A few years ago, a twenty-eight-year-old woman shared with me what she called her “unseemly struggle:” she was dissatisfied … with most everything. Growing up, she had simple desires for life: a decent husband, a nice family, and a moderate house.
Soon after college she married a good guy; they both found jobs in their fields; they bought a nice house; and within a few years they had a healthy baby boy.
She had every significant aspiration she had ever desired. Yet she was restless.
So they bought a new car, repainted the house, added granite countertops and stainless steel appliances. They were promoted. Her husband got an MBA. She quit her job to become a full-time mother. It felt good. For a bit.
Soon she felt restless all over again. “Is this all there is?” She saw the same unease in her friends, pursuing raises, cars, promotions, and kids. Then she heard an Einstein quote,
Insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result.
She said to me, “I wonder if we’re all spiritually insane.”
“For God does speak–now one way, now another–though man may not perceive it” (Job 33:14).
Humanity was created to be in a relationship with God; not God as a simple supplement, nor God as mere miracle worker. God created us to know him personally, as a father with a child, friend to friend, and even (breathtakingly intimate) as a husband with a wife.
At the beginning of time, Adam and Eve walked and talked with God in the cool of the garden. That’s what we were made for.
When humanity disobeyed God, we didn’t just break a rule, we broke a relationship, exactly—exactly!—like when a spouse commits adultery. And that broken connection with God shattered our rapport with him. The root of all relationships is communication and we lost our ability to hear God.
Oswald Chambers said, “If you are not sensitive enough to detect His voice, you will quench it, and your spiritual life will be impaired.” Failure to hear God harms our wellbeing!
At immeasurable cost—the cost of the cross—God entered into history and acted to save us. But save us for what? Just to be good little boys and girls? No! The God of the universe saved us to restore our relationship with him. And that means communication…
“…So that we might know him” (Phil. 3:10).
My book Hearing God in Conversation was released early by Amazon last week (surprising my publisher). I wrote it to help reconnect us with the creator, to embrace his repair of our impairment; to hear his voice in our daily lives, to grow in intimacy with the One who loves us.
And to rediscover a conversational relationship with God.
When my family moved to Detroit, the summer between my first and second grade, Tommy was the first friend I made. He too was the son of a pastor—so we had that in common—but his mother hated the idea of punishment.
Tommy’s mother caught us smoking cigarette butts behind their church which was right next door to their house. (How could we have been so stupid?) She explained that the butts have other people’s germs. When that insight failed to motivate him, she offered a pack of gum for every day he didn’t smoke.
Instead of obedience, Tommy’s mom favored explanation, “Do you really want someone’s butt in your mouth?”, and bribery. (My own mother’s response was more pointed and painful.)
Reasoning and bribery didn’t stick. The pleasure of sex and drugs made more sense (and paid better) than his mother’s urgings and graft. By the time he was twenty, Tommy had been arrested for drugs that he sold to support his pregnant girlfriend.
[This article is about obedience not about parenting—though there are implications for parenting as well.]
Tommy’s father favored stricter discipline but his mom’s philosophy was, “I don’t want to crush his spirit.” She let him crush his own.
My father died twenty years ago last Friday, April Fool’s Day, 1996. (I often wonder if he planned that day.) A week before his death, knowing his death was imminent, my father made a suggestion. Deathbed advice has power other suggestions can’t match.
My dad told me that many of the people he counseled lived their adult lives being controlled by their parents. Most parental-control situations are easily recognized: parents who bully and browbeat or those who provide unceasing, unsolicited advice.
He told me there is another insidious control which most people fail to recognize. It’s the unconscious control our parents exert when we try our hardest not to be like them.
My father summarized his advice like this:
If you spend your life trying not to be like somebody you will spend your life not being somebody.
When I was twelve, my parents taught me to read a chapter of Proverbs a day. Proverbs has thirty-one chapters, so the day of the month determined which chapter to read. (Some months, of course, have fewer than thirty-one days, and I just skipped those last chapters without guilt.)
After ten months of Proverbs, I finally—dare I say it?—got bored. So on a whim, I decided to read Hebrews. But then a Sunday school teacher told me Hebrews is a horribly difficult letter, and I would do better to begin with something easier, like Timothy.
I immediately stopped reading Hebrews. (I didn’t even look at it again until I was thirty.) But studying Paul’s two letters to Timothy was good. I read them three or four times.
And then, once again, I was stuck. What should I read next? My Proverbs / Hebrews / Timothy venture sparked a multi-year struggle to find a reading plan that could pass the test of time.
My natural inclination is to believe life will turn out just fine; I lean towards the positive. It’s not that I think every day will be sunshine and daisies (my home is in Michigan, the birthplace of gray skies), it’s just that I believe the sun will come out eventually.
Last month my outlook on life was normal: optimistic. I had reasonably high hopes that my next book will sell well after its July release; I felt positive about the “fruit” of my daily tasks (writing, counseling, etc.); and I mostly believed God would work things for the good.
But when I’m sick, my personality leans toward the negative. It’s not that I’m Eeyore or Puddleglum, but their gloomy forecasts no longer seem farfetched.
These past couple weeks I’ve been sick and my outlook on life turned sour.
I began to doubt that people are interested in learning to hear God (the topic of my book); I questioned whether anything I do contributes anything of value to the world; and I began to worry that God wanted to punish me for some past, forgotten sin.
Bear in mind: nothing external had changed! I didn’t receive negative comments from my publisher. Readership of my blog and one-on-one counseling interaction remained the same. And I didn’t read a Scripture passage that says, “God really dislikes you.”
The world outside remained constant. No new information came my way—not the dinkiest fact—that should convert my beliefs into doubts. And yet my fears festered and flourished.
I once told a friend of a recurring temptation of mine. Over the next month, he shared my secret with a dozen other friends, spicing up the tale with the fib that I had yielded to the temptation—even though I hadn’t. His betrayal shocked me. I skipped several lunch and dinner appointments, unsure who had heard and what they thought.
His disclosure also angered me. I obsessed over his treachery: How could he have divulged my secret temptation? And why worsen my shame with the sneering proclamation I had done it! I would never have betrayed a friend like that.
One day, as I fumed over his relational-adultery, I sensed God’s voice speak into my seething self-pity: Sam, why are you so angry? I thought the answer obvious: My friend had stabbed me in the back! Then I remembered a verse:
“I tell you, when one sinner repents, there is joy among the angels of God.” (Luke 15:10)
I thought, Sure, I suppose there would be joy in heaven if this jerk (I mean, friend) repented. His public confession might even bring me a bit of joy here on earth.
And I sensed God say, “I’m not talking about his sin; I’m talking about yours.”