17. It’s a Great Time to Talk about God
[These transcripts involve some telescoping of remarks Dave makes on the podcast--in this case particularly about how to understand the scriptures quoted here in light of the larger points being made. So you might enjoy a listen to get the nuances here.]
Hello! Welcome to Journey On. I’m Dave Schmelzer.
On the last Journey On, we talked about how some of our richest spiritual practice was actually developed during an earlier pandemic, and we looked at how wisdom from great teachers like Julian of Norwich could offer us a way to find happiness in such a crazy time as we’re experiencing.
This week, we’ll look a little closer at how the faith tradition has also insistently encouraged us that having just a few concrete thoughts in our head about who God is can also be a great and very real help during a time like this.
We’ll look at a cheery prayer I’ve sometimes prayed along these lines and how it’s kept my heart open to see some surprising things God has seemed to bring me.
We’ll look at a take on the whole Bible that one theologian spent his life championing and how it gives us concrete ways into hope and open eyes for ways that a loving God has our needs very much in mind.
And, by definition, we’ll do a quick tour of a whole bunch of Bible passages that are hopeful.
One great encouragement during these shelter-at-home times has been these weekly online groups centering around this journeying spirituality that I help lead. One is on Wednesday nights at 9pm Eastern time and another is on Sunday nights at 6:30pm Eastern. They include some brief coaching from me, some time for your own spiritual connection, and some time in regular breakout groups for connection and prayer--those have been particular highlights. For information on how to get connected to them, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Okay. Kick us off Ryanhood for It’s a Great Time to Talk about God.
[Ryanhood theme music.]
During our current craziness, I found myself praying a prayer that I remember praying at some earlier stress points in my life, which made me want to revisit how that prayer had gone in those times, now that I have some time perspective. The prayer went along the lines of: “God, thank you for the opportunity to experience and embrace the possibilities of this moment.” Which, I’m sure you’ll agree, is sort of an upbeat way to acknowledge a gloomy reality.
One of those times that I regularly prayed that prayer was when it seemed like my whimsical approach to trying to hear from and follow God had seemed to run my life into a ditch. I was working a pleasant but dead end job and it appeared that I’d managed to shut off any other opportunities for a different future that I might once have had. I really couldn’t figure out any ways out. But I found myself praying this prayer and, in retrospect, it kept my eyes and heart open to whatever God might open up and I ended up not pulling out of my whimsical, trying-to-hear-what-God-had-in-mind-for-me life, but doubling down on it, leaving that job with no other job lined up. And soon I was married, living in another part of the country, doing fascinating things, and against all rational odds being provided for.
So at times like this one that can seem bigger than me, remembering that time and other times when I’ve found myself praying “God, thank you for the opportunity to experience and embrace the possibilities of this moment” can feel hopeful. Somewhat for spiritual reasons, obviously, but also for what I might call theological reasons, by thinking a little about God and what we can hope for from God. We’ve talked about the spirituality we talk about on Journey On as being a “journeying” spirituality that includes an interplay between the faith and spirituality traditions. And the faith side of things has historically gotten a lot of traction from our believing stuff about God, as if those perspectives offer us concrete help.
So today I thought we might work that muscle a bit in what, as I record this, is still a locked-down world in the middle of the Covid-19 crisis. I found that a particular theological understanding was especially encouraging to me, and I hope it will be for you as well.
I got a theology masters back in the day, and I went to the school I went to because I wanted to study with one theologian in particular, a man named Daniel P. Fuller, who took a very big-picture view of how to think about God. He wanted to talk about bottom lines, about who God was and what we could expect from God and what response to those things would be in our interest and why--and stuff like that. I really liked that focus, and I want to talk about a few of those conclusions today and about some provocative scriptures that come up along the way.
So a verse that was helpful to me this week in all the uncertainties of this pandemic was Jesus’s response to the devil’s temptation that God wouldn’t provide all the necessities of life for him:
Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.
So while that felt comforting to consider in the uncertainties I felt, it begs the question of how exactly that works. What does it mean to live on every word that comes from the mouth of God?
Let’s think about God for a few minutes together and see if we get some help right along those lines.
So here was a starting-point truism about God that has been so encouraging for me over all of my journey with God. I’ll tell you the truism in two parts.
Part 1: God’s mission is to spread the glory of his goodness throughout the earth.
Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.” And the LORD said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you…”
We get verses where this is spelled out quite explicitly.
Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth.
Part 2: He accomplishes this as we become, as it were, satisfied customers.
I will make an everlasting covenant with them: I will never stop doing good to them… I will rejoice in doing them good… with all my heart and soul.
Evidently God’s personal mission statement, the plaque he put on his wall to keep him on task every day, is to “rejoice in doing us good with all his heart and soul.”
God describes Godself--I’m working at inclusive language here!--very differently than any god that’s come before.
