“So if the difference between Christian faith and all other forms of spirituality is that Christian faith offers a relational dynamic with God, why are we cloaking this relational dynamic in formulas?” (Donald Miller in Searching For God Knows What)
Anytime a student comes and meets with me, and makes the statements, "I am having a hard time hearing God. It doesn’t seem like God is speaking to me." My initial response is to run down the evangeiical checklist of spiritual disciplines that we equate to being able to hear the voice of God, which in turn equals a healthy spiritual life. So I ask the student a barrage of questions such as, "Do you have a quiet time? How long is your quiet time? What are you doing in your quiet time? Are you spending each day in prayer, and meditation upon God’s Word, etc., etc., etc." Then I close the meeting by telling them, "Well, only if you did all these things, then God would speak to you, and you would fully understand everything. You will have all the answers just like I did my first couple of years in seminary." Well, if you sense the sarcasm, good, then you are sensing right. Because I think we have a bigger problem when it comes to hearing God speak in our lives than just readjusting, or changing, or "perfecting" our spiritual practices, which are all good things. The problem is not that God is not speaking, because He is always speaking, but rather we have got so accustomed to expecting what we want out of God, and how He should speak, and what He should say, that we leave no room for God to truly move through our lives. God is not some "cosmic vending" machine, that when we insert the proper change and push the right buttons He dispenses to us what we want and desire! God is not a formula to be worked out, but rather a relationship to be lived in.
Why is this on my mind? There are many things that I have been thinking about and processing for a while, not only alone, but with others. Yet it seems when you look around at our churches, our spiritual lives, our Christian books, and mainline evangelicalism as a whole, there is little dialogue and lesser listening going on. Sure, we are discussing things, and books are being written, yet most of it seems to be on the level of the status quo as we regurgitate the same old stuff, afraid to be challenged, out of fear that we might have to actually think through things, question our faith, and wrestle with God.
One of my favorite passages in all of Scripture is found in Genesis 32, when Jacob wrestles with a man until daybreak:
24 But Jacob stayed behind by himself, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he couldn’t get the best of Jacob as they wrestled, he deliberately threw Jacob’s hip out of joint.
26 The man said, “Let me go; it’s daybreak.”
Jacob said, “I’m not letting you go ’til you bless me.”
27 The man said, “What’s your name?”
He answered, “Jacob.”
28 The man said, “But no longer. Your name is no longer Jacob. From now on it’s Israel (God-Wrestler); you’ve wrestled with God and you’ve come through.”
29 Jacob asked, “And what’s your name?”
The man said, “Why do you want to know my name?” And then, right then and there, he blessed him.
30 Jacob named the place Peniel (God’s Face) because, he said, “I saw God face-to-face and lived to tell the story!”
31 The sun came up as he left Peniel, limping because of his hip. 32 (This is why Israelites to this day don’t eat the hip muscle; because Jacob’s hip was thrown out of joint.)
This passage is so beautiful on so many levels, and the Hebrew play on words in this text makes the passage come even more alive. But what I am struck by is the relentless passion and pursuit of Jacob wrestling with this man, with God until daybreak. And when it is over, and Jacob is given a new name, Jacob too wants to know the man’s name, but Jacob is given the response, “Why do you want to know my name?”
Or how about this passage in Exodus 3:12-14, when Moses encounters God in a burning bush.
12 “I’ll be with you,” God said. “And this will be the proof that I am the one who sent you: When you have brought my people out of Egypt, you will worship God right here at this very mountain.”
13 Then Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the People of Israel and I tell them, “The God of your fathers sent me to you’; and they ask me, “What is his name?’ What do I tell them?”
14 God said to Moses, “I-AM-WHO-I-AM. Tell the People of Israel, “I-AM sent me to you.'”
Another beautiful passage of God appearing to His faithful servant Moses in the desert wilderness, promising Moses He would be with Him, yet Moses wants more, and do we blame Him. When Moses approaches God with the question, “Suppose I go to the People of Israel and I tell them, ‘The God of your fathers sent me to you; and they ask me, What is his name? What do I tell them?'” God only responds with, “I-AM-WHO-I-AM….I-AM sent me.” Seems more of an answer to go on than Jacob received, but still not a lot to work with.
But here I am left with what I think is one of the fundamental problems with Christianity today, which is a very broad and sweeping generalization. But it seems to me that when we look at how we practice both our private and corporate faith, especially here in the United States, we are most concerned with comprehending God, than we are with apprehending Him. That may seem subtle, but what seems subtle I believe has huge ramifications for our spiritual lives.
