Limiting God

I am not a football fan.

I know that is practically sacrilege in my adopted home state of Tennessee.  Were I to declare something similar regarding basketball as a son of the Bluegrass, I would be unceremoniously stripped of my claim to Kentucky nativity.

If truth be told, I’m not much of a sports fan of any kind.  That’s not to say that I haven’t tried.  I like the idea of sports.  But I have trouble staying focused long enough to enjoy an entire game.  Well, unless my daughter is playing softball, and then I am proud to be a part of the cheering crowd.

While I am admittedly not an avid sports fan, I do enjoy sports movies.  I love golf films like The Greatest Game Ever Played and Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius, and Seven Days in Utopia.  I like baseball movies like 42 and Field of Dreams.

Recently, I watched the 1993 movie, Rudy, about a working class Catholic kid who dreams of playing football for Notre Dame.  He works hard, raises his grades by attending a junior college, then serves as a tackling dummy for two hard years with the Fighting Irish.  He is allowed to take the field in one play at the end of his eligibility, so that he would be listed in the official records as being on the team.  He took the field to the cheers of the crowd, his teammates, and his family.  Obviously, the movie was designed to choke up the average movie watcher, and that’s a pretty good description of me.

In one scene, Rudy is being counseled by the wise old priest, Father Cavanaugh.  He tells the young man, “Son, in 35 years of religious study, I have only come up with two hard incontrovertible facts: there is a God, and I’m not Him.”

That line stuck with me, because it kind of sums up a lot of what I have come to think about faith, religion, and a whole lot of other things.

Sure, there is much we can know and should know about the Bible.  I believe its teachings by and about Jesus and his life and death and continuing life.  I believe God calls us back to what he meant for his creation, for mankind from the very beginning.  I believe the two greatest commandments are in effect today, to love God and to love our neighbors.  There is much to know and much to believe and much to do.

But there is much about which I have little certainty because it is not mine to make a final judgment.  And yet some people are perfectly comfortable with making those judgments and in fact, seem to have cornered the market on certainty. I often wonder if there might be some at the Judgment echoing the attitude of the older brother in the story of the lost son in Luke 15.  What if God were to lovingly accept someone that the “certain” folks find objectionable?  Will they rebuke God for his grace and mercy?

The classic what-if scenario deals with the ultimate and eternal disposition of the unfortunate soul who was tragically killed on his way to be baptized.  I read that someone of the “certain” persuasion once said that if a person had a heart attack before his nose broke the surface of the water on his way out of the baptistery, he would be damned eternally for not completing the process.

Really?  Really?

Now in one sense, to make that unequivocal declaration takes a lot of weight off of God’s considerable shoulders.  I mean, surely, God would appreciate the fact that others are making such easy decisions about eternal salvation and damnation.

But to do so actually violates some important concepts about the very nature of God.  For example, Paul told Titus (1.2) that God cannot lie.  I accept that.  The reasoning that some would use to damn the unfortunate soul in the example would be that God would have lied if he granted such latitude, or that he would be a respecter of persons.

This kind of reasoning puts a very short rein on God.  Why?  Because God can and does change his mind.  Remember the story of Noah?  After God had created everything and declared it very good, he changed his mind and brought about the destruction of masses of humanity in that day because “…the thoughts of his [man’s] heart was only evil continually.” (Genesis 6.5)  After the decision was made to destroy the evil cities on the plain, God was willing to bargain with Abraham as he argued for sparing the chosen home of his nephew Lot ahead of the destruction of Sodom in Genesis 18. Abraham’s appeals were ultimately unsuccessful because of the completeness of the wickedness expressed by the city’s inhabitants, not because of God’s inflexibility.

Consider God’s record of sometimes changing his mind, and read passages like the one in Romans where Paul wrote,

“For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”  (Romans 9.15)

Paul was quoting words attributed to Moses’ writing in Exodus,

“And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The LORD.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” (Exodus 33.19)

 It is God’s prerogative to grant mercy and compassion to whomever he wishes and to change his mind.  To deny that he has done so in the past and can do so now or in the future is to limit God.  In essence, we not only accept the divinely supplied gift of free will, we seem to revel in it.  Yet, we often presume to force God’s hand and take his free will away.  God warned the children of Israel in Deuteronomy 6.16, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test….”  We would do well to heed that caution and let God be God, with all the rights and honors that he not only demands but deserves.

