How to make sense of God

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I have a lot of experience being angry with God.

It often feels like He has frustrated me to no end.

The relationship I’ve had with Him has left a lot to be desired.

Where to begin?

Assuming you even buy standard Christian theology, you start from the premise that “I’m not God,” which means much of the mindset subconsciously picked up from living in Western culture has to be tossed out the window.

It’s really difficult to embrace the subsequent humility in every respect, especially regarding the idea that I’m owed any sort of explanations about the universe.

Ergo, as “not God,” the terms of the relationship aren’t dictated by me at all, which kind of stinks.

When I demand an answer that’s clear, it’d be nice to be able to get it.  Or at least nice to feel more confidently that my plea has been heard.

For a variety of reasons, my emotional experience in life has been tainted by pain, disillusionment, and feelings of hopelessness.  It is incredibly tempting and easy for me to hold a grudge against God – or out of anger deny His existence altogether – but I know there are millions of Christian saints throughout the centuries who have experienced far worse than I have yet have a far more intimate relationship with God.

Why?  How?

I think a lot of it comes down to choice on our part.  And from particular choices flow the ability and additional choice to trust God and His goodness, sometimes despite what our feelings compel in us.

It bears repeating that perhaps the first choice one has to make (several times a day throughout life) is a conscious acknowledgment that “I am not God.”  Whether one believes in God’s existence or not, this is of course a proper belief, but one that is completely undermined by our culture.

Our obsession over the individual and rights has resulted in our mass perception that “I” am the complete and utter master of “my” life, in all ways, shapes and forms.  There is of course legitimacy to the value and importance of our individual autonomy and to our individual and collective rights – don’t get me wrong.  We have just culturally gone to massive extremes.

In truth – again whether one accepts God’s existence or not – nothing is truly “mine” except for choice (and of course even my choices are incredibly influenced by numerous outside variables).  We are finite, thus whatever we call “ours” is in truth on loan to us, per se, for whatever amount of time we have in life: our possessions, our thoughts, our time can no longer be “owned” by us when we’re dead (copyright laws notwithstanding).

In choosing to accept that I am not God, it follows that God – if there is one (or many) – does not actually owe me anything.  I struggle with this truth mightily, because it certainly feels to me like He does.

This belief certainly permeates several layers of society: we typically feel like our parents owe us; that our institutions owe us; that our government as a whole owes us.

At a moral and cultural level, there are legitimate imperatives reflected in those feelings.  Holding each other accountable within a society to ensure that basic needs and rights are met is the morally right thing to do based on the inherent worth over every human life.

Yet.  While there is something right and proper represented in this language from a moral and legal perspective, does it necessarily follow that it is proper to frame these truths within a perception of “being owed?”

I think technically not, and the technical distinction has massive perceptional ramifications.  This is almost entirely semantic, but the semantics directly impact our perspective.

The primary definition of what it means to “owe” someone is to be indebted to them for something.

Thus, to say that a parent owes anything to his or her child by default is incorrect: when my daughter was born, I was not put in debt to her.  Should she expect me to provide certain things for her as a loving parent, things that would be criminally or morally negligent if I did not provide them for her?  Yes, of course.  But it is wrong to say that I “owe” her these things.

The shift in implication by the language is this: to phrase things as being “owed,” by default, implicitly places the one claiming a debt in position of power.  If I tell you that you owe me something, whether I do so maliciously or magnanimously, it has the affect of implementing a power dynamic: it reminds that there is a debt to be paid, a debt you incurred at my expense.

Thus, to claim that by nature a parent owes anything to a child or that God owes anything to any of us is not only incorrect semantically but also incorrectly alters the relational dynamic, subtly placing the child in position of power over the parent and the creature in position of power over the Creator.

We do have the right to expect certain things based on Western morality that originally comes from Judeo-Christianity to begin with, but it is wrong and dangerous to understand these rights as being “owed” us.

Much of my anger at God from my teens and 20s stems from this faulty understanding and my implementation of a relational dynamic that God never agreed to.  I treated my relationship with God (at first unknowingly but later consciously) as a series of legal transactions: I do something for you and expect you to do what I want in return.

