Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Not too proud to stop and ask for directions

I'm at a pretty important juncture in my life. And it's no coincidence that I'm more passionate then ever about doing what God would want me to do. So I also believe that there is a reason I am getting several different messages from different sources concerning finding God's will. I went back to the Ancient Paths seminar last week with my girlfriend. I listened to a recording of a lecture about prophesy and listening to God on a car trip last week. Our college/career group had our senior pastor guest speaking last night. Can you guess what it was about? How to hear God. Then on top of it all, my girlfriend has been causing me to reevaluate the way I view my faith and God, and how Christianity can work. I think my pastor's talk last night worked really well to organize all the miscellaneous thoughts about the subject that have been swirling through my head over the past month or so. The single most important thing about hearing God is this: no ritual or process will teach you to hear God better; only learning His character will. In any relationship, mechanical procedures aren’t conducive to intimacy. It's the same with God. And I don't think the personhood of God can be found as a means to an end. If you go into it thinking, "I need to figure out X, therefore I need God to speak to me." than you are just using God as a tool to better your life. Your search for His will must be motivated by Love.

So how does one learn His character? How do you build a relationship with Him? Just like you would with anyone else. You spend time with Him. You talk to Him. You read what He wrote. And you listen. Here is where things get sticky though. How do you know the difference between God's voice and your inner dialogue - your own hopes and desires. Well, I've heard this analogy twice now from two sources… Imagine that your mind is an FM scanner. There are many radio waves blasting through your mind: (I'm making this part up; no one went this far with the analogy.) your flesh, your spirit, satan, God, and whatever else could be sending signals to you. Your flesh says things about your desires, what errands you have to do, how your foot itches, etc. Your spirit is probably broadcasting the hopes and godly desires that God has given you. But I think tuning into this frequency is not going to necessarily lead you to Gods will, as you can have an earnest heart after contradictory things. Satan's messages are usually going to be very close to truth, but with just enough lies to screw you up real good. (Now we are getting back to what I heard.) God's frequency is much lower, and longer than all the quick static pops that these other signals are. It is steady and peaceful. The problem comes with determining which station you are tuned into when you feel like you have received a direction while praying, because as finite mortals it's very hard for us to distinguish between the frequencies. So the only way we can learn if it's God we are hearing is to simply continue seeking Him. Trial and error. Keep making decisions as best you can based on what you think God has told you. Then look back at those decisions you made, and in retrospect you can usually tell if they were good or not. As you do this you will become better at honing in on that voice. This is obviously a long process. But again, any relationship takes time to build. Friendship does not come by formula, trust does simply happen when the proper trigger is pulled. This is why elders are so vital to young Christians. They have had more time in which to grow that relationship with God, and thus are better equipped to know His voice and guidance.

So here I am at a cross-road in my life. Desperately wanting some really solid direction… and all the messages I am receiving are telling me that I just need to move forward, make a decision, stop being paralyzed by the fear of screwing up… oh, but you might screw up. In other words, since it is incumbent upon me that I make a decision, and I don't have the experience to know for sure that God is who I'm hearing when I ask what I should do, my decision could be totally wrong. But I don't have a choice anymore. I can't just not act. I have temporized long enough.

My pastor proposed an interesting exercise. (He prefaced this by saying that any time you rely upon a technique, satan will always have a counter measure.) He says to prayerfully imagine that you have made a decision one way or another. Think about your initial reaction to it. (This reaction could be completely wrong.) Then, ask God to show you how you would look back on that decision 10 years down the road. Ask Him to show you things you may not have thought of. Since He is outside of time, He can do this, and inform you how your retrospective analysis would go. You may not get details, but you can get general impressions. After you explore one possibility for a while, try the other path and see what you discover. The details of this exercise are not clear to me. I imagine they would change a lot depending on what kind of decision you are making.

Beyond important decisions, getting to know God and recognizing His voice sounds like what I want. My pastor says he starts every day by taking a long walk with God. He also pointed out that prayer sometimes looks different than a lot of people imagine it looks. He says not to get down on yourself when you mind wanders, but to simply look at where it went and think if that may be where God wanted it to go. If you are distracted by a bird that reminds you of a time when you went camping with a friend, then you start to think about that friend… go with it. Pray for that friend. God designed our brains and knows how they work. It makes sense that His methods of direction often utilize the brain's natural disposition. It occurs to me that besides being a great way to "pray without ceasing." This low-key approach to prayer is also a great way to encourage us to think about all facets of life through the lens of our faith. Also, this is not THE correct way to pray. There are prayer warriors who are very focused and organized, and there are times when God calls us to disciplined times of prayer. But I think generally, we fail to spend the time we should with God because we see it as a separate time that precludes any other activity, so we become frustrated when we can't focus, or it is eating into time for other things. Yes, having a daily devotional time is very important, but we need to recognize that we are not supposed to divide our lives into "God Time" and "Non-God Time". "God Issues" and "Non-God Issues". That's what being in an intimate relationship is all about: sharing every part of our lives with someone else. And what better way to get to know someone than by sharing all of your thoughts, feelings, opinions, and time?

