October 17, 2017

Our Intimate God

I refuse. I absolutely refuse to go back to a god who is only interested in what I do, not who I am. I have no interest in a god who keeps score, who I have to appease by doing good things and avoiding bad things. A god who is more interested in institutes and forms and structures than he is in relationships.

The One True God is an intimate God. He is not impressed with my lousy attempts to keep rules. That kind of life just gets in the way of the intimate relationship he wants with each of us.

There is no other religion I know of other than Christianity where intimacy with its god is not only offered, it is demanded. What do we think we are saying when we repeat “God is love” if not that he wants to have an intimate relationship with us?

Some were not pleased with me writing earlier this week to say how God led me to buy a certain car a year ago, and how that car helped to save my son’s life in a serious accident. Some have said the only way God speaks to us today is through the Bible. This is the same Bible that shows us a God who invades lives on regular basis in the most intimate of ways. A God who delights in us as a lover delights in his beloved. A God who does not just request intimacy with us: He demands it.

So the LORD spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend (Exodus 33:11).

Michael Spencer wrote on this some years ago in an essay he called Our Problem With Grace. It is the essay that God used to begin messing in my heart in a huge way. Here are Michael’s opening words.

“Amazing Grace” may be the church’s favorite hymn, but I’m not the first person to notice that the subject of God’s actual grace seems to give many Christians a case of hives. Singing about it is way cool. After that we need a team of lawyers to interpret all the codicils and footnotes we’ve written for the new covenant.

I don’t really care whether we all agree on how to reconcile Paul’s justification by faith and James’s justification by works. I don’t care whether we agree on the application of the threat of Bonhoeffer’s sermons on “cheap grace.” I don’t care all that much about Catholic grace vs. Protestant grace or conservative grace vs. liberal grace, though I have my convictions. Grace as merely a point or a subpoint in theology seems rather bizarre to me. Grace is an all or nothing gig, not some percentage of the take. Get with it, or get out of the kitchen.

For me, the Gospel itself is “the Gospel of the grace of God.” (Acts 20:24) The Bible is incomprehensible apart from grace. It is the tidal wave predicted in the first scenes, and it eventually arrives to soak everything and everyone in Jesus. Titus summarizes the incarnation and work of Jesus as, “the Grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people.” The New Covenant is grace and truth from Jesus, as contrasted with the law that came through Moses. (Consult Hebrews for the difference.) Every single New Covenant blessing comes through grace. Listing the scriptures that substantiate this would be woefully redundant to most of my readers. The air of heaven is grace. The heart of the Father is grace. The Good in the Good News is grace.

So why, I must ask, is it that we still have such a problem with grace? And if we cannot accept God’s grace in its pure, undiluted form, we will never be able to accept that this same God wants to have an intimate relationship with us. Part of the intimacy God longs to have with us comes in the form of a conversation. He wants to talk with us and then listen to us as we talk with him. A real live conversation.

Sure, there are many who have abused the intimacy that God wants to have with them. Look, I live in the “Charismatic capital” of the United States, if not the world. I attended the only “Charismatic university,” Oral Roberts University. I taught there. Don’t think I haven’t seen and heard abuses of “God told me…” That does not mean, however, that God doesn’t long to have an intimate relationship with each of us today. He wants to talk with each of us if we will but listen.

Would any of you consider a relationship to be “intimate” if there was no conversation? If your spouse gave you a list of things he or she wanted you to do on your wedding day, and then sat back and kept score as to how well you did them? In most countries, that would be referred to as “slavery.” Unfortunately, many people see that as how God relates to us. “Here are the scriptures, a collection of books written over a period of a couple of thousand years, from cultural perspectives that don’t match up to anything known today, with ancient laws as their foundation. Now, I want you to follow these precisely. I’ll be back to check up on you. Don’t screw up or else.”  Is that really the way of the God whom we so glibly say loves us so?

(We have talked about the role of the Bible in the life of the believer in the past, and I’m sure we will yet again. Don’t think I am saying scriptures are not inspired or are not for today. I’m not saying that at all. Here it is in a nutshell: The Bible has one main purpose: To reveal God to us through his son, Jesus. When we try to make it do something else we are getting ourselves—and usually others around us—into trouble.)

So why do so many of us have trouble accepting an intimate relationship with God?

Because the times we have tried to have intimate relationships with other humans we have been hurt.Yes, that is painful. The closer you get to someone, the more opportunity that someone has to hurt you, and hurt you deeply. Yes, I do know this from experience. And for many our first reaction is to shut out any other attempts at intimacy, thus beginning a protracted period of soul suicide. It is said that for most of us, we cannot really accept the idea that God is a loving Father until we have been healed of the image we have of our earthly father. In order to get past this, we must trust God is not going to hurt us.

