(Note: This is the third in my Lent series, Ways Off the Path, on some of the ways we can fall of the path and get separated with God. You can find a link to earlier posts in this series at the bottom of the page.)
One of the easiest ways we veer off the path of faithfulness and experience a much more shallow life with God than the one we have been created for is by creating God in our own image.
We’ve seen it on full display in this election cycle, with candidates of all stripes justifying their behavior through divine sanction. Unfortunately, making the God of the Bible into a safe and predictable God who endorses the things we endorse and hates the people we hate isn’t reserved for those running for office.
I find it really easy to convince myself that God dreams for the same kind of world that I do and don’t have a lot of trouble believing that God enjoys the kind of worship that I most prefer. It is not hard for me to overlook and justify the sins that I am most prone to committing while getting uncomfortably self-righteous at those that don’t tempt me or the ones that oppose my preferences, political convictions and the world views with which I am most comfortable.
The hard truth is that finding people who haven’t suffered from shoehorning God to fit their preferred beliefs and ways of life – well, a camel and an eye and a needle come to mind.
It doesn’t matter whether the gods we fashion are conservative or liberal, black or white, traditional and old-fashioned or contemporary and cutting edge. When we fall into this trap not only do we commit idolatry, the most significant of the Thou Shall Nots that Moses brings down from the Mountain, we also fool ourselves.
When we decide we have the power to become the great creators of everything we need, we strip the Gospel of its very power by trading the power of God to make a new creation in us for another shallow justification for what we already think, believe and live for.
Regardless of how or why we do make them, the gods of our imagination can’t bear the weight of the God we worship and have been given in Jesus. These wannabe gods just aren’t big enough, don’t have the power to change us and simply cannot bring the redemption we need.
The confronting and convicting texts of Lent forcefully remind us of this – and they don’t politely ask us whether we like it or not. On Sunday, we heard that truth from Isaiah, who reminded us that our ways of thinking and patterns of living don’t necessarily come from God.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” – Isaiah 55:8-9
What we need more than anything else isn’t another place to listen to the news we want to hear but instead a way to encounter a power greater than we can imagine who can show us a new way of life with more meaning and hope than we have ever experienced.
The growth and change we all desperately need, even if we can’t bring ourselves to say it out loud, comes from admitting that God’s wisdom is greater than our own and finding our place in the enormous mission and kingdom of God.
That’s the conviction we draw from the stories of Scripture that shape our faith. How many times do we encounter stories of people who were convinced that they know exactly who God is and precisely how God goes about accomplishing God’s will for the world only to be shocked and surprised when their world is tossed upside down?
No one experienced that more than Paul, who had his whole religious upbringing and education turned on its head when he encountered Jesus on the Damascus Road – but he’s not the only one. Abraham believed and trusted in a future he couldn’t see, Ruth learned the blessing of radical commitment and Job discovered that the wisdom of convention isn’t always the wisdom of God. The Bible is full of stories like these – people who God shocked with wisdom and purpose they could never have come up with on their own.
When we read and pray and allow ourselves to be changed by these stories, we realize that God is much less predictable than we prefer and that the God of the Bible seems to love upending our assumptions and is always in the process of doing a new thing.
This isn’t an easy thing to experience. This holy season reminds us that those who are most sure they know who God is and what God is for are often the ones who most profoundly and spectacularly miss God’s revelation and misunderstand God’s mission.
What the Bible tells us is that the key to experiencing Resurrection and New Creation is to learn how to humble yourself, how to become open to God, and how to watch for the signs of God’s activity in the world – even and especially when they hurl your heart and mind into the whirlwind.
And so, these are the stories we need to keep close – the thief who receives the promise of paradise, the disciples who experience real presence in the breaking of the bread and the many who become one through a Spirit who blows where it will and authors stories of redemption again and again.
It’s easy to find your way off the path. But we can always find our way back, by doing what doesn’t usually come naturally – admitting we might be wrong, listening for God’s presence, and allowing ourselves to be changed by the grace of a God who is greater and more creative than we can imagine.
Ways Off the Path
Week 2: Paralysis by Overanalysis