The Man Upstairs

Ever since Adam and Eve hid in the garden, we humans have been coming up with ways to make sure God doesn’t get too close. As we’re still discussing words and phrases that may misrepresent God, I thought we should look at those we use to keep him at a distance. Those of us who are a little older remember hearing God spoken of as the man upstairs. People don’t say this much anymore but they still think of God as being “in heaven,” somewhere out there and far away. Even though it’s used in the Lord’s prayer, thinking of him as only residing in heaven also works to do this. Sometimes using reverential language meant to exalt him can make us feel he keeps his distance from us.

While God is holy and “other” from us, he is not out in space somewhere. He’s right here, as close to us as our own heartbeats. We make a mistake when we relegate him to someplace other than beside us, before us, above us, below us, in us (to paraphrase the meditation of St. Patrick). Or, perhaps as has been portrayed in some of my favorite Star Trek episodes, he occupies the same space in another dimension. Well, not quite I suppose, but it might help to think of him in a similar way.

We who understand how close God is, can, through the way we speak of him, help others understand that he’s not the man upstairs or the God who is far off and observing us from afar. Rather, he’s closer than we realize and desires to be even closer, as close as we’ll let him.

Pleasing God

Last week I talked about how we don’t have to worry about offending God. The flip side is wondering if we are pleasing him and how to please him more. When you’re always concerned about how to please God you are also concerned that you may displease him, which can create tension and anxiety. Many Christians waste time and energy on this. But God isn’t like us, who are quick to take offense, get our feelings hurt and feel put out when someone either mistreats us or doesn’t meet our expectations. And he’s not constantly concerned about whether we please him or not, as if that’s all that matters. He’s much more mature than us!

God is pleased with us in the same way those of us who are parents are pleased with our children. Sure, they do things we don’t like; they are sometimes naughty and disobedient and even defiant. But do we love them less? We might be displeased for a little while, but as I recall, it was hard to stay upset with my kids for very long, no matter what they had done. In no time at all, it was hugs all around and many expressions of love going back and forth. I was not a better parent than God. His patience and kindness toward us go far beyond ours.

It’s possible for God to be displeased with our actions, and of course, grace is not a license to sin, but we need to remember he’s not like us. We don’t have to walk on eggshells with God because pleasing him isn’t something we need to be concerned about. As my favorite verse tells us: “The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing” (Zephaniah 3:17, NIV).

Along this line are thoughts from David Seamands, a missionary to India:

“The servant is accepted and appreciated on the basis of what he does, the child on the basis of who he is. The servant starts the day anxious and worried, wondering if his work will really please his master. The child rests in the secure love of his family. The servant is accepted because of his productivity and performance. The child belongs because of his position as a person. At the end of the day, the servant has peace of mind only if he is sure he has proven his worth by his work. The next morning his anxiety begins again. The child can be secure all day, and know that tomorrow won’t change his status. When a servant fails, his whole position is at stake; he might lose his job. When a child fails, he will be grieved because he has hurt his parents, and he will be corrected and disciplined. But he is not afraid of being thrown out. His basic confidence is in belonging and being loved, and his performance does not change the stability of his position” (David Seamands, quoted in Neil T. Anderson, Mike Quarles and Julia Quarles, One Day at a Time: The Devotional for Overcomers [Ventura, CA: Regal, 2000], 231).

Offending God

Everyone seems to be offended at someone or something these days. Some even define themselves by what offends them or the degree to which they are offended. Some think God is often offended too, by what we humans do or say. But is that the case?

It’s true God hates sin. He sent his son to become a human and die to rescue us from our sins. Jesus took all our sin upon himself, and through his death, he conquered it and reconciled all humanity to God once and for all. He loved us while we were enemies, while we hated and cursed him. Was he offended? No, he loved us. Is he offended now, as humanity continues to hate and curse him? No, he loves us.

God isn’t like us, but for some reason, we continually try to make him over in our image. We can’t understand him so we assume he must be like us, and since we are so easily offended, he must be too. God still hates sin, but he’s not easily offended. We don’t need to always be on our guard, afraid of upsetting or offending him. In Christ, we can be sure he loves us even when we mess up, because his love will never let us go.

