That summer I was 21, going on 22, and I had found an opportunity to serve as a program leader and summer camp counselor at a Christian camp just outside of Allentown, PA.
I didn’t know a whole lot about Lyme disease at the time but I knew it was caused by tick bites and that it had been spreading a lot in the area. So I was cautious: I stayed on the paths, I didn’t go walking through underbrush or sit in tall grasses, and directed the kiddos (and myself) to regularly check for ticks.
My fellow camp counselors found my caution to be insufferable. They regularly jabbed me with platitudes about needing to “trust God” more and finally, they got to me. One weekend afternoon after the camp was empty of children for the week, everyone wanted to play hide-and-seek in the woods. The desire to fit in with the other staff my age was too loud. I decided that they were right, I probably should just “trust God” with this whole Lyme disease thing and live a little.
I laid down in the underbrush and leaves to hide. I did a good job — after a half hour, no one had found me.
The next day I felt feverish. I had a weird rash of clustered dots all over my legs. The camp nurse said it wasn’t anything she had seen before and certainly wasn’t Lyme disease. In the days that followed, I started feeling super exhausted. I slept 8 hours a night and felt like I hadn’t slept at all. I couldn’t do my job. On the weekend, I couldn’t hang out with anyone and be part of the gang. My neck was sore. I started getting unrelenting frontal headaches not solved by any amount of prayer, rebuking the enemy, or ultimately even any amount of Tylenol. I thought of going to the doctor but I was sure I was just experiencing some attack of the enemy. And I had come to the conclusion that doctors were for people who didn’t have faith. I wasn’t sure God even would allow me to go to a doctor; I was sure He wanted me to turn to Him instead.
One day I was taking a shower and realized my leg was hot and itchy. I looked down and saw this huge red puffy area on my leg. I got an even better look and discovered it was a circular round red puffy area the size of my hand, with a purple center. I wondered if it could possibly be Lyme disease and this is hard to describe but I will try: I felt this overwhelming glowing peace envelope me from within and without. I thought then about going to the doctor and the light and peace now glowing all through me seemed to smile at me. I knew this was God’s presence and I was shocked that He seemed to agree I should go to the doctor. I thought about getting a blood test and the glowing peaceful agreement continued.
Sure enough, I had Lyme disease. And being enboldened by my Holy Spirit encounter, I was able to break with my earlier condemnation about medical science and actually take the month of doxycycline antibiotic that was prescribed to me.
It turned out I could trust God — as He broke through my religious ideas and instead assured me that medical care was a good idea. But my earlier, wrong-headed “trusting God” to keep me from getting bit by a tick or contracting a lifelong disease, that had turned into what could have been a huge disaster. He did not protect me from the immediate ramifications of failing to protect myself. A tick had bit me and given me its diseased payload. But because He was merciful to me in my foolishness, thankfully I was able to tackle the acute phase appropriately and quickly, even though I still had years of low-level chronic remaining issues to resolve. Still, Lyme left untreated in the first phase can turn into a completely debilitating illness for years and years and I was mercifully somehow spared that.
This was the second time I learned that trusting God didn’t mean what I thought it did. It didn’t mean failing to recognize real dangers in the world and avoiding the knowledge and usefulness of medical science. In both cases, trusting God meant overcoming the fake “faith” offered by my legalistic mindset, and coming to a real faith in God who wasn’t being as “magical” as I wanted him to be about my problems, but who wanted me to deal in down-to-Earth terms with real life material-world issues and material solutions. God as I was encountering Him seemed concerned directly about how the universe and the natural world actually work.
I was 18 and I was sitting in the dentist’s office when the dentist said something I couldn’t accept: “Your wisdom teeth are coming in sideways and you need to have them removed.”
This was an insane thing in my mind. God gave me wisdom teeth. Surely He didn’t intend for them to be removed, like some medical rite of passage, before they had even showed up fully in my mouth. This was terribly “unnatural” and if I knew anything, I knew that natural was the way things ought to be.
I argued with the dentist.
The dentist explained, “If your wisdom teeth keep growing in at this angle, they will grow into the roots of the teeth next to them, and they will kill those teeth too.”
In that moment, in huge contrast to my own emotions of umbrage towards the dentist, I felt the peace of the Holy Spirit, as if the Spirit was gently indicating to me He agreed with what the dentist said. I couldn’t believe that either. Truth be told, I didn’t want to believe it. God was supposed to be on the side of natural things, not on the side of the medical establishment that wanted to unnaturally and invasively alter my body and remove my precious new teeth.
I left the dentist’s office having zero plans to see an oral surgeon and have these teeth removed.
Years later, my front teeth were all jammed together and twisted from the wisdom teeth pushing all my teeth into each other. A roommate tried to explain to me, in terms that to her were said so carefully but to me felt so rude, “You know, you’d be so pretty if only you’d get braces.” She didn’t know that my teeth had not always been like that, nor that there was a reason they were like that now.
Eventually I did get those wisdom teeth removed. The decade I had spent having “faith,” praying for my teeth to “align” and become straight, had only served to show me that there was such a thing as cause and effect after all, and spiritual things didn’t usually alter that reality.
And after my wisdom teeth were removed, I had to have another molar removed too. The pressure of the wisdom tooth up against it had caused it to absorb itself from the inside out, in something called, “spontaneous resorption.” I tried in vain to save the tooth first with a giant filling, then a root canal, but after a terrible abscess that was the worst pain in my life, that one had to come out too. Somehow the evil dentist had turned out to be more “right” than my wrongly placed “faith.”
I liked to think I was listening to the Holy Spirit. But I wasn’t. I still remember that moment when I actually encountered the Holy Spirit, and could have put my faith in the leading he was giving me to do the science thing. But I wasn’t ready, and made up a “faith” in what my own religious inclinations told me was right — a passion for what was “natural” over what was truly sensible.
I have more of these stories of learning hard truths from the effects my own foolish stubbornness, that have greatly shaped my journey. It seems the season to share. Stay tuned.
I’m going to begin a series of posts about experiencing God’s voice, and this is a HUGE subject that honestly could and probably should be a book, not a blog post. Many have in fact written books on the topic, and some of them are pretty good, and some are not. I wade into the topic with a fresh perspective — I have been through countless teachings and books on experiencing the Spirit and the voice of God and most of them didn’t seem to help me very much when I was trying to learn how to find Him in this way. So in this series some of what I’ll do is look at the pitfalls of the various approaches that are commonly taught as “the way” to do this, as well as bring my own perspective into play of what I’ve learned along the way of bumped knees and concussions in trying to go on pilgrimage to this place.
The subject is so vast, and it will be hard to do it justice. I’m very aware of my own lack of knowledge on this topic, and yet, I do know I have a small deposit of something worth sharing. If you want to follow along, please pray for me as I write that I’ll be able to organize what I ought to say in some coherent fashion and that, as one stepping into some role as a under-shepherd of God’s people in trying to nurture my readers along, that I won’t leave anything out that needs to be said for the sake of safety and edification.
Safety — it’s an interesting word on this topic. Realistically if you treat into these waters looking to stay safe, I’m afraid you’ve come to the wrong River. Yet there are disasters that we can hope to avoid, even so.
Some of those disasters involve what happens when you put “hearing God” into the context of community. Ironically, many people would point to community as the place of safety in learning to hear God, the idea being that community will keep experiments along these lines from going too far afield. The problem is that often those surrounding us in community aren’t real good at hearing God either — they either quickly shut down things the Lord would want to do because it doesn’t line up with their expectations of Him, or, they themselves are the ones saying they are hearing from God and in the process abusing and manipulating others with what they say God is saying. Hearing God is dangerous — hearing God in community is even more dangerous. And yet, the folks that say we need community for safety are paradoxically also right — community really is the best place to tread into these waters, as Jesus and His Word dwell among us corporately. As much as community can wound and trouble us on our journey, it’s still better to suffer those wounds and troubles than the ones we will end up with going it alone.
At any rate, I hope to do justice to all these pitfalls, and make a clear and balanced presentation of both the singular experience of experiencing God’s voice and the corporate dynamics of the gifts of prophecy and word of knowledge and wisdom and so forth. I might never get done this series.
But let’s begin — why did I entitle this “Experiencing God’s Voice” instead of “Hearing God’s Voice?” This begins my “fresh perspective” I hope to bring into this conversation. When I first wanted to hear God, I wanted most specifically to be “led by the Spirit.” I initially didn’t even realize that the way the Spirit “leads” us is by speaking to us! But I had no idea what avenue, or channel, or sense, or experience would actually constitute being “led.”
