WHAT WE NEED IS HERE:
REFLECTIONS ON THE CHRISTIAN LIFE
I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up, and did not let my foes rejoice over me. O Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me. O Lord you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit. Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones, and give thanks to his holy name. For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning. As for me, I said in my prosperity, “I shall never be moved.” By your favor, O Lord, you had established me as a strong mountain; you hid your face; I was dismayed. You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever. – Psalm 30: 1-7, 11-12
We began in the previous chapter by reflecting on our self-understanding; I want now to focus on our understanding of God. My point in following this order is not that we are more important than God. Rather, I assume that only by understanding ourselves will we be able to understand God. Knowing ourselves and knowing God are two sides of the one coin of life.
I use the term spirituality to mean that which gives us strength to go on with life, and to go on creatively. Understanding and cultivating spirituality have to do with understanding and cultivating that in our lives which empowers us, that which is creative, hopeful, encouraging.
I believe that we all have such elements in our actual lives right now, as we are. One of my concerns in talk about spirituality is that we often feel a sense of failure, of deep need, that we have to go outside of ourselves. We feel we have to find something new, something dramatically different from how we actually are. I believe, instead, that we might do better to identify that which already empowers us and understand and cultivate that, rather than importing something new.
I want to consider elements of our present lives that engender spirituality and that already encourage and empower us and reflect creativity. I am assuming we already experience a spirituality, even if we find it difficult to describe it. By accepting and better understanding our actual spirituality, we might find encouragement to grow.
I find our Psalm 30 text interesting as a jumping off point for my thinking about God. The psalmist actually is pretty honest. Though in the end he makes a strong affirmation of God, it is not simply a cheap affirmation. The psalmist speaks out of an experience of brokenness. These are not simply comfortable, non-reflective platitudes. The psalmist writes as one who has known God’s anger (v. 5), who has known weeping (v. 5). Perhaps the problem was physical illness, even near death (vv. 2-3). We also see here, though, a sense of broken arrogance – “I said in my prosperity, ‘I shall never be moved’” (v. 6). . . . Famous last words.
The God I observe here is similar to the God I observe in examining the Old Testament as a whole. This is a God the ancient witnesses portray as chastising, even breaking, ancient Israel in order to bring about healing. That is, from the human side, this is a God who people discovered through pain and brokenness. The pain perhaps was brought on by foolishness, arrogance, insensitivity. However, even through so-called innocent pain, people discover God in the “pit.” They discovered God’s loving-kindness in profound ways in the rubble of a broken nation. For those with eyes to see, the psalmist’s words rang true. “O Lord, you have brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit” (v.3).
The Psalmist can make an affirmation of God’s mercy and presence – but only after a genuine dark night of the soul, a genuine experience of abandonment. I resonate with this picture of God. I find such a picture to be spiritually enriching. I haven’t always thought of God in precisely these terms, however. My awareness of God has moved from a national God closely identified with the U.S., then to a king-like, universal God in direct control of all that happens, and, finally to a less almighty, more empathetic God.
First, the national God. At the one-year anniversary of the 1991 war between the U.S. and Iraq, Doug Hostetter, the executive secretary of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, wrote an interesting article. He pointed out, “George Bush, not ordinarily regarded as a very religious man, suddenly became very ‘devout’ during the Persian Gulf War. The president went out of his way, during the military buildup and the war, to cultivate the U.S. religious community and cover his conduct of the war with God’s mantle.
“In an early February 1991 meeting in Washington with U. S. radio and television evangelists, the president claimed: ‘We know that this is a just war, and we know that, God willing, this is a war that we will win.’ The nation was carefully informed that during the night of Jan. 15, 1991 (the eve of the beginning of the U. S. bombing of Iraq), an Episcopal president, George Bush, spent the night in prayer with Billy Graham, a Southern Baptist minister.
“But it was not just the U.S. that evoked God for its cause. Both sides – as has been true in almost all wars – viewed the conflict as a ‘holy war.’” Saddam Hussein had formerly led Iraq as a largely secular Arab state. But Hussein, like George Bush, seemed to undergo a “religious renewal” during the war. Hostetter concludes, “most of the religious people in the U.S. were exactly like the religious communities in Iraq: primary allegiance was to [their country]. Many U.S. clergy of all faiths were also with the troops to bless and pray for their victory.”
Clearly what’s going on here – as in every war I know of in the past – is that people reduce God to the God of our nation. Our country’s leaders’ will becomes synonymous with God’s will.
Before I can feel smugly critical of this kind of view of God, I need to remember some of my old attitudes. I was “born again” in 1971 during the middle of the Vietnam War, a seventeen year-old living in Elkton, Oregon. A few months after my conversion, I heard that Oregon’s senior senator, Mark Hatfield, was also a born-again Christian. In fact, I heard that, like I was at the time, he was a Baptist. I had to talk with my pastor about this. I told him, I simply couldn’t believe that Hatfield could possibly be a genuine Christian – after all he had spoken so strongly against the Vietnam War. He had so clearly opposed U.S. policy in that war. My pastor sadly shook his head. Yeah, he said, I’ve heard that Hatfield is supposedly a Christian too. He made it clear that he didn’t believe it, either. The sole issue affecting my judgment was my total association of God’s will with our nation’s war policies.