If we get too intimate with God, he may look into areas of our lives we would rather he not. Ok, that’s all of us. We all have things we are none too happy to have brought into the light. But we are thinking of God as some kind of inquisition policeman, looking for bad stuff in us in order to accuse us and ultimately destroy us. Here is a little secret: He already knows everything. Those parts of you that you have pushed so far down not even you can see them any longer? He knows those things. You need to trust that he is wanting to heal you, not punish you.

Intimacy is too good to be true. Well, you are right in this one. It is too good to be true. The perfect God wanting to know us as we are in our messy lives? This God wanting to enter right in to where we are without condemnation? Jesus wanting to touch lepers? Yes, it is true: He does want to. All we need to do is trust that he wants us as we are. Let the healing begin.

This is not how I was taught in my church. Yeah, sorry about that. There is a lot of that going around. Sermons saying, “All is forgiven. Go and enjoy life to its fullest” don’t quite have the punch of sermons where we are given a list of things we need to do to please God. Joel Osteen aside, I would rather listen to a “word of faith” preacher than a “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” preacher any day. It is up to us to trust that God really has forgiven us and invites us to now live beyond our death into the life of the Son of God who lives in us.

Do you see a pattern here? The way we enter into intimacy with God is by trust. By faith. Not by doing good things, right things, proper things. Trust in him alone. And this brings us back to grace, that word and concept we have so much trouble with. We want to balance grace with what we need to do. “It’s not all grace,” someone will write in the comments to this. Wrong. It is all grace. Grace, grace, God’s grace. Grace that is greater. Grace that is sufficient. There is no other way to have an intimate relationship with God. He wants to be our lover, not our employer. Your timecard of good works no longer merits you a thing. Throw it away.

God as our lover. Now there is something to throw you a curve. How about this? God wants to have a wild, crazy love affair with you. (And if you think using sexual imagery is inappropriate when discussing the kind of relationship God wants to have with you, then you will need to throw out your Bible, for it is full of such descriptions. It’s amazing we are even allowed to bring such a sex-filled book into church with us each week.) He wants to be intimate with you. Does that scare you? It does? Good. I think you’re beginning to understand now.

Comments

  1. Here’s the problem.

    You say that God wants an intimate relationship with us. Okay, fine. But after 30 years of doing all the talking, I’m tired of it. In spite of what all the “real” Christians tell me, God doesn’t seem interested in the conversation. I’m beginning to wonder how you can have a “relationship” with someone who never shows up, never answers the phone, never replies to your letters, never answers your questions. All I “know” about him is what other people have told me. Why couldn’t he tell me himself? I guess he’s too busy, or too far away, or helping Mr. Dunn pick out a car, or helping Mrs. Smith choose a parking space, or intervening in the hydrologic cycle so sit doesn’t rain for next week’s church picnic.

    Honestly, although I’m still a Christian, I have to dispute that this “relationship” thing is more than a farce. God is, quite literally, the worst relationship partner I have ever pretended to know. If God wants to have a real conversation with me and show me he’s the least bit interested, he knows where to find me. After 30 years, I’m finished pretending.

    • Tim Becker says:

      Good post Paul. This whole issue of whether God talks to us is a thorny one it seems. I also feel like the conversation is one way, but that doesn’t bother me a whole lot because I think that maybe that’s the way it’s supossed to be. When you’re constanly taught that God speaks to people all the time, but it’s not happening to you, that’s when you feel bad.

      • Thanks for the reply, Tim.

        I guess part of my problem is that if Christianity is portrayed as a relationship or a conversation, which by definition involves mutual two-way interaction, then I must be a defective Christian. Either God really wants to interact with me in a personal way but is incapable due to incompetence, or he doesn’t want to interact with me like that and everyone who says otherwise is misrepresenting him (albeit not intentionally).

    • Paul, I don’t want to be a bore about this, but I highly recommend “Beginning to Pray,” by Anthony Bloom. It’s not just another self-help book. It begins exactly where you are. It can be gotten inexpensively on the internet.

      • Another recommendation is “When The Well Runs Dry” by Fr. Thomas Green. I bought my copy at a Salvation Army store, but Amazon maybe your better bet.

        • As I remember, Philip Yancey’s “Disappointment with God” is good for this. It’s time I re-read it.

          And Paul, what you’re saying needs to be said. God is listening.

      • Really? The reply to Paul D.’s issue is to read another book–or three?

        ISTM that the ones making claims of God’s more or less direct communication owe a little bit more explanation than this.