When people talk about “hearing” God, folks new to the experience can often assume we are talking about “hearing voices” or at least, a Voice. And, we are. But the fact is that God’s voice is not really all experienced auditory. The auditory experience of His voice is a real one, and one I’ll be discussing as we go forward, but realistically the Lord Himself is not simply transmitting in audio, although he can definitely be found on the audio frequencies. But if we think we are only meant to “hear” His voice, then figuratively speaking we start to search for Him on the AM/FM dials, hoping to pick up only some sort of “sound,” and while He can be found there, searching for Him only as audio not only blocks out the fulness of His “signal” but also ironically leaves us more open to confusion and deception in trying to hear Him. Realistically, the Lord is like super-broadband, transmitting on so many wavelengths all at once — He’s like a star in the Cosmos that you can view in infrared, radio, UV radiation, and visible light, and gravity waves all at once, or a broadcast station transmitting internet, HDTV, FM audio, and cellphone signal all at once. Likewise, He is not just speaking audio, but He speaks thought-to-thought, He speaks in visions, He speaks forth a sharing of the sense of His emotions, He speaks forth dreams, He sings, He laughs, He gives forth His fragrance and extends His love and peace and anger and pleasure and displeasure and His glory and strength and healing and power; He expresses Himself with various extensions of His spirit and personhood to us.
God’s utterance, is, in fact, Himself. His voice is the going forth of who He is, and as He is Spirit, we can only know Him Spirit to spirit. (I’m aware and tracking with you when saying such a thing creates a problem for us when we don’t even know what or where our own spirit is within ourselves.) But His voice isn’t just “voice.” After all, does a Spirit have a mouth or vocal cords? But just like our Sun has an outer atmosphere which is part of it, yet there are deeper layers still, experiencing the Voice of the Almighty has layers. He is extended to us at all times with a constant stream of His Spirit, pouring forth from His being, but there are experiences one might have with a solar flare which would be altogether different from touching the plasma surface of His burning, and different yet again from experiencing the substance of His core, even though His core drives forward and is one substance with all we might experience at any part of Himself.
Yet God is not an unfeeling, inanimate object like a star (no offense meant to any stars out there.). Analogies have their limitations. All of which to say — God is transmitting on too many wavelengths to merely talk about “hearing” His voice as if it would all be auditory or even all words, even though, “hearing” is what all of his communication, whether verbal or nonverbal, can be spoken of in a certain broad sense.
We just need to learn how to drink from the stream more consistently and consciously, instead of rarely and accidentally. It is a stream of living water; throughout the Bible, both “life” and “water” are motifs associated with God’s words. Put together, “living water” refers also to the Holy Spirit, who is made of the same substance of the God who is Living Word, but the Holy Spirit is unique in being the part of God that extends to us and abides within us, and thus carries the rest of God — all that He is, His Words and His thoughts and emotions and voice and personhood to us. Thus Jesus said that the Holy Spirit would “take from what is mine and make it known to you.”
In some words I think of the Holy Spirit as being like the “carrier wave” of a radio station; in radio, the “sound” of the station is wrapped up and embedded in the transmitted carrier wave and when the wave arrives at your receiver, the “sound” is part of but can also be decoded out of the wave. The Holy Spirit is the extension of Heaven from God’s throne to the innermost part of us, and He abides within us individually and among us collectively when we are gathered together in tune with Jesus and His Father and each other.
God can be felt (which is a problem if you’ve always been taught to be wary of “feelings” and “impressions” and “sensations.”). And yet, in wanting to be open to feeling Him, we must also be aware the balance is that most feelings are not Him. And God can be heard, and yet most voices are not His. God can give visions and dreams, and yet not all dreams or visions are from Him. And He can be manifested in miracles, appearances, experiences, and all sorts of things from flashes of inspiration to creativity to peace to joy to overwhelming love to heat to shakings to too many things to list. All of it, when legitimate, is an experience of His Voice. The stream is broad, and so is God’s wavelengths of speech towards us; the stream is powerful, and so is the effect of His Voice where it is made known and received; and the stream is deep; taking us to deeper and deeper experiences of communion with His person.
But all of this we will delve into. Why do some people get prayed for at the altar and while everyone else is falling down shaking, nothing ever happens to them? Why can some people hear God easily and others are left with their own thoughts? Why does music seem to bring some people easily into God’s presence and others can’t stand singing? Why do we talk about God’s presence as something you can experience when the Holy Spirit is in everyone who knows Jesus regardless of feelings? And how do you know if someone’s prophesying is real or not? Is it just a matter of “comparing what they said to the Bible” when the Bible doesn’t say anything at all about that person’s word they gave you that you need to drink orange juice every day for the next week? And what about “signs” and “confirmations?” And while we’re talking about the Holy Spirit and our spirit, and angels and demons and the like, what is “a spirit” anyway?
I’m going to wade through all of it. Here’s hoping you are with me on the journey. And please pray especially the Lord grants Himself to me as I write, as it is after all, all about Him and that is the real journey.
*********************Please let me know any topics you want me to explore in all this as we go forward, below. Or just make a general comment. 🙂
From a mathematical and practical standpoint, it seems that randomness and probabilities undergird the foundations of our universe. (See here for an intro. ). Even for those things which are not TRULY random (like the outcome of a flip of the coin, which is really determined by a whole set of variables), the amount of complexity involved in seemingly random occurrences (such as the chance of a thunderstorm on a specific place and date a decade from now) is so overwhelming that these things are best described in terms of chaos theory and its probabilities and fractals. (Our inability to exactly calculate Pi even after finding trillions of digits is an example of this complexity.)
RANDOMNESS and PRAYER
As a believer in Christ, one of the things I noticed when I was younger and just beginning to really pray about things was that most often, answers to prayer just seemed like a string of really good “luck.” Most of the time when we pray, nothing occurs that actually seems to break any natural laws (like limbs growing out, or objects materializing out of thin air.). Most of the time, it just ends up seeming like things went better than we could have expected them to go, with a line-up of freak coincidences and really impossible-to-conjecture happy occurrences just line up in.a way that leaves us in awe and praising God for how our prayers were heard.
Sometimes the string of “good luck” borders on the edge of ridiculous. I’ll never forget the time in my teens that I decided I wanted to SEE an angel and locked myself in my room for hours doing nothing but tarrying in prayer over this, holding to Jesus’s promise that if we asked for ANYTHING in His name, it would be done for us. While praying for so long, I had my eyes open and was staring into my aquarium as something to absent-mindedly look at while praying. Hours into this prayer marathon, with not a soul in the world including my family having any idea what I was focused on that day and no previous discussions about it with anyone, my mom who had been gone all day long while I was doing this, uncharacteristically had a random thought to go to the pet store and buy me two new fish — angel fish — for my aquarium.
It interrupted my prayers when she got home so I took a break to help her unload groceries and then put the bag floating in my tank to let the fish acclimate to the tank water, and ultimately shut my door and resumed my prayer, staring once again into my fish tank absently, until about 10 minutes in I realized I was looking right at “angels” that hadn’t been there when I started praying. Ok, well, I certainly wasn’t expecting ANGELfish, while begging the Lord to let me see an angel. Honestly, I was amused and angry at the same time, as I realized that for whatever reason, the joke was on me, as God demonstrated that He heard my prayer AND pretty much played with the semantics of my request to pull a joke on me which I was shocked to find out He might do.
Again, when prayer seems to result in a ridiculous string of “good luck” – another time much later on, my husband went for a couple weeks without work and our finances were stretched, and for various reasons we also couldn’t use our kitchen so we were having to eat out. While we prayed for the Lord to please bring him calls for work to provide for our bills, during that week our seeming “good luck” left us rejoicing in awe of the Lord’s kindness in the “ether” of the universe — a malfunctioning coupon code at one restaurant gave us our entire meal for free; at another restaurant, they mistakingly put mustard on something we asked for no mustard on, so they decided to fix the order AND give us 50% our entire meal. And on and on, until it was literally ridiculous and happy.
These are the types of occurrences that could never be used in an apologetics debate to prove God to someone who doesn’t believe, but for those who already believe, the seeming “good fortune” that occurs when praying about stuff can be pretty amazing. And yet accusations of “confirmation bias” might rightly be applied; which really only further underscores the point I wish to make – that overall, much of the time, God’s observed interactions with the physical universe are so subtle that they really look no different at all than the general randomness in the midst of overwhelming complexity that surrounds our existences. And yet, answered prayer seems to put us on the “good luck” side of that incalculable, immeasurable, randomness.
It should be mentioned that Curses, spiritual opposition, and general spiritual negativity seem to work like that too, though. For instance, people are often aware that when they try to step out in some direction in life for the purpose of bringing freedom to people long held in some sort of oppressive bondage, that often they experience a string of “bad luck” and everything going wrong — as if some invisible force was pushing back at them for trying to see others get set free from things.
“Brothers, although we were torn away from you for a short time (in person, not in heart), our desire to see you face to face was even more intense. For we wanted to come to you—indeed I, Paul, tried again and again—but Satan obstructed us….”
This of course leaves open all sorts of room for interpretation — while one person might see a string of negative occurrences as “satan obstructing them” from a course of action, another person might see the same type of circumstance as God trying to show them to make a different decision about what they are doing. (The whole, “Open doors you want me to go through, God, and shut the ones you don’t,” sort of prayers that people sometimes pray, usually mean those people will take resistance not as a sign that satan is resisting them, but that God has “shut a door.” I personally usually don’t lean towards assuming everything that happens is from God.)
