Jehovah’s Bystander

At eighteen I saw the light; in my middle years I did my best to serve the light; so how did I wind up my late fifties without much light? To borrow a phrase from Kinky Friedman, I had become a “Jehovah’s Bystander,” someone who believes in God but isn’t personally involved. Winston Churchill expressed the same sentiment when he said that he related to the church rather like a flying buttress; he supported it from the outside. This was a seismic shift for someone who’d spent his adult life on the inside.

I had been involved in a few church plants and served in the leadership of a few others in Colorado, Oregon and Illinois. Along the way I presided over weddings and funerals, participated in baptisms and exorcisms and preached to handfuls and hundreds at a time. But when life experience caused me to question my image of God, my awareness of him dried up.

I don’t doubt God’s existence. I still believe he holds all things together, including me. I still consider myself a Christian but I’ve lost much of my sense of communion with Christ since I began questioning my theology on a deeper level. Just as I once rejected Roman Catholic doctrine, I’ve also jettisoned pieces of evangelical theology as well. The difference this time is I have nothing to put in its place.

I’ve come to believe that much of what we attribute to the handiwork of God is a matter of interpretation. We take positive circumstances as evidence of his loving care but tend not to hold him culpable for negative ones. This “faith filter” keeps us from disillusionment. Mine has gotten clogged to the point of doing more harm than good. What has gummed it up are the paradoxes that have been around longer than the Bible.

In light of God’s love and power, how does one explain:

The sad state of the world: Augustine once wrote, “It is enough for Christians to believe that the only cause of all created things … is the goodness of the Creator.” But how does one account for evil and suffering if the “only cause” of everything is “the goodness of the Creator?” Is this the best God is capable of, or is he really limited by our free will and the machinations of a fallen angel?

The limited scope of salvation: Somewhere between half and two-thirds of humanity will be lost forever if the orthodox position is accurate. How would you rate a fire department that managed to save only a minority of those it tried to rescue? Would you trust a surgeon who lost most of her patients?

The existence of hell: Most Christians can’t bear to think it through but eternal torture for temporal wrongs seems more despotic than divine. Not even Hitler revived the Jews so they could be fed into the ovens over and over again. Are the commands to forgive our enemies “seventy times seven” and the assertion that “love keeps no record of wrongs” voided at death?

These difficulties didn’t used to debilitate me; now they do. I don’t expect answers but I do long for the consolation of a father who can make his child feel loved and safe in the midst of complex circumstances I can’t possibly understand. I could use a close encounter but I realize how rare such theophanies are. I hope my condition is temporary. I want the fog to lift. I want to see behind the caricatures to the reality but I also don’t want to manufacture the experience.

Mother Teresa longed for the same solace yet never received it. The book, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, contains letters between her and her confessors spanning two-thirds of a century. They show that for the last forty-five years of her amazing life she felt no presence of God whatsoever—except for a five-week break in 1959.

Time reported that,

In more than 40 communications, many of which have never before been published, she bemoans the ‘dryness,’ ‘darkness,’ ‘loneliness’ and ‘torture’ she is undergoing. She compares the experience to hell and at one point says it has driven her to doubt the existence of heaven and even of God.

Mother Teresa remained able to press on in selfless obedience; that’s what made her a saint.

I’m not.

I’m also not done with my journey. I’m still searching, listening and holding myself open to divine intervention.

*          *          *

“Perhaps great believers and great doubters
are more like each other than either group is like
he great mass of relatively disinterested middle-grounders.
Both are preoccupied with understanding the nature of the universe.
Both agree that this is, after all, the great question.”
—John Ortberg

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15 thoughts on “Jehovah’s Bystander

  1. The state of the world doesn’t reflect well on God’s planning or power. The technical term for this anomaly is “theodicy.” Is this the best God is capable of or is he really limited by our free will and the machinations of a fallen angel?

    Of course this question has been around forever. But God is God and to reject God because He does not design the world according to our wishes does not make sense, does it? Isa 55 says that God’s ways are not our ways. He goes about things differently then we would. He also has a broader view than we do.

    ____

    The limited scope of salvation raises questions about God’s ability. If the orthodox position is accurate, somewhere between 50%-80% of humanity will be lost forever. How would you rate a fire department that managed to save less than half of the people it tried to rescue? Would you trust a surgeon who lost 50%-80% of her patients?

    Instead of blaming God for the lost we should be blaming the Western church which is worried about the next building to build. We should blame ourselves for not getting out there and winning the lost for Christ. We should spend more time in prayer for the lost then we do at our trivial activities. God asks us to follow Him but we ignore that and build a nest egg when the Bible spacificly says that we are to lay our treasure in heaven and not on earth.

    God has given us tools to use. Are we using them or are we squandering them on ourselves?

    Do we have a heart after God or are we going to lose all that we have worked for when Jesus comes for us?

    Jesus asks us to pray for workers because there are few. Are we doing that? If we aren’t, why not? Are we just lazy, or do we not believe God will answer? Or worse, do we not take God seriously?