        But, maybe that’s unreasonable to expect.

    • Kelby Carlson says:

      Thank you so very much for saying this. I’m only in high school, but I’ve kind of given up on this idea. In fact I get a little resentful of these people who keep talking about God telling them things. The only place I find God is in the Bible and in music–if he’s so interested in having a one-on-one relationship with me that goes beyond the Spirit-filled word, then … he’s going to have to pick up the ball.

    • Paul D.: YES!

      God is an absentee Dad, no? And Jesus just as elusive, but then how we imagine Them to be a bit more problematic…

      I have had actual almost physical encounters with the divine. They are definitely the exception, not the rule. And they were not spooky-spiritual or special effects ecstatic ones either. Brief, incredible, undeniable; but not the norm nor something He promised to be the way He would interact with me…

      Like the old Catholic confessional arrangement, there is this God on the other side of the partition, hidden, yet listening to my side of the story. The comparison breaks down right about there, but I pour my heart out on a regular basis without any detailed analysis. I do not get the regular feedback as I do with my good friends, but in my conversations with God He is not far off nor indifferent to my cares+concerns+petitions+ observations…

      My prayer a conversational talk out loud format I do when I go out for walks. This was the way I interacted with God starting about 5-6 years old. My mother discovered this characteristic & her questioning me about it left that memory fresh all these years.

      I think God wires each of us in such a way that ‘resonates’ at different frequencies. I allowed the trappings of religious observance to choke out the way He had designed me. I lost that method of connection I practiced out on 40 acres of farmland season-2-season. I do my best connection with God alone, walking & talking out loud. He is there. Pleased with my confidence. I know He hears me. I know He cares. I am comforted although there is no banter like I have with my good friends over glasses of fine vino…

      I think each individual must discover the manner which God designed them to connect with Him. A few days ago I did my usual walk & poured my heart out. There were tears. And laughter. If anyone would have seen me, they would thought I was a bit unhinged. That’s how I connect with the divine. It is not for others to fully appreciate+understand. It is my personal way of literally walking out my faith.

      We are not so unlike the other. I am meditative by nature. Reflective. Private. But very open with my prayer method. I think there is something about you that does connect with God in a way that is not like other people’s experiences. All the advice so far something for you to weigh. But I am thinking the conventional manner of connecting with the Big Guy not part of your design. Just my $0.02 here…

      Blessings on your journey…

      • I think you’re right, Joseph, about each individual having to discover the way God has designed them to connect with him.

        I have a friend who has conversations with God regularly, and sometimes it frustrates me, because I wish that were my experience, but it’s not.

        On the other hand, I’m convinced God communicates with me in other ways (the Bible, situations, impressions, things people say… ), and like you, I sometimes feel his closeness in a very tangible way. I also wouldn’t write off the possibility that I might hear him in the way my friend does in the future.

        Like Jeff, I believe God wants an intimate relationship with us, and that does involve us learning to hear him; but how that happens may vary for each of us.

        A book I’ve found very helpful in this area is Madame Guyon’s ‘Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ.’

    • Along with everyone else’s suggestions, may I suggest hopping over to the iMonk archives and checking out the first two essays. The first is “Signs” by Michael Spencer and the second is “No voices in my head” by Bill McKinnon. They are both very good and relevant to this. Peace of the Lord.

      • Thanks, Katie. I have read that piece by Bill McKinnon before, and it is quite inspiring.

      • I’ll second that thanks. Both those pieces are a good balance to what Jeff has written here. And I think both Michael and Bill realize that “intimacy” with God is not dependent on “hearing” Him on a constant basis.

    • Paul,

      I understand you’re frustration. I’m struggling right now with recasting my whole paradigm for “relationship with God.” Too many encounters with people whose exhortation to relationship sounded like a fruity, gnostic, non-Gospel. Lines like this killed it for me: “Just get your relationship with God right and everything else will work itself out.” Riiiight. Nice sentiment. Cause SO many people get their relationship with God right. Much of the talk, I’ve unfortunately concluded, is blasphemous, Jesus-optional nonsense designed to prop up a “relationship oligarchy” of people who have some special gnostic sense that the rest of us don’t.

      I can’t however, throw out Jesus’ overarching commanding to know him(John 17:3). I have to assume that this is a relational knowing, not simply a ticking off of facts.

      Here’s the beginnings of the grid I’m coming up with to think about relationship:

      Jesus prioritizes people, not systems. From that, we infer the Kingdom is worked out within relationships, not institutions.

      Jesus practiced intimacy with the Father. While many details are left out, we know that he and the Father were one in purpose, and that he knew the Father’s purpose by being intimate.