These views didn’t last too long for me. However, I did drive home from college my freshman year to fulfill my Christian duty and vote for Richard Nixon for president in 1972. By 1975, however, I read Hatfield’s autobiography, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, where he spells out his Christian basis for opposing warfare. I wrote a glowing review of the book. So I had left behind the view closely identifying God with the U.S.
For me the next step was to see God as a universal God. I saw God much like an almighty king acting directly in history and controlling all events. I remembered that kind of view of God recently when I started reading a book called Disappointment with God by Philip Yancey. Yancey tries honestly to face issues of theodicy, God’s rule over creation. He addresses issues of how is it that God can be all-powerful and in control of history while evil still remains so widespread. The people who Yancey addresses are those who have been disappointed with God. These are people who have angrily lost their faith because God let so many bad things happen to them and to the world.
This is a compassionate book, and I’m sure one that has been encouraging to many people. It is certainly engaging, very well written. Nonetheless, I had to put it down only partially read. Yancey’s notion of God simply wasn’t helpful to me. He takes the biblical images quite literally. The Old Testament stories, when they talk about God doing this or saying that or giving this command – for Yancey these are literally true.
I’ve had to change my views regarding that notion of God. I used to see those images of God as literally true also. However, they left me with too many intellectual and existential problems. The God of Bible times, in my experience and reading of history, recent and going farther back, is not apparent in the world I know. This is not because I didn’t want to find that God here. I tried very hard to do so. However, I didn’t see God in direct control of events. I didn’t see God performing obvious miracles, intervening from beyond history. I didn’t hear God explicitly giving laws and direction and clear words of absolute truth.
My struggle to experience God in these direct, obvious ways inevitably ended with failure. That failed struggle had a detrimental effect on my spirituality. That struggle was not a source for encouragement, but of shame, guilt feelings, and self-alienation. I had to adjust, and in the end find a way to respect who I was and find my spirituality within the context of my genuine self. That is, I had to find a way to understand God that was understandable to me – at least in a general sense. My understanding had to fit, at least partially, and be workable in my life.
I ended up facing some choices. One choice was that I could accept the biblical picture of God as literally true and convince myself that God is like that now, too. That was how I started. However, after awhile, I realized that what I was doing was trying to convince myself of something that I really had little evidence for. I could only keep doing that for so long. My orientation toward life had, as a rule, been to seek the truth, and to use my experience as a basis for verifying what was true. I had to admit my experience wasn’t bearing out my beliefs about God. My experience was not verifying my beliefs.
So, I faced a second choice. I could continue to accept the biblical picture of God as literally true and blame myself for not having the faith to see that God. I tried this, but came to see that I simply didn’t want to live with such self-incrimination. Maybe it wasn’t really my fault that I couldn’t see God in that way. Maybe my failure to perceive such a God as present was actually more true, more accurate to real life than what I had been taught about God.
A third choice, then, was to reject the biblical picture of God as having any relevance for the present. Maybe the biblical God never was or maybe God has now abandoned the world. This choice, to abandon my faith and God altogether, was never one I seriously considered. I simply couldn’t deny my experience of God, my experience of truthfulness. Plus, as I was questioning the old views, positive alternative views were becoming more clear.
The choice I did make was to see the Bible as recording human records of experiences in history, human language about God. These stories reflect the efforts of people of faith to make sense of their experiences of God. They wrote in the language and thought-forms of their day. We shouldn’t take the stories as literal truth that easily transcend time, language, and culture. Rather, we connect with these stories as stories. We are human beings seeking to make sense out of our world and experiences. We find assistance from these other human beings who, in very profound and perceptive ways did the same. Ultimately, though, we must come to terms with God in our day, in the context of our language and our thought-forms. The Bible helps in uniquely significant ways, but we must apply it ourselves. We must think for ourselves, dealing with our experiences.
In this way, I moved on in my process of understanding God. I chose to view the biblical picture of God as one that we must grapple with and learn from. However, it is not a picture that literally tells us exactly and for all time who God is and exactly what God is like. It is not that what the Bible tells us about God isn’t true. Rather, mean to say that we need to interpret what’s in the Bible in ways that its truth speaks to our experience. In my study of the Old Testament, shaped by my own experience in life and that of many others, I have come to see one central truth about how the Bible pictures God.