God, Have Your Way in Me

A popular praise song, one we’ve all sung and which I like, talks about God having his way in us. Well, I like all of it except that phrase. It reminds me of how it was used in old books and movies. I guess it’s not part of modern vernacular, which makes me feel old, but I remember when a man had his way with a woman, it meant he was selfishly getting what he wanted from her, usually without her consent.

Does God really want to have his way in us or with us? Most Christians probably think this is another way of saying we submit to his will. He does want us to submit to his will, the same way Jesus did when he prayed not my will, but yours. But this phrase can paint God in the wrong light, making him sound more like humans, who in our me-first, I-demand-my-rights culture, want to have their way at the expense of others. That’s not who he is. God doesn’t work in our lives like that and this isn’t what he wants from us or for us.

When we submit our wills to his, we are saying we love God (because he loved us first), we trust him and we choose to be led by the Holy Spirit in every aspect of our lives. He helps us by his grace to lay aside our wills in favor of his, and eventually our wills merge. As we grow in grace and knowledge and as we become more in sync with Jesus, he works more in our lives and we participate more in Jesus’ life. Our relationship with him becomes a beautiful dance, just as the relationship of Father, Son and Spirit is a dance of love, sharing, communication and giving of self to the other.

God doesn’t want to have his way with us, he loves us and wants us to love him back. From now on, when I sing that song, I’m going to change the words to say, “Every breath that I take, every moment I’m awake, Lord, let our wills be one.”

Use Me, God

Many Christians like to think of themselves as being used by God in his service, for his glory, etc. Although most of us understand what this phrase means and the intent behind it, I’m not sure those unfamiliar with church-speak would have a positive reaction. In our politically correct, hyper-sensitive culture, it behooves us to consider how this concept reflects on how we think of God, who he is and how others will see him.

When people use each other, it’s because they want to control, manipulate or gain something from the person being used. I’m pretty sure almost everyone has experienced being used, in big or small ways. It’s not pleasant and can be harmful, dangerous or fatal. No one wants to be used.

Let’s examine this word control. God does not control us. He lets us make choices, even if they are bad ones. He doesn’t manipulate us. God loves us and love is not manipulative, rather it seeks the good of the one who is loved. God doesn’t need anything from us. He owns everything and there’s nothing we can give him he doesn’t already have. He doesn’t even need our praise (remember Jesus said if no one praised him, the rocks would (Luke 19:40).

Paul Young, in The Lies We Believe About God, says, “God is a relational being; that is who God is. The language of God is about partnering, co-creating, and participating; it’s about an invitation to dance and play and work and grow. If God uses us, then we are nothing but objects or commodities to God. Even in our human relationships, we know this is wrong.”

The next time you find yourself wanting to be used by God or telling someone he will use them, remember words matter. I would much rather participate in relationship with him, wouldn’t you?

Next week: God is in Control

Unleashing God’s Power

Have you ever been told certain prayers will unleash the power of God? I wonder exactly what that means. Is God like a wild animal who is being restrained in a cage and we must use the right turn of words or formula to let him out so he can work his power in our lives? Or maybe he restrains himself until we utter the magic words. I don’t know for sure because no one has explained this in detail, but I do believe this is an inaccurate representation of God and how he works.

I do know God is always working in our lives and the Holy Spirit’s power is always available to us – up to a point. In Preparing for Heaven: What Dallas Willard Taught Me About Living, Dying and Eternal Life, Gary Black, Jr. says: “God has limited our ability to achieve our potential, our potency, outside of living in a dependent, submissive relationship with him. The human will, in its self-centered, myopic state, simply can’t be trusted or let loose with the power of God onto the universe. At least not yet.”

God’s power isn’t leashed, ours is, when we live outside of relationship with him. In a dependent, submissive relationship with God, his power is evident in how he gives us gifts and enables us to use them for his glory, and in the transformation of our hearts as we partner with the Holy Spirit in our practice of the spiritual disciplines.

When we tell ourselves and others that God’s power can be unleashed, we are turning God into a genie who comes when we intone the magic words in an effort to take his power for ourselves, rather than humbly letting him work in our lives as he sees fit.

