“Be Still and Know Me.” “But That Sounds Scary!” : Two Conversations with God

I’ve been learning a lot about myself in 12 Steps.  I learned that I hugely fear people that threaten my sense of security, and I try to avoid this potential threat by withdrawing from people who might hurt me or else being so competent that no one will ever want to hurt me.  Then I realized that I was playing out this exact pattern with God, and that my distance from him these last few months has largely been because I’m very scared he’s out to hurt me.

The other night, I decided to bite the bullet and open myself up to talking with God in a real way for the first time in a long time.  I had this imaginary conversation (some might call it prayer, but I’m a doubting doubter who doubts, so there’s all my cards on the table):

Me:  I TRIED to get close to you, God.  I was going to read through the whole Bible, but Leviticus, God?  It sucks!  You’re awful to your own people!!  What are you going to do to me?  If I make one mistake, are you going to send my family members after me with machetes?  You want too much!  You just want and want and want, and it’s never enough!

God:  …

Me:  Okay, fine.  You tell me.  What DO you want?

God:  Be with me.

Me:  That sounds like a fake thing that I just want you to say.

God:  Be still and know that I am God.

Me:  Just be…and know you?  For what purpose?

God:  This is a relationship, Tricia.

Me:  So knowing and being known is the whole point?  So…who are you?

The next step is about getting to the root of my character flaw (believing that I can prevent myself from harm by either withdrawing or being competent).  I pretty quickly remembered a conversation from childhood in which a person who didn’t usually show me attention DID show me attention because of something smart that I said.  I’ve been chasing people’s attention through being smart ever sense.

Again, this led back to God.

Me:  I just want everyone to love me!  And the only way I know how to do that is to be so smart and useful that they have to.  I don’t think I can have their attention any other way.

God:  …

Me:  …You’re right.  I don’t believe that I can have your attention unless I perform well for you.

God:  Why?

Me:  Because it’s usually true with people!

God:  What if it’s not true with me?

Me:  That feels way too scary to risk, because if I’m right about this and I try another way, then you’re going to hate me and punish me.

God:  Who am I to you?

Me:  Fickle.  Impossible to please.

God:  Is that true?

Me:  I honestly don’t know.

And that’s where I’m at!  I still don’t trust God, but we’re finally talking about it, so that’s major progress.  Ugh, listen to that.  “Progress”?  What an action-oriented word to describe a relationship.  I want everything to be progress and growth and productivity.  What I’m trying to learn is that maybe I can have a loving relationship with God even without all of those things.

It’s a hard habit to kick.

 

Running Away From God is a Good Thing

I was talking to a friend recently about fear, doubt, and faith.  We’ve both come to realize that having and expressing our “shameful” feelings is better than hiding them or trying to conquer them.  But then my friend paused.

“I feel like God is coming closer to me, and I am away.”

“You’re going away from Him?”

“Yes.”  After a half hour of confident expression, she’d finally said something that she was ashamed of.

I’ve gotten to know this friend well over the past several months.  I know that she struggles to be close to people, and that she would prefer to have fortress-like walls around herself to keep herself safe.  So I immediately realized:

“Maybe it’s a good thing.”

“To run away from God??”

“Yeah.  Because that’s how you treat people.  When they get too close, you run away, right?”

“Yes.”

“So if you run away from God when he gets closer, that means you see him as a person.  Otherwise you could just keep going through the motions of “serving” God and assume that he’s some lifeless thing to manipulate.  You’re acting like you’re in a real relationship.  That’s pretty awesome.”

“Is it??”

“I mean, let’s not stop here.  I want you to be in a place where you feel safe with God.  But I do think it’s a really good sign!”

My favorite thing in the whole world is to turn shame into hope.  It’s much easier for me to do this for other people, so I’m writing this here both to encourage others and to remind myself that it’s true.

God’s Will For Your Life

We’ve all been there.  A decision looms ahead, one that could take our life in one of two (or three!) very different directions.  The excitement of having options transforms into anxiety that we will choose incorrectly.  And if you are a person who believes in a good and powerful God, at some point you will probably pray, “What should I do!?”

