There was a second, more personal reason that the critique Rollins’ has of the church (that I shared Monday) resonated with me. After seeing this facebook status from a pastor, “the only person who will never let you down is Jesus,” I think I should share it.
The gist of Rollins’ critique was that while we might say we don’t believe in a convenient Santa Claus like God, that we don’t just use Him as an ideological security blanket, most churches still support this God. The God we meet at church is still a comfortable God. Maybe He challenges our consumerism a little, maybe He challenges our selfishness a bit but, like that pastor’s status, we’re told he’ll never let us down. While you, like me, might hear that and think, um…that’s not exactly true because that implies he’ll always meet our expectations and God tends to like to shatter our expectations more than meet them, this message is all around us. Rollins argues that while the church still believes this it makes it hard for us not to still believe it deep down, even if we’ll argue with it intellectually.
This struck me because one thing I’ve realized over the last few months is how deeply ingrained it is for me to still relate to God that way. The truth is that it’s easy to change an intellectual view of something. It’s easy to say I disagrees with these subtle and not so subtle inadequate portraits of God, it’s a much more difficult task for these intellectual views to become as deeply ingrained. To allow them to become so true that how I relate to God is actually altered. It was through Lent this year that I began to recognize just how much this lingers in my relationship with God.
Up until about just after Easter, these many many months since graduating from grad school felt like a wild goose chase. One of the most discouraging aspects of the chase is that I felt like I didn’t even know what the goose looked like that I was chasing. With too large of gaps between bursts of temporary employment, my finances were in ruins. How could I not call out to God for rescue? Like Hagar. Like David. Yet, as I walked through a directed reading of the Psalms and read so many of David’s pleas for rescue, I began to recognize how hollow and cheap my prayers were.
I felt like I was just climbing up onto God’s lap, whispering in his ear what I wanted, then vacating the premises without even some meaningful chit-chat but maybe with some self-indulgent prattling. Like a very persistent and anxious child, I just kept repeating this process over and over impatient for the day when I could get what I wanted.
It struck me that I was not really praying to God. Not at least the God of Abraham and Isaac. Not Yahweh. Not even Hagar’s God who sees. No, I was praying to this convenient idol of Jesus who I expect to never let me down. To not let me feel so lost or get so behind. I was addressing a god I don’t assume will explode my expectations of what I want. Who will not allow me to be led where I don’t want to go.
The problem wasn’t that I was asking for rescue. All throughout the Bible we see heros of the faith calling out in great despair and anguish for rescue. Yahweh is known throughout the Scriptures to be the God who sees, who hears and who responds. That wasn’t it. The problem was that how I was coming to my god revealed who I was really crying out to. As I heard my cries echoing off the walls of a vacant temple, I realized how ingrained this belief in a convenient god, that I claimed to reject, was. So, I allowed David to teach me a thing or two about what it means to truly approach Yahweh in need of rescue.
David approaches God without my own sense of entitlement. His pleas for rescue are accompanied with reflections upon who God is: mighty, merciful, justice… He recognizes that God is greater than him, that God doesn’t owe him anything, and that His designs are more comprehensive than we can comprehend. When he makes a request for himself, he recognizes that if it is fulfilled it will not be simply for his own glory and comfort but for God’s glory and evidence of His bountiful love.
When I prayed for rescue, I began contemplating stories of other women in the Bible who cried out in distress and were heard. I reflected on what it means to have a God who sees that a woman is unloved by her husband and sends her children for comfort. But, also, a God who allows even a great prophet like Elijah to feel alone and flee for his life. My pleas became more humble and my requests more broad.
While God eventually answered my prayers, he did not meet my expectations. I did not expect that I would be choosing to live outside of my comfort zone and that only when I accepted this would He meet my needs. I did not expect that what began as a year off of school to save money before returning for my PhD would begin to turn into two and may end up being three. I can’t say I’m not a little let down knowing that I’ll be here at my parents for quite a while longer. But, now, when I come before God in prayer I meet the God of Abraham, of Isaac. The God incarnate in Jesus Christ.. Through work, I’m dislodging my loyalty to a Santa Claus like god, to the god we worship all too often in our songs and sermons and who can so easily be the god to which we pray.
*By the way, I’m sorry to disappoint those who came to this post expecting it to be a justification of faith/case for God instead of a discussion about a religious practice and a critique of Christian churches portrayal of God. In future posts I’ll deal with more epistemological issues of faith.