How can one know what is truly going on, whether general “flack” kicking up from the universe is just truly random, or perhaps a warning from God, or even a sign that one is headed in a right direction that evil forces don’t like? That’s a long discussion for a different blog post — one about divine guidance, discernment of spirits, and hearing God. But the short answer is that in my opinion, one can never make a decision based on circumstances alone; but must listen to the Holy Spirit to get His perspective, as different spirits (both God or evil spirits) can be responsible for things going on around us. We can learn though that we are supposed to have some role though in making such decisions from the apostle Paul who confidently asked other believers to join with him to “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful, as you pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word [notice no prayers here for closed doors], so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may declare it clearly, as I should.…” (Colossians 4:3)
THE UNIVERSE ON AUTOMATIC
All that aside, what about the kid who gets cancer, or the family killed in a freak car accident? What about when prayer doesn’t “work” at all, and instead of a string of good luck, everything goes terribly wrong, or nothing much happens at all? Is God (or satan) always to blame for the effects of seeming randomness?
As I learned about probability and chaos theory and brought some of those ideas into my faith, one time I felt God was inviting me to go to a casino with Him. (I seldom go to casinos but all things are permissible — in moderation. 😃 ). From that experience and multiple other “experiments” with randomness and probability, my opinion at the moment is this:
Most of the time, the universe just runs on automatic, albeit with Christ holding all things together. Most of the time, randomness is really just pretty random, with no One or ones specifically interacting with it.
BUT — It seems as if randomness is a place that God can hide yet emerge, when He wants to exert His influence, yet in a seemingly inconspicuous way. Most often, God’s exertion of His power is in conjunction with prayer, as God generally acts in conjunction with His human representatives, His kingdom of “kings and priests” on the Earth. Those of us who are in the midst of developing intimacy and friendship with Him can ask and watch for these emergings, and participate with Him in seeing them happen as we dialogue with Him about His will and desires. But most of the time even when God does do something unusual, He cloaks Himself with plausible deniability, so that only those with “eyes to see” really know that He has done something, and those whose eyes are still closed to Him can go on dismissing Him.
Why He does that, I don’t know if anyone can be sure; we all would love every moment to be like Elijiah before the prophets of Baal, putting God on full display with fire falling from Heaven in impossible ways, in plain view of those who don’t believe so that their coming to believe would be easy. But God doesn’t usually go for the full out, “breaking the laws of nature” power display….
(Although, sometimes, sometimes, He cracks right through the fabric of our mundane random reality with something completely out of this world, and undeniably freakish stuff happens. Or does He? Maybe in those cases He just operates within really, really, really good probabilities, so good that trillions of particles in the probability of quantum physics just “happen” to line up with creating a new organ or something…But whether it breaks the laws of physics or is just freakishly quantumly normal, this is really rare compared to what we’d often want it to be.).
My sense of this is just that God is Spirit, and He desires people to know Him in Spirit, so He hides Himself much of the time so that the only way He can truly be perceived is Spirit to Spirit. Because even if someone comes to believe in Him because of experiencing something material of Him directly with the eyes of their flesh, somehow then they still have a hurdle of getting past what they experienced in outward terms to really still apprehending Him with the gaze of their inner Spirit. (2 Corinthians 5:16)
RANDOMNESS AND THEISTIC EVOLUTION
There are considerations involving these topics when it comes to God using the randomness inherent to evolution to create all life on Earth. While evolution is not completely truly random but is a stochastic process operating under many filters and constraints, nevertheless there is enough randomness for one to refer to it as relying on probability and chance and be fairly correct. Often young-earth creationists will take this as a basis to object to a belief in evolutionary creation/theistic evolution, which because of randomness is in their mind being synonymous with a view that “God isn’t a Creator” or that miracles don’t happen.
But, as discussed above, God lives inside randomness and probability, and it is one of His favorite means of interacting with the material realm. If we are happy with answers to prayer that seem like nothing more than “good luck” while we indeed perceive that the “good luck” came from Heaven, while is it so unthinkable to concede that the mechanism of God’s direct action as Creator might involve Him breathing on probabilities and chances, even creating the fabric of probability and randomness itself?
When we speak of God “sending the rain” upon a place in response to prayer, do we think the rain came deliberately through some supernatural storehouse of precipitation, or can we speak of God sending precipitation knowing that He uses the same general random and chaotic occurrences that direct the weather on any other given day? I’d like to submit that the well-known “butterfly effect” — that a butterfly flapping its wings one day one one continent could be the tiny variable that when mixed with all the others ends up producing a hurricane in some other place — could just as easily be seen any tiny intervention from God, resulting in Homo sapiens and all other life on Earth.
God working from the hidden places of randomness is no less an act of creation than anything construed from a literal historical reading of Genesis 1 and 2; and in fact serves only to demonstrate His indescribable wisdom and power in being able to use incredibly complex and long-running processes towards His desired ends. For this, we praise the God of all life and all Creation, of all rain and all snow, and Creator of all the beautiful fractal patterns and outliers of this universe with all its probabilities and randomness.
I’ve been tossing around a different reading of 1 Peter 3:7. Traditionally 1 Peter 3:7 gets read something as if it says something along the lines as this: “Don’t be a jerk, husbands, or God won’t listen to your prayers.”
Here’s the text:
Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.
While I kinda like the idea of husbands getting warned that unkind or dishonoring behavior towards their wives will result in….something….my guess is that most husbands who would treat their wives in an unkind way are also not thinking too much about whether or not God is going to hear their prayers later. (Heck, maybe I’m wrong on that.) But it has occurred to me that there is another way to read this, which I’ve found particularly elegant if it turns out to be true, and because it appeals to me so much, I thought I would blog it:
This verse prefaces the concept of “your prayers not being hindered” with a concept of equality — “heirs with you of the grace of life.” Yes, I know this verse seems to strike against any such equality by calling women “weaker,” but, at least when it comes to spiritual and eternal things it puts women on equal footing with men, as co-heirs of the grace of eternal life.
So could it be possible that the apostle is not warning that failing to live with one’s wife in an “understanding way” will result in a hindering of the HUSBAND’S prayers, but rather a hindering of the prayers of them both, together, as a team of co-heirs? After all, two people praying in unity together is preferable to one person’s prayers alone, and marital disharmony could definitely result in a breakdown of unified prayer between the two spouses.
I can think of reasons it’s probably not the most likely reading of this text…but I still like it. The “your” in “your prayers not being hindered” is plural in the Greek, which could be due to the fact that the apostle is addressing plural husbands, but at least it’s not an “each of you” singular “your” which would rule my interpretation out.
At any rate, even if it is just referring to the husband’s prayers not being hindered, perhaps it is not simply some mystical hindering where God no longer listens to the man, but again, the hindering of not having his coheir helping him with his prayer life. Just an experimental thought for the day.
Catchy title, no? I thought about various things I could call this blog post when I started writing it — things like, “The Dark Hole of House Church” and “the Dangers of Housechurch” and the “Slough of Housechurch Despondency.” I finally settled on “The Housechurch Movement ruined my life” because, there’s enough truth in that to be worth titling this post that, and, I bet it will make you curious — and rightfully so.
First, let me talk about what I mean by “the Housechurch Movement.” In recent years, regular institutional-style churches have taken to calling midweek meetings that go on in homes a whole host of names, anything from “life groups” to “cell groups” but occasionally “house church” or “home church.” At any rate, these things are generally healthy and that’s not the house church movement I am talking about.
The House Church movement is a movement about leaving behind the trappings of institutional churches — such as sermons, preaching, pastors, church buildings, and everything that goes with all that, to have simple gatherings of friends in homes meeting on a very grassroots level to discuss their journey in Jesus, teach and pray with and for one another, and be a family together. Different “streams” of the house church movement do things similarly or differently and have different viewpoints on how meetings of believers function, but, in general, the main distinctions of the movement are no formal leadership, open participatory meetings, and no church buildings.
Now in and of itself, I don’t actually think any of that is wrong. If this is new to you, you might be intrigued or you might have a knee-jerk negative reaction and have a lot of objections in mind, and some are pretty common objections that I’d probably disagree with, because in many ways I am still a house church person at heart. Vast stretches of blogs on the internet are devoted to justifying and explaining the Biblical basis for doing things this way, and fending off critics that would raise an alarm at lack of leadership and/or structure. However, I’m not going to do either of those things as they are abundantly out there to read, except to say — I still have a huge love for grassroots meetings. In fact, I am a participant in a house church even at this point in my life, and it has been a wonderful blessing in my and my husband’s life.
Ok, so, have I confused you yet? (She says she has no issue with the concept of house church, and she is part of one, yet she is writing a blog about how the house church movement sucks?) Yep, even though I am part of a house church, there are so many ditches and pitfalls in the house church movement that this blog post really still needs to be written.
THE GOOD, THE BAD, and THE UGLY
The good part about house church is that if you are in a terrible, blood-sucking, depressing institutional church situation, the house church movement is one place in Christendom that will tell you God still loves you and you’re not sinning if you stop going to church. It tells you that you don’t even need to go to church at all, that church is wherever two or three are gathered, so if you have a friend or two you can fellowship with, you are just fine. Short-term, this is freeing and life-giving to many people who need to know they are free from religious obligations to defunct church systems and are going somewhere they hate going thinking that God requires them to attend something. Short term, it is good to have the freedom to walk away from things that aren’t working and not be buffeted by soft-spoken condemnations such as “but you should stay and make this horrible church better” when you are totally not in a position to do so.
