Several months ago I wrote an article about the joy of pausing in the moment of confession; telling God about my total unworthiness, acknowledging my wrongs, and even admitting ways I acted wickedly. I suggested we stop right there in that moment.
A Christian leader canceled his subscription and emailed me to explain. He said my suggestion that “we chronicle our wrongdoing” is “just wrong.” His approach in life is to remember he is made in the image of God and that he has been given a new heart.
Then he explained how he deals with criticism. When friends say he “seems arrogant,” he says that they confuse his confidence with arrogance; but they can have his high level of confidence if they would just realize their own goodness. He suggested I try it.
My inner response was a bit different. I thought, “What a jerk! Doesn’t he know the difference between gospel confidence and worldly arrogance? Can’t he examine himself honestly when others criticize him?”
The more I thought about it, the more confident I became that his approach is just wrong. And the more I thought of him, the more I became … arrogant.
Like my friend, and many before him, in my attempts to feel good about myself, I abandoned grace. I realized I often really misunderstand grace.
Many of us misinterpret grace, because grace is an ecosystem.
“God speaks time and again—in various ways—but nobody notices” (Job 33:14).
Most people I know have an innate desire to hear God; actually, more than a desire, an intense longing. We want to connect with the divine, to somehow see the face of God, to touch and be touched. It’s inborn, an inherent ingredient of our humanity.
Scripture says God is always speaking, but we miss it. We don’t notice his voice because we don’t recognize it. Oh, sometimes he breaks in through writing on the wall or through a speaking beast of burden, but mostly he speaks in a still, small voice.
We miss his voice because it is drowned out in the sea of other voices. The cacophony of sounds, like an orchestra tuning, obscures that still small voice. Stomachs growl their hunger, bosses bark their orders, and that insult from twenty years ago still shouts its condemnation.
How do we learn to discern God’s voice? In meditation. Christian meditation trains our ears to distinguish God’s voice—that one instrument—amidst the orchestra of others. And once we learn to recognize God’s voice, we begin to hear it “time and again, in various ways.”
To hear God’s voice, we need to learn to meditate. Unless, like Balaam, you have a talking ass.
I recently heard a Christian speaker say, “Thinking is the devil’s territory; I just want to experience God.” He continued, “Hearing God is a totally right-brained activity. We need to turn off our analytical thinking and lean into our intuition.”
He’s wrong, totally wrong, and dangerously wrong. But I think (oops, I feel) that I understand his dismissal of the analytical. He is reacting.
He’s reacting to the modern era’s enthronement of reason. In the modern age (which began with the Enlightenment), rational thinking became the epicenter, the very essence, of humanity. So Descartes—a prominent rationalist—penned his famous declaration, “I think therefore I am.”
Many people (including the speaker above) react against crowning reason as king. They see too many “intellectual” Christians who spend too many hours studying supralapsarianism vs. infralapsarianism* (who makes these terms up?); such highbrows might hold right doctrine, but they often live harsh, anxious, and miserable lives. Something isn’t working.
So nowadays we reject reasoning. Instead we feel, intuit, or “just believe” because it “seems right.” We prefer the right-brain, we choose imagination over discernment (unless the discernment is based on a gut feel), and we leave thinking to those brainiac eggheads.
The Enlightenment divorced the heart. Today we chop off the head. Both approaches are stupid. Divorcing the heart doesn’t help us think better, and a lobotomy doesn’t help us feel better.
Guillotining the head is not an improvement over stabbing the heart.
I ended last week’s story of betrayal with the faint beginnings of a desire to forgive. But our wanting to forgive doesn’t mean we’ve granted forgiveness any more than wanting a beach vacation gives us tickets to Tahiti. It’s a start, an important start, but only a start.
Our desire to forgive is undermined by our memories, recollections of the betrayal that relentlessly resurface with stunning clarity. With the vividness of slow-motion video, I recall a half-erased whiteboard, the buzz of a fly, and the shadows on the wall.
A friend of mine remembers the jingle of an ice-cream truck and the smell of lilacs through the screen porch.
