Monthly Archives: July 2014

Give Me a Sign! Or Discerning the Will of God in a Complex World

It’s a question serious Christian young people often ask. And perhaps older people ought to ask it more than they do: how can I discover what God wants me to do and where God wants me to go? Asking this question is a good indicator that you are on the right track. Many people never think to ask whether they are living their lives according to God’s will. They have no comprehension of what this means or why they should seek the divine will. They follow the crowd in seeking pleasure, fame and wealth without any awareness of an alternative. They sleepwalk through life. They are possessed by the demon-spirit of the group.

But not you! You are awake. Desiring to know and do God’s will shows that you are aware that we were created for a purpose and that we have work to do. You are aware that only by doing God’s will can we accomplish anything lasting. And that is good, very good.

But sometimes we become anxious because we don’t receive clear sign of what to do next and where to go. We fear that we might fail to discern God’s will and make a serious mistake. We might major in the wrong subject, take the wrong job, move to the wrong state, buy the wrong car or marry the wrong person.

Anxiety about the consequences of our decisions is understandable; it plagues everyone. But for those who want to do God’s will there is no real reason to be anxious. For God is able to lead us to where he wants us to be and use our lives to accomplish great and lasting things even when we have no clear sign from God. God can do this even when we are anxious and confused. What matters is that God does his will in our lives, not that we know exactly how God is doing this. Perhaps, then, our anxiety about knowing the will of God is more about desire for psychological tranquility than passion for God’s will. So, keep this truth clearly in mind: we may fail but God will not. And even in our failure God accomplishes his will.

Does this mean that I stop seeking God’s will? No. Not at all! It means that we should seek it in complete confidence that God’s working his will does not depend on my finding it. How then may I seek God’s will in this new way of confidence? (1) Get clear that you really want God to guide your life according to his will. Pray that God will purify your heart from all double-mindness and hypocrisy. Make sure that it is God’s will you want and not merely relief from the anxiety of life’s decisions.

(2) Determine to do good and right in whatever situation you find yourself. Don’t allow dreams of future great deeds blind you to the opportunities of the present. We know that God wills us to love our neighbors. Do what is clear now and allow God to take care of what is obscure. (3) God created you and has been preparing you for his work since before you were born. You have God-given abilities and interests that will fit the tasks God has assigned you. If you are not good in math, it is not likely that God wants you to become an engineer. (4) God also works through reason and common sense, which are also his gifts. Use them.

Next week will conclude the first year of ifaqtheology! I’ve posted 57 essays for a total of 48,700 words. I will celebrate that milestone by reviewing the past year and announcing the theme for year number 2.

On Fame and Friendship Or Why Do I Need the Crowd’s Approval?

This post is the second in a two-part series dealing with a struggle I feel between my ideal of living for truth, goodness and righteousness and my desire to be loved, admired, approved and accepted by other people. In the following essay I explore the relationship between fame and friendship and try to get at why we need the approval of others, hoping that by being thoughtful about our need for approval we can get free it to some extent:

When we think of fame and the desire to become famous, we tend to think of a little vice characteristic of a small group of people. Perhaps everyone has the potential to become obsessed with becoming famous and maintaining fame, but very few of are placed so that fame is a real possibility. So we don’t think we need to arm ourselves against it. What is the desire for fame? Or what does one desire in wanting fame? Fame is the condition of being known and admired by people whom you do not know. Fame can be measured quantitatively, but the exact line between obscurity and fame is difficult to mark. In desiring fame, then, one wants to be known and admired by many people, many more than one can engage with as friends, even more than one can ever meet.

Fame is related to friendship. Friends know us and think well of us. But friendship must be mutual and among equals. Fame is neither. But some of what we want in friendship we look for also in fame. Friends are insurance against want in times of need, and a band of friends is stronger that an individual. Fame also brings economic benefits and other types of power. Our friends’ acceptance enables us to think well of ourselves. Perhaps, then, the desire for fame is a variant (on a lower ethical level) of the desire that drives us to seek friends. Its lower ethical level is obvious. The lack of mutuality and equality is clearly less noble. But the desire for fame has another imperfection: fame is only loosely based on truth. Friendship is a bond between persons who relate in truth. The relationship between the fan and the celebrity is based on a fantasy in the fan’s mind that has been created or occasioned by the celebrity. (Or do fans create celebrities?) So fame possesses a certain superficial resemblance to friendship, but the substance is missing. The fans mistake their fantasy for a real person and famous people mistake the adulation of their fans for love and admiration. Fame floats on a cloud of fantasy while friendship walks on the rock of truth.