But long-term, and by that I mean longer than the [half year to two years or so] time it takes to clear one’s head and recover from a bad church experience, it’s not good to dig in one’s heals about not going to church, because we’re all made for community with others and after a while spiritual isolation becomes really traumatic all by itself. This is even more true if you are a single person hoping to find a Christian spouse, or, if you are a parent hoping to raise children excited about being followers of Jesus. Hundreds if not thousands of people out there on the internet pride themselves in “being the church” instead of “going to church” and while the freedom not to be imprisoned in some religious system of things is meaningful, the tendency is to end up feeling really doctrinally correct but oh so isolated.
Many of those thousands of out-of-church people in the house church movement, including me under the influence of house church dogma, desperately WANT fellowship, but are encouraged to hold out with occasional fellowship with a few friends while waiting for the utopian dream of a real, bonafide, healthy house church in their area — or moving to another area of the country to find one.
You wouldn’t have known how isolated I felt — or others feel — by the way we defend our out-of-church circumstance to well-meaning Christians (by whom I considered myself “attacked”) who naively seem bewildered by a brother or sister who refuses to participate in a regular church. When years roll on being alone and fellowshipping only online or occasionally with the two or three friends in an 100 mile radius one has that echo their own viewpoint becomes one’s entire experience of life in the body of Christ, it can be very bad for one’s spiritual progression. This slowly becomes as toxic and damaging both emotionally, socially, and spiritually as any bad situation one may have left behind.
And here’s the rub — I know too many people, myself having been one for too much of my life — who were so critical of how church should or shouldn’t Biblically function that we ended up in the wilderness for years on end, suffering needlessly in isolation while we convinced ourselves that we were loving the body of Christ while holding out for this ideal way of meeting with believers, and refusing to become involved with any group of Christians that weren’t doing it right. I didn’t realize it but this had become a false robe of righteousness for me, my “right” ideas about how the church should function — and I was encouraged by others in the movement that I was suffering for being on the right path. This was such a lie, and I wasted years of my life believing it… I left one negative system to end up in a psychological nightmare worse as bad as any system out there.
(And as a single person, it may have been the single most important factor in delaying me getting married until my forties, something that some people might choose willingly but with my hopes of having children, I did not.)
TOO FOCUSED ON A TWO HOUR MEETING
Church is minimally two hours a week – yet the house church movement makes things seem like what happens in this two hour block of time is the be-all of God’s concern for His people – the “ultimate intention” he has for His bride on Earth. When I bought into that idea, I found a great house church that did everything right — for those two hours. We had amazing meetings under the headship of Christ, open participation and all. But I need up scratching my head at how we could have such great meetings and yet, almost no community during the other 166 hours of the week. I stayed way too long in a soul-killing situation, because I believed what really mattered was how great this church was at having a good meeting.
I finally realized that it doesn’t matter how great or how lousy the church structure is — what really ends up mattering is the fabric of community the rest of the week. Since then, I’ve also scratched my head at institutional churches I visited with that were horribly restrictive and exercises in sheer boredom for two hours, yet during the rest of the week people were spending time with each other, praying with each other, helping each other with life, being real friends and community. I’ve marveled at God’s humor at juxtaposing these two situations in my life, almost to get me to ponder which is better or worse in His sight, until I realized that I was too busy trying to figure out what kind of church God approved of, and that this was a pretty legalistic way to think when the reality is that the best church is the one where I was growing the most with God and with others.
Yet, the House Church movement was all about Christ being the Head of His people but I started to realize — the Holy Spirit moves more among a group of folks who meet in a church building every week but know how to be family all week long, than a bunch of religiously prideful house churchers who have the perfect meeting for two hours on Sunday but never see each other otherwise. Christ is interested in being the head of His people for all 168 hours of the week, not just a two hour meeting.
AND….THE VARIOUS EXPERTS OF HOUSECHURCH DON’T KNOW WHAT THEY ARE DOING
The obsession on meetings and getting them right doesn’t just detract from what goes on during the rest of the week, but it also keeps housechurches from meaningfully getting off the ground to begin with. The internet is full of people trying to start their own housechurch that are begging someone to come teach them “how to have a meeting” with no one leading (except Christ, of course.) This gets really paradoxical, with the ideal being to start something, but of course it can’t be you that starts something, it has to be Christ, so you constantly have to make sure you aren’t doing anything while partnering with Christ to do something, but of course that happens through you (and through others who have to make sure they aren’t doing anything either — ESPECIALLY not leading anything.). It turns out to be a lot of work to make sure you aren’t doing anything while doing things yet not you but Christ in you. A lot of work indeed, to the point of being confusing, which is why you might need an expert who also isn’t doing anything but is somehow also an expert at teaching you to not do anything except to let Christ do things, to come help you learn how to be better at not doing anything while doing something — yet not you, nor them.
I still see people in house church discussion groups asking “how to have a meeting without having anyone lead it” and “how do people with a teaching gift get an opportunity to use their gift without taking over the meeting” and I am realizing this movement ties people in knots, telling them to pull off paradoxical things because of being so afraid that anything a human does might replace Christ being the head of a gathering. Christ is most fully the head of a gathering when everyone is raised up to be who they fully are — pastors, prophets, teachers, worship leaders, poem readers, intercessors, evangelists, artists… and we’re too busy crucifying each other’s gifts in the name of Christ than to really see what it means to have all the parts of the body truly functioning in Him and He in them. Some of the teaching in the movement is so anti “doing” in the name of not being works oriented and learning to sit at Jesus’s feet that it was completely disorienting to me as a young adult trying to figure out what to “do” with my life. Only now in my 40s am I starting to recover and too much time was wasted.
People who have written books and lead conferences will volunteer to come and teach your group how have a meeting with no one leading, but often the “model” of how to do housechurch often is restrictive and strangles things that would bring life to the group. One model is intensely performance oriented — you join for a year and either spawn another group in that year, or you are kicked out. Another model replaces all the songs sung in your housechurch TO Jesus with songs that emphasize who you collectively are as the bride of Christ together, so that musical worship time no longer really focuses on Christ as much as on us, who are the bride of Christ. (I personally found this hard to get into very much — it was just too distracting for me from the One I wanted to worship.)
Also, there are some house church experts who ban musicial instruments during singing because anyone playing a guitar would be “too much of a leader” in a fiercely leaderless movement. As a result, singing worship songs often loses something that only an instrument can provide, and its not a small thing that gets lost. I understand that the opposite excess is often true in the institutional church — music becomes flashy, pre-packaged, overly hyped, etc. But when humble people with instruments play worship music from their hearts, and do so in a way that is sensitive and open to non-instrumentalists offering words and prayers, I’ve seen an amazingly beautiful thing. Yet many house churches are so afraid of someone leading they never experience how the Holy Spirit can move among people in that type of musical setting. And while a very common way that people learn how to tune into the voice of the Spirit is through experiences they have during musical worship and prayer, this process doesn’t occur as easily in house churches that are afraid of musical instruments.
The irony is that while I was full of house church dogma, I still listened to recorded worship music with instruments on CD or live streaming. I was afraid to be part of “the system” yet the music of “the system” I was drawn to in my private worship. God would touch me deeply through the voices of my brothers and sisters singing to Him in institutional churches and institutional church conferences, yet I squelched my desire to be part of that whole scene (and my talents and desire to make music and lead others in worship) because my doctrine didn’t allow for it, even though it edified me both to play for others and to be in environments where others were playing. I understand that there is hype, and bad music, and annoying shows, and yes, I understand that “worship is what you do with your life, it’s not music…” which people in the movement are so fond of saying, but the fact is something very edifying happens when people make music together to God, and the institutional church has led the way in this. But some of the house church models out there actively shut people out from this.
ORGANIC AND NON-ORGANIC THINGS WERE MEANT TO HAVE A RELATIONSHIP
When I was young, I planted a garden and refused to stake the tomatoes because I wanted them to be natural. Most of them rotted into the earth they were laying on. I think this is a good analogy for my experience in the movement. Organic things often work hand in hand with non-organic things and a tomato stake does not take away from the organic growth of a tomato; it only enhances it. Some structures that people invent for church life as they gather are not harmful, they only enhance the ability of people to function together — but in the house church mindset I was infected with could only condemn those things. I do think people need to be set free from narrow-minded leaders who want to micromanage things and don’t know how to make room for the Spirit to flow and people to function as a body. But in my time in the movement, I believed all structure of any sort was wrong, and this kept me from being part of structures that would have been healthy and helpful to me and others.
The house church movement emphasizes listening to the Holy Spirit and being led by the Lord, but one time I had a dream where the Lord was talking to me about gatherings and boomed the word “STRUCTURE” all through me to where I still felt it burning as I woke up, but I was so blinded by my Housechurch dogma at the time that I could barely accept this. I wish I had accepted it sooner.