Since ancient times no one has heard,
no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
who acts on behalf of those who wait for him.
(God) is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything.
What does God want from us? Trust and delight.
Martin Luther wrote:
Could we ascribe to a person anything greater than truthfulness and righteousness and perfect goodness? On the other hand, there is no way in which we can show greater contempt for a person than to regard them as false and wicked and to be suspicious of them, as we do when we do not trust them.
His pleasure is not in the strength of the horse,
nor his delight in the power of human legs;
the LORD delights in those who fear him,
who put their hope in his unfailing love.
But how do we pull this off under stress? We do what’s called “fight the fight of faith.”
Each morning, we have the chance to ask ourselves whether our “hearts are happy in God.” If yes, perfect! If not, we’re encouraged to regain contentment and peace by “[fighting] the good fight of the faith” (1 Tim. 6:12), which we do by claiming “the very great and precious promises” in Scripture (2 Peter 1:4).
When we chatted about this in one of our online groups, one thoughtful participant asked if this sort of “fighting” language was against the spirit of contemplative spiritual practice, which is so much about letting things go. And my at-the-moment answer to that is to suggest stashing that question for a moment until you hear a little more and then deciding what you think about it then. Maybe this sort of “fighting” can actually help empower the sort of contemplative stillness that can do that other good stuff. But let’s see together.
So what sort of promises might we find in Scripture and how might they help us?
Well, certainly the big kahuna is the most famous promise of all:
“God works everything for good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose.”
But Fuller sees the Bible as riddled with promises, as if they’re on every page if we have eyes to notice them. Here are two that are characteristic.
For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
What we’re steering clear of, according to Hebrews 3:12, is “an evil heart of unbelief” of which the early warning system is a loss of joy and peace.
We’re told that Satan’s whole strategy against us is to destroy our faith, understood here as our confidence in God and God’s promises for our lives.
1 Thessalonians 3:5 has Paul telling us
For this reason, when I could stand it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith. I was afraid that in some way the tempter had tempted you and that our labors might have been in vain.
Here’s how this theologian, Daniel P. Fuller, talks about this:
Satan’s strategy is to attack our egos, taunting us for not sufficiently employing our own wisdom and strength in coping with some situation. Since his one objective is to destroy our faith, his accusations always carry with them an implicit demand to trust in ourselves rather than in God as he did--when he wanted to be “like the most high” (Isaiah 14:14)
It shows itself, according to Dan Fuller, in at least ten forms.
With time in mind, I’ll suggest scriptures that relate to some of these, while letting you get the gist of some of the others.
1 Peter 5:7
Cast all your anxiety on him, for everything that concerns you concerns God as well.
1 Timothy 6:6
Godliness with contentment is great gain.
You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people.
Jealousy and envy
Earth has nothing I desire besides you. God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
He who did not spare his own son, but gave him up for us all--how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?
Listlessness and despondency
You will make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.
[How I was helped by considering that this week. Regret! Could I have made choices earlier in life--maybe WAY earlier!--that would have insulated my family from this threat? And so on.]
Let’s go back to where we started.
How is that that we don’t live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God? Well, clearly we trust God as we fight the fight of faith and keep our hearts happy in the promises of God. But we also do that by helping each other out. We’ve been given to each other as encouragements.
So let’s look back at more context from that Hebrews passage that taught us about not having “an evil heart of unbelief.”
So, as the Holy Spirit says:
“Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts
as you did in the rebellion,
during the time of testing in the wilderness…
See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.
Maybe this means we’re supposed to be sternly telling each other each day that we need to trust God more than we do. But my read--and my experience, for instance, in these weekly online Journey On groups that I help lead--has more been that just being together with like-minded people of good will and hearing their stories and sometimes praying for each other actually accomplishes a good deal of what Hebrews is suggesting here.
So that prayer of mine that we started with--“God, thank you for the opportunity to experience and embrace the possibilities of this moment.” There’s a leap of faith in a prayer like that, don’t you think? Is there in fact an active and always-good God who can meet your and my needs right in this moment, even in times like these that can seem scary? Which is not to suggest that we don’t face tragedy and dark nights in our long lives--as we’ve talked here about recently. But more, what if this is the starting point truth that God would most want us to know and press into? And, if this starting point is so, how do we join in with that big story?
So, quoting Hebrews, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” Maybe the way to pull that off is to ask yourself each morning if your heart is happy in God’s promises to you and, if not--alongside regular, joyful meditation and prayer--to fight the fight of faith in the sense we’ve been talking about, with great joy and expectation of our hearts again becoming happy in God’s trustworthy promises. What would it look like if, for at least some of us listening, that was one of the gifts that this challenging time is bringing to us?
God bless you and yours this week, and thanks so much for listening.
I’ll look forward to reconnecting soon.