But desire for fame and friendship are instances of more basic impulses that are exemplified in other ways. Let’s speak first of the psychic level of being. We want to be heard, seen, and noticed by other human beings. We want to be objects of their consciousness, to be included in their psychic field. First of all, we must take into account that interaction with others can be negative as well as positive. Overwhelmingly, we want others to experience us positively, as admirable, worthy and attractive. We want them to smile, to speak to us, to touch us. When this field of psychic interaction is positive, we feel similarly about the other person; and we feel good about ourselves. When the other person frowns, growls, curses or acts aggressively we feel angry or ashamed or afraid; and we feel the urge to defend our dignity to ourselves. The other person says in effect, “You are rejected, not worthy of the friendship of others, an outcast.” We can tell ourselves this is not true; but we can be only partly successful in convincing ourselves. Why is this? Because the very definition of being an outcast is that one is cast out! And in this case one has been cast out. Our only defense is to remember the acceptance others have given us in the past or to get away from the enemy and find one’s friends to experience again their acceptance. Merely telling yourself that this person is wrong and thinking of your positive qualities can have only limited success in removing the impact of rejection. Doubt remains and this doubt disturbs our sense of well being.

Why are we so dependent on others’ opinions of us? The simple version may go something like this: I exist and my identity is constituted by my relationships to others. If those relationships are broken or threatened, my existence and identity are threatened. But I know that I evaluate things and make judgments about them in view of their effect on my health and joy. I want to experience good and beautiful things because I need them to maintain myself. We intuitively believe others think the same way. They too evaluate everything in their field of experience as good or bad, pleasing or unpleasant in relation to themselves and act accordingly. In my reflexive relationship to myself, I want myself to be pleasing to others because, if I am not pleasing to them, they will reject me. And if they reject me, my existence and ability to enjoy life will be greatly diminished; and this calls the value of my existence into question.

We tend then to base our judgments about ourselves on how we believe other people see us. We don’t have any other obvious vantage point from which to judge ourselves, for our judgment concerns whether or not we possess qualities that please others. If we don’t think we please others, then what other judgment can we make than that we don’t possess pleasing qualities! And if we believe we do not possess pleasing qualities, we cannot believe others will accept us. We then see ourselves as rejected and deprived of the possibility of a sense of well-being. But if life presents no possibilities for joy, why live?

But we are not merely passive. Since we are uncertain about whether or not we possess pleasing qualities, we become proactive and attempt to make ourselves pleasing to others by acquiring or pretending to possess qualities we think they would like. They of course are doing the same thing! In this way fashion and prejudice become incarnate in a crowd and no one has a basis in truth on which to live. Fame is a particular form of this phenomenon. In seeking fame I seek redundant confirmation that I possess pleasing qualities. Some people may simply fall into fame—though those who attain fame accidentally soon become addicted to it—but many seek it. And they seek it by becoming, acting and dressing in ways designed for no purpose other than to attain and maintain fame.

But none of these strategies work to give us real dignity or identity. Human judgments about the value and dignity of other people are usually superficial and prejudiced. Human beings cannot assess all the qualities of other human beings and all their relationships. Many qualities are hidden within and hence inaccessible to us. We can judge only the present, and knowing the place of a person in the total matrix of the world would require omniscience and eternity; only from such a vantage point could definitive judgments be made. And as I pointed out above, we cannot judge our own dignity or the status of our qualities from within. We need an external criterion.

