As a pastor, you begin to see patterns in people that reveal a great deal about the problematic ways in which we tend to think about God and religion.
One of these patterns, is the great temptation people of faith often feel to over-spiritualize life.
This may sound like a good thing, and in theory it is. When we come to believe in the existence of God, it’s understandable and even admirable that we would begin to filter everything through the lens of this conviction; that we would look to see God’s hand in it all—our families, marriages, careers, relationships, etc. But practically speaking, this can easily become a paralyzing process, as we parse out every single painful experience, every second of adversity, the smallest minutia of suffering—and try to ascribe specific religious meaning to it.
In other words, if we’re honest, it’s nearly impossible at any given moment to reliably determine the difference between:
cause and effect—and God,
bad luck—and God,
poor choices—and God,
terrible people—and God,
the simple collateral damage of living—and God.
We can drive ourselves half mad, and other people as well in the process.
And unfortunately, the Bible itself often feeds this tendency to microscopically inspect every event in an effort to interpret what God is saying. It is, after all a theological library; a series of books intending to testify to the existence, presence, and participation of God—written thousands of years ago by people who were trying (as we are today) to make sense of a loving Creator, and the living Hell (or even mild discomfort) we can find ourselves experiencing here on earth.
For example, the writers of the Scriptures didn’t have the benefit of three thousand years of medical research as they documented their spiritual journeys. As a result, when someone became physically sick, they naturally believed the afflicted person must be morally flawed; that God must be punishing them for their visible or hidden wickedness. Sin was the cause of sickness, not cancerous cells.
And without the meteorological tools we now have at our disposal, a severe weather event wasn’t the result of low and high pressure systems colliding violently, or the fact that a village was built in a flood plain—it was God’s simply clear wrath against the people. (Sadly some religious folks still blame immorality for natural disasters instead of the Jet Stream.)
When we read the Bible today, we’re spoiled because God seems to be intimately orchestrating every movement and speaking clearly into the process while doing so: allowing people to have their lives ripped apart, testing their faith with terrifying requests, punishing the disobedient with 40 years of wandering, blinding people to prove a point. Elsewhere God is bringing locusts and parting seas and destroying jails in order to deliver the righteous.
Given these documented precedents that we’re raised reading about every week as Christians, it’s natural that we’d now sift every difficult or painful experience of our lives to try and figure out what God is trying to individually tell us. But maybe that’s now how God works, at least not usually.
One of the other factors feeding this over-spiritualized existence—is good, old-fashioned ego. For most Christians, our modern understanding of faith is that it is me-centered:
God created me.
God loves me.
Jesus died for me.
God wants a personal relationship with me.
God is decidedly in the me business.
If this is how I see my journey of faith, then it’s natural to believe that God is always manufacturing my adversity to teach, punish, or stop me. In fact, it will make sense to me that God is affecting thousands of other people, just to make sure I get the point.
This self-centeredness slips in without us even thinking about it, even with perceived blessings. One Saturday this past winter I was completely worn out and I did not want to go to work the next morning. (Yes, pastors feel that way too.) When the promised inclement weather arrived and news came down that we would have a snow day, I instinctively thanked God (as if God inconvenienced the entire Tri-State area, crippling the airports along the entire East Coast—simply so I could sleep in on Sunday.)
Friend, ultimately, God may be speaking directly to you by causing you to find yourself in certain circumstances at certain times—or maybe you’ve found yourself in (or created) those circumstances, and you need to ask God where you go from here. Perhaps the better spent time, isn’t assigning culpability to God for adversity, but looking to God in that adversity.
You didn’t get that job you really wanted. Was it “God telling you it wasn’t the job for you,” as Christians often like to hypothesize?
Or maybe you didn’t have the right experience, interviewed poorly, or the guy asking the questions didn’t like the way your nose wheezed when you breathed. That’s far less “spiritual” and not loaded necessarily loaded with deep theological meaning, but the result is the same: you need to keep looking for a job.
Ultimately, it’s a good thing to reflect and pray and to wonder whether the difficulties we experience are indeed some personal message from God—but we need to realize that knowing for certain is a near impossibility, and we should be careful not to become frozen in the places of self-centeredness, forever asking what God is doing to me.
Far more attainable, is looking at the painful circumstances we find ourselves in at a given moment, and determining what part we played in arriving there, what role others had, and how we can and should respond in a way that affirms what we believe about God.
God may indeed be causing this suffering—or just sitting with you in it.