Thursday, April 17, 2008

Safe Answers, or God as a Magic 8 Ball.

For all of the grief I give my old Sunday school lessons, I really did enjoy them. It's hard to hate flannel graphs and construction paper and cookies and swing sets. The wordless book? Does it come with M&M's? Those were good days. I liked Sunday school up until about the third or fourth grade. Thanks to the sophisticated education I received in the public school system, I learned that information needed to become increasingly complex. Mathematics went from addition and subtraction to multiplication and division. American history eventually mixed in with world history. Music lessons went from singing Raffi tunes and patriotic classics to reading simple sheet music and playing recorders. But in Sunday school, the teachers offered the same simple answers to nearly every question I asked. "It's either Jesus, the Bible, prayer, or church."

My friend Erik told an old joke last weekend at a Christian youth conference. "A Sunday school teacher asked his students, 'what's brown, with a fuzzy tail, and stores acorns for the winter?' One of the students raised his hand and said, 'Well it sounds like a squirrel, but I know the answer has to be Jesus.'" We laughed. The kids laughed. Everybody felt a little righteous in knowing that they weren't like those people. But then the guest speaker stood for his half hour lecture. He talked about the common belief that God answers prayer in one of three ways, "yes, no, or in a little while." I'd heard that all through my early years in the church. I graduated high school hearing this from teachers. When the guest speaker brought this up, I leaned forward in my seat, hoping he'd go into the direction of the Holy Spirit in prayer. He was so close. Man was he close. But he left it at another safe answer. "God always wants the answer to be 'yes'. The closer you get to God, the more you'll ask for the things He already wants to give you."

My first thought was this, "You just simplified an already over-simplified answer." Why do we treat a complex, personal, and infinite God like one of those coin-operated fortune-tellers? I’m not saying that every simple explanation of faith bothers me. For example, what’s the basis of my salvation? Jesus came, died an innocent man for the guilt of humanity, and then got up. Sure, there’s more to it than that, but the simplicity of the answer is a true summary of the gospel.

It’s when people read something they don't understand in the Bible that they feel compelled to have a simple explanation. For example, the Bible says that it’s God’s will to heal people. Jesus told his disciples to pray for the sick and heal them. But when some people didn’t see this happening in their daily lives (how do you spell that one guy’s name? Warfield?), they start adding interpretations to life that don’t seem to have any basis in scripture. Suddenly, the gifts of the Spirit were “for those times, but not for now.” It’s like they gave God an easy way out of proving Himself. As if He needed one.

In terms of hearing God’s voice, allowing Him the answers “yes, no, or in a little while” presents another easy out. A person doesn’t need to hear His voice if they only ask God for something and then assume His answer based on whether or not it was given to them. But what about those times when a person is desperate and needs guidance, a solution to a problem? What if they exchange looked like this:

Man: God, what should I do?

God: Yes.

Man: Yes what? How will I ever reconcile with my dad?

God: In a little while.

Man: Okay, I guess that sort of makes sense. But what should I do when the opportunity presents itself?

God: No.

I remember having a conversation like this when I was, like, ten. But it was with one of those Magic 8 Balls. My friends were trying to tell me, “This thing can answer any question. It’s kind of spooky.” I asked questions I knew it couldn’t answer, like “who was President of the United States last year?” and, “Who is a better band, Soul Asylum or Green Jelly?” My friends protested that it couldn’t answer those types of questions. I said, “Yeah, but you can. So I guess that makes you smarter than the Magic 8 Ball."

People ask a Magic 8 Ball for an answer they know it can give. But it’s impersonal and limited. The Christian church says that God is personal (at the very least, a personality) and limitless. Still, if we don’t understand something about His personality, we come up with an answer that sounds more like an excuse on His behalf. In our brilliance, we have to bail God out of a situation He can’t handle with answers that people can’t refute.

If we never have to take the risk of trusting a God who we don’t fully understand, then we never have to risk obeying a command we don’t understand. We never have to humbly take our place as created and finite beings, giving authority to the infinite creator. We’ll never have to look stupid in front of our friends or co-workers. We can keep God at an explainable distance. And it also means that we’ll never have a real relationship with Him.

God pisses me off sometimes. Seriously, He does. I wrestle with Him all the time over things that I don’t understand. But in that struggle and in the conversations, we form a relationship. We develop intimacy and trust that couldn’t exist if I limited Him to answering Yes-or-No questions. A few years ago, I finally realized that it’s okay not to know everything about God. When someone asks me a question about my beliefs, it’s perfectly acceptable to say, “I don’t know yet.” It may not be a very savvy answer, but it’s better than making something up to save face.

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