Perhaps the crucial point in the Old Testament is when Babylon wiped Judah out (see 2 Kings 24–25; 2 Chronicles 36; Jeremiah; Lamentations). This terrible trauma shattered everything. The institutions that defined the people – kingship and temple – lay in ruins. Out of that trauma, though, comes a sense that God’s presence remains. We find in Jeremiah, for instance, a picture of God not as one gloating at the unfaithful getting their just deserts. No, we see a God who grieves. God is present in the suffering and brokenness. This presence is not the presence of a white knight, riding to the rescue and making everything okay. It is simply the presence of one suffering with the victims. Somehow, mysteriously, out of this suffering comes some glimmer of life. A sense that God’s love remains.
Now, this kind of God makes sense in the modern world. This kind of God makes sense following our twentieth-century of mass murder. Fifty million people were slaughtered in the mere six years of World War II – including the millions of Jews meeting their death in concentration camps.
Elie Wiesel, in his fictional death-camp memoir, Night, gives one account of such an awareness of God. The narrator tells of the only one of the countless hangings the he witnessed that brought the dried-up bodies of the inmates to tears. A young boy inmate, loved by all in the camp, endured torture for the names of resistance fighters he supposedly knew. He wouldn’t speak, and faced the gallows as a result. He was hung with two other, older, men. “Where is God,” cried some grieving observers. The two men died immediately, but the child lingered for half an hour. “Where is God now,” one observer asked bitterly. The narrator responds: “And I heard a voice within me answer him: ‘Where is God? Here God is – God is hanging here on this gallows.”
As theologian Jim Garrison writes, “God suffered death at Auschwitz. God was pathetically present in that suffering, able through divine pathos to become vulnerable to even such a magnitude of evil.”
I hesitate to speak from my own experience in this context because it appears so trivial in comparison. Nonetheless, I do think I got a glimpse of this a number of years ago. The sense of brokenness, of deep suffering, of casting about with all moorings seemingly out of reach. Yet somehow, a core of empathy, a sense of companionship in the darkness.
This isn’t the majority viewpoint on the Bible’s God. However, this suffering God – present even (especially) in the rubble – is the most profound viewpoint. This is the picture of God, a genuinely biblical picture, which speaks to me in our time. This God, too, is powerful – powerful in a way that empowers us, which enhances our spirituality. I understand such power as the power of relationality. That is, the power of an empathetic God is the power of a God who stays available to us as a personal presence.
Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, in his classic book, I and Thou, helps us to understand God in this way. God cannot be made into an objective entity, an It. Human beings know God only in relationship, as a You (or Thou). God is the source of all truly authentic relationships. When we encounter another person in a free way, recognizing and appreciating that other person as someone we can mutually relate with, then God is present. When we treat other people as objects, as things to be used, manipulated, ignored – then we have no sense of God’s presence. “God is present when I confront You [as a You and not as an It]. But if I look away from You, [treating you as an It], I deny God. But when I encounter You [as a You], I encounter God.”
Power as relationality is tenuous. When relationships are authentic they are free, dynamic, impossible to control. This tenuousness, this sense of giving the Other freedom also – these make the presence of God iffy, fleeting, mysterious. Nonetheless, when we do connect – and we all do when we are open to it, then we realize that this indeed is where life is. When we do connect, with other human beings to whom we say You and not It – then we do know about life, and God.
As our Psalm tells us, God’s reaching out to us is a reaching out which gives sight in the midst of brokenness. If we’re honest about life, we know life is full of brokenness. So this gift of sight amidst brokenness is a much needed gift, a gift indeed.
Singer Tom Waits, in his typically tragic fashion, pictures the first step of such sight amidst brokenness in his song “San Diego Serenade.” “Never saw the morning till I stayed up all night. Never saw the sunshine till I turned out the light. Never saw my hometown till I stayed away too long. I never heard the melody till I needed the song.”
Now, for Tom, in this song it is always too late and there is little redemption beyond simply realizing that it is too late. For the Psalmist, though, it wasn’t too late, and the new sight amidst the brokenness led to healing. Realistically, in life (and I think at places in the Bible), sometimes it is too late when we finally see. At least too late to get back that which we wanted, that which we wished we had never lost.
However, maybe never (this is what I now affirm, with the Psalmist) is it really too late, as long as we have life, to encounter God as You. We always may encounter God as the source of love, God as one who shares life (pain and joy) with us. God is one who bridges barriers caused by our treating another person as It. God enables us to know each other and actually to call each other You.
Doug Hostetler, “Thou shalt have no other Gods before me – and that includes war,” Gospel Herald (January 14, 1992), 1-3.
Hostetler, “Thou shalt have no other Gods before me – and that includes war,” 2-3.
Mark O. Hatfield, Between a Rock and a Hard Place (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1976).
Philip Yancey, Disappointment with God (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1988).
Elie Wiesel, Night (New York: Avon Books, 1960), 76.
Jim Garrison, The Darkness of God: Theology after Hiroshima (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982), 106.
Martin Buber, I and Thou, translated by Walter Kauffman, (New York: Scribners, 1970), 28.
 Tom Waits, “San Diego Serenade” on the album Heart of Saturday Night (Asylum Records, 1974).