      Jesus was a Man. The True Man. The “relationship” idea we’ve come up should serve to rivet our eyes on a human, not a God-in-the-sky phantasm that seems to talk to us. (btw, I don’t deny that God speaks.) After all, a relationship can only be had with a human being, not an invisible force. To deny this is to denounce our humanity.

      So my weird conclusion is, it has to be acknowledged at some point that we have a relationship with a person who’s not here. He’s not. I understand that the Spirit is, with all that implies, but Jesus is not. To miss this leads to mis-characterizing the relationship and spiral off into gnostic silliness and such. It’s also to heap an overwhelming burden on people who don’t happen to commune with the invisible and hear voices every day. To acknowledge his temporary absence is to acknowledge that we’re in the dark on many levels, and that means relationally. We don’t hear correctly. We mis-characterize God, often to self-justify. In a strange contradiction, we are tempted to leave the Person out of it in order to assert that our relationship with God is personal(instead of some religious thing). That’s usually another self-justification thing. Rest assured though, he knows us perfectly, sees us, fully expects our mistakes because we don’t see him clearly, and promises to make himself present physically to us one day.

      It also helps to remember Jesus’ teachings that seem to indicate our relationship with him is equal to what our relationship with others is. These relationships are quite visible. They also can clearly deeply reveal our intentions to fellow humanity, which is summed up perfectly in Christ (if you’ve given a glass of cold water to the least of these, you’ve given it me). So while he’s absent, his image is clearly present in the many faces we see around us, and we’re reacting to it, and therefore to Him.

      These are somewhat scattered thoughts. I’m glad others have had the same frustrations as me.

      Nate

    • Paul–thank you for this post. I have no recommendations for you, and certainly no judgment…The only thing I have is my (seemingly daily) experience of feeling the same feelings as you describe, and discovering that, frankly, (like Peter) I have nowhere else to go and no one else to go to. I have friends, a family and a church, but ultimately, I am only a desperate man who wants badly to hear from Jesus and it doesn’t happen like I so wish it would, so it’s either take my desperation to Him who does or doesn’t hear, and tell Him anyway, or only have myself and other humans to flail through all of it with, and I can’t make it on just that. Sorry for the rambling, but I wanted you to know that I say a hearty “Amen.”

      God bless you, brother

    • Try contemplative prayer if you haven’t already. It can follow meditation or can simply be a prayer on its own called “centering prayer.” It is a prayer of listening. We listen, do no talking. If and when God talks, it is His gift to us. Granted, if you have no faith, no strong belief that God can and could talk directly to you, contemplative prayer may be “too advanced.” There is an approach to it however, through our “ordinary prayer” to God, where we normally ask for help, ask for forgiveness, etc. To go beyong our penitential type prayer is to reach God , and to try to hear Him. I am just learning, but I have prayed to God all my life, I just didn’t realize I was just scratching the surface of what prayer can be, that God actually delights in our quiet, empty visits with Him where he may speak to us. Just my thoughts, from someone who is learning to pray more deeply, trying to listen like I haven’t listened before for my last 58 years of life!

    • Hey, Paul, I couldn’t help thinking about your comments and wanted to respond. You may have already tried this. If so, I’m sorry for being redundant and will pray for you. Have you ever tried to do something different, something from outside your usual tradition. For example, have you ever gone into a Catholic Church, knelt down and just sat quietly, gazing on the crucifix? Or, gazing at an icon of Jesus, just looking? It might take several tries to be comfortable since this is not something that many evangelicals are familiar with. You might set aside 20 to 30 minutes several days a week for a few weeks. At worst, you will have had a little quiet. At best, Who knows.
      Just one word of warning: most Catholic parishes have some kind of an adoration chapel. That is the best place in the world for quiet. The sanctuary can be busy and noisy.

  2. What is it about the human condition that we feel the need for rules, especially where there is freedom abounding? When they’re not there, we make them up.

    I suppose grace and living within it is somehow more difficult…

    • Debbie,

      I think our need for rules is tied to our human nature to want to have control of our lives. Rules and regulations aren’t put in place so much as to control ourselves as they are to control others. Give me grace any day.

  3. Such experiences are necessarily subjective, and most religions have such stories. It’s a bit like seeing pictures in the clouds.

    “Grace” often strikes me as a meaningless buzzword. It is primarily used (at least among Protestants) as a way of criticizing a caricatured “Catholic” view in which good works earn one merit for entering heaven, or some such. You seem to extend it to acts of extraordinary intervention by God, such as your perception that he spoke to you.