Usually those questions are met with supernatural silence.

Does God not care about our future and his silence is therefore a giant celestial shrug?  Or perhaps the problem is me: I’m not listening hard enough or trusting deeply enough.

John Ortberg suggests an alternative view, one that reframes our concerns about God’s will for our lives from actions and events to persons and character.   Continue reading

Where Am I When the First Shall Be Last?

One of the more popular promises of Jesus is found in Matthew 20:16:

So the last will be first, and the first will be last.

I think its universal popularity comes from the fact that we all see ourselves as a victim of sorts.  “So-and-so ignored me today, but someday, the last shall be first!”  There’s probably some truth to this, but if I’m being honest, I have to admit that by nearly every world standard, I am not last, but first.

I am a white, middle-class, healthy, able-bodied female born in the United States to two parents who paid for my college education.  I have a lot of privilege.

When I think about this promise in light of eternity, part of my soul gets really excited.  I imagine a woman sold into sexual slavery brought before the throne of God to stand, happily and proudly, while all of heaven cheers for her.  I imagine the orphans in Mongolia getting a standing ovation, or the men and women strugging in the slums of India being showered with riches.  And that is so great.

But another part of me wonders:  what about me?   Continue reading

Theodicy and The Silmarillion

Theodicy is the theological term for “the problem of evil.”  It is, essentially, a defense of God when someone asks, “How could a good God allow evil to exist?”

When I studied theodicy in church and in seminary, I often felt disconnected from the reality of the discussion.  Sitting at a table, it’s easy to defend God’s goodness.  There are graphs and outlines and quotations.  Everything is sanitized, kind of like this video describing Augustine’s famous solution to the problem of evil.

It’s all very logical and intellectual, and while safe at my privileged desk, I agree with the theology.  But there has always been a deeper part of me, ruled by emotion, that rebels.  I don’t care that God must allow evil in order to preserve free will.  How can God be powerful and good when animals are killed so that humans might be fashionable, prisoners are raped so that power might be asserted, and wars destroy people, homes, and countries, so that feuds might be settled?  When children are cowering in corners watching Daddy throw Mommy down the stairs in their pretty suburban house?

Theodicy answered my intellectual questions.  But it could not satisfy the horror in my heart.  I knew how a good and powerful God could allow evil, but….how could a good and powerful God allow evil?!

ppXitjzEmotion must be answered by emotion, and emotion is best conveyed with music and with story.  The opening chapter of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion gave me both.  Entitled “The Music of the Ainur,” Tolkien presents a creation narrative similar to the one in the Bible, with some noticable differences.  In The Silmarillion, God (here named Eru Ilúvatar) creates the Ainur, who in turn create the world.  These angelic equivalents carry out their task of creation by singing into existence the will of Ilúvatar.  Be forewarned – I will quote from the book extensively. I could explain the plot instead of allowing it to speak for itself, but explaining is intellectual, and the emotional power of story is in its telling.

And it came to pass that Ilúvatar called together all the Ainur and declared to them a mighty theme, unfolding to them things greater and more wonderful than he had yet revealed; and the glory of its beginning and the splendour of its end amazed the Ainur, so that they bowed before Ilúvatar and were silent.

Tolkien’s creation mythology has a perfect God creating a perfect world.  His story also includes free will, since Melkor, the Lucifer equivalent, rebels against the Great Music Ilúvatar created.

But now Ilúvatar sat and hearkened, and for a great while it seemed good to him, for in the music there were no flaws.  But as the theme progressed, it came into the heart of Melkor to interweave matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the theme of Ilúvatar…straight-away discord arose about him, and many that sang nigh him grew despondent, and their thought was disturbed and their music faltered; but some began to attune their music to his rather than to the thought which they had at first.  Then the discord of Melkor spread ever wider, and the melodies which had been heard before foundered in a sea of turbulent sound.  But Ilúvatar sat and hearkened until it seemed that about his throne there was a raging storm, as of dark waters that made war one upon another in an endless wrath that would not be assuaged.

