Wednesday, November 6, 2013

There and Back Again: My Journey to the Other Side of Functional Deism Part I


Do you believe that God will communicate with you? That he will speak to you specifically about things both large and small, and you, yes you can learn to listen?
I did, then I didn’t, and then I believed again.
There are 3 reasons to tell this story: Recounting helps me remember what I learned. This testimony might help to untangle someone else’s story. Finally, this is also a cautionary tale for leaders because little ideas have big consequences.

 Part I will tell about the lies I bought into that brought me to deism, and Part II will cover the rotten fruit that living as a deist bore in my life and how God broke through.

 The great blessing of my childhood is that my parents believe that God speaks. They taught me to listen. Growing up reading how God sent fire and rain when Elijah prayed on Mount Carmel and spoke to him in a whisper in the desert it never even occurred to me that God would not do the same with me. He did. Just like the scripture “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” John 10:27 I can hear God’s voice. Not an audible one.
Most of the time there is a montage of Scriptures, memories, phrases, snatches of things I have read. Sometimes it is just knowing, and all of these thoughts on the inside of me are cleaner, stronger, quieter, and more accurate than the tenor of my own thoughts. Yes, I can hear God’s voice– except for *ahem* the times when I can’t.

So here is my terminology.
Deism: Boiled down it is the belief in God and His principles, but that He just more or less got things started and walked away. It is the belief that his involvement in the world is distant or nonexistent.
Then there is Functional Deism: Though I would never identify myself as a deist, my life was telling a different story.

The titles below in bold are lies I started believing that led me down a path of doubt and worry.

 “What makes you so sure it is God you are hearing?”
 The silence of God is something I am not qualified to talk about. What I have in mind is my own deafness and worry grown from a seed of doubt. Until college I always served in the church with mentors, not peers. My mentors had their struggles to be sure, but they moved with the assurance of years walked in God’s presence. Uncertainty and doubt was not in my model, or at least I didn’t pick up on them until I was serving on my campus with peers and young campus ministry staff. Doubt and uncertainty are really popular these days. It’s kind of cool to have doubts because doubts, by this model of thinking, indicate humility and being “real.” This is not to diminish the herculean struggles of people with genuine doubts and uncertainty, but I have observed that the habitual posture of vague hesitation is sometimes a mask for laziness or fear of listening.
 As Christian leaders and students we would have inevitable questions about which way to go, and there was always this tentativeness about the answers.
 You know that fear you get when you turn your blue book in way before anyone else finishes the test? I started having that disquiet because while I was getting answers in the space of a thought in communion with my heavenly Father, others were really wrestling with angels or something and I began to wonder: Am I making things up, showing off, or deluded?
I would like to posit an alternate theory in hindsight. What if everyone forgot to tell 3 year old me that people in this day and age don’t communicate with God like Moses and the prophets and God had almost 2 decades of practice into me before anyone thought to question it?
That was really just the seed. The seed of functional deism.

 “God only speaks through the Bible– which most people cannot understand.”
 It was in a church that really elevated the Bible that the soil was prepared. The pastor was extremely gifted with exegesis. Exegesis means “critical explanation or interpretation of a text, esp. of scripture.” It was intimidating to read the Bible there, to teach, or to discuss. It was hard to know if you were doing it right, and context was so all-important that application of what we were reading was hard to focus on. This put a whole heap of authority on the pastor– who never asked for that burden, by the way– who specialized in reading and discerning the Scripture, instead of on God’s Holy Spirit working in believers. I don’t remember anyone out-and-out saying that God doesn’t speak to his people anymore, but it was heavily stressed in classes and studies that the way we hear from him today is through the Scriptures.
 This line from the excellent book on this subject Hearing God by Dallas Willard puts it succinctly: “...while the Bible is the written Word of God, the Word of God is not simply the Bible. The way we know that this is so is, above all, by paying attention to what the Bible says.”

 It is true that the Bible is the written word of God, and stop me if I am crazy here, you also need communication with God to understand what is written. If you can’t trust yourself to hear the Holy Spirit to help you understand his word to you, it starts to be very difficult to understand at all. It casts doubt on God masked as doubt in yourself, which sneakily doubles for humility, but isn’t. You have to boil the Word down to axioms. You take the breath out of the God-breathed. There start to be a lot of gray areas– not in theory, but in practice. Every church I have been a part of acknowledges that it is God who reveals his word to our hearts, but hear me here, when you start stressing your own understanding of the Scriptures it is natural to stop leaning on God for it. Church can be such a factory for deists.
 When interpreting Scripture without the Holy Spirit I have seen two extremes: Some can’t admit to there being any ambiguity, in which case God has already either said everything in the Bible if you can just find it, or you weren’t meant to know anyway. These folks are Do-It-Yourselfers. It’s up to them to find the path God set out in his Word. If you have broad categories then you have a rule book and no great need to listen.
 At the other extreme there are people who really like ambiguity and gray areas and the license it gives them to justify any decision. The ambiguity people are Armchair Architects talking big, loving to pontificate on theory, quick to criticize. They have some edgy scale models, but they haven’t built a thing. If you live in the gray and God hasn’t made himself known, then there is also no need to listen.

 Both of these heart approaches are deistic because they presume that God got you started, but on a day-to-day basis you can do it yourself.
When did I stop expecting to hear from God? Here the hard soil of my heart met the doubtful seed of functional deism, but it needed some water.

 “You are alone, and you use an imagined voice of God to get what you want.” 
 Had church leaders undercut my walk with God when I was confident in recognizing God’s voice, I would like to think I would have fought back or removed myself to a safe distance, but by now I was vulnerable and bewildered which left me open to attack.
 I want to be clear that these were not first and foremost attacks from other Christians, but from the enemy of my soul who used words and situations and all of our brokenness as leverage against us.
 I want to avoid blow-by-blow accounts, but I don’t want to be mysterious either.

  1. In prayer about a ministry position, I felt I had received an answer from God that I was free to step down. My mentor disagreed and did not accept my resignation. Message: You manipulate God to get the answer you want. 
  2. When asked to design something for the women’s ministry the leaders tossed ardent days worth of my work in favor of clip art without telling me or giving me another shot. On the surface that is inconsiderate, but it was more. Like most artists and fine craftsmen, I know that my creativity comes from who I am, and that some, though not all, of my work is a spiritual expression, i.e. that it comes from communication with God. Message: Not only are your relationship with us, your time, and your skills not important to us, clip art is of higher value than your communication with God. 
  3. I was told multiple times in public by a discussion leader that people do not see God in me and are not drawn to him in response “in the real world.” This one blows a few circuits, and it would take me pages to fully address all the reasons why! Do people not see God through his people in general or is this peculiar to me? Is that because God does not shine through his children, or because his children are opaque, or is it just me in particular? Since I was referencing actual statements people had made to me, were we not in the real world? What world were we in? Scariest of all, if it isn’t God people see in me what DO they see? I’ll stop there, but you get the picture. Message: God is not with you, you are alone and possibly delusional. 
 These propositions are not strong in and of themselves, but years of little incidents like these worked into the fissures in my faith and had me feeling terribly alone. It is almost comical now, because God didn’t actually quit speaking to me, nor did I stop seeking him, if only in name. I simply didn’t expect an answer, so I wasn’t listening. If I had stopped to examine my beliefs and seen how fallacious these were they couldn’t have lasted long, but I didn’t. The plant grew and took root. Much like planting a fruit tree it took a few years for the deism to produce fruit, but when it did it was rotten to the core!

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