Saturday, August 2, 2008

God is Not a Micromanager

This post from a fellow Antiochian priest in the UK (whom I visited in 2001) met with thoughts from the past couple days about religious jargon and the way people talk about their spiritual life. One theme that is dominant is what Fr. Gregory points out:

To hear some Christians talk you would think they had a "hot-line to God." They are so convinced that God is in daily, direct communication with them, to suggest otherwise would be to compromise on the glorious intimacy that faith and grace bestow. So overweening is this confidence that rarely do they stop to ask: "Am I hearing right? Is this God or Satan? Is this perhaps me talking to myself?" There is no room for such doubts on the hotline.
This way of speaking about faith is extremely common here in Appalachia, even among Christians raised outside the Evangelicalism which is the home of this sort of language. I've heard both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians here in West Virginia speak this way, that "God was really showing me ________," "The Lord laid on my heart that I should ________," or "God told me that ________."

As Fr. Gregory points out, there is something a bit awry with this manner of speaking. To be sure, one cannot doubt the spiritual sincerity of people who speak this way, but in all honesty, how can we really be sure that it's God talking to us and not ourselves (or even, God forbid, one of the dark powers)? One rarely finds this sort of language in the Scriptures, except coming from the prophets and apostles. Even then, especially with the apostles, one does not see any indication that they believe that God is directing them in such a detailed way most of the time, and they certainly don't say that they "feel" God is leading them in such-and-such a direction.

Even though I was raised with such language, being from an Evangelical Protestant background, hearing it these days always makes me a bit uncomfortable and even a little suspicious. As a priest, I sometimes get asked about what God's will for someone's life is, usually in terms of whether they should change jobs, relocate, buy a certain house, etc. My response is almost always the same and based on St. Augustine's famous dictum: "Love, and do what thou wilt!" Really, we cannot make spiritual mistakes if we are genuinely living in repentance and self-sacrificial love. (And what does it really matter if we make earthly mistakes?) God's will for us is that we turn away from sin and embrace holiness. The particular details of our earthly circumstances are relatively trivial.

This is not to say that we don't have experiences of the mystical and the divine, but the truth of the matter is that most mystical experience is really rather "mundane" compared to what most of us wish it were. In looking for "experiences," however, we are falling into the error St. Paul points out to the Corinthians:

For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock (scandalon), and unto the Greeks foolishness (I Cor. 1:22-23).
Sometimes the scandalon and foolishness of our Christian life is precisely that it is so unspectacular. Seek not for fireworks and voices. Seek ye rather the kingdom and all His righteousness (Matt. 6:33). This involves crucifixion.

Mind you, when I hear an Orthodox Christian speaking in this manner, that God is "leading" and "speaking" to them in numerous minute and detailed ways, I don't try to shut them down. Usually, this is the only language they have thus far learned to express such things. My experience has been, however, that over time as people delve more and more deeply into authentic Orthodox spiritual life, humility eventually teaches them that they're really not prophets and that our own free will is what governs what we do. As Fr. Gregory says:

With this in mind we should not say that we have a "hotline to God" that rather that we have "an ordinary connection." True, God speaks to us. He does answer our prayers, although not always in ways we would like. However, in this life our sin and laziness always generate "noise on the line." Repentance deals with this interference progressively. We should therefore have a more measured sense of what we and others are able to hear. Sometimes it is the "Word of the Lord." Sometimes it is not. Discernment is called for.
The example of the saints is that they would prefer to say that God never spoke to them and thus accidentally ignore an angelic voice than to mistake a voice that is not God's for the true divine word.

Trust me: If you're ever chosen to be a prophet, it will be spectacularly apparent not only to you but by the confirmation of the Church. It's best that you do your best to refuse it, though, and accept that recognition of authentic prophecy usually only comes after death and is typically accompanied by persecution in life.

These days, I'm finding more and more wisdom in the "ordinary." Live life. Don't assume you're getting messages from God. Don't think you're special. Try to be holy. Confess your sins. Receive Holy Communion frequently. Pray frequently. Come to church frequently. Do all this with thanksgiving to God, and the rest will take care of itself.


s-p said...

Amen Amen Amen. Even as a Protestant this language struck me as narcissistic, possibly delusional and dangerously sincere and gullible. I often wondered why, when God laid something on someone's heart or spoke to their hearts etc. it almost always involved telling them to tell someone else how to live or judging someone else. I've never heard anyone say, "God laid it on my heart to repent, be more humble, shut up and stop trying to tell other people what I think of anything and everything..." sigh.

James the Thickheaded said...

Great post. And the second to last paragraph's always been a notion close to my heart. When I was an Anglican, I used to say, "When God calls... it's usually not good. Look at the record. All I know...if the phone rings... I'm not here. Fact is, I think if you check the record... that's what almost everyone ever said first time." I'd usually get some flack. So of course, I'd add: "But then God usually calls back... and he doesn't take excuses."

Now maybe the phone rang, maybe it did't. And I'm not "there" either... since like I'm Orthodox now... but that sure don't make me a prophet!!!

Fr. Andrew said...

'I've never heard anyone say, "God laid it on my heart to repent, be more humble, shut up and stop trying to tell other people what I think of anything and everything..."'

I have.

In any event, I think this sort of language has a range to it. Some folks are indeed the kinds of busybodies you mention. Others honestly and sincerely believe, in essence, that God is micromanaging their spiritual lives, but don't stick their noses too deeply into others'.

I think the main curative is simply some humility in language, perception and interpretation. It may well be that God is "laying something on your heart," but it may also just simply seem like a good idea to *you*. Either way, I think it's best to speak in contingent terms, e.g., "It seemed like I should do X, so I did."

A Sinner said...

"One rarely finds this sort of language in the Scriptures, except coming from the prophets and apostles." Then the question is, "Are there apostles and prophets in the church today?"

Fr. Andrew said...

Are there apostles and prophets in the church today?

No, yes, no and yes.

No: The OT and NT prophets and apostles revealed something from God never before revealed. Their work is finished and unrepeatable. It is sacred history as such.

Yes: People can and do still speak for God, but they do not reveal anything new. Inasmuch as they might reveal something specific and applicable (e.g., "You must become a priest"), it is usually only with great humility, fear and trembling, based typically on a lifetime of serious asceticism and holiness. There are clairvoyants in the Church today, but not very many. That is how it has always been.

No again: My wife refers to "God told me to get up this morning and tie my shoes" spirituality, which is the sort of spiritual delusion that nearly every inclination you have is the result of direct divine revelation. It is not. The proper Christian life is mainly pretty "ordinary."

Yes again: One main task that all Christians have is to speak for God, but only in terms of speaking what He has already revealed in universal terms. We speak for God when we say that all people should be saved, that all should repent and be baptized, etc.