HYBRID CHURCH MODELS
Hierloom tomatoes are good, but hybrid tomatoes have a lot of benefits, and the same is true in my experience of organic church life. These days I am still part of a housechurch, but it’s a group that doesn’t fit most of the desciptions I have shared above. It’s a very alive, happening group but there are two main leaders who drive it forward. They’re not afraid to be leaders and I haven’t gone to war against them being leaders as I might have in the past when I was a house church purist. In my experience over 20 years of house churching, the healthiest groups I have seen that didn’t fizzle out in a few months to a couple years, and that didn’t seem to grow stagnant, were groups that were hybrids between organic church and institutional church. They were groups that didn’t shut themselves off from the institutional church — they either had healthy relationships with other churches, even institutional ones — or they were an institutional church that decided to transition into being an organic open housechurch. All of the groups I have seen thrive over time had people in them with strong leading personalities; and they used their personalities to build up others to also be leaders and teachers in the group. I’ve even been to house churches where our entire group together would visit an institutional church, to keep the lines of communication flowing, and to receive of whatever importation of the Lord was in their midst. Last week, an institutional church we have a relationship with sent us a photo of their entire congregation praying for our little group.
House church claims to champion the priesthood of all believers and a passion for us all being part of the body of Christ, with Him alone as the head. But what I got sucked into was an elitist, divisive movement that was full of pride, and I drank the full cup of that. Instead of it helping me honor the body of Christ more, it cut me off from the body of Christ and took years of my life where I spun in circles trying to get some sense of how to connect in more meaningful ways than internet groups to others in the body. It stole my chances to find a mate while young. When the Lord spoke to me about doing missions work, it took at least a decade longer than it probably needed to be for me to do anything with that because I was disconnected from a support base and people who would have championed my way forward. (In fact, many in the housechurch movement actively dissuaded and even condemned me for my interest in overseas missions as being something too religious and unnecessary in their point of view.) It took a long time to realize that I need the body of Christ and people around me who love the same Lord I love, whether they are in an institution or not, and that the institution is not all bad.
When I think back on it, the things that catapulted my growth in the Lord the most were the times I went against my own house church convictions and sat momentarily under the teaching of some pastor or leader or institutional conference speaker and had the Lord give me some revelation or insight that yes, He could have given me directly because I also have the Holy Spirit, but for some reason, didn’t. He seems to appreciate using the gift of teaching for whatever reason, and one of the reasons is probably to make us depend on each other, priesthood of believers notwithstanding. Even so, I was so afraid of the institutional church for so long (and not because it had harmed me, but because my dogma said it was foul and unclean) that I stayed away too long from something that may very well have been a good place to plant my garden, and a good way to stake my tomatoes and bring forth a bounty of fruit in my life to the Lord. I hope that others who read this will read it not to condemn the house church movement, but to not be sucked down by it’s blind dogma into a pit of isolation and pride that has the potential to steal meaningful years of co-laboring and fellowship from one’s life in the body of Christ.
I’ve been thinking about the way that Christians, particularly singles in their late teens, 20s, 30s, think about opposite sex friendships and been wanting to write a blog post on the topic for some time. The other night a male friend of mine (let’s call him Andrew) was telling me he was going to go hang out with a female friend of mine. The guy is happily single, not looking for a girlfriend or wife at this point, and not interested at least not at this point in dating the woman in question. The gal (let’s call her Samantha) is someone who has very openly talked about her desires to be married at this stage in life and her disappointment that she is still single.
Andrew and Samantha understand that Andrew’s visit with her is only for the purpose of friendship; that Andrew is not interested in Samantha as a romantic partner. (In fact, they became friends when Samantha was “safely” dating someone else, but that relationship didn’t work out.) But Andrew mentioned to me, “I do have to be really careful here, there is a real danger that she could develop feelings because she is looking for someone.”
Therein lies an issue. Somewhere along the line, singles in the church have developed this idea that it is their responsibility to worry about whether or not their friends might develop feelings for them. Often a guy won’t hang out with a girl if she wants to date him and he doesn’t, or worse yet, he won’t hang out with her (or her with him) if he’s not hoping she’d be interested in dating. And what I have seen goes like this:
A guy thinks it is dangerous for a girl to like him if he isn’t feeling the same way. So when he walks into a room full of new people, and a girl he doesn’t instantly feel physically attracted to comes up to talk to him, he’ll have a few standoffish small talk words in her direction and then quickly move on to talk to the gals he finds attractive, making long and sustained connection with them.
WHAT ABOUT OUR RESPONSIBILITY TO WALK AS SISTERS AND BROTHERS?
On one hand, there is nothing wrong with investing energy towards finding a spouse, and that would include spending time talking to people of the opposite sex one finds intriguing. But the problem with this as a general way of being is that the body of Christ is more than this — whether one finds someone attractive or not the fact is that we are all sisters and brothers in Christ.
This doesn’t get enough airtime from pulpits, and Christians don’t tend to approach other Christians on that level — they don’t tend to think about the spiritual relationship they already share with someone as being the most important aspect of any interaction they have, and then things like “mate possibility” as secondarily important. But this is to the detriment of the body of Christ.
In “the world” — outside of the church — people who are in groups form “in-crowds” and “out-crowds.” Many times this has a lot to do with social desirability, and mating desirability. People cluster around charismatic, attractive, powerful, or affluent people. Being in the “in-crowd” increases one’s odds of getting a highly attractive date. And so on. When Christian guys (or girls) only invest time, attention, and energy into friendships with girls (or guys) that are romantically or socially desirable, this cluster or “clique” dynamic appears in the church. But the church isn’t supposed to reflect the value system of what flesh and blood tends to value.
The church is supposed to reflect a higher value system — that is, the worth of every individual to God, and the familial relationship that we all share in Christ of being true sisters and brothers to one another.
This familial relationship transcends even blood relationships — which is a fact that often doesn’t get taught or preached except in whacked-out cult groups that want to dissolve family bonds and reestablish the only important bonds as that of the cult group. But while the cult groups are wrong in devaluing the importance of flesh-and-blood family as an important realm of relationship for folks, they are not wrong in recognizing that the Bible doesn’t speak of believers being “sisters and brothers” as some sort of unrealistic platitude, or just some feel-good short-hand for “members of the same Sunday morning club.”
WHAT DO WE REALLY WANT TO EXPERIENCE?
Our sister and brotherhood in Christ is true, and it is every bit as “real” as the blood connection we share with our families of origin. In this case, Jesus’s flesh being ripped apart and his blood actually flowing down to touch the Earth is the “real” blood connection that binds the family of God together. We are all made of dust of the Earth, and as His blood dripped down to the dust we are all made of, it bound everyone who would believe in Christ into one bloodline — Christ’s bloodline. Of course, not having his actual blood cells in our veins, it had to be made more apparent so thus we are also “adopted” into God’s family.
But these aren’t just pleasant platitudes, for eternity we will be the Lord’s family and brother/sister to one another. Other generations and those in persecuted nations had a deeper grip on this, as so many of our brothers and sisters throughout history have mixed their blood together as they died for the Lord together in bloody shows of martyrdom. And in those moments, no one cared whether they had the same sense of cool clothing style, or whether they liked the same authors, or whether they found each other’s hairstyle or body shape attractive. We are one in Him in a way that goes radically beyond all that, and this becomes apparent when the same mice in a prison are nibbling on your toes together, or when our blood runs down into the dust as one together at the executioner’s sword.
In some sense, this is what we all want — not to be persecuted, but to experience this communion with one another. At least those who truly have believed in Christ, somewhere in our souls beats this desire to see the body of Christ look like more than a nice, safe, “oh I know that person, I see them at church on Sunday” sort of relationship with one another. Whose hearts are not moved by reading Acts about the believers selling their homes to be with one another, having all things in common, eating and praying together from house to house? We want to share in the communion of saints in late night conversations, bearing our hearts, feeling the presence of God together and being rocked in the fear of the awe of the Lord; we want to make huge sacrifices for each other, to feel a little counter-cultural and radical and knowing that in a very real way we have each others’ backs and we would die for one another.
This doesn’t happen if our friendships are based merely on who we think we might want to have sex with one day and whose DNA seems pleasing to make children with. If none of these lofty ideas cause one to consider being friends, real friends, with those they aren’t wanting to date, then consider this: often the person you aren’t attracted to might have friends that you would be attracted to. Sometimes in our human weaknesses lofty ideas don’t cut it but practical down to earth ones make more sense.
Where am I going with all this? No, it’s not good to lead someone on, to take up all their time and keep them off the dating scene because you, their opposite sex friend, want to hang out everyday and yet you’re not interested in dating them, but they have no idea. Yes, that’s unkind and irresponsible friendship.
But while irresponsible friendship across gender lines does certainly exist, we need to get around this thing that says we wouldn’t want to be friends with someone we’re not attracted to because, gosh, they might develop FEELINGS for us and then we’re in the middle of a relationship we don’t want to be in. I’ll ask the same question I asked above: Where did singles get the idea that it’s a terrible thing if your opposite friend falls for you and you’re not into them? Where did we get the idea that we need to hold each other at a distance, and run away at the first sign that someone we’re not attracted to is attracted to us?
