Drawing Circles Around God

Why is it that, as Christians, we like to draw circles around God? When I was a senior in high school, I had a fairly typical evangelical experience with God. I started thinking of my relationship with God in personal terms, as one of friendship. I got involved in a high school-age Bible study group and then, when I went to college, in an evangelical fellowship group. It was a great time of spiritual growth. My Christian friends and I felt God’s presence in our lives in ways that we hadn’t in the traditional church, whether Roman Catholic or Protestant. While the churches were filled with “nominal Christians,” we were “real Christians.” If someone had asked us if we were “born again,” we would have known exactly what they meant and said, “Yes.” To be born again set us apart from others who went to church and did religious things, but weren’t really Christians.

Several years later my wife and I were working for an evangelical campus ministry organization. Our task was to guide Christian student leaders in fellowship groups on various campuses. I remember discussing the religious faith of faculty members, basically asking, “Is he/she a real Christian?” At one small liberal arts college, for example, there was a professor in the Religion Department who had taught at an evangelical Christian college. He left his previous position (perhaps he had been forced to leave) due to doctrinal differences. He was a universalist. He didn’t believe God would send anyone to hell. He could talk the evangelical lingo better than anyone else on campus, but was he a real Christian? Similarly, I remember thinking about a Roman Catholic sister who encouraged a group on one of the Catholic campuses where we had contacts. Was she a real Christian?

I see it in my life even now, too. I am excited by new ministries and experimental ongregations doing new things, or ancient things in new ways, to interface with today’s culture, reaching people with the story of Jesus. It is so easy to say, “Look! See the Spirit at work! That is where God is, not in dying denominational churches.” But as an elder in my denomination, I sit on a committee that shares the struggles of small, rural congregations. Yes, they are struggling. They are losing the younger people in their communities, sometimes to “more evangelical” or more “contemporary” churches, sometimes to secular culture. They struggle to balance the budget and overcome personality conflicts. Sometimes it is hard for them to simply keep the doors open. But I have also come to see that a small, “dying” congregation is made up of brothers and sisters in Christ, who have been faithful through the years, being salt and light in their towns and villages. They are sinners like us all, susceptible to power fights and personality conflicts. But they are often prayer warriors, praying for God’s work around the world. They give faithfully to offerings to provide help to the poor. They send men and women, money and supplies, to help in times of disaster. They work for good in their villages and towns. But, finding it difficult to accept the rapid changes in our world, they fear that the church is dying. So, they, too, are sometimes guilty of drawing a circle around God. “How can you worship God when the worship service becomes more like a concert?” they ask. “How can those young folks with tattoos and piercings be Christians?” “How can you get to know your pastor when you watch the sermons on a big screen?” Quite simply, they have a hard time seeing God at work “over there.”

There are many ways of drawing circles: traditional denominations divisions, doctrinal disputes, different tastes in worship style, political differences, differences about what kind of lifestyle is acceptable for Christians to live. It is so easy to say, “This is the way the church ought to be. This is what it means to be a real Christian. We are right. They are wrong. God is at work here. Not over there.”

Why are we so tempted to draw lines between those we believe are ”in” and those we believe are “out.” I think it has to do with our own sin, our own need to assure ourselves that God is at work where we are. Confronted with others ways, we want to justify our own. But Jesus challenges us to change our way of thinking, to change our way of acting, in the face of otherness. One day, an expert of the law asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responded with a question of his own, “What is written in the Law? What is your interpretation?” The lawyer knew his stuff. He reached into the Law and quoted the two commandments that Jesus himself is said to have identified as central: We are to love God with everything we have, and love our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus commended the lawyer for his answer. But then, Luke says, the lawyer wanted “to justify himself,” and went on to ask, “And who is my neighbor?” In short, where can I draw the line? Who do I have to love? Jesus answered with the parable of the Good Samaritan.

You probably know the story. But think again about what Jesus did. The lawyer wanted Jesus to draw a circle. He wanted Jesus to say, these are your neighbors, these are the one’s you are to love. Instead, Jesus obliterated the circle. Jesus told a story about a man who was clearly outside of the lawyer’s circle. Samaritans, after all, were racially mixed (not pure Jews!), believed the wrong things, practiced the wrong rituals, and worshiped in the wrong place. They were clearly unacceptable to God, or so thought the Jews. How could they be his neighbors? But Jesus told a story about a Samaritan man who reached from outside the circle to meet the needs of a man (probably a Jew) inside the circle. Two devout Jews on the other hand passed by. Which of the characters showed love? Which character did Jesus suggest would “inherit eternal life”? Not the devout Jews! Then, get this, Jesus says “Go and do likewise!” Go be like a Samaritan!! Love beyond the circle. Love all those God brings into your lives, especially those in need. Jesus refused to draw a circle to limit God’s love, and ours. Instead he tells us to go outside “the circle” with love. That’s what characterized his life, too. Jesus hung out with those “outside the circle.”