    I submit that it is impossible to have an intimate relationship with God, or to “love” him in any meaningful sense. After all, God does not speak to us–or if he does, then not in such a way that we can rely upon his communicative-ness. Under these conditions, what we have is less a “relationship” than a projection.

    It is easy enough to lie to ourselves, and suppose some of our thoughts to actually represent God talking to us (leaving aside the issue of why he should be unable to communicate clearly and unambiguously). And then we are hardly surprised when this “God” whom we have created becomes indistinguishable from our own subconscious thoughts, and/or the values of the wider religious culture.

    • Thanks, Werner, you make some good points. And it’s not just Christians (particularly evangelicals) who claim a intimate relationship with a God who listens and talks to them; Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Hare-Krishnas, and many others claim the same thing.

  4. Amen! I went from “God is watching everything you do and taking notes, so you’d better behave,” to seeing my relationship with God as knowing the right doctrines and being able to prove everyone else wrong. God took me out of my comfortable way of relating to him and has been teaching me that all of that is just so much bovine excrement, that it really is all grace, all the time. It’s a bit scary sometimes to throw everything on God’s grace, but I know that it’s the only way to go.

  5. Balance. There has got to be some point between classic liberal theology, which forbids God’s interference, and populist Jesus-my-girlfriend, subjective/hyper-emotional American evangelicalism. I heard a Christian song recently about wanting to be touched and held by Jesus which really seemed to cross the line into creepiness. We can believe in the sacramental, incarnational presence of Christ without surrendering His majesty and transcendence. I like Luther’s insistence that God is closer than anyone is to himself or herself, but I think the Calvinists may also be right in insisting that Christ is in heaven at the right hand of the Father. An over-emphasis upon the personal nature of God can have the opposite, unintended effect of turning God into an impersonal object.

    • I agree balance is needed. It can be easy to fall into the “God is my feelings” trap or using “Grace” for our own desires & wants.

      • I don’t know about that. It seems that many times when I actually hear from God, He’s telling me to do a lot that goes against my own wants and desires. He makes me pretty uncomfortable a lot of the time…

  6. I recently read the post “The Suburban Jesus Hates Me” I couldn’t find the comment button.
    So thanks for being a scrapper and willing to defend your position.
    Sometimes I have to skip a song of well known Christian musicians singing about trusting God when they have their own clothing lines…. I just can’t stomach it.
    So along the same lines, I too feel the call to relative poverty and feel that it’s not just a call for me, but for a lot of people who could experience so much more fullness and richness through Christ if they weren’t trapped in the American nightmare.
    Sad. Truly sad.
    I like to believe that if they had someone to follow who was leading them into truth they would be on board, but I don’t know if that’s true.
    Anyhow. Thanks for sharing and being true to who God has called you to be!

  7. “Titus summarizes the incarnation and work of Jesus as, “’The Grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people.’ ”

    That sums it up well, Jeff.

    Jeff says, “God wants to have a wild, crazy love affair with you.”

    Yup, that, too. And yet, people will go for years or their entire lives without FEELING this. I know that some non-Catholics (even some commenters on this blog) think that Mother Theresa wasn’t really a Christian and they are not surprised that she spent much of her life with no awareness of God’s presence. Maybe in her case she was just so busy bringing God’s love to people that her awareness was taken up in tending to the daily needs of people. The eye sees, but it does not see itself. I think Mother Theresa was a very tough cookie and she was able to deal with whatever life was throwing at her. I, on the other hand, am a big wimp. Jesus has had great sympathy for me, I think, and has granted me little touches of his loving presence. I am not talking about thunder and lightning. I am talking about just a gentle awareness at times. And that is all I need. I am such a big wimp that anything more would probably scare the _______ out of me.

    So for any of you thinking, “I talk to God but he won’t talk to me,” remember that God has many ways of talking. The beauty of nature is one way of talking to you. The sweetness of a baby’s face is another way. The laughter among good friends is another way. A good book is another. A cool drink on a hot day is another. A gathering of believers to hear the Bible read and to commune with one another and with God is another. And yes, sometimes even as you just sit and trust God to do what needs to be done within you. he will speak to you in subtle and not so subtle ways. Just don’t worry about it. Just trust that God really loves you and that he wants you to know it. And if you need some very concrete help about prayer, there are many good books to read about this. Thomas Keating’s Open Mind, Open Heart helped me.

  8. Once again, loving the post and also loving the conversation. One of the things I most appreciate about this site (and just a few others) is that people are encouraged to express their opinions, even if they’re different from one another, and everyone respects those expressors even when they might disagree. That is what conversation (turning with) is all about!