Only God can judge our dignity, our usefulness and fitness for life. Our desire to be approvingly known, so that we can accept ourselves, will be frustrated unless we direct that desire toward God. God knows us as we truly are and as we shall be. But God’s knowledge of us is not based on mere observation. God knows us because in his love for us he takes account of us. God knows our sins and weaknesses—we don’t have to hide and pretend to be something we are not—but has other plans for us. God plans to make us beautiful, significant and worthy. If we seek to be known by God, to know God and to know ourselves as God knows us (not as the crowd knows us), our desire will be directed to the only place where it can be fulfilled. We can never be satisfied until we know we are known and loved by one who knows all things and cannot be mistaken. Not until we know who we are and why we exist will the restless desire for attention and admiration find its end.

Now we live in faith and hope. However, if we believe we are known and accepted by God, we can begin to experience freedom from slavery to the judgments of others. We can minimize the number and intensity and futility of the things we do for no reason other than to please others so we can think well of ourselves. If rather we love ourselves because we believe God loves us, we won’t seek fame, and even if it comes anyway we will be less likely to be deceived by it. Our energies can be directed toward real things, good and truly beautiful things; we can live for things that matter, things that last rather than the ephemeral fantasies of the crowd.

Asleep in a Sleepwalking Society

In the next two posts I want to address a struggle I have. I don’t think I ‘m alone in wanting to be known, liked, approved and even praised by others. I struggle with this because it seems to me that I ought to live for what is truly good and right regardless of what other people think. I ought to seek truth and never be satisfied by mere appearances. But the desire to be appreciated by others wants to dominate. I ought to want to please God more than I want to please other human beings. But how do I do this? I cannot guarantee that I am pleasing to God simply by becoming obnoxious and rude to human beings and acting as if I don’t care what others think. How can you associate with others and care about them without becoming addicted to their judgments about you? Perhaps, I ought to be overwhelming aware of God’s presence at every moment. That would certainly help. But how can you maintain awareness of God when other things are so close and so loud? In these posts I give you some thoughts I’ve had as I’ve tried to work this out:

On a recent hike I had the experience of realizing that I had been walking for some time completely absorbed in the movements of my body and the passing scenery. I had been totally unaware that it was I who had been having these experiences. What a strange feeling! It’s as if you had vacated your body and mind and become dispersed in the flow of things outside but now you’re back and you can’t remember what happened while you were gone. I’ve experienced this more than once, and I don’t think it’s rare in others. You suddenly realize that you exist here and now in relation to this particular environment and you have to take responsibility for what you are doing. You have a vague memory of having been absorbed in thought or in remembering the past or anticipating the future.

Have you ever caught yourself staring at an object that at first appeared to be something meaningful but soon became simply a meaningless focal point that holds you in a “blank stare”? After a while something will draw us out of our trance and force us to distinguish ourselves from the flow of sensation. Why is the feeling of coming back to oneself, of realizing that we are here now, so strange?

When we become so absorbed in an object or thought that we lose consciousness of ourselves, we lose a sense of time, of our relatedness to the object and of the relatedness of the object to other objects. We are so lost in the present moment that we have no sense of the present moment’s being present. The present moment feels present only because of its relationship to the past and future. Hence the experience of breaking the hold of the object over our minds is the experience of the present becoming really present in vivid distinction from the past and of becoming aware of our existence as our existence in clear distinction from the existence of other objects. I like to call this experience “waking up” because of its similarity to awaking from sleep, in which dreams seem real and time is distorted.

Perhaps the experience of waking up feels so strange because we are so seldom awake. In those strange moments of awakening we become aware of a reality that had escaped our minds previously. It is strange to discover that you had forgotten you exist! We now feel our finitude and temporality because we have disengaged with mere ideas and the flow of feeling, which have a feel of timelessness about them. In daydreams we can do anything and never die but in waking up we realize what sleep obscures. So waking up is a shock.

In observing others and myself, I’ve concluded that most people live much of their lives asleep. Our senses are taken over by what goes on around us and our consciousness is absorbed into the flow of events external to us. Our feelings and emotions are driven by events without. And waking up is a shock.

