by Dale Ryan
I did not expect my relationship with God to be difficult. Quite to the contrary, one of the first things I learned about the Christian faith as a young child was that “every day with Jesus is sweeter than the day before.” I learned a series of songs about this. I remember singing about being “hap, hap, happy all the live-long-day”, “all the burdens of my heart rolled away,” and about having “joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart.”
I didn’t think adults would mislead children about something this important. So, I believed that every day with Jesus would be sweeter than the day before. It took me several decades to fully realize that these expectations were profoundly rooted in denial. Indeed, I have yet to encounter a denial system more comprehensive than the every-day-with-Jesus denial system. Even active alcoholics will tell you that they have bad days sometimes. But by the age of five, I was convinced that a bad day was a kind of spiritual failure.
My experience is that people who expect their relationship with God to be relentlessly cheerful are in for some significant disappointment. In my case, I worked very hard to make every day with Jesus be sweeter than the day before. I worked hard. I worked harder. I worked my hardest. But the reward for all that hard work was gradually increasing depression, confusion, anger and religious compulsion.
It is now clear to me that although the God of my intellectual convictions resembled the God of Christian orthodoxy, the god of my guts, the god I worshiped and served, the god I lived in solidarity with, was a very different kind of god. I served the god of impossible expectations – a resentful, heartless, intolerant, and abandoning deity.
It was a very important development in my own spiritual journey to recognize that the god of impossible expectations is not merely a distorted image of the living and true God. It was not that I was really serving God but that I had ‘missed the mark’ by a little. I did not need some kind of spiritual fine-tuning. I needed a coarse adjustment. The god I worshiped was not God at all. Not even close. I served a god who was quick to anger and slow to forgive. That’s not a distorted image of the living and true God. It’s the wrong god completely.
The Bible is, fortunately, full of helpful wisdom for people like me who have served a god who is not God. What is needed is to say “no” to our not-God, to throw the bum out. No compromises, no half-way measures, no evasive theological discussions. If the god you serve is not God, dump him.
Dumping the only god I had ever really served resulted in a season of very intense spiritual distress for me. The god I had worshiped may have been a worthless and abusive god . . . but it was the only god I really knew at a deep level.
One of the most distressing parts of this season of saying “no” is the experience of God’s silence. Somehow I expected the living and true God to talk more. But, God did not speak. Just because God was not speaking, however, did not mean that it was quiet. Quite to the contrary, there was a clamor of voices. There was a long list of people who were prepared to explain things, to defend God or to quote verses. None of these voices seemed to understand. When they spoke, I longed for silence. It wasn’t until later that I realized how grateful I was for God’s silence. If God had spoken too soon, I would have added God’s name to the list of people who did not understand, the list of people who were not to be trusted.
When God eventually does speak, it is a most remarkable thing. My experience was that God said the very last thing in the whole world I ever expected God to say. I would not have been surprised to hear God express anger about my spiritual inadequacies. I expected God to shame me, to blame me, to be disgusted by my spiritual failure. I expected God to be frustrated with me and disappointed in me. But, God says surprising things to people who are spiritually bankrupt. When the living and true God speaks to people whose spiritual resources have been depleted or stolen, God pronounces blessing.
Listen to the biblical text: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:17). God does not despise people who experience spiritual brokenness. Rather, God sees our spiritual brokenness as a kind of worship (a 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 in us during this 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 spiritual brokenness, 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.
The living and true God does not despise our spiritual brokenness. Praise be to God!
May God grant you the courage to say “no” when it is the time to say “no”. May God grant you the grace to receive the blessing reserved for the poor in spirit. And, may your roots sink deeply in the soil of God’s love.
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