    _________

    The possibility of hell doesn’t speak well of God’s character. Most Christians can’t bear to think it through, but eternal torture for temporal wrongs seems more despotic than divine. Not even Hitler revived the Jews so they could be fed into the ovens over and over again. Are the commandment to forgive your enemies “seventy times seven” and the assertion that “love keeps no record of wrongs” voided at death?

    Again you are judging God according to our limited understanding. Most of Western Christianity has a default rejection of hell. I guess that is why no one rarely preaches on it. People could not handle it. But it is real and there will be a rude awakening at the judgment.

    We want a nice guy God. I would bet the North Korean Christians would have a different view of hell because of all they have gone through. We live in a world (USA) with rose colored glasses. I would go so far as to call it feminine Christianity. We put all the feminine attrabutes of what we think God should be and reject all the masculine. Jesus is coming to conquer in the book of Revelation.

    Instead of rejecting God because He seems to be mean we should bow before Him in reverance. I don’t think He will say “that’s OK because you misunderstood.” I think He will ask “why you did not obey.”

    ____________________________

    I think most Christians build a god of their own and when they are confronted with the God who it there they reject Him.

    But God is there and He is patient toward us not wishing for us to be lukewarm but on fire for Him.

    You have gone through more than I have ever gone through. So I can’t say I am better. I am a weak Christian who wants to follow Christ with all my heart. Jesus has promised 1,000’s of things for us and desires for us to walk in love by faith in Him. I look for Jesus to fill my heart daily or hourly when I remember to ask. He will answer with power! It is His power I want to flow in.

    O God help me not to fear but to love You and follow You wherever you may lead.

    PS you may have been just working in the wrong template. (Sunday morning church) But I seek mainly to be full of the Holy Spirit, for with Jesus there is life.

    PS I think God enjoys it when you ask questions such as these. It is the questions that will shake up our box. I have yelled at God many times.

    John 6:21 This is the KEY verse of the Bible. When we have Jesus we have the answer.

    Scott

  2. Hi Comrade!

    If anyone is deserving of a divine visitation . . . it’s you, Mike!

    Your careful analysis of past and present events, coupled with your open optimism about the future, puts you in a perfect position. If God exists, and he’s good, how can he not respond to the cry of your heart? And if he responds, how can you not but hear it? Your ears are perked!

    Some people turn a jaundiced eye on the universe and conclude there is no God. Others choose to disregard the tough questions and simply assume dogmatically that there is a God. I don’t think either approach is the right one.

    It was Socrates who reportedly said, “An unexamined life is not worth living.” I’d ratchet that up a notch and say, “An unexamined God is not worth worshiping.”

    You’re in a period of examination (actually, you’ve been there for awhile!). And if at the end of your critical analysis God is still there for you, then you’ll have him in crystal-clear focus. You’ll KNOW he’s for real because you allowed yourself to consider that perhaps he isn’t — and he proved you wrong!

    But if it doesn’t work that way, it’s okay. You’ll still have run the race the best you can, and that’ll be reward in itself. And there’ll be a throng of witnesses to a race well-run!

    Either way, I’m sticking close . . . hoping to ride your coattail to the ultimate reality!

  3. Hi Mike,
    Tim and I have been blessed recently by a book call “A Gospel Primer for Christians” by Milton Vincent. Seems that as Christians we can easily leave the simple gospel behind and live like orphans with spiritual amnesia. We are practicing preaching the gospel to ourselves daily and I am finding a renewed sense of God’s goodness and presence. I do remember during my chemo walking by faith and not by feelings because negative feelings assaulted me daily. How do you feel God’s presence when you have been nauseated, scared and in pain for 3 months? One night I was reading the Song of Solomon and the thought that God created romantic love brough renewal to my faith. Another thought that helped me during my darkest days was the reminder by Martyn Lloyd Jones to speak to myself more than listen to myself. I found the same pattern in the Psalms.
    Blessings to you and yours!!!!!!!

  4. Hey, Mike, I understand your angst. We’ve been discussing some of the same issues in our cancer support group. And there aren’t any easy answers. But I think grappling with them is more profitable than just blindly accepting what we’ve been taught. I hope you can make it sometime soon to the group.

  5. Hey Mike,

    We seem to be in a similar place spiritually. Somehow, this brings me a little comfort. I’m not entirely sure why, except it’s nice knowing I’m not alone.

    Fog. Yes. This describes my spiritual world “view” spot on. I picked up the Norwegian English new testament on my night stand the other night (I’m in Norway as I write this) and could not find even the least bit of light. Where did my excitement for the “Word” go? Too many doubts I guess. Perhaps James was right.

    Nevertheless, my doubts are based in the same questions you asked. Questions which seem answerless, left hanging in the vast, stale air of an empty cathedral. They drift upward with the sooty smell of candles into the rafters high above my head. And all that rains down is silence, gently released from the fog above.

    Musing the blues,
    Al

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