Next week: Use Me, God

Words Matter

God is often misunderstood and portrayed as someone he’s not. Because we as Christians have been commissioned to tell others about Jesus and his Father, it’s important to be careful what we say about him and how we say it. Sometimes I hear phrases used by Christian authors and speakers that make me wonder if they give any thought as to how others may think of God (and us too) when they hear such things. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be examining some of these phrases.

Let’s look at what is often prayed at the beginning of a praise service. It goes something like this: “Lord, we invite your presence here as we sing praises.” I’ve even heard the worship leader invite God into the congregation’s presence, which distracted me so much I almost couldn’t sing.

I’m sure the praise leader didn’t mean to give the impression God was outside waiting to be invited in. We obviously don’t have to invite God into our presence. He is always with us. But why not open with a more meaningful prayer, such as thank you Lord, for always being with us. May our songs of praise be a sweet fragrance to you.

One could argue this is just semantics, but words do matter. How we talk about God matters.

Next week: Unleashing God’s Power

A Song of Hope

I’m not really that into music, but lately I’ve been developing an appreciation of how Christian music can enhance my time with God. It might have something to do with acquiring one of those electronic gadgets from a well-known online store. I enjoy asking it to play music for me, as well as give the weather for the day.

That’s how I discovered my new favorite band, Mercy Me. I enjoy a lot of their songs, but one that really moves me is Even If. The main idea is our hope remains in God even if he doesn’t take away our sorrow or our hurt, because we know he is able and that he can.

I first became acquainted with this song when a good friend was diagnosed with terminal cancer. A lot of people were praying for her, but God didn’t heal her. She died trusting in God even though he didn’t answer our prayers the way she and we wanted.

Whenever I hear it, I think of her and how she is with Jesus. And I am encouraged for my own life and the lives of others, that even if God decides to leave our mountains unmovable, all will be well with our souls, because we can trust him, and our hope remains firmly in Jesus.

Read, Meditate, Pray

Some shy away from meditation because of the mystic connotations, but this spiritual discipline is nothing like what you see in Eastern religious traditions. Understanding the definition will help clean out the clutter: it is simply thinking about who God is and what he has done. It’s always based on the Bible.

When I read Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life by Donald S. Whitney, I came across this nugget in the chapter on prayer: “Meditation is the missing link between Bible intake and prayer.” He then talks about the significance of combining these three disciplines: “The process works like this: After the input of a passage of Scripture, meditation allows us to take what God has said to us and think deeply on it, digest it, and then speak to God about it in a meaningful way.”

I was struck by the simplicity of this idea. It gave me a different perspective, freedom even, to explore the spiritual disciplines in a new way. Rather than approaching Bible study, meditation and prayer as separate disciplines, as I usually do and as you probably do also, let’s combine them. These first three are usually dependent on silence and solitude, but why not go further and combine all five with worship, praise and celebration? What a profound difference this could make in our quiet time.

Table for one?

The communion service is a very important part of the life of the church. Many congregations make it a part of their weekly or monthly worship. But have you ever considered taking it on your own? I was first introduced to this idea in an article in Discipleship Journal, Nov/Dec 1996. The author went through a difficult time and felt God urging her to have communion with him every day. She did, and it changed her life. She shared her experience with others, and they also began having supper for one.

At first, I thought this sounded a little strange, especially considering my fellowship took it only once a year for much of its history, and always as a congregation. I didn’t add it to my quiet time until recently, though I have thought of it many times since reading the article. It turns out, this is a wonderful way to go deeper with God and experience a greater intimacy with him.

I go to a quiet place in my house, light a candle and read scriptures and quotations I’ve collected about communion. I pray, meditate on what I’m doing and what it means and then eat the bread and wine. I know you are probably thinking it’s supposed to be done in community with other believers and that’s true. But when I take the Lord’s Supper by myself, I’m not alone. I experience unity with all my brothers and sisters in the Christian community, including the cloud of witnesses from the past, through God’s Spirit. Because I don’t have to rush through, as we often do at services, I can take my time and linger as long as I want with Jesus.

If you’re looking for more intimacy with the Lord, set the table for one and let Jesus feed you. You might find yourself, like me, going back for more, again and again.