    At the risk of sounding like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, I have to say I believe you are all correct. Not just because God communicates with each of us individually, but also because in each relationship the methods of communication change. As JoanieD explained in that last paragraph, “God has many ways of talking.”

    The best example I can think of with this is my marriage relationship. Sometimes it’s intimate, sometimes it’s not. Some days my husband and I talk — a lot! — other days when I want to know what he’s thinking he looks me full in the face and says, “I don’t know what to say.” Some days we eat dinner in the dining room, share our day’s activities, or hopes and dreams and challenges; other days, our evening meal is shared with Alex Trebek and the current contestants on Jeopardy. Some days I want to scream from frustration because I’ve heard nothing substantive from him in days, especially when he’s just talked to his best friend for an hour on the phone then tells me he has nothing to share. Yet, no matter the level of conversation (or lack thereof), I have no doubt that he loves me; and he is equally certain of my care and commitment. It’s just that our marriage experiences the breadth and differences of the shoreline between low and high tides.

    And that, I think, is how a relationship with God is. Not that He doesn’t know what to say to us, or has used up His daily emotional quotient interacting with someone else. Such things only happen with finite beings. Sometimes I hear a voice within me that I know is not mine and, because it lines up with Scripture, I also know it’s not the enemy messing with my head. Having hardwired me as a music junkie, He can easily get my attention through music. Making me an artist, He speaks through the beauty of creation and, as my (camera) trigger finger gets itchy to capture a scene, I know He’s displaying His love. Always, He speaks through His Word, sometimes more clearly through one version than another. Then, there’re sermons and devotions, on my bookshelves and online, and relationships with beloved friends. It’s all different, and it all comes from the same wonderful Person. And, yes, there are quiet times too. Times when I ask and plead and implore and hear…nothing. On the flip side of that coin, there are days-at-a-time when I look up to Heaven and think, “What? What is there to say? You’ve already heard it all,” and I’m the one who’s silent. But that’s what relationship is, and that’s what it does: changes, meanders, flows swiftly or pools for a while in one spot.

    All of Heaven’s best,
    Margret

  9. It seems to me that we all want God to be what we want Him to be. It’s all about us and our needs.Who is man that Thou are mindful of him. Be still and know that I AM God. God speaks to me daily thru the Bible, through nature. We must die daily to our egos. It’s all about Jesus in us, not about me, me, me.

  10. This post was very thought-provoking. I have a hard time with this issue, not in an intellectual sense (logically, I’m fully convinced that Jeff is right!) but in a more emotional sense.

    If I accept that no effort towards virtue or self-discipline on my part can make God love me more, and that being a better person doesn’t matter because God’s grace will redeem me even at my worst, aren’t I just using God as an excuse? Okay, so God would still love me if all I did was lie around in bed eating mint chocolate ice cream all day long. But I would look in the mirror and think, “Yuck. I was a total failure today. I have just wasted twenty-four hours of my life.” So then a voice in the back of my head starts thinking, “Well, if God even likes sloppy, lazy me, then he must not have very good taste.”

    I think it’s really more of a motivational issue than a doctrinal question. I just have a really hard time admitting to anything that lowers my standards for myself, because I so want to quit trying (and I know I’m just looking for an excuse). So whenever anything starts to whisper, “Slack off, it’s okay,” I do a backflip and come up with all my shields deployed.

    Does anyone else have these thoughts? What do you think – is it nutty, normal but wrong, or what?

    • If you are asking this audience questions about what ‘normal’ is, we don’t know!!

      I think we all struggle with grace and with God in different ways depending on our personality and individuality. I struggle in ways similar to what you mention. As an ‘NT’ on the Myers-Briggs, my life is a quest for competence. That doesn’t always jive well with grace, and I struggle to logically figure out how to not focus on being a ‘competent’ follower of Christ (if it is even possible to follow Him competently). Everything else I care about I do well, but in my relationship with God that encompasses all those things, I’m not supposed to focus on doing well! That’s a struggle.

      I realized how deep this struggle was a couple of weeks ago, when I reminded myself for the thousandth time ‘it’s not about being good enough at following Christ’, and then immediately start kicking myself for not being good enough at not focusing on being good enough!

      Which just shows me even more clearly that I need Christ, forgiveness and grace. Because I’m warped enough to make grace yet another standard to measure my life by. I’m warped enough to be proud of how humble I’m becoming. I’m warped enough to try to die to myself for myself. Maybe we should embrace our struggle with grace as something that shows us how much we need grace?

