Stop, Look, Listen
An evangelical Christian says there's a time to quit preaching and start hearing what God has to say.
By Matthew Moran
The other night I was reading the Letter of James. “My brethren,” he cautions, in chapter three, verse one, “let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment.”
This is not one of my favorite verses, because I went to school to become a teacher and am not looking forward to a stricter judgment. But the Bible being one of those books that grows with you, this passage, which I had read so many times, now took on a deeper meaning. I started to think about all the ways that I had used the Bible for my own ends, well-meaning as they might have been.
Once upon a time, when I thought I knew everything about God, the Bible and I were partners, spreading the good word confidently and cheerfully. I grew up in an evangelical church, and when I reached my late teens I started working as a youth pastor. For four self-satisfied years, I would conduct Bible study classes in my basement. This was great for a while, seeing as I enjoyed it, I had plenty to talk about, and in general, the kids paid attention.
It would have been easy to remain in this comfort zone for the rest of my life. Many people do. But I guess I’m just one of those unfortunates whose brain keeps on running, no matter how hard I struggle to rein it in. And one day it started asking me questions for which I had no answers.
For years my faith had been very experiential. It always felt real and it gave me a strong sense of purpose. I would sense things from God and I was very sure of His presence and activity. Then I started going through a rough time, that nasty period the Christian mystics refer to as “the dark night of the soul.” I grew disillusioned with my faith and my trusty spiritual boat started going under, into the deep, frigid sea of uncertainty. Like Peter, I looked down and realized that I was sinking. I began dreading Friday nights in my basement because they made me feel like a hypocrite.
When your heart is dry, yet you still have to come up with a weekly lesson, you will probably do bad things to the Bible. At least that is what I did. I wonder now what madness has come out of my mouth in my attempts to explain God. I’m not sure that I helped anyone understand Him at all while I dug through the Bible for lessons. As books go, I think the Bible is a lot more like a novel—maybe a mysterious sort of romance—than a self-help manual. I wish that I had known that when I was teaching all those lessons, and sometimes I wonder how much damage I did by preventing my kids from experiencing the vitality of the real story.
Perhaps the most egregious offense I committed was the sin of ignorance, pontificating about something I really knew nothing about. Evangelicals tend to prefer answers to questions, and too often we teach when we should be learning, and talk when we should be quiet.
I left that church eventually, but when I read that verse in James it made me long for a community where, when you didn’t have anything to say, someone would take the Bible out of your hands and let you sit on the couch for a while with your mouth shut. I wasn’t rejecting God—I just wanted to chill for a while.
In the middle of my crisis of faith, I had a long conversation with one of my good friends at school. It turned out we had been experiencing similar doubts, but had hesitated to bring them up. I mean, it was too terrifying to even speculate on the possibility that following God might not work. “What if that isn’t even the right question?” I finally asked. “What if spirituality isn’t about what works?”
“It’s got to work,” said my friend. His response lingered with me. Gradually I came to see spirituality as a question, not an answer, and to realize that there’s nothing wrong with questions because they, not answers, are the catalyst to true wisdom. God is a mystery, not a known, definable quantity. Yet somehow we’ve created a culture where ministry “professionals” are paid to provide color commentary about what God is like. For the purposes of the church business, we try to cram the Godhead inside our three bullet points, our alliteration, our principles, and catchy phrases.
When I came to my new church, all the kids there were terrified by God. They were all a little paranoid that they might curse inside the church building then walk out the door and get hit by a car. If this happened before they fessed up then they would have earned themselves a one-way ticket to hell. “Who told you this stuff?” I wanted to ask. But when I realized how serious they were it didn’t seem so funny.
One thing that I think I do know about God: He must be very patient because He let’s us say so much crap about Him. It is time—it has been time—to make another in-the-flesh appearance, call a press conference, and correct all the errors. Only this doesn’t seem to be on God’s priority list. I can only assume that all the nonsense that has been uttered in His name does not threaten God very much. He seems to loom above the fray, not stooping to explain himself. Instead the original statement remains—the mostly undocumented 33-year life, and a strange, thick book split into 66 parts. It might be a little ineffable—but say this for God—He hasn’t waffled.
Personally, one of the things that I hate the most is being misrepresented. If I were God, my tendency would be to go a long way to correct your misperception of me. “I’m a regular guy,” I would want to say. “I’m just like you.” I know if countless people across the world were going on local television and dropping my name, for their purposes, then my reaction wouldn’t so low-key. Especially if those people had big, conspicuous hair, and came across a little less authentically than Uriah Heep. But Jesus must be different, because for the last couple millennia He has basically left His reputation in our hands.
One of my favorite authors, Donald Miller, said in “Searching for God Knows What”:
“If you ask me, the way to tell if a person knows God for real, I mean knows the real God, is that they will fear Him. They wouldn’t go around making absurd political assertions and drop God’s name like an ace card, and they wouldn’t be making absurd statements about how God wants you to be rich and how if you send in some money to the ministry God will bless you … It seems like, if you really knew the God who understands the physics of our existence, you would operate a little more cautiously, a little more compassionately, a little less like you are the center of the universe.”
I have heard pastors say that we need a healthy respect for God. Maybe a starting place would be pulling back from our confident assertions and realizing that it is all too likely that we don’t fear Him enough. Our sense of awe could grow a lot if we all realized that our image of God needs healing.
I like to think of the scene where Jesus appears to his disciples on the boat, the scene where they saw Him calm a storm and walk across a lake. The disciples have been with Jesus for many days now, and they have become familiar with his words and the way that he talks. But the Bible reports that with this encounter, “they were filled with awe.” And they mumbled to each other through hushed voices, “Who is this? Who in the world is this?” And they fell down and worshipped Him.
Matthew Moran is a freelance writer from Utica, New York. His work has appeared in The Revealer, Killing the Buddha, New Pantagruel, and Doubly Mad Magazine.
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