So what about those times when you can't seem to hear anything? When it feels like God has just let you go in the rat maze of your life with no directions whatsoever. One thing I've heard is that when God does clearly speak to you it is usually because something really scary or important is going to happen and you will need to have that word from God to sustain you through it. My dad told me about the time my Grandfather prayed for a man who had just died in an industrial accident and the guy was brought back to life. My dad said his father had been called to a 40-day fast just before it happened. Clearly it was a preparation for that event. I've read similar accounts in numerous books. Christ was told to fast in the wilderness for 40 days to prepare him for His time of temptation. So in a way, you can feel somewhat safe if God isn't directly giving you commands. Besides, I have the feeling that is not His preferred mode of relationship with us. He doesn’t want to drive us like a car. He gave us free will for a reason. He doesn’t like to manipulate, he likes to seduce. He wants us to search for His plan and be overjoyed when we find it. I think that is why He doesn’t tend to speak clearly to the spiritually immature. Only when our hearts are prepared to love His ways will he give us specific direction. When he knows that we will be excited about what He has in store for us no matter what it is. I feel like I'm at that place right now. I'm eagerly anticipating what it is He has in store. And I know it might look completely different than I expect, but I have learned to love His ways and know that they will be fruitful and blessed. So it's exiting to be getting all of this input about hearing His voice right now.

But I'm not hearing anything definite yet. So back to the question… What about those times. I have a theory on this. Or at least a parallel. It comes from my profession: game design. In many ways the role of the game designer is like that of God. (I'll use a lower-case G to make myself more comfortable with this analog.) The game designers has to have the trust of the gamer (the person playing the game) or little can be accomplished. Every game starts with heavy feedback for the player. Every new item they pick up will give them some sort of explanation or obvious advantage. In the same way, baby Christians receive a lot of feedback from God and his people (assuming they are attending a good church) as they take their first steps into the faith. Almost every time they read the Bible some new revelation will strike them. It's an exiting time of rapid growth. But just like in a video game, eventually the goodies start to become more scarce. The rewards less obvious. The hand-holding has to stop at some point. Paul describes this as moving from milk to meat. Game designers call it directed linier progression to free-form sandbox play patterns. A good designer won't let go of the player's hand until they think the player will be able to make good, informed decisions about what to do next. At that point the player is given their first real decision that will impact the game in some way. Should I buy the gun or the sword? Should I increase my speed or my strength? Should I upgrade my tiers or my engine? As the new Christian starts to come into their own, and begins to find the meat of the scripture, and the real meaning behind all the bumper sticker Christianeese slogans, they find themselves faced with some real decisions about how to live their lives. How to interact with other Christians. What their role in their church is. Suddenly it may seem like they have been cut loose and set adrift. But in reality it is a chance for them to start putting into practice the things that they have learned during their infancy. In games, this transition needs to be handled with finesse. Too much hand-holding and the game will get boring, but too much freedom too early and the player will feel overwhelmed. Likewise, God, as the ultimate designer, knows how to balance things. But I think the church may not be doing a good enough job in educating ourselves about this process. So many Christians feel lost and hopeless when there aren’t emotional fireworks going off in their walk of faith. But God always has a reason for the timing and the method of His communication. He uses scripture, people, events, etc. And if we are prayerfully considering what's going on He will show us what we need to see. This is where our faith comes in. In a game, the designer needs to build the player's trust in order to get them to fully engage in the game. The best example of this is delayed gratification. If the designer has done a good job, when a player is on a path that is fraught with peril and apparently goes no where, they will trust that there will be something worth-while at the end of that path. A new weapon, a bonus track to unlock, a new character, more health, etc. In the same way, I have seen in my Christian walk that God has been faithful in bringing new life to me after every ordeal I have come through. Every valley has held a treasure for me to discover. God's faithfulness is unfailing.

So what does this analogy do for me? It reminds me that I need to stay active, make decisions, and trust that since my heart is really after God, He will guide me through this whether I am 'hearing' Him or not. It also reminds me that I wish I had time to play video games again.

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