I just saw a cute meme on Facebook. Sounds almost like the beginning of a joke, right? But I really liked it. It was tasteful, unlike so many of the religious-themed ones. It had a message I liked. And it was simple. But … It was also simplistic.
As far as memes go, this one was probably as true as any of them. General encouragement, general principle, general instruction. Generally helpful.
But the problem is that it was just that: general and simplistic. It could not address my specific situation. It reduced a complex and free-flowing relationship with God and our circumstances into a formula. And God is bigger than that. And so are we. And so is life.
I do believe that God intervenes in our lives in powerful ways. But I also know there are times when it feels like he’s left us hanging out to dry. Like he doesn’t see our problems. Like he is ignoring us, and we’re in it all alone.
I don’t think he’s doing that at all, but sometimes it sure feels that way.
And the thing is, sometimes it is absolutely the right thing for us to be going through: the trouble, the hard times, the rough circumstances. Diamonds aren’t polished by speaking nicely to them or setting them in red velvet. They’re polished by grinding, by cutting. And if you don’t think God wants to add a little polish to your life, well, then what is he involved in your life for?
What little I know about God, I’ve learned from the bible and interpreted through the lens of life experience. Theology isn’t theology until it’s lived out. And ya know? When you begin opening yourself up to God, when you lift your eyes off the immediate circumstances, and you focus your thoughts and your praise on the One who sits above it all, holding it all in his hands … sometimes that power enters your life in dramatic ways. And sometimes it just lifts your spirits so you can plow through those circumstances.
In those moments, by all means, hold on to the general truths – of God never leaving you, of his great and loving plans for your life, of the certainty that he will ultimately work things out for your good.
But trying to force a specific outcome by quoting a promise given to someone else in Scripture and may not be applicable to you or your situation at all, just confirms that you’re trying to operate outside your own personal relationship with God.
From Abraham waiting years for the promised son, to Joseph sitting in Pharaoh’s prison, to Moses tending goats on a mountain, to David waiting 15 years for his rightful throne, to Elijah running away to a holy mountain because he heard bad rumors, to Paul spending years in the wilderness and then more years as a disciple before really being ready for his apostolic call – it all depends on who you are and where you are in your journey. It takes time. It takes a little suffering. It takes experience. It takes a little maturity – born only from that experience.
Dropping 10% into the offering plate and claiming your multi-fold return may or may not trigger a spiritual tidal wave that washes away your debts. Quoting healing scriptures and trying to lay hold of your atonement-rights doesn’t always bring the healing you’re looking for. Claiming your authority as joint-heirs with Jesus, and the fact that you sit “in him” at the right hand of the Father, may or may not bring the change to your job, your relationship, your health, … your situation … that you’re trying to “manifest.”
God doesn’t listen to formulas. God cannot be manipulated. “Where were you when the foundations of the earth were laid?” Do you think you can make God perform by quoting his own words back at him, or by stroking his ego? He is not a genie, he is not a coke-machine. You don’t plug in your quarters and get your selection.
He is a person. He responds and reacts in relationship. And sometimes, because he is in relationship with you, he will lead you through tough times. He will allow you to sit in a dungeon cell for a while. He may leave your “thorn in the flesh” in place. Why? Because it’s good for you. Because a spoiled child is of no use to anyone.
That doesn’t mean God doesn’t care. Or that he is indifferent to your suffering. That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t want you to be blessed. Perhaps he wants to expand your understand of what “blessing” is – and what it means to be a blessing to others. (Ever gotten unwanted advice from someone who’s had an easy life? Yeah. You gotta earn your cred.)
I believe in God’s power. I believe God wants us to be happy. I believe he put us on the planet to enjoy our lives – hey, he put Adam and Eve in a garden – AND to be a benefit to others. I believe God does work out all things for our ultimate good. And I believe God wants a one-on-one, intimate friendship with each and every human being – and that includes you, even while you’re going through the muck.
By all means, do your part. Give up part of your pay check for the good of others. Lend a helpful hand to your neighbor. Plant seeds of peace and acceptance; be nice to each other. Lift your voices to the heavens and thank the One who holds the Universe together. Memorize scripture. Recite it to yourself to strengthen yourself, to remind you of who He is and who you are. Especially when you’re going through periods when none of it seems to matter.
You matter. And He is interested in walking through life with you, helping you become the person you were designed to be. And that doesn’t happen by working spiritual formulas or reciting isolated verses as though they were magic incantations. The Word of God is what the Spirit is speaking to you at the moment, specific to where you are right now. And you can’t manipulate that.
Our spirituality, our maturity, has to grow beyond the formulas. Beyond the clichés. Beyond the biblical sound-bites. Learn who He is, who you are, and how you two work together. That kind of spirituality will rock this world.
STEPHEN SCHMIDT is the Teaching Pastor at Expressions Church in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.
He is editor of IMPACT Magazine, and blogs at Cafe Inspirado. Plus you can find him making random comments about food, theology, and life on Facebook.