Many of us maybe have maybe heard in church that we’re supposed to “put” God at the center of everything, consider God first, or something along those lines. This probably works well when it comes to the evangelical notion of “spending time with God,” but I think it might betray something unworkable about how we often think of God’s relationship to the world. What I’ve noticed is that there seems to be, very generally speaking, at least two kinds of faith that are being practiced in the Christian context that reveal this. My suggestion is that the second kind is far more livable than the first.
First, there’s the faith that takes this teaching quite literally and attempts to see God in everything with the best of intentions. The consequence here though sometimes amounts to interventionist supernaturalism, in which God is understood to be playing a coercive orchestration game in all areas of life, and is thought of as related to us only externally. In other words, God becomes the direct cause of everything good that happens to us, from outside and above, while the bad things are just seen as mysterious and sort of swept under the rug.
The other kind of faith – one that I’m trying to explore and practice more in my own life – might go something like what Henri Nouwen says here:
“While personal concern is sustained by a continuously growing faith in the value and meaning of life, the deepest motivation [going into] the future is hope. For hope makes it possible to look beyond the fulfillment of urgent wishes and pressing desires and offers a vision beyond human suffering and even death. [The Christian life] therefore is not called “Christian” because it is permeated with optimism against all the odds of life, but because it is grounded in the historic Christ-event which is understood as a definitive breach in the deterministic chain of human trial and error, and as a dramatic affirmation that there is light on the other side of darkness.” – from The Wounded Healer
I do not see this as the easy solution or as the only clear alternative necessarily, but I think the juxtaposition of these two approaches can be helpful – especially with respect to reducing anxiety and simplifying, at least conceptually, the path of discipleship that is already difficult enough to lead. Why? Because on the one hand, God is still being trusted and credited as the one who empowers and persuades – enables – where human striving has been exhausted, but on the other hand is not trusted or credited in such a way that distracts us with personalistic ideas of God’s will – a way of faith that sounds synonymous with Western cultural tendency of individualist exceptionalism. We want so bad for our lives to matter and for there to be meaning or calling in our vocations. And I believe that there is. The problems comes when we cross the fine line that separates this genuine human desire from egoism and idolatry that waits on the other side.
I hope that this distinction makes sense, and I’m curious as to whether it resonates with others.
In case we think, however, that this is an excuse to wait around and hope for God in mere contemplative inaction, Nouwen elsewhere declares the following:
“You are Christian only so long as you constantly pose critical questions to the society you live in, so long as you emphasize the need of conversion both for yourself and for the world, so long as you in no way let yourself become established in the situation of the world, so long as you stay unsatisfied with the status quo and keep saying that a new world is yet to come. You are Christian only when you believe you have a role to play in the realization of the new kingdom, and when you urge everyone you meet with holy unrest to make haste so that the promise might soon be fulfilled. So long as you live as a Christian you keep looking for a new order, a new structure, a new life.”
This presents a challenge to those in the ministry for instance who make it their first priority to preserve and grow specific institutions or to please their constituencies. It is likewise a charge against those who’d like to serve their own ends while giving only occasional credence to “what really matters.” I’ve definitely been guilty of this one. So rather, we must somehow strive to order our lives in such a way as to be at once full of hope for the coming of God and yet faithful to the everyday mission of reconciliation, with God as our enabler.