by Dale Ryan
Perhaps you have been taught that having a relationship with God begins by saying, “Yes.” We were taught that as well. But the Bible is clear about this. If we serve gods who are not God, then the process must begin by saying, “No.”
There was a time when it became clear to me that the god I served was not God. I lived in relationship with a god who was quick to anger and slow to forgive. That’s not, of course, what I believed to be true about God, but if you took a close look at my spiritual life you would probably have concluded that there was a huge disconnect between what I believed and the realities of my spiritual life. I served a God who was impossible to please.
Over time I grew weary of trying to be good enough, dedicated enough, strong enough, smart enough, or whatever enough to please my impossible-to-please god, and I found myself saying “No.” I just was not willing to do the same thing over and over again expecting different results. What followed was a season of deep spiritual distress. I wanted the living and true God to rush right in to replace the impostor I had been serving. But what I experienced was God’s silence. This silence was the most difficult part of this season in my life. God, apparently, had nothing to say. Not a peep.
Finally, I summoned the courage to share my struggles with some other Christians. While God seemed to have nothing to say, his followers could not stop talking. Everyone had something to say, a verse to read or advice to give. Have you prayed about it? All things work together for good. If you don’t feel close to God, guess who moved? The advice was glib, dismissive, and shaming. I put these people who spoke too soon and too glibly on a list of people not to be trusted again with my spiritual struggles.
Eventually, I realized that all of my efforts to get closer to God were counterproductive, and I gave up trying to force the feeling of closeness. I waited for God to speak in God’s own time, unsure if that time would ever come. At that time I was still pretty sure I knew what God would say if God decided to say something. I expected that when God spoke, I would be scolded. I was sure God would say something like, “Think of everything we could have gotten done while you wasted all this time! I’ve been here all the time, where have you been?” These were the messages I expected to receive. But if God had spoken too soon, too glibly, or with this kind of shame, I know what I would have done. I would have added God’s name to the list of people who could not be trusted with my spiritual brokenness.
When God eventually did speak, it was absolutely the last thing I ever expected God to say. The last thing. God said, “Blessed are the spiritually broken. Come and rest.” I had shamed myself relentlessly for my spiritual brokenness. I was supposed to be stronger, better, more successful spiritually. And others had added to this shame. But God did not add to this shame. God saw in my “No”—in my spiritual brokenness— an opportunity for spiritual blessing. I could not see it at the time. I thought saying “No” was a kind of failure. But God could see what I could not—I would never be able to say “Yes” until I had said “No” to the gods-who-are-not-God. In retrospect, I can see that the important thing was not whether God was silent or talkative. The important thing was that God’s silence was a respectful silence. God was not glib or dismissive. God did not talk too soon. God’s silence was an expression of care and respect.
If we are serving gods who are not God, the first step in spiritual rebuilding is for us to say, “No.” As long as our hearts are turned toward false gods, we will be unable to let ourselves experience God’s grace. Saying “No” can be a scary step to take. We may be firing the only God we have ever served. The result will be, in all probability, a season of spiritual distress—a season of doubts, second thoughts, spiritual confusion, and spiritual loneliness. After all, our false gods provide us with some benefits: They are familiar. They are what we know. And sometimes the familiar—even if it is abusive—seems less terrifying than the fears that come when we think about firing the only god we have ever known.
In all of the spiritual distress that accompanies saying “No,” it is difficult for us to remember that God’s feelings about our spiritual brokenness are not the same as our own. The God we find in the Bible is clear about spiritual brokenness. Consider, for example, Psalm 51:17: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (ESV). We tend to despise our spiritual brokenness. We hate it. But God sees things quite differently. Not only does God not despise our spiritual brokenness, God sees our spiritual brokenness as a kind of worship—as a kind of sacrifice. God understands how painful it is to say “No” to our idolatrous attachments. God understands how difficult it is to let go. But God also recognizes the spiritual maturity that is being shaped within us during this difficult process. Jesus made exactly this point when he said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Contrary to all of our expectations about our spiritual impoverishment, God sees past the confusion, the doubt, and the distress to the growing spiritual humility that is a sign of our participation in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Originally published in Soul Repair by Jeff VanVonderen, Juanita Ryan, and Dale Ryan, InterVarsity Press