MATURITY in FRIENDSHIP
I want to call us up to a more mature view of friendship if I may. A few years back I had this guy friend (we’ll call him Randall) who I developed a serious crush on. Randall and I were fairly deep, heart to heart friends. We had a sense of commitment to one another, that we were there for each other to walk each other through some pretty intense stuff we were both dealing with.
Eventually I told him I was seriously becoming attracted to him, and I think Randall’s attitude towards me was a gift of divine proportions. He said, “Heather, I just don’t feel the same way towards you — though I certainly appreciate this, this, and this about you. (Awesome when guys build their sisters up in the Lord.) So I don’t know what you’re going to do about how you’re feeling towards me but I’m going to leave that between you and the Lord to sort out. In the meantime, I am still 100% committed to being your brother and your friend.”
Randall gave me a gift of steadfast friendship commitment by realizing that my feelings weren’t his responsibility and they weren’t his to deal with….so while he wasn’t unmerciful like, “Don’t even talk to me about this…” he didn’t run away screaming either. And I in turn took a bit of time away from him to get my heart somewhat clear (you don’t have to have “no feelings” to be clear enough to still be friends), and able to be around him again in a way that we could still reflect Christ to one another.
For a long time I have wished I could tell all the singles I watch running away from each other: Guys, you don’t need to worry if someone you find unattractive finds you attractive. You don’t need to hold them at arms length as long as you don’t deceive that person about how you are feeling and don’t take advantage of their feelings. And gals, the same thing goes on our end – we don’t need to run away from a guy who “likes us” if we’ve been able to be honest and tell him we don’t feel the same way, and IF he is willing to respect our boundaries and not refuse to take our, “No, I just don’t see a dating relationship in our future” seriously. The only guy I ever had to cut out of my life on this level was one who doggedly refused to take “no” for an answer, insisting God had “told him” I was his wife and that I was in rebellion to God for not listening. I told him that no means no, and if he couldn’t respect that we couldn’t have a friendship. But most of the guys that I have ever had a thing for, or who have ever had a thing towards me, still have an open door of friendship in my life to one degree or another.
But of course folks who have been “friend zoned” sometimes find themselves mutually falling for one another despite the fact that one or both of them originally felt that only friendship was in their future. It’s OK to revisit a friendship conversation respectfully, in something that might sound like this: “Josh, I am not wanting to make you uncomfortable as I really value our friendship, I know we talked about this a year ago but I wanted to know if you still feel we are better off not pursuing a romantic relationship — but if you ever did want to date each other, I’m still open to that. But if not, I’m still going to be your friend and sister and I can’t wait to bless you and whoever you marry if it’s not me.” And it’s also important to not keep hanging on to a friendship if you’re only secretly stalking someone waiting for them to change their mind, especially if you are getting in the way of them dating other people. A really good test of whether or not a friendship is honest is whether or not you can introduce your friend to someone else they might want to date. If you can do so, you might end up lifelong friends with someone you really value, married to someone else you really value — a win-win recipe for lifelong friendship that will have deep rewards for both you and the Kingdom.
This is maturity. And it brings maturity to the body of Christ when singles — and married people who are friends with singles (another topic for another day) can still experience the richness of brother/sister communion in Christ.
(As a footnote I especially want to recognize Dan Brennan’s writings about how in the ancient middle east, a brother was often the most significant and close relationship of a woman’s life, a concept we don’t generally consider when reading Paul instructing Timothy to treat young women as his sisters. Sisters and brothers were not mere distant acquaintances. Instead our relationships with the opposite sex in the church tend to be more like the way we relate to the cashier at the grocery store — pleasant, casual, and without any shred of intimacy. The difference is extreme and fear-based. But that’s for another blog post.)
Forget apologetics. Forget signs and wonders. If you really want to excel at evangelism, there is one golden key worth more than all the others – LIKE the people you are reaching out to with Jesus. Since we often get really messed up with doublespeak when we talk about what it means to “love”, I’d like to submit that the real issue is whether or not we LIKE “them.” In general*, we can’t bring people to Jesus that we don’t like.
What is evangelism, first of all?
A student of Greek will quickly explain that evangelism involves sharing good news, being an ambassador, etc etc. And that’s all good and true. Evangelism is part of our kingdom role of being priests and kings. Malachi talks about one of the jobs of a priest:
“True instruction was in his mouth and unrighteousness was not found on his lips; he walked with Me in peace and uprightness, and he turned many back from iniquity. 7“For the lips of a priest should preserve knowledge, and men should seek instruction from his mouth; for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts.”(Malachi 2:6-7)
Sharing the knowledge of God both with believers and nonbelievers is incredibly important and is our honored role in the Kingdom. I’ve heard people often quote, St. Francis in saying, “Preach the gospel, and if necessary use words.” But the reality is that words will always be necessary. We are to help people UNDERSTAND things about God, and share knowledge.
BUT – if our view of evangelism is just about TELLING people something, shoving a sign or a track or a well-rehearsed message at someone, I don’t think we’re going to get very far with real humans with that approach. At least, I never saw much come of my own efforts at evangelism when I approached people with that mindset. Evangelicalism for a long time has I think based much of its lifeless attempts at sharing the good news with people on a misapplication of one verse:
“so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” – Isaiah 55:11
This verse is often used to justify completely violating or at completely impersonal attempts at sharing Christ with people. Under this mindset, all that matters is making people hear words. It doesn’t matter if the message comes to them in any real understandable form, or if it has any personal connection to them… simply shouting at them is good enough, for God will make any words we shove at them “not return void.” Though an explanation of why that’s a bad way to read that verse is well beyond the scope of this blog post, that’s not what this verse meant when it was written, and I don’t think its what it means for us today.
LEARNING A DIFFERENT WAY
My relationship with being an emissary of the gospel really started to change a few decades back when I stopped trying to be a “good witness” (which is evangelicalism-speak for “hiding all your sins and faults from nonbelievers in order to supposedly attract them with the perfection of your life now that you are a believer in Jesus”) and instead let a non-Christian friend see me “for real,” as I shared with him the depths of the depression I was in, as well as my intense struggles with God at that time. When he suddenly up and decided that Christ was real and he wanted in on the Kingdom when I was contemplating how best to hurt myself, I started realizing that my first “convert” was teaching me something about how Christ makes Himself known to people – and it wasn’t by me being fake and seemingly having it all together in front of non-believers.
I also started learning that it wasn’t about shoving impersonal sentences at people that supposedly were “the Word of God that won’t return void” to them. Some wise person shared with me that every person in existence is already in a relationship with God, and that He has been dancing with them their entire lives, carefully cultivating a conversation with them. I started to understand that my job as an evangelist was not to plod on into that conversation like a bull in a China shop, but to respect it – and to learn to peer into how God has already been engaging with that person, and that person with God – and to enter appropriately into THAT conversation. Just as the Holy Spirit is one who “comes alongside and helps” I started to see my job as a colaborer with Christ by the Holy Spirit, agreeing with the Holy Spirit in coming alongside a person being drawn to Christ, rather than coming at them. Good evangelism is midwifery, and while some babies are born on their own, much of the time someone helps the baby along.
But how does one come “alongside” the process, already in progress, of the Father drawing someone to His Son Jesus? This is where I would say that there is no replacement for GENUINELY LIKING the people one is trying to reach.
Liking People is the Opposite of Alienating Them
It’s almost too obvious to write about, but people don’t generally want to hear what someone has to say when they sense hostility coming at them from the speaker. Instead, most humans put up walls, and get defensive. This is why standing on a street corner holding a sign and shouting, “The end is near! Repent or burn!” is probably one of the worst images that our society has of Christians…and of evangelism. It would take an extraordinarily humble person to want to subject themselves to learning from someone who approaches them full of condemnation and hostility.
But an even more subtle form of hostility that Christians present to nonbelievers comes from an “us/them” perspective. If we walk into a relationship with an us/them mindset means it we carry a type of “alienation” to the relationship with nonbelievers before we’ve even started. It puts a wall up between oneself and one’s target or uh, “victim” because us/them is a form of alienation already in play. Most of us have experienced this: when you have an “us/them” perspective in your approach to someone, they will feel like a project to you – and the person will eventually sense they are a project in the evangelist’s eyes as well. If you manage to convince the person that being a project is ideal, and a spiritual thing, then you might be able to bring them to the point of becoming your disciple where the project mentality can continue even past the point of their conversion. But generally people feel a bit creeped out at being someone’s project.
Ideally, evangelism should be “incarnational.” Incarnational has at times been a Christian buzzword, but it’s a good one. It means that neither of these two above things are in play – there is no hostility, and there is no us/them mentality. “Incarnational” describes what God did when He put on human flesh and became one of us. It sparkles; there is a closeness about it, a warmth where the one who is incarnated is identifiable and now as one of those he or she has now become. They are tangible and relatable as “one of us” now to the culture they have stepped into. In fact, we don’t just share a message, we become the message, as the apostle Paul wrote:
“It is clear that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts…”2 Cor 3:3
In order to BE the letter, we need to be able to be known, to be seen. This is true even with all our messiness; the point is that as we relate to God and He relates to us, our history with Him marks us and writes something into our souls. And this is available for those we walk with to read. This is Christ incarnated into us, even as we are incarnated into someone else’s world.