So why is it that we work so hard to draw a circle, to define who is in and who is out? Like the expert in the law, we draw circles around God to justify ourselves. We find security in believing that we are acting the right way, believing the right things, doing church the way God wants. But it’s false security. Real justification comes from Christ. And Jesus calls us to reach beyond our comfort zone, ignoring our various circles, and seeing God at work in all kinds of ways. I sometimes hear it suggested that the church is dying. God’s church is not dying. It is alive and well, as always , wherever two or three (sinful people) are gathered in the name of Christ. God is at work in small, struggling churches. God is at work in mega-churches we hear about on the news. God is at work outside the church as well. God is at work among people that we Christians draw circles to keep out. May God forgive us and open our eyes to see.

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God May Not Change, But We Should

In some of my classes I ask the students to reflect on how they have learned think of God as they grew up and how their views of God have changed through their lives so far.  These student reflections always give me insights into the minds of young adults today.  Not surprisingly, some write about how they learned to think about God as an old man with a beard.  Others write about God as a being who always watches them. Many students these days seem to think of God’s constant presence positively; God is always there when they need help.  But others describe God’s ever-present vision more negatively, as if God is watching to make sure we humans don’t do anything wrong.  God is the combination of a cosmic Santa Claus and cosmic police officer.  God keeps track of “who’s been naughty and nice” and is ready to punish those who have been naughty.   I am not surprised by the fact that students report that they learned these images of God as children.  But I am quite disappointed when they think these images are the way their churches encourage people, including adults, to think about God.  Frequently, my students say they’ve left their childhood faith behind because they can’t believe these things about God anymore.

Listening to my students has convinced me that church members, (mainline or evangelical, Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox) are often “frozen” with an elementary school understanding of God.   It’s as if that’s all Christianity has to offer.  Within the church there is no room to grow past simplistic views of God.  So, if you grow and change, your only option is to leave.

Recently, one of my student’s wrote something that really caught my attention. This student, a conservative Christian active in his church and Christian group on campus, wrote something like this:  “Since the time that I learned about God, my view of God has not changed, and it never will.”  My heart sank when I read his words.  I know what he means.  He is trying to express the firmness of his faith.  He does not want his beliefs to be “blown about by every wind of doctrine,” or by the “empty philosophy” he hears from his professor (me).  He sees this attitude as a virtue.  He could even cite chapter and verse!  To some extent, I understand.

I am saddened nevertheless.   This student is shutting off his mind and heart to the Spirit of God.  He is saying that nothing could make him change and grow in the way he thinks about God.  But the way we think about God should change!  As we learn more and more about the world through science and experience, as we grow as Christians, as we struggle with suffering and experience joy, I would hope that our understanding of God would be always changing.  As we encounter the very real complexities of our world, I would hope that our faith could help us see that God is bigger than we had thought, big enough to be the Lord of the real world.  If not, why should we hold on to God at all? Wouldn’t it be better to follow the example of the students who leave religion behind?

As I teach my courses (philosophy and religion) one of my objectives is to get students to think in new ways, to examine their assumptions, and yes, to think critically about their own beliefs.  I am not trying to destroy their faith.  I am trying to help them be open to intellectual and spiritual growth.  I am, in short, trying to help them change.  This is what God has called me to do.  So, it is discouraging to hear a student say that he or she will never change.  I am even more discouraged when I think that this attitude is reinforced by the churches and fellowship groups which some of my students attend.

Why do young women and men tell me they have left behind the faith of their mothers and fathers?  One reason is that the God in whom they have been told to believe is not worthy of their belief.   Until we start to grow in our own understanding of the mystery and greatness of God, until we see that God is way more than a cosmic Santa Claus or an omniscient police officer, the church will continue to be left behind by those growing up in today’s troubled, difficult and complex world.

Christians believe that God does not change.  That does not mean that we should not change, even in our beliefs about God.  We can never fully understand God, so we always have room to grow.  When we grow in our way of seeing God, it is not God who changes, it is us.  That is a change we should welcome.  It is the work of the Spirit of God transforming our minds and renewing our hearts.

No Entrance Exam

Several months ago, I had a conversation with a college student that left me distressed.  As a professor at a small Christian university, I have the privilege of talking to students about all kinds of things, including spirituality and religion. On this particular day, a student had made an appointment with me to discuss changing his major to religion.  The conversation, however, turned to much more important questions than what Sean should major in.  As we talked, Sean opened up to me about some deep concerns.  He had grown up in an evangelical Christian home.  His parents were very involved in a church.  Sean had gone through a period of doubting and rebellion, but in high school he got involved in a Bible study group that helped him reaffirm his Christian faith.  I could tell, though, that his time in college continued to be a time of questioning his faith.

Sean told me that he had become friends with another student who called herself a Christian, but who was a member of a church that many evangelical Christians would say is outside of the boundaries of historical Christian faith. I could tell that out of his conversations with his friend, Sean had developed a deep respect for her conviction and faith.  But it raised a question that was deeply troubling for him:  “What if she is right in what she believes and I am wrong?  Will I go to hell?  Lots of groups of Christians who claim to believe and teach the truth about God.  They don’t agree,”Sean worried aloud  to me. “What if my beliefs are the wrong ones?  What if I do not believe what I need to believe to get into heaven?”