Now, before anyone says that I have jumped aboard the universalism bandwagon, let me say that is definitely not the case.  I firmly believe that there are actions taken in the exercise of free will that can and do separate mankind from God, both now in time and eternally.  I also believe that there are expressions of free will that mankind must engage in to be reconciled to God.  It is my responsibility as a brother to help another brother who has lost his way.  It should be my joy to share my knowledge and experience of The Way with those who know nothing of it.  But like in the example that I mentioned above, I am neither willing nor qualified to make some kinds of judgments.

Why?  Because I am not God.  I cannot know what is in a person’s heart.  And because God said, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”

Remember the end of the Gospel of John?  Peter was questioning Jesus about John, which would give rise to the rumor that John would not die before Jesus returned.  Jesus responded in John 21.22, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!”

That statement is another that has stuck with me: “What is that to you?”  Jesus told Peter that he was meddling in affairs that were definitely outside of his wheelhouse.  He reinforced Peter’s own responsibility in his direct charge, “You follow me!”

Sometimes, I think that if more people would listen to Jesus’ command to Peter, we’d have less conflict in the religious world.  But we should understand that following Jesus entails a lot more than a five or six step process.  It means changing how we live.  It means that we must love more, serve more, and sin less.  It means embodying forgiveness and compassion.  It means embracing humility and forsaking earthly glory.  It means standing up for justice and showing mercy.  It means understanding and accepting that there are some things that only God knows, and it is sometimes best not to speak for him.

But some people are seduced by verses like Jude 1.3, “Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.”  The idea of “contending” is appealing.  But as it has often been bandied about, to contend does not mean to become contentious.  Too many confuse the two.  No, Jude continues in his review of stories found nowhere else in the canon, saying, “9 But when the archangel Michael, contending with the devil, was disputing about the body of Moses, he did not presume to pronounce a blasphemous judgment, but said, “The Lord rebuke you.””  If God’s own messenger reserved his own potentially blasphemous judgment on the Devil, how much more should we be careful of our words?  Michael said, “The Lord rebuke you.”  And he will.

The judgmental mindset of those who would be “contentious” for the faith is directly addressed by Paul in II Timothy 2.24-26:

“24 And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, 25 correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, 26 and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.”

No, it is not wrong to attempt to correct error as one perceives error.  It is very wrong to do so with the gleeful “I’ve got you now!” attitude that I have seen from some people on far too many occasions.  Name-calling is not gentleness.  Angry exchanges are not indicative of patience.  These people often fall back on Ephesians 4.15, and defend their judgmental behaviors as “Speaking the truth in love…”  But love is usually not in them.  At least it is not visible.

There are things that I know because I have studied them or been taught them. There are things I believe, not because of a preponderance of hard evidence but because my heart can see through the eyes of faith, and that faith serves as my evidence.  Like Father Cavanaugh, I recognize those two incontrovertible truths: there is a God, and I am not him.  For both of those truths, I am truly grateful.  I sincerely hope that I am one of those seemingly unworthy ones on whom he will shower his compassion and mercy.  God knows I need it.

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On Coming to Faith

Note:  A dear friend who has known me for many years asked me to consider writing a post about how I came to a life of faith, in the hope that my story might help someone else who was in the same place I was a number of years ago.  I thought for a few weeks, and decided to give it a try, fully realizing that my experience, while possibly similar to that of others, is purely my own.  Every person’s experience of faith is unique, but perhaps that is what makes it genuine.  Anything worthwhile is worth working for, even fighting for.  You will not find your faith by running from God.  Only by confronting him will you begin to see the glimmers and glimpses of something beyond the mundane.  To those for whom this essay was written, faith will not come to you unbidden.  Seek it.  Question it.  But don’t ignore it.  It can enrich your life more than you can know from your present perspective.    

Faith is not easy. At least for some people. For others, it is as simple as breathing. But for some, it is just hard work.

I know, because I was one who had to work for it. The bad news is that the work can seem so fruitless at times that some people just give up and let go of something that can be so enriching.

The good news is that if you stick with it, faith grows, and for many, it gets easier.

I grew up in a state of confusion. As the son of a preacher, I was raised with absolutes. With absolute certainty of things unseen. With absolute confidence in an invisible faith that I didn’t quite understand. I was bothered by inconsistency and glaring questions that I saw in the Bible as a source of faith and in religion as a state of being. From an early age, I was conflicted by the great disconnect between physical evidence of an old earth with the conventionally accepted Biblical claims of a young one. More directly, I was skeptical of a God who tossed out red herrings to distract truth-seekers, a God who used contradictory evidence to confound empirical reason.

