Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Into the Mystical Abyss

How does God communicate with you?

No, really, it’s a serious question.

People who call themselves Christians have vastly different ideas about how God speaks and how the Holy Spirit leads the believer. As a direct consequence, they also have vastly different ways of living their lives.

I keep coming across things like this:

Six children’s lives and mine were forever changed when I filed for divorce last November. It was the hardest decision I have had to make. In fact, I didn’t want to make that decision. I pleaded with God for a very long time.”

And yet, strangely, God “led” this evangelical woman to divorce her husband.

Or things like this:

“So I prayed and God showed me what I had to do. He gave me the courage to do something crazy. I broke up with my boyfriend.”

“God led …” or “God showed …”


Does anyone else find it odd to hear God credited or blamed for doing something either inconsistent with his revealed character (Scenario 1) or well outside the scope of the teaching of the Bible (Scenario 2)? I sure do.

The Sad Story of Russell Wilson

Then there is Russell Wilson. The Seahawk’s quarterback throws a Super Bowl-losing interception, after which he says this:
“The play happens, and they pick the ball off. And I take three steps. And on the third step God says to me, ‘I’m using you … I want to see how you respond. But most importantly, I want them to see how you respond.’ ”
Now it may well be argued that all Wilson really meant to convey is that it occurred to him very quickly after making a terrible play that God could make use of what had just happened, and that how Christians comport themselves in bad times is a testimony to the reality of their faith. But if that’s what he meant to say, it would have been far better to say it that way, because what was reported instead was this:
“Wilson is ... crediting God for his heartbreaking interception on the 1 yard line that sealed the Super Bowl win for the Patriots.”
and this:
“God really likes Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (to whom He is said to speak directly).”
Now of course neither lede fairly characterizes what Wilson said. The media are happy to make Christians sound as goofy as possible at all times.

But why paint a target for them?

Defining the Indefinable

Mysticism — and make no mistake, that’s what people who speak like this are advocating, even if unconsciously — is at best amorphous and unverifiable. I guarantee you neither of these women saw a burning bush or was introduced to an angel. Russell Wilson did not really hear a voice. That God “spoke” to any of them in any way at all would be completely impossible to demonstrate. If you ask either woman how they knew God was involved in their decision-making process, they can only point to things like feelings (“a real peace came over me”) or interim results (“My family is happier, and we have much more peace in our lives”). It would be far more accurate to say something like this: “I prayed and I came to the conclusion that I ought to do X.”

(I had originally typed, “I prayed and read my Bible,” but then I realized neither woman has made any such claim. They “pleaded” or “prayed”, but the less subjective component of being led was nowhere to be found, perhaps because in at least one of the two scenarios it would have made the choice to part ways with a partner that much more difficult.) 

More honest still might be to admit, “I knew it was wrong but I did it anyway, God help me”.

In Wilson’s case, all that can be definitively said is that he is now able to make sense of and feel better about what would otherwise have been a devastating career moment.

Experience and Subjectivity

But experience is highly subjective, and the narrative these Christians are presently writing for themselves is very much subject to change, though they don’t realize it now.

If he is truly convinced God was directly and personally involved in what happened that infamous Super Bowl Sunday, how Russell Wilson processes the event is bound to morph a bit as he gets older. If it is just a bump in an otherwise-great career, he will likely read it one way. If, for some reason, everything is downhill from here, he may read it another way entirely.

And how about the two ladies who were shown” and “led” in particular ways?

Suppose the Christian divorcee whose family initially appeared “happier” and “more at peace” finds herself unexpectedly dealing with drug abuse, suicide attempts, anger issues, poor marks in school, conflicts with the kids going back and forth between estranged parents, financial struggles and so on. To top it all off, since she has six kids, there may not be an abundance of suitable candidates stepping up to replace the ex-husband who, for whatever reason, didn’t measure up.

Where is God then?

And the Christian twenty-something that was led by God to dump her boyfriend who “loved the Lord” for what appeared to be Prince Charming? Maybe she finds that Prince Charming is an alcoholic philanderer who can’t provide for his family. Meanwhile the boyfriend she kicked to the curb ends up on the mission field with three lovely children and a beautiful blonde wife she finds herself periodically stalking on Facebook.

What happened? Did God mislead these people? I don’t think so.

Is it likely anyone here is going to concede that maybe, just maybe, God didn’t really speak to them after all? Possibly, if there is a shred of real work of the Holy Spirit in these lives, this may be the case. More likely though, there will be a massive rationalization or denial campaign, and the narrative will be rewritten all over again.

Blaming and Crediting God

It seems to me we ought to be careful about attributing direct causality to God in the circumstances of life, whether it is blame or credit. We simply don’t know enough to be able to say such things with any authority at all. And we ought to be doubly careful about using the words “God said” or “God spoke”. Those who have done it have historically fared poorly.

Likewise, I believe we are so much happier when we retain accountability for our own choices, good or bad, than when we choose to fob that responsibility off on God indiscriminately by using phrases like “God led me” or “God showed me”.

Why? Because the same miserable consequences will follow from bad decisions whether we admit to having followed the desires of our own hearts or whether we attempt to validate our thought processes by stamping them with the imprimatur “God said”.

If we own the decision, at least there is hope for repentance. But if we ascribe the bad decision to God, to whom do we turn?


  1. Good points. However, there still has to be an avenue for individuals to recognize (in their minds) that God has an influence in their lifes. How else can one believe in God if that recognition is not an integral part of your belief system? For all practical purposes God would not really exist for you if you did not credit him with aspects of your life. Being human though, you are suggesting that the aspects should be chosen more wisely and not be grossly distorted by the filter of our own self-interest.

  2. Oh, I definitely agree, Q. We need to keep a keen sense of awareness of God's influence and purpose in our lives. He is not neutral about most of the choices we make and he is not far from us, as the scriptures say.

    Where the Bible declares that God is doing something, faith requires me to acknowledge it. Paul, for instance, can say with confidence that "He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus" (Romans 14:12). God's word gives us many rock-solid principles that we can affirm about his actions and influence on or among believers. What the Bible says God is doing is always to be believed and enjoyed.

    But where we run into trouble is when we get beyond what is written; when we too confidently seize on some minor detail of our experience and attribute it to the work or will of God. We might believe with all our hearts that God brought this or that opportunity into our experience, but we cannot possibly confirm it. What seems to me like an opportunity may in fact be a temptation coming from somewhere else entirely.

    As you say, self-interest may enter into it in a big way. I have considerably more confidence in the claim "God called me to preach the gospel in Pakistan while helping the poor and living by faith" than I do in the claim "God called me to be a rock star", or an actor or an NFL player.

    And of course where a person claims that God told them to do something that is demonstrably in conflict with his character as revealed in the Bible or in conflict with specific commands to the Christian, we have to reject the possibility that they were "led" to do it entirely.