      • Thanks for your reply. I know exactly what you describe. One of the things I often remind myself of is the passage in C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, where he talks about the devils trying to get the man to be proud of his humility. But this must be done carefully, he says, because if the man notices how ridiculous he is and just laughs at himself and his human fallibility, the devil’s work is undone. A healthy dose of laughter helps with this issue too.

    • Kate, you are asking serious questions and deserve serious answers, but I can’t help it….God WILL still love you if all you did was “lie around in bed eating mint chocolate ice cream all day long” but ONLY if the ice cream was Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. And your comment: ““Well, if God even likes sloppy, lazy me, then he must not have very good taste” reminds me of the humorist who said, “I wouldn’t want to be a member of any club that would have me as a member.”

  11. I may not have phrased that ideally when I said, “Aren’t I just using God as an excuse?” I don’t mean to imply in any way that people who cast themselves wholly on God’s mercy and accept their imperfections are doing that. I just know that I WOULD use it as an excuse. Mea culpa . . .

  12. Love the post Jeff! Thank you! For reminding me that His grace covers it all. All my attempts to reach Him and all the failures that followed. As well as all my attempts to run from Him and those failures too. It’s about Him and His accomplished work. Not me. This does not entice me to live sinful or immoral, it creates in me a desire to live in gratitude towards the One who made me righteous.

    “we cannot really accept the idea that God is a loving Father until we have been healed of the image we have of our earthly father. In order to get past this, we must trust God is not going to hurt us.”

    For a preachers daughter with major daddy issues, this was an outstanding statement!!! And that in itself is a process. At times, a very slow process. I have to take as absolute truth that He will never leave me nor forsake me! Period. No matter what my past says or the reminders that people leave and they hurt you. God is not people. Writing that statement has taken nearly 30 years to get to.

  13. Dear Jeff:

    Loved the article. It totally resonated with me. I came from a Southern Baptist/Holiness background, where we were constantly consumed with being busy for God. It wasn’t so much that God passionately loved us, but rather that he tolerated us. He was merciful and loving, insofar as he didn’t smoke us and utterly destroy us.
    We also didn’t believe that God really spoke to us personally either. Instead, we limited God’s voice, to His word, to speaking through Christian leaders. We never specifically denied the possibility that God could personally speak to us, but people who claimed to hear God’s voice were distrusted and viewed skeptically.

    After leaving that church, I began to understand how much God really did love me. He was passionately in love with me. Moreover, His love for me, was not dependan on the things I would do for Him. This understanding led me to experience my own personal revival. It gave me the desire to pray, because I had God who loved me and wanted to have a conversation with me. He wanted to hear my voice. He wants to fill me. He even occasionally has a personal word for me. Yeah, there has been the occasional disappointment when God doesn’t speak to me. But, if anything there has been the increased desire to tune my heart and desires, so that I can hear Him. If only to see a beautiful sunset and to hear Him tell me that He is there.

    Living the life of faith begins not with doing things for God, it really begins with us understanding (even just a little), how much God just loves us like crazy. My prayer is that this is something that every brother and sister in Christ could realize before they fill their lives with programs and tasks.

  14. Jeff,
    Wonderful post. God’s GRACE is radical and that’s why we are afraid of it and add fine print to it. What if sinners actually take this seriously?!!!
    🙂

    We are too preoccupied with what Luther called Navel gazing–seeking to define our relationship with God as a transaction–what can I bring to the table. When it is clear the only thing we can offer God is our sinful and fallen nature, yet he STILL accepts us through His son Jesus Christ and showers us with His Grace.

    Peace.

  15. Hi Jeff,

    I found your article about buying the BMW such a blessing. It reminded me of the ways in which God has been so gracious to me, which I sometimes can forget, and the way he is so intimately interested in our lives. Reading your story led me to praise God. I’m sorry to hear some of the bitter responses you have received to such an amazing experience of God’s grace. Thank you for sharing this story.

    I love the bible and am constantly amazed at how God speaks through it, however one of the key things it testifies to is a God who speaks to people and is involved in their lives. This is something God convicted me of at one point when I was struggling between bibliolatry and accepting his grace in my life. When I realized that the bible is full of stories of people that God spoke to and whose lives God changed then letting go and letting him love me was a lot easier! I still struggle with letting him be gracious to me, I get so overwhelmed by how kind he has already been to me, that it always seems that there can’t possibly be more. Part of me is afraid that if I let him keep on blessing me that I may very well spend the rest of my life crying because of how beautiful he is!

    Anyway, praying God continues to bless you. Thank you again for sharing this story of God’s grace to you 🙂 It’s beautiful!!