Comprehension involves complete understanding. Apprehension involves mystery. Comprehension involves grabbing and securing control. Apprehension involves a grasping at, but never controlling. One is playing God, the other is allowing God to be God. Jacob wrestled with God, and was given a new name, but he never comprehended Him, only apprehended Him. God did not allow for comprehension, but only for apprehension when Jacob asked for His name, and it was not given to Him. Moses saw God in a burning bush, and tried to comprehend God by asking His name, but God did not allow for that, only stating, “I-AM-WHO-I-AM.” Apprehension. To name something is to have knowledge of something, or understanding of something, or maybe even control of something. One of the first tasks that was given to Adam in the garden was the naming of animals. In Genesis 2:18 GOD said,
“It’s not good for the Man to be alone; I’ll make him a helper, a companion.” 19 So GOD formed from the dirt of the ground all the animals of the field and all the birds of the air. He brought them to the Man to see what he would name them. Whatever the Man called each living creature, that was its name. 20 The Man named the cattle, named the birds of the air, named the wild animals; but he didn’t find a suitable companion.”
By naming the animals, Adam had comprehension, had understanding, and control of them. But God can not be fully known, can not be controlled, and can not be comprehended. If you think so, you might want to see how God responded to Job . Rather, our understanding of who God is, is more like that of Jacob’s, wrestling all night with God, but never able to fully gain control over the situation, and just when we think we are about to overtake the situation and figure God out, He eludes our grasp, not even giving His name, but instead naming us, knowing us, comprehending us, blessing us. But always faithful.
It seems to me that a lot of our Christian lives have boiled down to trying to comprehend God any way we can, especially through formulas. So we have three point sermons we preach, so that God can be comprehended in three easy steps on Sunday morning. We have cool footnotes in cool Bibles, with all the right answers in the margins so that you don’t have to think about comprehending God, someone else can do all the hardwork for you. And some of us even go to seminary (me) and take systematic theology classes so that God can be categorized into very easy to follow steps, so that when I graduated I had completed comprehension of who God is. I mean, what kind of pastor would I be without complete comprehension and understanding of how God works, and who He is in every situation? I mean, where would the people in the pews be? And what would become of their spiritual lives?
This is what Christianity has become in many places, but a few are speaking out against this method, against this formula, and are providing fresh voices for a new generation of Christians who realize that God is much bigger than the boxes we have placed Him in.
There are voices out there like the writer Donald Miller whose two books, Blue Like Jazz and Searching for God Knows What have been very influential to not only me, but to countless others. He is a fresh voice in the wilderness that needs to be read, re-read, processed and heard. Unlike many vocational “theologians” who must wrap up everything in their books, putting all the good and right answers on every restless question that we have, Miller raises the questions we need to be asking, and instead of supplying us with the answers, he allows us think on, work out and process the answers in the midst of our relationships with God.
In “Searching for God Knows What” Miller tells of a conversation he had with a friend who was trying to understand the reductionist and formulaic statements he was given about God from a Christian organization and how that correlated with what God said in the Bible. The conversation goes something like this, (pp.152)
“Earlier that same year I had a conversation with my friend Omar, who is a student at a local college. For his humanities class, Omar was assigned to read the majority of the Bible. He asked to meet with me for coffee, and when we sat down he put a Bible on the table as well as a pamphlet containing the same five or six ideas Greg had mentioned. He opened the pamphlet, read the ideas, and asked if these concepts were important to the central message of Christianity. I told Omar they were critical; that, basically, this was the gospel of Jesus, the backbone of Christian faith. Omar then opened his Bible and asked, “If these ideas are so important, why aren’t they in this book?”
“But the Scripture references are right here,” I said curiously, showing Omar that the verses were printed next to each idea.
“I see that,” he said. “But in the Bible they aren’t concise like they are in the pamphlet. They are spread out all over the book.”
“But this pamphlet is a summation of the ideas,” I clarified.
“Right,” Omar continued, “but it seems like, if these idas are that critical, God would have taken the time to make bullet points out of them. Instead, He put some of them here and some of them there. And half the time, when Jesus is talking, He is speaking entirely in parables. It is hard to believe that whatever it is He is talking about can be summed up this simply.”
As Donald Miller shares that story, I can’t help but wonder if we have made others, as well as ourselves think that God can be summed up so nice and neat, with a bow wrapped around the package so that there are no loose ends. That story that Miller tells, helps make his thesis, “So if the difference between Christian faith and all other forms of spirituality is that Christian faith offers a relational dynamic with God, why are we cloaking this relational dynamic in formulas?”
I am not saying that there are things we cannot not know about God, but rather, being a Christian is more about being in relationship with God, and living in the midst of this dynamic relationship of trying to apprehend God, rather than living a static Chritian life that is already all figured out because you have comprehended God through all your formulas.