We live in a society of sleepwalkers. We play roles, live out narratives and read scripts others write for us. We desire what we are told to desire and we hate what we are told to hate. The need for approval and admiration from others is too strong. Hence, the desire to please others, to seek admiration, to be in other people’s minds approvingly can easily become the dominating force in our lives. Our consciousness becomes totally focused on the attempt to place the right thoughts of ourselves into the minds of others, and our thoughts of ourselves become totally determined by what we think other people think about us. A conscious life absorbed in striving to create an image of ourselves in other people’s minds and attempting to discern what other people think of us differs little from sleep. We live only in our imagination of the image we want others to see in us and in the dreadful doubt of what the crowd really thinks.

What would it mean to wake up from this dream? We would suddenly become aware of what we had been doing: wishing to be someone worthy of love and working so hard to discover what the crowd loves, to be what others like and to convince the crowd that we are that person. To wake up involves becoming aware that we were wishing so intently to be someone else that we forgot who we actually are and failed life’s simplest task, that is, to be ourselves, to take responsibility for our own existence. And the crowd consists of individuals doing exactly what we are doing, living to please others, so that by imagining that they really are pleasing to others they can think well of themselves. It is a house of cards, illusions supported by other illusions with no basis in truth.

But what can wake us from such a mutually interlocking set of illusions? An overwhelming experience of beauty? A brush with death? An unexpected kindness? We need something to make us aware of our God-relation—something outside the flow of sense, a word beyond the predictable script society hands us. Even a little word, such as “Wake up! You have been asleep too long!” might prepare us for that huge Word: “Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (Eph. 5:14).

Divine Forgiveness—Is it Possible? Is it Just? Forgiveness And The Christian Life (#3)

We receive power to forgive those who injure and insult us from our confidence that God will restore our dignity, dry our tears and heal our wounds. And by exercising this power, we invite God to work through us to begin the work of restoring, comforting and healing the world even in this life. But what gives us confidence that God can and will forgive and make all things right?

There are two distinct issues in this question: how do we know God will make all things right? And how can God do this without neglecting justice? The first issue is a bit easier to address. In the Old Testament, God’s people were given means by which to restore themselves to God’s favor after they sinned. Through sacrifice, repentance and prayer, the people were able to find forgiveness and renewed confidence in God’s favor. The assumption underlying these means of grace and forgiveness is that God is willing and able to forgive, though not condone, sin. God’s forgiveness serves his ultimate purpose of creating a faithful people. God is willing to forgive in view of a future where sin is overcome completely.

In the New Testament, God’s willingness to forgive takes surprising and dramatic form. God sends his eternal Son to live as a human being should live and die as a sinner. In the tradition of Old Testament sacrifice, Jesus Christ bore the sin of the world in his death. Jesus takes the injury and insult of sin into himself and overcomes it. And God raised him from the dead. The gospel is the good news that God has unambiguously demonstrated his willingness to forgive and his desire to free us from the power of sin and death. As the Apostles Creed emphasizes, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.” God’s revelation in the life and work of Jesus Christ is blessed assurance that God will make all things right.

The second issue is concerns how God can forgive without condoning sin and injustice. And this is not an easy thing to understand. With reference to the injustice human beings do to each other, perhaps we can gain some insight. Unlike us, God possesses the power and the know how to work things out in his providence in history and in the future resurrection of the dead so that injustice is overturned and made to serve the good. Paul says this clearly, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us…No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” (Romans 8:18-37). Injury and insult will be eclipsed by glory. And we will be more than conquerors, that is, the victory will be so triumphant that it makes the enemy look insignificant and battle effortless. Hence God can forgive injustice in the present in view of his plan to overcome it in the future. [And, in case you are wondering about it, Paul tells us that plan is “to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ” (Eph 1:10)]

But what about the insult and injury that injustice directs toward God? How can God forgive that? Where else could we turn for an answer to this question other than to Jesus Christ! How did Jesus deal with the insult and injury toward himself? He endured it and neutralized it. Since Jesus reveals the heart of God toward sinners we must conclude that God forgives sin by enduring it, suffering it and overcoming it through love. Jesus’ sacrifice is the historical event of God’s eternal love toward sinners. Jesus revealed and made effective in human life God’s eternal willingness to endure the hostility of sinners in view of his future plans for their salvation.

And when we forgive our enemies we also participate in a historical event of God’s eternal love toward sinners in hope for their ultimate repentance and salvation.