I have thought about that conversation with Sean a number of times since.  In ruminating about it, I was reminded of a day, many years ago when I was visiting an independent Bible church.  I was reading their statement of beliefs.  I don’t remember the exact words, but I am pretty sure it said something like, “We believe that a person can (only?) be saved by believing in the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ for his sins.”  (I am pretty sure it didn’t say ‘his or her sins,’ but I suppose that is what they meant.  That statement struck me as wrong at the time, and it strikes me as wrong today.  The implication is that no one can be saved if he or she does not hold the correct doctrinal belief about Christ’s death.  Salvation, in short, depends on having the correct theology.  I would argue that this is unbiblical.  What is wrong about the statement is not the doctrinal theory of salvation that is referred to, although we could discuss that.  What is wrong about it is that it claims that one is saved by believing a particular doctrine, a particular formulation of Christian truth.  I can’t think of any passage in the Bible that suggests that heaven has an entrance exam in theology.  I know some, perhaps many, Christians will get upset when I say this, but I do not believe that anyone is saved by believing a particular doctrine or kept from being saved because they didn’t quite get their doctrinal beliefs in line.

Again, I remember many years ago reading an illustration of the nature of faith.  It went something like this: Imagine that you have fallen off a cliff and are hanging on for dear life to a shrub growing on the side of the rock.  A voice comes from below. “Let go of the branch.  I am on a ledge right below you.  I will catch you and keep you from falling.”  You hear a real voice.  You are not just imagining it or hoping there is someone there.  You can trust the voice and let go or keep holding on.  Trusting the voice takes faith.  Faith is not just hoping there is someone below and letting go.  It is responding to a real voice, trusting the person that is uttering the words of salvation. That’s something like what I remember about the illustration.  But take the illustration a bit further.  Just what does it mean to trust?  Does it mean having the right beliefs about who the person is? Not at all!  Faith is hearing a voice offering help and allowing the source of the voice to help you.  Imagine that I am the one holding on for dear life and it is my best friend who is calling out to me, but the wind is obscuring my friend’s voice and in my state of mind I don’t recognize the voice.  Imagine that I think it is a fireman or an emergency rescue person who has come to save me.  Nevertheless, I hear the voice and am confident that the person who is speaking with me is ready and able to rescue me.  So I let go.  What is my friend going to do when it becomes clear that I didn’t know it was her?  Let me go?  Push me off the ledge and send me to my doom?  Of course not.  Surely we will hug and laugh and rejoice that even though I was confused and mistaken, I put my life in her hands and she saved me!  And we’ll go back to our friends and family and party together because I am okay.

I didn’t have a very good answer for Sean as he sat in my office and shared his concerns.  I hope that the fact that I listened to his worries was a help in itself.  When students ask me questions or make comments, it is usually later on that I think of a response.  To be honest, that’s probably fine, because it’s the answers we find for ourselves that really help us answer our questions.  But I will say that Sean helped me think about my own faith, as students often do when they raise questions about such matters.  And the more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that the God I believe in, the God I see in the Bible, the God who sent Jesus Christ into the world to save sinners, is not a God who gives an entry exam at the gates of heaven.  Jesus did say, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the father but by me.”  Just as there are some Christians who get upset when I say there is no entry exam for heaven, there will be others (both Christians and non-Christians) who will get upset when I suggest its true that Jesus is the only way to the Father.  But what Jesus didn’t say is also important.  He said, “no one comes to the Father but by me.”  He didn’t go on, “and if you don’t quite get my name right, if you get confused about who I am, I’m going to let you go.”  No, the God of Jesus Christ is a God of grace.  The voice of God is calling out to all of us on this planet.  There is a lot of yelling going on in our world that makes it very hard to hear the voice.  Maybe we should quit yelling so people can hear God’s voice more clearly.  There’s a lot of suffering and pain that make it very hard to think straight.  Maybe if we can relieve some of the pain of others, they will hear God’s voice to them.  There’s a lot of just plain selfishness that causes us to hear the voice say what we want to hear rather than what God wants us to hear.  Certainly, we can be more open to learning from others, realizing that we might just have it wrong sometimes. In the meantime, is God going to let us drop if we don’t quite get it right?  I really don’t think so. The God of Jesus is a God of grace who is waiting, longing to catch us.  The New Testament claims that this God became a human being, suffered the most horrendous death to make it possible for us to come back to him.  A God who loves us that much is not going to let anyone who trusts the divine voice slip from the ledge, no matter how confused.  And one last thing: it says in the Bible that whenever Jesus catches one of us who would otherwise fall on down to death, there is laughter and partying in heaven.

I truly hope Sean will come to understand that God will not push him into hell just because he doesn’t quite believe the right things.  I pray that Sean will grow to see the incredible love of the God who will hold him in grace and continue to believe in him,  even when Sean is not quite sure what he believes himself.