journey post 23–Honest to God, part 1, Confronting my functional theology: Is God good?
Two times in my life, I remember being unusually and brutally honest with God. One led to my becoming a Christian. The second time led to finally understanding what it meant that God is Father—my Father. Next to becoming a Christian after Vietnam, it was the most important thing that ever happened to me … a eureka moment in which I finally figured out who I am: I am my Father’s son—I am adopted. At last I knew for certain that God didn’t save me because I’d met the “condition” of faith in Jesus and so he had to—whether he wanted to or not: God made me a son because he wanted to. It was something he’d been passionate about since forever ago.
During the couple years following that eureka moment, I also came to understand how God can be truly good, even though his creation is filled beyond measure with evil, pain, and suffering.
Those two occasions stand like bookends to the part of my life that gives name to this blog. Each “bookend” represents about two years, during which I was engaged in a quest to find the answer to questions that I had hidden for years in some dark recess of my heart but was too fearful and never honest enough to admit to myself, to God, or to others.
On a hospital bed in Vietnam one morning, I came face to face with my own mortality. Surrounded by the remains of the day before and all the detritus of boys killing boys, I could no longer deny the reality of the reaper. I was staring at the wounds I’d received in battle: they were literally everywhere on my body, some small, some gaping holes—but not even one had penetrated a vital organ. Why?
Rodin’s “The Thinker”
I came this close to death—several times … so what really happens when we die? What about me when I die? I knew that I almost really did. I had to admit that I did not know the answers to some rather important questions, despite my deep involvement at church—you know, that stuff about God and Jesus and being good. I wondered, Was God real, and did he even care? Was Jesus just Santa Claus?
The greatest thing that ever happened for me happened on that bed: I was forced to be honest with myself and with God. I had to say, “I don’t know, but I need to find out.” Most of my life, I had hidden behind a self-protective dishonesty (which didn’t end on that bed, by the way). I had become so adept at this kind of self-protection and I probably wasn’t aware of any question about my faith—not until the gong inside my steel pot from that mortar blast forced a different perspective. My honesty led to a two-year quest that would center on an empty grave and the claims about Jesus. These journey posts are in large part about that quest.
We humans put great stock in our own ability to exercise our wills, to use our intelligence and wits to make our own way—but much of our life consists of unintended consequences and what happens to us. What do we do then? Some call God “the hound of heaven” who keeps on coming. But what do we do with that? There does come a time when, if we are determined to walk away, he simply lets us. That is a chilling prospect.
The second occasion when I had an “honesty encounter” with God began with another series of events around 2007, the second bookend to my zigzag journey. This time was a little less bloody than ‘Nam, perhaps, but nonetheless real and painful.
I was trying to counsel some people from my church whose lives were falling apart in front of me. Their families were deeply at risk, one was doing drugs, another person was engaged in sexual activity that was blowing his family out of the water, and him and his ministry along with it. I was doing my best to help them see clear to draw on help from the Father, but they just couldn’t, and I had no more to give.
About this time, I was just beginning to understand that people have a “functional theology,” a deeply held set of beliefs or assumptions about God and life—often much different from what they claim as a statement of faith or philosophy of life. Functional theology is what people actually live out, whether aware of it or not. For example, most Americans (and most Christians in America) have a functional theology of God that sees him as demanding, never truly satisfied with our performance. When asked, we’ll say that God is “love” and accepts people by “grace.” But in that dark inside, when we think about standing before that throne, will it be: “You could’ve had an ‘A’… I expected better out of you!”?
Yet I didn’t yet grasp how such thinking played out in church—nor the fact that the same view was inside my own head, until another conversation reminded me of how I had thought, when faced with leaving Africa a failure as a missionary and husband and father. I was counseling a man who told me about his career and how things always seemed to fall apart. This was a man who loved God, who was active in church, who encouraged others, and knew the Bible well. He sat there, telling me, “Walt, God is out to get me.” I was taken aback by his candor on something Christians aren’t supposed to think.
Then I remembered how I had found myself thinking that God had taken us to Africa just to give me a taste of something wonderful, to dangle it there, and just when it was within my grasp, pull it away to show me what I really deserved. So I thought then (1989) and was still (2007) stuffing the question I most feared to face: Is God truly good? Does he truly love me?
The two questions are closely related. Thirty-five years after the hospital bed, I knew I had to face the same question: Would I be honest, no matter what? no matter if the answer was not what I’d been telling so many for so long. I could not allow “my” position in church to keep from looking for the real answer. I simply had to know. If I could no longer say in good conscience, “God is good,” then I’d have to stop playing church and get out.
Honesty with God requires more than coffee at a comfortable Bible study group
Next post: Honest to God, part 2. Dealing with my dysfunctional theology of God leads to delightful discovery….