised that Christ is present with us by his Spirit. And living as a Christian is to intentionally respond to the God who speaks.
But the Spirit is not merely present in some general fashion as the sun is present to everyone for whom it is day. The Spirit’s presence to the Christian is in the details of our lives, like the heat and light we feel and see from the sun. The God who takes on ordinary human flesh and institutes a meal to act as a means of worshiping him is the God who encounters us in the earthly realities of food and drink. And the particularity of the voice of Jesus means that the way he encounters person A will likely be different than person B, even though their situations are very similar.
Take for instance the stories we find in Luke 18 and Luke 19. The first story is about a rich young ruler who has obeyed the law as a good Jew. He approaches Jesus to know about what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus throws a curve ball and tells him to sell all he has, give it to the poor, and follow him. The man walked away, saddened by Christ’s words.
The second story is about another wealthy man named Zacchaeus, who is just the opposite: a tax collector known for cheating people in his own town. Zacchaeus, the tree climber, was surprised to see Jesus approach him and invite himself over. Spending time with the tax collector, Jesus announced: “salvation has come to this home” which propelled a promise by Zacchaeus to give half of his money to the poor and pay back those he had defrauded.
What if the rich young ruler saw Jesus’ interactions with Zacchaeus? What would he say? Perhaps he would wonder why Jesus didn’t tell Zacchaeus to sell all his money, or why he neglected to mention money at all?
The answer is quite simple and yet quite concerning: there is no single rule applied to both men. Jesus knew what was in the hearts of both and spoke to them accordingly. He spoke the words they needed to hear. God’s will is not that simple.
The concerning implication is this: there is no formulaic voice of Jesus that works for everyone nor is there a divine blueprint provided from start to finish. My first experience in the Pentecostal tradition was right in its emphasis that God does speak today, but it was weak in providing boundary markers and accountability. My second experience with what has been called the Neo-Puritan movement put an important emphasis on grace and the aim of sanctification as God’s primary word to us in Christ, but did so at the expense of the important christian task to discern God’s will of direction in the day-to-day.
Jesus is a person and will speak personally, and he is God thereby speaking precisely what we need to hear in order for us to become what we need to become. There is no blueprint, nor is there a formula. The word of Christ brings new life, and Christ always speaks into a particular context that is always new and always unique. In my next post I’ll unpack how we can listen to the voice of Jesus when we take the time to listen to Scripture, the church, our community, and our emotions, in the context of the Gospel.
Clyde showed up on the panoramic porch saying, “wow, this is the life. This is what we were created for. This is the life!”
By his smile and big eyes scanning the scenery and deep exhale as he sat in a chair to take it all in, I could tell he was speaking of the glory of vacation—the glory of vacating the ordinary world of menial activity, restless work, and the daily grind that blinds us from enjoying the beauty of creation.
Clyde’s on to something. On the one hand, he’s a realist, and recognizes that there is something perverse with the way humans live their lives; true humanness is hampered. But on the other hand, Clyde’s an idealist; he’s sure that the curse has been lifted through the wonder-working power of vacation.
This was his good news. The enemy has been crushed. The enigmatic affliction of labor has been resolved by a cabin on the lake with a view, some good food and good company. Most importantly, freedom from the ol’ 9 to 5.
The limits of his leisure prevents him from discovering the lie he’s believing. The fast-paced world he lives him compels him to run without rest 50 weeks out of the year. Weekends are an extension of the work week, so two weeks of vacating seems like the glorious hub that man was created for. He finds no life in his work, and the occasional vacation is lengthy enough to provide respite from the demands of the Western world, but too short for him to recognize the dissatisfaction of idleness. And round he goes.
Clyde doesn’t know it but the reason he hates work is because of what he thinks it promises him. He works not only to survive but because work gives him something in return, and that something gives the illusion of human satiation of the deepest kind. He works for his gain, he works to get, he works to win and to beat: so he can’t rest. The more he works, the more he believes that he is in control; he believes he deserves to reap the fruit of labor that he’s earned. He’s in pursuit of the grand prize of unending idleness, which in the end will only bring fatigue and despair because of its disconnection from his true human purpose.
He fails to realize that true rest is not idleness nor vacation. True rest is found in collaborative work with the person that transcends all time and space—the Creator. True rest is life-giving creation, creative expression, not for man’s sake but for the sake of a flouring world.
Man who had previously been free and independent, is now so to speak subjugated by a multitude of new needs. Consuming ambition, the ardent desire to raise one’s relative fortune less out of genuine need than in order to place oneself above others, instills in all men a black inclination to harm one another; a secret jealousy which is all the more dangerous as it often assumes the mask of benevolence.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1755
I do not accept any absolute formulas for living. No preconceived code can see ahead to everything that can happen in a man’s life. As we live, we grow and our beliefs change. They must change. So I think we should live with this constant discovery. We should be open to this adventure in heightened awareness of living. We should stake our whole existence on our willingness to explore and experience. Martin Buber ( Hodes 1972).
“The Image: A Guide to Pseudo Events in America”
“[We have] used our wealth, our literacy, our technology, and our progress, to create the thicket of unreality which stands between us and the facts of life… We want to believe these illusions because we suffer from extravagant expectations… When we pick up the newspaper at breakfast, we expect – we even demand – that it bring us momentous events since the night before…We expect our two-week vacations to be romantic, exotic, cheap, and effortless. We expect anything and everything. We expect the contradictory and the impossible. We expect compact cars which are spacious; luxurious cars which are economical. We expect to be rich and charitable, powerful and merciful, active and reflective, kind and competitive. We expect to be inspired by mediocre appeals for excellence, to be made literate by illiterate appeals for literacy, to “go to the church of our choice” and yet feel its guiding power over us, to revere God and to be God. Never have people been more the masters of their environment. Yet never has a people felt more deceived and disappointed. For never has a people expected so much more than the world could offer” (3-4).
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It costs so much to be a full human being that there are very few who have the enlightenment, or the courage, to pay the price…. One has to abandon altogether the search for security, and reach out to the risk of living with both arms. One has to embrace the world like a lover, and yet demand no easy return of love. One has to accept pain as a condition of existence. One has to court doubt and darkness as the cost of knowing. One needs a will stubborn in conflict, but apt always to the total acceptance of every consequence of living and dying.
– Morris L. West
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If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!