I understood my emotions and life experience in the same way.  The shear volume of intense pain and misery I experienced as a small child during years of panic attacks, hopelessness and despair created within me the intense feeling that life or God “owed” me at least as much joy, peace and happiness.

Thus, when I was met with more disappointment and pain instead of the joy I felt was my right, deep anger and resentment resulted.

I don’t intend to consequently suggest it is wrong to feel anger, but that our anger ought to be properly focused.

Likewise, I don’t think it’s true that one never has reason to be angry at God.  The Psalms have a wide selection of angered reactions directed at God, and Lamentations is largely a depressed / angry outburst.

The reason this is legitimate is that, when you boil everything down to its foundations, the universe is indeed the way it is because God allows it to be.

The root causes of evil are indeed the presence of a real enemy of God’s (the “adversary,” or Satan) and the ability granted by God to allow many of His creatures choice (or at least the semblance of choice if one decides to operate on strict deterministic / predestination grounds).

Be that as it may, though, God still allows the universe to continue as it is.  I see no way around this fact, which ultimately does place the onus on God for life being the way it is.

But here’s the difference between shaking your fist at the heavens and choosing to love and submit to God regardless: trust.

There is the option to trust God in light of what is revealed in Scripture.  That revelation consists of this: God is not only not immune from the pain and suffering He allows; He is in the process of ultimately taking all of it on Himself.

In the Incarnation, God experiences exactly what it is to be human as the man Jesus of Nazareth, and in the mystical reality of what occurred at the crucifixion, God takes upon Himself the brunt of creation’s brokenness.

I’m going to be brutally honest: even if that’s true, that means jack squat to me and most people, I assume, in the midst of intense suffering.  That’s fantastic God, You’re a masochist, so I have to suffer, too?

No.  That is not the end of the promise.

The end of the promise is that there is a purpose to this universe that will result in a reality so wonderful that it will make our pain pale in comparison.

For me, that’s a tough sale.  My experience seems to scream otherwise, because my intimacy with suffering often feels so much more intense than my familiarity with joy.  Ironically and in a self-contradictory way, because the pain has been so difficult to cope with, I’m even tempted to be offended at the idea that what I’ve gone through might somehow feel “lessened” (though that isn’t the right way to understand the promise – it’s not that our current sufferings will become pointless or lose significance, but that the joy will be in much greater proportion).

But, again, this comes down to a matter of trust: am I going to trust just my own experience as one of billions upon billions of other humans with different experiences, or am I going to trust what God says?

Frankly, when push has come to shove, a lot of the time I’ve chosen to trust my experience.  I’ve run from God because I have chosen to remain angry with Him.

The psalmists and Jeremiah in Lamentations did not.  They railed at God, but always come out on the other side, choosing to trust in His undying love and goodness.

The prime example of all suffering, Job, chooses the same.  Job is incredibly upset with God, yet never chooses to blaspheme Him for what God has allowed to happen.  I can’t say the same for myself.

But what is interesting is how God ultimately answers Job.  For a long time God’s response made no sense to me because, as the words on the page read, God doesn’t give an actual answer to the question of “why?”

God shows up and asks Job pages worth of variations on the theme of: “Are you Me?  Are you God?  Do you know everything?  Have you been around since before time?”  And Job accepts this response!  In essence he replies, “Yep, you’re right, I’m not You, and I was wrong to think that I could question You.”

What the what?!  For years I puzzled over this, telling myself that if that happened to me, I would NOT respond like Job.  “No, God, I’m damn well not You, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t get answers to my questions, does it?” (it likely doesn’t because that would be me assuming God “owed” me answers, but that’s beside the point here).

But why does this satisfy Job?  What about these words provides solace?

It isn’t the words.  It’s THE Word.  God Himself.  His Presence.  It’s the fact that God showed up.

God Himself is the answer.

And, really, He Himself is the answer to all of our questions, all of our hurt, all of our disillusionment.

We are completed in who we are supposed to be within relationship with God, which is within relationship with His corporate Body the Church as it is within relationship with His corporate Body the Trinity.