I was angered by a God who seemed to be waiting for someone to make a mistake to send that hapless soul to eternal torment. I was disgusted by the schemes and machinations of piously cruel and heartless church members who seemed to delight in laying a trap in order to spring it, cackling self-righteously at their “gotcha” moment.

I suppose in retrospect, there was a time when I was teetering on agnosticism, if not a full-out rejection of God in favor of a comfortable if ill-fitting academic atheism.

So what made the difference?

If I had to point to one thing, it was love.

Love expressed in altruism makes little sense in purely biological/physical terms. The fundamental selflessness of love as embodied by Jesus of Nazareth is as contradictory to the natural tendency toward selfishness as anything that can be observed. It is that contradictory nature of love that well supports the declaration of Tertullian, “Credo quia absurdum est.” “I believe it because it is absurd,” or “impossible,” or “contrary to reason” as so many of Jesus’ claims may seem to be. Virgin birth and miracles aside, that he would proclaim the greatest commandments to be to love God and to love one’s neighbor seems an ineffable absurdity. That the new command he gave his disciples was to love each other seems irrationally contrary to the better interest of the self. That he would demand a ritual baptism to ratify one’s commitment to discipleship seems utterly against reason. As do the claims of exaltation in servitude. And joy in suffering. And life in death.

Certainly, there have been other morally upright and selfless people across the broad landscape of history. You can name many throughout history like Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. But then, they were both strongly influenced by the life and tactics of Jesus. While they are each celebrated for their own selfless achievements, none have the same level of recognition and uniquely deserved celebrity as that one man who lived his simple life in a dusty backwater quarter of the Roman Empire two thousand years ago.

When I woke up to see the centrality of love in the call to faith, I knew that so much of what I had seen for 33 years had been distractions preventing me from seeing the reality of God.

But just knowing is far from doing. Understanding is not application. I had to act. I did so in terms of the faith heritage I had known since childhood. While I found belief difficult, the demonstration of that faith was even more so. According to my understanding, the act of baptism is a necessity for anyone professing to be a disciple of this Jesus. The most primitive expression of baptism is immersion in water, which I found to be a little on the odd side. “What good could being dipped in water do?” I wondered over and over. In the Bible, Peter says that baptism is not merely a physical bathing, a washing of the flesh. It is the answer or appeal of a good conscience to God.

Now, I am not here to debate the form of or formula for baptism. I submitted to it because it was a command, and because I wanted to be counted among the true followers, not merely an adherent to the faith, watching from outside the comfort of the warming glow of the knowledge and experience of Jesus. I knew that I was not worthy of any special dispensation of any great exception. Therefore, I submitted, willingly, in full belief, for the right reasons and not just “fire insurance,” and with great relief, I might add.

So, with respect to Jesus, I am what I am because he is who he is. I am a Christian in the most elemental sort of way, realizing and accepting that this is the fundamental defining relationship of my entire experience of faith. That I am considered a part of a church is a consequence of that definitive relationship. To profess a conversion to a particular church is contrary to the teaching of scripture: upon one’s acceptance of, and submission to the rule of God, in essence becoming a citizen of that kingdom of Heaven, one is added to the church in the universal sense. One then joins in fellowship with a congregation of those with a similar faith largely for education, edification, comfort, service, support—in essence to look out for each other, spiritually, as a matter of course, and physically as necessity may dictate.

I know for most people, especially those for whom faith comes easy, my story is not very inspiring. But it is my story. I have seen similar stories from others who were ostensibly skeptics, yet deeper down, honest and sensitive and sensible seekers. The most notable of such, and one responsible for the conversion to Christianity of many thousands of others like him was none other than that great master Christian apologist of the 20th century, C.S. Lewis. His book, Mere Christianity, is a landmark of reason, in which he rationally argues for Christianity in the universal sense, and does not proselytize for any particular denomination. I highly recommend the book for anyone seeking clarification of the validity of the Christian faith on the grand scale. It is worth the investment of time, if indeed you are serious about knowing.

And though knowing is not the same thing as doing, it certainly helps to know what you are doing. Asking the right questions of God and yourself, that is the beginning of your own wonderful journey into a life of faith. But you’ll never reach your destination if you never take the first step. Faith may not come easy, but it can grow. And the possibilities it affords are endless, timeless and eternal.