But uniquely, all the gifts and beauty of the realm from which the incarnated one has come are brought into the realm of the society and reality in which she or he is now involved…and those gifts are offered for the taking in a very personal, connected way. Someone who is incarnated brings their pre-incarnated identity into their incarnation. But incarnation is a position “in the middle” of where they are coming from and what they are stepping into; for the person who has been incarnated takes on the identity of the people he or she steps into to become, as well as the flavor, the struggles, the atmosphere and rhythm and likeness of them as well.
INCARNATION SETS US UP FOR CONNECTED SYMPATHY
As all of humanity was made in God’s image, it was because He wrote, as it were, a prophecy in human flesh of Himself which was waiting for fulfillment: we were made in His image, so that at the right time, He could come to us in our own image. And thus He did. And there were many reasons for this, many specific benefits and necessities, one of which was so He would know what is like to be us….so that He could fully relate to who we are and what we go through.
The writer of Hebrews captures this in Hebrews 4:15 – “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who was tempted in every way that we are, yet was without sin.”
And this is INTENSELY important. It brings us back to my opening point about LIKING those we want to reach. For too many years the type of Christianity I was in treated Christians as “real” people while nonbelievers weren’t worth really knowing or being friends with. They were simply objects to be captured. But as I kept trying to keep in step with the Spirit and how He was moving in someone’s heart and life, I found those people becoming real to me in a way that makes me now ashamed to admit how I treated people as evangelistic objects. When we like someone, we get to see them as a real person, valuable and truly worth being connected to, and having real friendship with. And we find ways to sympathize with what they are going through. If we can’t sympathize with the things keeping someone from seeing Christ clearly, we’re not going to reach them very easily. Examples:
I love to reach agnostics and atheists. Why? Because I genuinely ENJOY atheists and agnostics. I tend to think of atheists as one of God’s gifts to the church. When the church tries to make theology that is inhumane, or nonsensical, sometimes it takes a bunch of atheists to bring us to our senses. This doesn’t mean that every criticism or critique a nonbeliever makes will turn out to be valid. But I love the fact that these guys challenge us when we get too lost in the clouds with stuff that just doesn’t make sense.
I also can relate really well to these folks because I know what it is like to be unable to believe in something, even when I wanted to. My own testimony involved coming from a place of unbelief, struggling really hard to find out if there was “anything out there” and having a really hard time taking a leap of faith to find out. Some Christians would never believe how many atheists and agnostics have told me they really WISH they could believe in something – or that if “Someone” were there, they really wish they could know that. And especially for those folks, I get it.
And when I hear people bash atheists as if they are somehow deliberately in rebellion against God, that there is something ugly and hateful about someone honest enough about their doubts as to say, “I don’t know if God is real” or, “I’m pretty sure he isn’t there”, it really upsets me. I would rush to most atheists defense in a moment, because many of them are intensely truth-hungry people that I just want to help them find how to truly find Him, and the army of rancorous Christians shouting at them about how horrid they supposedly are sure doesn’t help.
You’re not going to win an atheist or agnostic to Christ by telling them that God doesn’t care about how they try to be a moral person; they were never being moral for the sake of God anyway. You’re not going to draw them in by telling them by telling them that without God they have no basis for ethics or morality, because they know you’re wrong. Quoting at them from a completely different context out of the book of psalms the verse, “The fool says in his heart there is no God,” just affirms to them that you hate them, that you call them a fool, and you’re quoting at them from a book they can’t relate to anyway. Again, all you’re doing is putting up that wall of alienation and hostility for them that Christ died to take down. And that is the opposite of the incarnation. And besides, Jesus gave dire warnings about calling someone a fool.
We can win atheists and agnostics to Christ by putting ourselves in their shoes, being honest with ourselves about our own doubts and difficulties at times walking in faith. We empathize with them by being a real friend and letting them see our real struggles – and victories – with Christ. We sympathize with them by walking with them through their questions about God, being honest about not having all the answers for them, while appreciating these people for who they are and what they bring into our lives, and how God is using them before they even know Him. We show Him to them by just being who you are in a real way, talking about Him and His truth in authentic contextual ways that are real to our lives, and giving them all the room in the world to do the same – knowing that a real God is lighting the way forward for you and them together to figure it out.
One of the surest ways NOT to draw Muslims to Christ is to have all sorts of ideas about them. I continually run across evangelicals that think they’ve got the “Muslim thing” figured out because they’ve learned about a half dozen ugly statements from the Koran about hating infidels or something. They also tend to approach those verses in the Koran the way Christians approach their own Bibles – not realizing that Muslims may have their own reasons for approaching those texts differently (just as Christians have their own reasons for approaching Deuteronomy differently than nonbelievers often assume they do.) But none of that really is the point anyway – you can’t learn a culture just by studying some of its documents ; you learn a culture by hanging out with people.
You can read the Koran from cover to cover 1000 times and still understand next to nothing about muslims, because to some degree, it doesn’t matter what a holy book says – it matters how the people who believe in it interpret it and live it out (or don’t live it out.) There are many, many cultural things that affect how any particular Muslim will view themselves as a Muslim, and view the teachings of the Koran. There are various nationalities, various sects in those nationalities, various levels of commitment, various understandings of how to interpret the Koran, and there is folk Islam with its own sets of beliefs. There are militant Muslims, there are devout yet peaceful Muslims, there are disinterested Muslims and disaffected Muslims. And just as there are many different cultures of Christians (nominal Catholics, Bible banging Baptists, serious Catholics, liberal Baptists) there are many many different categories, movements, and personalities of Muslims.
But no matter what, one can’t LIKE a Muslim without hanging out with him or her and really getting to know them. As long as Christians regard Muslims as “the enemy” rather than approaching them as their next best friend, one will never have the privilege of getting to be part of their Islamic friends’ exploration of their own prophet, Isa (Jesus).
But this requires learning to LIKE Muslims. I have found that practicing Muslims are inspiring in their adoration and love for God. Their reverence and awe for Him are beautiful, the way they seek to involve Allah (and even Christian Arabs call God, Allah) in everyday life puts many Christians to shame. One thing that seems to be fairly universal however is the importance placed on hospitality; if you can let yourself be invited in, the value of hospitality in this culture in many cases completely transcends any anti-Christian sentiment you might fear your Muslim friend might hold towards you. Muslims tend to value their guests very highly, and its a great way to get to know them and learn all the things there are to like about them.
And as far as sympathizing goes; I know what it is like to have a works’ mindset in approaching God, and I think many Christians have at some point in their relationship with God a similar experience from which to relate to Muslim religious experience. Instead of judging devout Muslims for approaching God with a works mindset, I find myself being reminded of how I’ve struggled with the same thing, both before and after knowing Christ. And many Muslims are not necessarily even approaching God that way either – it’s important to get to know what is actually going on in the lives of one’s friends.
On the flip side, I’ve met young Muslims so in rebellion against the teaching of their parents that they were taking steps with their lives that the God who cares for them would not want them to take. Sometimes sharing my own sins and stupid decisions and how “Allah knows best” (Allah is just the Arabic word for God) is the best way I know how to help a Muslim-culture friend care about knowing God – and Jesus – when everything about God seems irrelevant to them.
WHOEVER IT IS, LIKE THEM
The main point is, we will be most effective with the people we like enough to truly relate to them, and probably be completely ineffective with people who we are only sharing Christ with as some sort of a duty, or some sort of niche on our Christian-y belts. I’m also not writing this to give folks an excuse to shrug off reaching out to people they don’t LIKE or don’t GET. But instead, I’m writing this as an encouragement and a challenge to the church to stop making ourselves “feel good” by how we can look down on those “foolish, God-hating Atheists”, or those “evil satanic Muslims.”
Joshua and Caleb set themselves apart from the other men who “spied out the land” of Canaan because they liked the land they saw, and they thought it was a good land that God was ready to give them. The other spies looked at the land as being too full of strongholds for their trouble. Likewise, do we approach people like they are cherished and beloved by God, and that the things keeping them from Christ are not that big of a deal? Do we find them delightful and enjoyable and know they are a hair’s breadth away from the Kingdom, and that God is near them? Or do we put up walls of fear and hostility that just don’t need to be there, which alienate us from them and them from us, ultimately cutting us off from our inheritance and the blessing of walking in Kingdom relationship with them?
We’re called like Jesus to love and serve people, and one of the biggest differences from serving someone from a place of superiority verses authentic incarnationality comes down to one thing: Do we authentically like them? If not, I do think it’s worth asking God to show us how.
* Footnote from first paragraph: I say, “in general” because, heck, God can do anything and when God is really moving in someone’s life, they may not need much human involvement at all – whether you or I hate them or like them may be completely immaterial. But in most cases, we’re talking about the actual action of evangelism here, where we are the tour guides taking someone by the hand and showing them all the sights along the way and leading up to an encounter with the cross and the resurrected Christ.)
