Sometimes I envy those of other religions. Really, I do. There are times I want a paint-by-number religion, one with a complete set of instructions as to how I am to please the deity we are creating with our brushes. All the 8s get green paint, while the 6s are filled in with yellow. That kind of thing. Give me a list of what I’m supposed to do, another list of what I’m not supposed to do, and I will try to act the way I’m supposed to act to the end of my days. Give me a religion where I get to be in control of me, please. One where I can manipulate my god by the things I do or don’t do.
But no. We Christians get a different kind of God all-together, one who insists on getting personal with us, invading our space, pushing himself in where he’s not invited and embarrassing us in front of our well-intentioned friends who are all ready to put blue in the number 4s. Our God is awkward to be around much of the time. He stays invisible andÂ undetectable while asking us to believe that he is there. He doesn’t give us lists to follow–instead, he tells us to follow him.
There goes Jesus, walking down the street inconspicuously. There sits Matthew, the despised tax collector. Does Jesus rain down curses on this little imp’s head? Does he berate him for being a cheat and a liar? No. He simply looks at him and says, “Follow me.” We don’t even get the picture that he slows down. Matthew has to decide in an instant whether he will go with this rabbi or stay at his station. If he just leaves, well, he had better not hope for a good recommendation for his next job. And that’s just what he does—he gets up, leaves his job, his career, his life as he knows it and follows this little -known rabbi from some distant outpost. Where are we going? What will we do when we get there? Who is going to provide for us? These, I’m sure, were just a few of the thoughts running through Matthew’s head as he walked away from his life toward who-knew-what with this band of merry ragamuffins.
Matthew had to choose to do something that, to me, is the hardest part of our Christian walk. He had to choose whether or not to trust Jesus. I’m not talking about an intellectual nod that says, “Yes, I believe Jesus exists.” I’m not even speaking of saying, “I believe Jesus is alive and moving in our world today.” The kind of belief Jesus demands of us goes much further than that. He wants us to believe him with our feet and heart as well as our minds.
We know from Hebrews 11:6 that the only way we can please God is by faith. But faith in what? The writer of Hebrews leaves us hanging with a simple “believe that He Is, and that he is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him.” “He Is?” Â He is what? Some would say, “He is everything that I need when I need it.” Yes, I know he can meet our every need, but that still seems to be a god made in my own image. I think a much better explanation is this: “He Is Other.” God is Other. He is not like us only more moral. There is “otherness” when we are talking about God. And that “otherness” is a mystery to us. And we do not tolerate mystery well, do we? It is our nature to have to explain everything. We want to take it apart and label each piece.
We have succeeded in reducing the universe from a mystery to a measurement. By describing incredible distances in light years, we have made theÂ unfathomable fathomable. Distant stars are measured and named, and thus we reduce the extraordinary to the ordinary. We do the same thing with God. We want to measure him by the Scriptures (“This is who God is. He always does this, and never does that.”) and we want to name him according to our needs. But the God Who Is always overcomes our attempts to label him. When Jacob wrestled with God all night near the river Jabbok, Jacob asked God, “Please, tell me your name.” But God wasn’t saying. In essence, his refusal to answer said to Jacob, “I am the nameless one who gives names to others.” In all of our attempts to reduce God to the manageable and the nameable, we utterly and miserably fail. But we keep on trying.
This brings me back to the hardest thing we have to do as Christians: Trust God. For true faith is not just something we believe in our heads. If that belief doesn’t touch our hearts, it certainly will never reach our feet. And without our feet in action as a response to faith, that faith is as good as dead.
Has God ever asked you to trust him for something impossible? Has he ever demanded from you trust in something that was ridiculous, insane, crazy, unimaginable? Has he ever asked you to believe him for something that went against all you were brought up to believe? He is asking that of me. And that’s why I have been pining for a different god. One that answers when I call. One that meets all of my needs and leaves me alone when all is well. One I can name and measure. Our God—the one Who Is—does none of these things, at least not when I want him to.
I asked Joe Spann recently, “What if I am believing God for something, but it is the wrong thing to believe him for. What then?”
He answered, “So what? So what if you’re wrong. When you focus on being right or wrong, you are focusing on you. This isn’t about you—it’s about Jesus. Set your eyes on Jesus, and don’t worry about being right or wrong.”
I think this was Joe’s way of paraphrasing St. Augustine’s “Love God, then do as you please.” But he is right. When I get so wrapped up with, “Am I believing the right thing? What if I’m wrong?” then I am focused on myself, and not on Jesus who lives in and through me.