Yet even understanding this, I still continue to struggle, because finding that intimacy with God right now in this life seems so flipping hard.  And in one sense it is, but in another sense it’s not.

It’s hard because God doesn’t always show up in the ways we want Him to.  I’ve had really awesome spiritual highs with God’s Presence, but I’ve also gone through periods of dryness, and neither the highs nor the lows had anything to do with me (sometimes; at other times, the dryness surely had to do with me).

The problem with the Prosperity Gospel and its various iterations is that the Christian life isn’t about grabbing all the goodies God wants to bless us with.  God surely does want to bless us, but the blessing is Himself.  Not even the experience of Himself; just straight up Himself, even if I feel or receive nothing tangible.

That’s a tough pill to swallow.  It’s hard because we have to persevere when God seems silent or distant.  It’s easy because as long as we choose to keep seeking Him, all the rest of the “burden” is on Him – to show up, to help us, to do His work for His Church through us as we hold His hand.

There are certain practices that are conducive toward cultivating an intimacy with God: regularly allowing Him to speak through the reading of Scripture; through seeking His voice in prayer; through silent contemplative prayer in which we choose to rest and allow Him the room to say (or not say) anything to us.

But there is no formula for “forcing” God’s response.  He’s not a tame Lion.

That being the case, I have often – for lack of a better phrase – gotten bored by the pursuit of God.

As God doesn’t always show up in the ways I’d like Him to when I give Him the space to, it’s often far more tempting to choose to stay home and play a video game than go to soaking prayer at my church.

And so it is with all of us, I suppose.  If we’re fortunate enough to experience the highs of God’s movement in our lives, it nevertheless easily fades into memory as time passes.

I think eventually, though, you reach a point where there is a clear choice in directions to take in life: do you continue to pursue the things that all too clearly prove themselves to be ultimately empty but temporarily satisfying, or to chase after that which all too temporarily proves unsatisfying but is ultimately fulfilling?

I have abandoned prematurely the pursuit of God in order to go after things that aren’t immediately boring but are ultimately pointless.  After choosing to reverse course and push through the initial boredom with God, I have eventually seen glimpses of true satisfaction and an undying land lying within reach.

But there is no point of “arrival” for us while we’re still breathing – temptations will still exist, though we can make progress in the maturation of our responses.

I think the major internal shift comes, though, when we really do realize how pointless most of the things we fill our life with are compared to choosing to actively pursue God.  And as we realize that more profoundly, and as we do grow in our experience of feeling God’s presence, in general the pursuit of God becomes more of a joyful thing.

As Brennan Manning puts it, it’s a “ruthless trust” we need to develop in God.  He is faithful and He is trustworthy in His promises – this is gonna be worth it.  Just hold on.

The thing God wants the most is intimacy with us.  That’s the thing we have to pursue to not only receive “answers” to all the questions we have about life, but to begin experiencing and understanding real life itself.

I often return in my understanding of our relationship with God to the scene in the Gospels between Jesus and the Twelve after Jesus delivered a massively difficult teaching that caused most of the people who were following Him to turn away and leave.  Jesus turns to the Twelve and asks them, “You do not want to leave too, do you?” to which Peter gives the seminal response of, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”

What vulnerability Jesus shows.  “Are you going to leave me, too?”

I often imagine Him asking the same question whenever I get incredibly frustrated.  To which I turn and look at the variety of other options I could choose and, after weighing their true merits, turn back to face Him and reply, “My God, where else am I gonna go?  You’re the only One I was made for.”

God is in the business of trying to woo us to Him.  In an overly-generalized way, that’s what this life’s about: responding to God’s call to enter into intimacy with Him in any of the various manifestations the call can show itself.

The peaks and valleys are all about growing closer to Him through thick and thin, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health, so that nothing will cause us to part from one another.

It’s learning to trust.  A ruthless and radical trust, the kind of trust that can withstand anything.  Not a blind trust without reason, but the trust that is developed between two people over decades of facing together everything life can throw at us.

God is there, holding out His hand, not asking you to immediately summon a trust out of thin air that you couldn’t manifest if you wanted to, but asking you to begin the journey towards learning that kind of trust.  Will you choose to take the hand that is offered?

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