What are your Expectations of God? part 2
In a previous post, I shared my teenage son, Lincoln's, frustration with God. I suggested that many of our faith struggles are caused by our own fears and culturally-created assumptions. The Southern, conservative filter of my youth colored my perceptions and created false expectations of God that still cling to me, despite years of trying to shake free. This filter says "Everything happens for a reason." What reason is there for cancer in children? It claims "The Lord never gives you more than you can handle." Tell that to a rape victim.
These pat statements, so readily offered, often feel like a chide, a subtle warning to those with unanswered prayers. Those who might dare ask Why does God care about Sara and not me? Why must I work 80 hours a week while Ann earns double working 40 hours? Why did You heal Tom but let my brother die? We want to know why some are blessed and others are not. Why some prayers appear to be answered while others are most definitely ignored.
I explained to my son that he is living within a culture that subtly and not-so-subtly repeats "The Bible is clear" over and over. The ensnaring message beneath that statement is that if you don't agree, then you must be "lost" or "selfishly stubborn, wanting your way over the Lord's way." If you sense unsound reasoning in flimsy explanations, if you think the Spirit directs you differently, then you are clearly denying scripture to suit your own purposes. Doubting the interpretation of your Bible-believing preacher, family or friends is on par with doubting God Himself.
And if your prayers go unanswered, perhaps your suffering is your own fault --- caused by your lack of belief in the "clarity" of the Bible's message, or rather your stubborn willfulness to not trust the authorities placed in your life. Just ignore that part of the Holy Scriptures that suggests each individual believer has direct access to the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38; 10:45; 1 Cor.6:19).
I told Lincoln that the Bible is not clear on most things, which is not hard to see if one removes "the Bible is clear" filter from her eyes. And this is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, perhaps that is part of its message -- human beings love their certainty -- and we obscure the Truth the Bible tries to reveal when we declare that certainty. Too often, we use flawed convictions to gently club another person to death and call it Love.
One could say the Bible is full of UNcertainties, or at least, mixed messages that can make a reader feel unsettled. It says that God blesses the faithful while those outside His favor suffer.
For the arms of the wicked shall be broken, but the Lord upholds the righteous. Psalm 37:17
The Lord’s curse is on the house of the wicked, but he blesses the abode of the righteous. Proverbs 3:33
The Lord does not let the righteous go hungry, but he thwarts the craving of the wicked. Proverbs 10:3
Is this really how God works? Or are we reading the longings of a people trying to understand their life and their suffering? Is Scripture showing us a world God approves? Or does Scripture unveil the struggle of humanity, the ways we make good, the ways we make bad and the ways we wrongly use God to make sense of what we do not understand? Does Scripture reveal the ways we want God to act more than it reveals the way He actually does?
If we are confused about Scripture and its representation of God, then our approach and expectations of prayer will also be confused.
Honestly, I don't like reading "The righteous will rejoice when they see vengeance done; they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked" (Psalm 58:10). This verse, and many besides, make me believe that of all things Scripture is, it is also a record of humanity's erroneous beliefs about God. After all, God who walked this earth and taught love and mercy, who touched, healed and forgave even the enemies who murdered him . . .this God takes no delight in violence. Those words do, however, reflect an angry or offended human heart.
Countering the verses of a blessed faithful and suffering wicked, Scripture also says the wicked prosper while the righteous endure hard times. "In my vain life I have seen everything; there are righteous people who perish in their righteousness, and there are wicked people who prolong their life in their evildoing" (Ecclesiastes 7:15). Other verses suggest God is more impartial, "...for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous" (Matthew 5:45b).
No wonder we become confused about our relationship with God and how to communicate with Him.
So what is going on here? Why all these mixed messages, what some people may call contradictions? When I shed old filters from my eyes, I see that the Bible paints a picture of a people in conflict with God and themselves, asking hard questions, expressing their fears and doubts. In the words of this ancient text, we see the engagement of a people with their God unfold in storytelling, song, poetry, instructions, prayer and worship. It reflects their work to define who they are, why they are HERE, in this one tiny spot of the Universe, and their attempts to explain how their lives intersect with the Divine. They are us. We are them, still caught up in the same struggles.
Early people misunderstood and misinterpreted God, often placing Him within their own context to explain the unexplainable. We are not so different today. We still misunderstand, misinterpret and take God out of context. We just have millions of Bibles to help us do it. These misconceptions permeate the church culture and the secular culture and work to create a Truth-distorting filter. All of us, every single one of us can "know only in part" (1 Corinthians 13:9). I think this is a key reminder of Scripture and meant to keep us from lording our superior knowledge over our neighbor -- you know, encourage us to do that humble thing that Jesus models so well.
Our conflicted understanding of God is revealed in our conflicted hopes and the ways we pray. Must we pray in a specific order? Must we always show gratitude before making requests? Should we only ask for what we think we can get? Do we lower our expectations, fearing God will not give us what we really want? "Please Lord, give her peace" instead of "Please Lord, heal her and let her live."
I am always surprised by how little I and my fellow Christians dare to ask of God. When I have met the rare person who dares to claim and believe a miraculous healing or an extraordinary rescue is coming, I subtly distance myself from this strange person. Greater expectations can lead to greater disappointments. I don't want to risk disappointment. When my eldest son was diagnosed with brain cancer at 17 years old, I was exceedingly fearful of disappointment. And I don't think I'm alone in this fear.
My journey to understand God and how to relate to Him eventually led me to The Book of Job. Truthfully, I had no interest in reading Job. What little I knew of his story hit too close to home, and I was not sure I was ready to face my own Job-like circumstances. But desperation and a desire to connect with others pulled me into a Job study at my church. And I was surprised by what learned.
Continue reading What are your Expectations of God? part 3.