Symbols and Signs

It seems to me that among Evangelical Christians that there is a need to emotionalize and sensationalize our faith. We’ve all seen it, and the non-believing media loves to satirize it. It’s that person in our church that just seems to be really in tune with the spiritual realm, and as they exuberantly address you as “brother” or “sister” they seamlessly segue in and out of what seems like prayer but you’re never quite sure. Lifting you, your cat, and your grandma’s sniffles up to the Lord’s shrubbery shield they pontificate to you about spiritual warfare as if they see the Devil and his minions clear as we see a blue sky, and you begin to wonder if they’re insane. Then you think back to camp or that retreat you were on as a kid and you remember the tingles on the back of your neck and the shiver down your spine. You think to yourself, “Self, I haven’t felt those in a while… Is that bad? Should I be worried? Am I in sin?! HAVE I COMMITTED THE UNPARDONABLE SIN?! AM I GOING TO HELL?! Oh, GOD! Something’s wrong with my spiritual life and God hates me!” And from there it’s just a downward spiral into a depressive, self-depreciating oblivion.

I’ve long taken issue with those kinds of Christians, and to a degree it’s on me as a difference of personality. I’m introverted, fairly level headed, and quite rational. So to me, the kinds of Christians I just “described” (i.e., satirized) always felt overbearing, tactless, and generally irrational. Sometimes it seems that the greater church operates on this level, and we, as rational, thinking human beings who also happen to be Christian, think that we need to be just like them because we have bought into the lie that they are somehow more spiritual than us and that makes them more lovable to God. But what if God doesn’t want us to be just like them? What if He wants to use my rationality as an expression of Himself as much as He wants to use their emotionalism?

Let’s consider Old Testament Israel. From their conception they were wishy-washy towards God despite that they’d seen Him provide miracle after miracle, and you’d think that once they actually reached the Promised Land and established a country of their own things would settle down. Well, settle down they did, and I think that is why in the book of Judges we have this continual, undulating pattern of Israel falling away from God and returning back to Him. There was a long time between each high and low, and I imagine that life carried on for the Israelites much in the same way it does for us: slow, tedious, plain. Where’s the God of the smoke and fire? Where’s the earthquakes? Where’s the food from nowhere? The fanciful stories of generations gone by were given up for myth and the people turned to the Ba’als. Sound familiar? Where’s the miracles in our day? Where’s the concentrated dose of the spiritual world colliding with the physical?

This is where we get in trouble. We look at the biblical accounts and see jaw dropping manifestations of God’s power and majesty, and we look at our more impassioned, if not charismatic brothers and sisters in the faith, and we wonder if we’re missing something. So we start mimicking them by reciting Christian platitudes, and we start looking for symbols and signs where none exist. That’s not faith, that’s spiritually keeping up with the Jones’. We all do it, and it’s called “searching for God’s will in our life.” Christians are so consumed and worried about “fulfilling God’s will” that praying to God begins looking a lot like conferring with a Magic 8 Ball or Ouija Board. We pray to our slot machine God, hoping that He’ll smack us across the face with the “correct” answer to all our life choices, and we try to find them in Scripture. However, we quickly get frustrated when God’s not audibly whispering in our ears, sending some angelic messenger, or some other form of direct communication. We expect God to give us a clear cut answer to all our requests and desires, and I don’t know about anyone else, but I really haven’t experienced anything like that, and I don’t expect to at all during my life. I’m not saying that God can’t or won’t, I’m just saying that based upon Scripture, testimony of other believers, and my own experiences, I don’t expect such a direct intervention in my life.

Besides, God has already intervened in my life more miraculously than any other way: He provided for my eternal salvation. I honestly couldn’t ask for anything more than that. In fact, what is evidence of stronger faith, the believer who “feels” God all the time but needs that feeling to be secure in their relationship with God, or the believer who doesn’t “feel” God and still persists through the most difficult of circumstances? We all go through very difficult times in our lives. Family die, friends betray us, people hurt us. But let’s understand that God is not waiting for us on the other side of our difficulties. He’s walking along side us and leading us the whole time, and just because we don’t “feel” him doesn’t mean He’s not there.

My education in biblical studies and mental health without a doubt colors my theology and how I approach my personal faith, but I do my best to not let that knowledge and education become a source of pride with which I make my fellow believers feel uncomfortable about their personal walks by lording it over them. I very clearly understand that many of these emotional believers that I have been talking about are often times only making the most of what Scriptural and theological knowledge they have. And I also understand that I have much to offer them, and there is much they have to offer me. I can explain technical things to them and they can help me remember that there is a spiritual world at work beyond my everyday life. It’s not easy, though. I’ve essentially had my salvation questioned because of my more intellectual stance on things, and it’s far too easy to feel brushed aside in the heat of someone’s passion, or feel isolated in a worship setting. And there are times where I catch myself judging a fellow believer for their emotionalism.

I told my youth group kids recently that we’ve been raised in the Church being told what to think, but I want to teach them how to think. Part of being told what to think about our faith growing up is that we are expected to have an emotional connection to God and that we need to be emotionally expressive in our worship. The problem is that that experience is not necessarily true for all people, and for young and emerging adults that can be quite distressing because they were raised thinking that’s the expected norm. Then, when the expectations prove incorrect, their worry turns into bad theology defined by a misunderstanding of God’s grace and love, which then permeates the all parts of their life.

So, if you’re like me, and you live your life without the warm fuzzies that other Christians feel, fret not, God doesn’t hate you and hasn’t abandoned you. God wants you to love and serve Him, and how you do that is going to be different than someone else, so don’t copy others, pursue God and He will in time reveal to you who you really are to others, the Church, and most importantly Him.