When the topic of evolution and the Bible is brought up, one of the many concerns people have is how that fits with humans being “in the image of God.” But before we can go there, we have to address the underlying question: What does it mean to be “in the image of God” anyway?
For years and years and in different movements and corners of the body of Christ, I have heard this question asked and answered in many different ways. Let’s look at some of the ideas I have heard, and then I’ll share what I believe Genesis implies about the topic.
Theory A: God is three parts, and so are we
In the charismatic church, many leaders and teachers put emphasis on teaching about the Tripartite (three-fold) nature of humans. This comes from 1 Thessalonians 5:23 where people are refered to as being “Spirit, Soul, and Body” – as well as other scriptures alluding to this metaphysical anatomy. I also believe humans are tripartite, and I did a whole investigation of the topic here.
So, in many areas of the charismatic church, I have heard it taught that humans being composed of three parts is what it means for us to be “made in the image of God.”
While this three-ness is indeed a similarity between humanity and God, I don’t think it actually is a good identification of what Genesis is implying when it first mentions humans are made in God’s image. There’s nothing in the immediate context of the passage to suggest three-in-one is the main point of being made in God’s image, nor is there anything about being three-in-one in any other verse about being in the likeness of God in the rest of the Bible. So to make this the main point of “being made in the image of God” is maybe as a conjecture and musing based on disconnected scriptural ideas, but I’m not sure it’s really the best case in the context of the passages where the actual ideas of “the likeness of God” are presented. If there were nothing else to go on, I’d say its workable and there’s nothing specifically wrong with it – other than that it tends to overshadow the obvious and immediate meanings which I’ll get to later.
But the other problem with it as the dominant theory on Imago Dei (the image of God) being specifically about being in “three parts” is that this setup is not exclusive to humans. Animals are also repeatedly referred to in the Bible as being “souls” (although English translations tend to obscure this badly; do a study on the Hebrew word nephesh for more clarity) and obviously they have bodies, and less often (sparsely, but it is there) they are referred to as having spirits. So if animals are three-part beings too, it might bode well for discussing the implications and validity of evolution in theological circles, but it still doesn’t help arrive at what this unique, “being in the image of God” thing is that is supposed to be a specifically human thing.
Leaving my charismatic brethren, we’ll go to a theory I hear often from mainline and non-charismatic evangelical Christians:
Theory B: God is a moral agent, and So Are We
I don’t know what the hangup is …or love affair…that the church has with God and morality, as if the be-all of God and man is morality, but here it shows up again in this theory. (I’ve written before of how I think it’s an unfortunately bad apologetic to try to “prove” God with the “morality exists, therefore a moral God must exist” line – see here, but this seems another symptom of the same obsession.) While the entire gospel is about how we fail so desperately in terms of moral righteousness and that grace is the answer to it all, we still hang on to thinking morality is the highest aspect of humanity. Our obsession with morality is right up there with why we as the church often seem to think the Ten Commandments needs to be displayed on secular government property, but I digress. From here we tend to go to arguments and discussions about whether or not animals can display true empathy, or morality, with some presenting arguments that actually seem to be “yes” to some degree or another, while others hold out saying those animals don’t quite meet the human standard (obviously, as they are not human.) But this is probably all very unnecessary.
Surely God is really into fairness and justice, truth, law-giving, and most specifically keeping His own oaths, but you’d be hard pressed to define Him as specifically “moral” by any usual definition of the word (that might be a topic for another day.) But if you want to use the word “moral” to describe God, you’d have to note that the God of the Old Testament assumes all rights to transcend human morality and stand somewhat over and above it. At any rate, we’ll save all those moral questions and debates about God for another day but….
Let’s just note that in Genesis, the promise of “knowing good from evil” is not something that Adam and Eve were endowed with as part of being “made in God’s image.” Instead, the ability to become moral agents was something that another being, other than God, first offered Adam and Eve AFTER they were designed and created. (Until then, humanity’s only morality was to do as God says and not do as God forbids, rather than figuring out good and evil for themselves.)
Why then, “being able to make moral decisions” would therefore be considered as what it means to be made in the image of God is beyond me, as the very concept seems uncannily like a repetition of the very lie that satan offered to Eve, “You shall be like God, knowing good from evil.” While perhaps this is a type of “being like God” – it does not seem to have been the specific likeness of Himself that God was aiming for during the creation of humans in Genesis, but rather a similarity to God perhaps that came later as an add-on via the forbidden fruit, after the fact. At any rate, to view humans as “moral like God” seems almost like a Deist perspective to me, or perhaps a hangover from the enlightenment period’s humanist view of humankind.
Theory C: God has arms and legs and stuff, so, so do we
I’m not sure this theory is worth covering but since I’ve heard and read people arguing for it, it doesn’t hurt I guess to mention it. Most folks read the Bible and when it speaks of God having hands or nostrils or whatever normally “human” body parts may be ascribed to Him, they see this as anthropomorphism. But that wouldn’t be everyone’s viewpoint. Instead, some folks see physical attributes of humans being a reflection of some sort of metaphysical anatomy that God has. Ok, sure, why not? I can’t say for sure what “shape” God’s spiritual form takes. But still, I don’t think this is what Genesis is aiming at when it talks about male and female being made in God’s image. Why not?
(Because in my opinion,)
Genesis actually makes it fairly clear what it means to be “made in God’s image” right in the context of the first mention of the notion.
So here’s theory D: Being made in God’s image means taking dominion over the Earth.
Ok, I can see why this theory isn’t particularly attractive. After all, the word “dominion” generally isn’t a very nice sounding word unless you’re playing a first person shooter video game or something. And that’s just it: the dominion mandate in Genesis has to be one of the most abused concepts in all of Christianity. Sinful humanity, and particularly religiously sinful humanity, has a way of really messing up anytime it has rights to power.
But that’s what’s there in Genesis:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” Genesis 1:26-28 RSV
God is the ruler of the universe, the head honcho, the one who is greater than all of creation, and he makes humans – to be His representatives on the Earth. They are the top of the food chain…errr…wait, that’s not what I meant – but they are the leaders of all the animal kingdom and all the created realm, as an echo (or image) of God’s leadership.
Adam is made both high priest and high king in Eden, along with his bride Eve. Together they are going to rule the galaxy (or small patch of Earth…whatever people knew about at that point in time.) In short, Adam and Eve are proxies – God’s government on Earth. (At least pictured so before the “fall.”)
And there are extensions of this. Jonathan David and Melissa Helser come to mind as they have an entire ministry geared towards releasing the creativity of musicians and artists and basically everyone who will listen – and one of their main points of teaching is that God is Creative, and so humans walking in true creativity is our inheritance as the image-bearers of the Father. I see this as an extension of the dominion theme – because one of the reasons that God is the one who has dominion is that He created everything one way or another – and so humans being creative therefore the more beautiful form of “taking dominion” in the Earth than that previously mentioned first-person shooter game would conjure up. Of course, stewardship, kindness, meekness (for these inherit the Earth), these are all Biblical themes about what the responsibility of having “dominion” actually looks like…and of course as the Helsers would remind us, beauty and creativity.
When I told my friends on FB I was writing on this topic, several stepped up to bring forth this very theory, and to also introduce me to the writing of Mike Heiser. Here follows my friend Eric Weiss’s quote introducing me to Mike (thank you Eric and Mike):
Dr. Michael S. Heiser, Hebrew and ANE scholar for Logos Bible Software, says that the phrase means to be given authority to act as God’s representative. I.e., being made in God’s image meant that mankind was in charge of God’s earth and God’s creation:
“This last example directs us to what the Hebrew preposition translated in means in Genesis 1:26. Humankind was created as God’s image. If we think of imaging as a verb or function, that translation makes sense. We are created to image God, to be his imagers. It is what we are by definition. The image is not an ability we have, but a status. We are God’s representatives on earth. To be human is to image God.
“This is why Genesis 1:26–27 is followed by what theologians call the “dominion mandate” in verse 28. The verse informs us that God intends us to be him on this planet. We are to create more imagers (“be fruitful and multiply … fill”) in order to oversee the earth by stewarding its resources and harnessing them for the benefit of all human imagers (“subdue … rule over”).”
So why the heck does any of this matter?
Because there is theory E, which I’ll call the “theory of all the theories.”
Theory E: Jesus is the ultimate “image of God”.
For just as Adam (and Eve) were the image of God which became corrupted, Jesus (and those who ultimately rule with Him as His bride) is the image of God, uncorrupted – in a NEW CREATION. Just as Jesus said to the Pharisees that Abraham was not their father as they were claiming, because they didn’t ACT like Abraham would have acted, so also we have failed to really be God’s proxies and look and act like Him in this creation. But there is a new Adam (and Eve) and a new creation, and this one is not corrupted. This one will see a New Heaven and New Earth ruled over in all the beauty that God ever intended. And Jesus, as human and new Adam, laid down His life as the ultimate act of selflessness, dominion taking turned on its head in the truest way.
And this, this is ultimately what it means to be in the Image of God.