We want to forgive, but images flood our mind, and something in our soul recoils. We try to forgive and forget, but those memories scratch their way out of the holes we buried them in.
We want justice; somehow, in some form or fashion, we want payment. Like David, our heart cries, “Let death take [them] by surprise; let them go down to hell while still living” (Ps. 55:15).
Or as Freud said, “One must forgive one’s enemies: but preferably after they’ve been hanged.”
Last week I woke up to an intensely vivid dream. In comparison, past dreams seemed like a hazy video on a scratchy black and white TV, while this dream felt like an IMAX theater with heart-throbbing surround sound and mountain-shaking sub-woofers.
I dreamt of a long-past betrayal, and I felt raw fury, pain, and shame wash over me. Again.
Have you ever been betrayed? Few men and women I meet are unscathed. Sooner or later—and most likely sooner—we will all experience a betrayal.
I don’t mean a stab in the back; I mean a face-to-face, kiss-on-the-cheek treachery that leaves us reeling, bleeding, and bewildered; all this from the former ally who afterward smilingly asks, “What’s the big deal?,” suggesting, “Let’s grab a cup of coffee for old time’s sake.”
The depth of our former friendship increases the magnitude of our pain. The friend whose betrayal most brutalizes us is the comrade whose care most comforted us. As David once sang,
For it is not an enemy who taunts me—I could bear that; it is not an adversary who deals twistedly with me—even that I could bear. But it is you, my comrade, my companion, my close friend. We used to enjoy sweet intimacy. (Psalm 55:12-14)
It may have been a wealthy parent who willed you one penny, a callous gym teacher who called you a coward in front of other kids, or the partner who embezzled your retirement funds. Probably the worst is an adulterous spouse.
How do we handle the pain, fury, and shame of a personal betrayal?
I woke up last week to the blahs, like Marie Antoinette’s claim, “Nothing tastes.” This happens to me when I’m tired, and ten restless nights had drained me. I felt exhausted. And melancholy.
I wasn’t irritable (at least no more than usual). It was just a sense of doldrums. I tried a couple movies, but they didn’t grab me; I tried some good books, but they bored me. Nothing tasted. As a distraction, I did deskwork, but it all felt so dreary. Like doing taxes with a toothache.
I also tried praying. It wasn’t bad. I even felt a flicker of inspiration, but then it flickered out. (“Typical,” I thought.) I wasn’t particularly sad, but I did feel kind of … emotional.
How are Christians supposed to handle our emotions? It simply cannot be limited to:
- The Emotional Prima Donna. EVERYTHING is SO EPIC! Like geysers they spurt tears at every Hallmark holiday. Their feelings make them the center of attention.
- The Emotional Volcano. Pissed at the world, they erupt at the tiniest insult and explode at a slightest sign of disrespect. Their feelings threaten the world.
- The Emotional Eunuch. Claiming to be mini-Spock’s, they stuff their feelings. But they lack his charm (and his cool, pointy ears). They seem like animated cabbage. Their lack of feelings make them alien.
Please, tell me I’m not the only one annoyed by these responses (although, come to think of it, maybe I am feeling a bit irritable).
Then—I kid you not—I read a quote by the pop star Madonna, and it began my recovery.
In 1989, the company I worked for was dying. A multi-year sales drought had dried up our bank accounts, and our owner’s cash cistern was dusty as well. I was asked to demo our software to one of our sales prospects (actually, our only sales prospect).
If the demo failed, I would lose my paycheck and my prestigious, corner … cubicle.
The night before my demo, the client’s consultant told me that our competitors had badly bungled their demos, wasting half the time showing off “cool” but unneeded features. When the client asked to see solutions to their problems, our competitors ignored them, and continued showing off the coolness of this or that particular feature.
Our competition failed because they wouldn’t yield control of the conversation to the client. They doggedly stuck to their agenda, completely oblivious to the client’s needs.
The consultant suggested I start the presentation by asking the client to describe what they needed. He suggested I then use the rest of the demo to show how our software solved those problems. I did. They liked it. We got the deal. And I kept my cubicle.
What does demoing software have to do with hearing God? Everything.