I want to be creative in my life, but only if it is safe to do so. (Read Cole NeSmith’s excellent article about creativity and safety for more on that topic.) So instead of trusting God for the impossible I want to gravitate to the safety of my paint-by-numbers set. Everyone ready? Red goes in the number 7s.
Only I can’t do that any longer. God has caught me in his snare. I can’t go back to paint-by-numbers Christianity. I have seen a glimpse of reality, and there are no numbers there. It is a wide, blank canvas waiting to be painted without the limitations of rules and regulations. (Ok, put down those rocks. I acknowledge that there are boundaries even to the blank canvas. And for you philosophy majors out there, I am not advocating the blank slate theory. Yes, I read Steven Pinker. Thank you.) God is other, and that sometime leads to some very messy theology.
Bob Sorge in his compelling book, Fire Of Delayed Answers, writes,
It’s interesting to see how God brings some of His servants to a point of theological crisis. God certainly did this with Abraham when he said, “Sacrifice your son to Me” (Genesis 15). Such a request didn’t fit Abraham’s theology of God. Abraham knew that God had given specific commands to Noah regarding murder—whoever kills his fellow man must himself be killed. But now God blows Abraham’s theological circuits and asks him to kill his son. Abraham had the choice: follow the voice he has come to know, or follow his theology. Although he must have known great inner turmoil, the Bible doesn’t suggest that Abraham hesitated even for a moment. He had tasted of the living words that proceed fro the mouth of God, and He chose those words of life.
Even our reading of the Bible at times can—read this carefully so you don’t trip all over yourself reaching for that “comment” button—seemingly keep us from following Jesus. I asked a pastor in England not long ago why it is that God seems to contradict his word.
“Oh,” he said, “God never contradicts his word. But he will often contradict my understanding of his word.”
That is a good word to remember. As Sorge says (and again, read this carefully):
It’s your choice: stay with the safety net of the verses you’ve always known, or go with the voice that is leading you forward. Go with His voice, and you’ll discover with the disciples that they are the words of life!
(I realize that with that one passage I have upset many of you, and the comments will all be about whether or not God still speaks to us today, and how that we can’t ignore Scripture in favor of some “voice in our heads.” How that Dunn is a heretic and needs to be burned at the stake while wearing his Cincinnati Reds jacket. I know that will come. Just try to chill a bit and read on, ok? If the Holy Spirit lives inside of us, then he has a voice to use to speak to us. And if there is no Holy Spirit living within us and all we have is a book to go by, then we are of all men most miserable.)
So what do you do when God calls you to follow him on path that would seem to lead you away from him? What are we holding on to that is more valuable than following the Living Christ? Family? Job? Status? What keeps us from trusting God and going where he calls? Our need for safety? Our need to understand before we commit?
I am not going to mince words. Following God will cost you your life. At the very least, you may be called on to sacrifice your reputation, your own goodness, your good name—all that you call your life. It may cost you more than that. There are brothers and sisters around the world even now who are facing death for confessing Jesus as their savior. Are you willing to follow knowing that could be your fate as well?
And about this path we are called to walk. If you think it will be nice and straight and easy to follow, well, you haven’t read what Solomon had to say about it. “Who can straighten what God has bent?” asks Solomon in Ecclesiastes. I read this to one of our elders at church recently. “Oh yes,” he said, “God takes our crooked paths and makes them straight.”
“That’s not what it says,” I said. I read it to him again. “It is saying that God takes our straight paths and crookeds them up. And that just doesn’t seem right to me.”
It still doesn’t. And right now God has me walking a path with him that makes no sense at all. It is full of twists and turns so that I no longer have any idea which way is which. I’d turn around if I knew which way to go back. I called my friend Cec Murphey last week and told him I was though trusting God in this situation. “I’m done, Cec,” I said. “I’m going back to running my own life.”
“No you aren’t,” he said.
“How do you know I won’t?”
“Because you are talking to me,” he said. “If you were going to quit, you wouldn’t have called me.” Then he said something that was really below the belt. “Jeff, you are the one who talked with me about following the dangerous God. Just what gave you the idea it would be easy?”
So it looks like I have no choice. I must trust God to do as he has said to me he would do. I must trust that he will make all things right in the end, even if now it all looks wrong. He doesn’t seem to have left me any other out. And to be honest, I don’t really want an out. I want to trust him. I want to come to him in faith, believing. Even if it is just a baby faith at first, I’m sure he will be patient as it grows.
So on I go, following Jesus, trusting that he knows the way. I have nothing to lose—except for my life. And even that is a good thing.
Faithful iMonk writer Joe Spann contributed to this article as well.