    Bec

  16. I read this from George MacDonald’s “Unspoken Sermons” this morning, and it seemed to apply:

    “God gives us room to be; does not oppress us with his will; ‘stands away from us,’ that we may act from ourselves, that we may exercise the pure will for good…For God made our individuality as well as, and a greater marvel than, our dependence; made our apartness from himself, that freeedom should bind us divinely dearer to himself, with a new and inscrutable marvel of love; for the Godhead is still at the root, is the making root of our individuality, and the freer the man, the stronger the bond that binds him to him who mad his freedom. He made our wills, and is striving to make them free; for only in the perfection of our individuality and the freedom of our wills call we be altogether his children.”

    I add this, because another theme I hear in a lot of contemporary Christian music is the desire for God to overpower, consume, and fill us so that nothing of us remains. This isn’t what God wants; he wants us to be the creatures he created us to be. Grace cannot become an infantile dependence that overpowers and destroys our wills; God in the new creation is creating wills in us to choose Him out of complete freedom, not out of an emotional or fearful bondage. It reminds me of my favorite Psalm, no. 131: “I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me.” In that psalm is the image of a weaned child walking peacefully and content at his or her mother’s side. I think this is a better image of faith, rather than that of sensual passion.

    • (My typing fingers dropped a few letters)
      “…the stronger the bond that binds him to him who made this freedom.”

    • “It reminds me of my favorite Psalm, no. 131: ‘I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me.’ In that psalm is the image of a weaned child walking peacefully and content at his or her mother’s side. I think this is a better image of faith, rather than that of sensual passion.”

      I like that, dumb ox. Thanks!

  17. I find that often our refusal to hear the voice of God is our own insistence that we will not be made a fool of. It is truly amazing to me how much fascination with measurement and utility there is left over from modernity. The post-modern mind thinks nothing exists that it cannot measure. It uses utility to decide on the truth of a thing. The reality is that we must know Truth first to even begin to see the true utility behind the tree, the water, the sunset. Beauty is wasted on the post-modern mind because we have traded our dumb awe for superior “understanding” and explanation. Now that we understand the way the water cut the Grand Canyon over a hundred million years or so, we no longer have need of standing in awe of it. This lack of awe, lack of mystery, lack of suspecting the unseen hand around every corner, has made us deaf to the Voice that spoke it all into being. We must first regain our sense of haunting. The suspicion that God is speaking will make us seem mad. Indeed we may be, but this faith I have is the sweetest madness.

    I do believe we in the Charismatic sector are too free to say the God has spoken to us. That is to say the we often ascribe things to God that He did not actually say. Let’s suppose for a moment that God did not lead Jeff to buy the car that saved his son’s life. Let’s suppose that God would have intervened and saved Jeff’s son had He been driving a Yugo. The important think is that Jeff retains the suspicion that God was involved, that He was speaking. In other words, we may ascribe some things wrongly to the mouth of God, but I believe it is a far worse mistake to call the mouth of God mute.

    Hear the melody. Sense the poetry in the breath you breathe. God is in every moment. Learn to taste the wine in the water of everyday life. That is what Jesus does. Who cares if your falling for a ruse, or being a fool by laughing to yourself because you actually believe that the Creator of the universe walks beside you.

    • Well said, JS: “Beauty is wasted on the post-modern mind because we have traded our dumb awe for superior “understanding” and explanation. Now that we understand the way the water cut the Grand Canyon over a hundred million years or so, we no longer have need of standing in awe of it. This lack of awe, lack of mystery, lack of suspecting the unseen hand around every corner, has made us deaf to the Voice that spoke it all into being.”

      In “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” Eustace is talking to a venerable old man who is a star. “In our world,” said Eustace, “a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.

      “Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.”

  18. The question for me (for all of us, perhaps) is a “our perception of God” issue. For you, is God a MACRO god – distant from his creation/outside the fish bowl simply looking in – or a MICRO god – interactive with each and every minuscule component of creation?

  19. That’s what people got upset about? “The only way God speaks to us today is through the Bible.” ?! Is it that common for Christians to never hear God’s voice? Abuses do not make it void.

    That said, occurrences do not make it the norm, and people shouldn’t feel “illegitimate” b/c they don’t experience that, or experience it infrequently. Mother Theresa once went 40 years without feeling God’s presence. Mother Theresa!

    Why do we all question each other so much?

    I’ll admit, I disagreed (and still do) when my pastor said God told him and the leadership staff to renovate our church–our beautiful, not-run-down church–to make it a nicer place for people to come. My thought is, why not just go to them, instead? Despite that, God confirms to my husband and I again and again that we need to stay at this church, for now. I’m trying to just worry about making sure I obey the way I know how.

    And maybe that’s the key: the way I know how.