The chaos of evil is sometimes too much for words to express.  At a certain point, the sheer enormity of it all makes my brain shut down.  But a raging storm of music?  I can perfectly imagine that and feel the dread and confusion and terror it would evoke.  Evil has entered the perfectly created world.  What will God do?  What can God do?  Erase it, or start over, or…something else?  Something more powerful?

ailThen Ilúvatar arose, and the Ainur perceived that he smiled; and he lifted up his left hand, and a new theme began amid the storm, like and yet unlike to the former theme, and it gathered power and had new beauty.  But the discord of Melkor rose in uproar and contended with it, and again there was a war of sound more violent than before, until many of the Ainur were dismayed and sang no longer, and Melkor had the mastery.  Then again Ilúvatar arose, and the Ainur perceived that his countenance was stern; and he lifted up his right hand, and behold! a third theme grew amid the confusion, and it was unlike the others.  For it seemed at first soft and sweet, a mere rippling of gentle sounds in delicate melodies; but it could not be quenched, and it took to itself power and profundity.  And it seemed at last that there were two musics progressing at one time before the seat of Ilúvatar, and they were utterly at variance.  The one was deep and wide and beautiful, but slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came.  The other had now achieved a unity of its own; but it was loud, and vain, and endlessly repeated; and it had little harmony, but rather a clamorous unison as of many trumpets braying upon a few notes…

Then Ilúvatar spoke, and he said: ‘Mighty are the Ainur, and mightiest among them is Melkor; but that he may know, and all the Ainur, that I am Ilúvatar, those things that ye have sung, I will now show forth, that ye may see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite.  For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.

It might be that Tolkien’s stories play exactly into the way my mind and heart are designed, but this story, more than any theodicy, gives me peace about the nature of God and the existence of evil.  Zooming out to the big picture of creation acknowledges that evil consistently clamors for dominance and even seems to win it.  But God is bigger than evil, and somehow the words “he that attempth this [evil] shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined” makes my heart sink into the most profound sense of peace.

There is evil in this world, and as Christians, we try to defend God’s honor against those in pain.  While I am thankful for intellectual explanations, I cannot help but feel they are too often inadequate.  Augustine’s powerful and good God who allows for evil in the creation of free will is distant and a little cold.  But Eru Ilúvatar brings the world into existence with song, rises from his seat again and again and calmly assures his created servants that he has everything under control.

No explanation.  Just trust.

What Is Your Gumdrop Button?

Four years ago, I rode in the backseat of a van through the Mongolian countryside.  Gany and I had joined an American mission team to visit the Genghis Khan Equestrian Statue.  Gany brought up a topic her church had recently discussed.

In Shrek, the Gingerbread Man’s legs are ripped off and crumbled into cookie dust, yet he spits in Lord Farquaad’s face and yells, “Eat me!” when asked the location of his friends.  It isn’t until Farquaad reaches for his purple candy buttons that the Gingerbread Man caves, saying, “No, not the buttons!  Not my gumdrop buttons….I’ll tell you.”

Gany said, “Before we say we will follow God, we have to give him even our gumdrop buttons, the things we value the most.”  Continue reading

I Still Have a Hole in my Heart

When I grew up in church, there was a lot of talk about Jesus filling “the hole in your heart.”  The implication was that before becoming a Christian, you were empty inside, and after, you became full.  This is an incredibly dangerous theology, because it is absolutely not true.

In middle school, I went through a period of pretty significant depression.  I would pray for God to kill me, because thankfully I was too scared to do so myself.  A lot of my pain came from the fact that I carried an enormous amount of guilt.  I was a Christian, so why wasn’t I perfect?  If God had filled me up inside, why did I still want so much?  Why did I long for a perfect life, perfect relationships, and perfect experiences?  If Jesus was the answer to everything, why did I still feel so empty?

I wrestled with these questions alone, because I worried I was the only person thinking such things.  My doubts seemed to fly in the face of the salvation narrative I had been taught, so naturally, I thought perhaps I was not saved at all.  The combination of adolescence, evangelical guilt, and suffering alone put me in a very bad place for a couple years.  And honestly, I didn’t heal so much as I ignored my doubts in favor of legalism and distraction.  Continue reading