What are we proving?

A couple of years ago I met a guy who’d undergone a massive life transformation. Now understand that sometimes people talk about change in pennies--a better attitude, a new home, hair color, or job--but this guy’s change was massive. His was severe. From a life of drug selling, dealing and using; from a life of rich material emptiness and short-lived pleasures, he’d become utterly exhausted. Desperate. I remember standing in an empty parking lot with him late at night, hearing parts of his story for the first time and being overcome with the notion that something miraculous, something mysterious, had taken over him. Somewhere, something intangible, had broken through in his life. Just a couple of months earlier he had been gripped by a reality that he had no choice but to embrace. He spoke of surprise, joy and disbelief, new thought patterns, desires, habits, and hope. As evidence of his new life, he wore this ridiculous, unassuming, sometimes inappropriate smile everywhere. Seriously, his gratefulness was strange. But it was genuine. He told me about the years of tears and mysterious yearnings, replaced by a mental calm, and a freedom from the disturbances of his previous life that he could not logically explain.

If you’ve met someone like this, you know there is little to be argued or proven. If you’ve been on the listening end of the conversation you can only agree. The force behind this kind of work must be good. This kind of God can be trusted. No one knew how or when and it may have taken what felt like forever, but after waiting finally somewhere, somehow, God...

These stories are powerful accounts of the divine. They are not founded on theological theory, supported by constructive argumentative approaches, or credited as the result of pious praxis. In these accounts there are no steps to be cited, no reasons wholly understood, and there is no discernible sequence of movements to be generalized or applied. Despite the widespread matriculation of materials that lay claim to the motivation behind God’s movement, no one understands him. God may be good, sure, but he is still other.

Jesus articulated this mysterious God through stories and metaphor. He said the kingdom of God is like: a seed growing in the ground that becomes a tree so that the birds can perch in its branches, a net let down into a lake to catch fish, a treasure hidden, found, and buried again in a field, or one expensive pearl. What was that? Say that again, Jesus. It's a seed, a net, buried treasure, a pearl.

Is this how you answer questions about your faith?

The Bible tells us that God’s Spirit descends like a dove. Nice. In one story, this character Nicodemus wants to know the anatomy behind rebirth and how it's done. The question being asked is, "What does it take?" Nicodemus wants it straight and simple. So Jesus breaks it down for him and tells him that the Spirit, like the wind, blows where it wants to. We hear it but don’t know where it comes from or where it's going. No, no--maybe you misunderstood the question, Jesus. How does God work? Jesus says the Spirit is a lot like the wind. Were Jesus a politician, he might be accused of dodging the question. But he doesn’t. Rather, he seems to be suggesting that, in fact, God is best understood in this very quality of secrecy; this puzzling, hidden, mysterious nature.

It should make us wonder whether convincing or argumentative persuasion is the best way of articulating faith? Do we find readily exemplified in our Bibles any account of a person following Christ because they were out-argued, proven wrong, or debated to faith? Calling out the wrongness of competing world views or the rightness of one's own has never been been Jesus' choice. Even the early Christian community did not grow because they could prove their claims. After all, anything can be argued. Jesus wasn't the first to claim resurrection from the dead. Centuries before Christ people celebrated the supposed resurrection of Osiris, Tammuz, Attis, Mithra, and other gods--but these claims had no substance whereas Christians risked their lives on this claim. The proof, the evidence, was in a new humanity, a new way of living toward God and one another. Lives were changed. Listen to his story. Look at her life. She is a new person.

But what are we doing? What are we proving?

Talking about God has always been a tall order. It's safe to say we do a pretty poor job at it. How could we not? It is endless work. Jesus fielded questions with metaphors. The kingdom of heaven, you might think of it like gardening, fishing equipment, or stumbling across unclaimed jewelry. Jesus gives stories, not answers: the kingdom is like a wedding reception. And God? Jesus compares him to a father waiting up night after night for a runaway son.

When we articulate life with Christ as a simple transaction whereby everything is suddenly great, happy, sensible, or neat; when we purport images of painlessness, explanations for the unknown, or possession of a “whole” understanding of God-- we do a great disservice to one another. Christ left us with questions. Where did we come up with all the answers? There are unknowns. And the life of faith is one of great tension. Jesus tells us that God is good and he can be trusted, but we have to hang in there, for who knows how long.

When you talk about faith, what images do you use? Are you honest about your uncertainties?

I know someone who once told me that he only reads the Psalms. He said he reads them because they’re so comforting. But what was he talking about? The Psalms are monopolized with grief, sorrow, and uncertainty. If you read them you see the human soul laid bare. Where are you God? How long? How could you? The Christian’s life is shown there to be often desperate, angry, and exhausted. Man cries out to God, he whences in pain, he aches and groans. God is not wholly understood, but he is holy, good, and to be trusted. We should feel free to express the same, not only to God, but to one another.

What’s it like being a Christian? Honestly? It’s difficult and mysterious. It is painful, hard, sometimes drudgerous. There is great tension and waiting. But this God, he can be trusted.