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.

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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.”

God is in Control

Many Christians like to say God is in control. He has a plan for your life and everything that happens is part of the plan. Some will tell you he arranges the events of each day for us, including the trials. When you hear people talk like this, do you feel relieved at the thought God has every minute planned out for you—or do you chafe a bit, like me?

I’ve always wondered why I don’t like hearing people say God is in control. While I believe everything is ultimately under his control, I have a problem with the notion that he micromanages our lives. What about free will and making choices?

I think the answer may be in the Trinitarian relationship. Father, Son and Holy Spirit do what they do together. Jesus said the Father, living in him, did his work (John 14:10). It’s all about participation: the Father with the Son with the Holy Spirit. Jesus called us friends (John 15:15) and what do friends do? They participate in a relationship together. Friendship isn’t about control or planning things out for each other. It’s about love, freely given and freely accepted. It’s about sharing experiences and helping each other.

Friendship with God works the same way, with some differences of course. God isn’t just a friend; he’s the sovereign Lord of the universe and as such, a relationship with him is on a higher plane than the one I have with my human friends. My relationship with God is in Christ, through the Spirit and is more of a participation in the relationship Jesus has with his Father. It happens because God loved me first and not because of anything I do.

Based on that, when I read Jeremiah 29:11-13, I envision an overarching plan for my life—salvation, life in Christ, knowing God in and through the Spirit, and eventual life forever in God’s eternity. I don’t discount God working in the little things in my life. I see his hand every day, from the ways he encourages me and reminds me of his love, to the way he guides and protects me. Because he lives in me, we go through life hand in hand so to speak, and each day my prayer is that I will listen to the Spirit and respond to him as he leads me.

Did he provide the parking place I got at the store or arrange for me to break a glass and cut my foot? I can’t say for certain, but I’m pretty sure God doesn’t micromanage my life. What I do know is he leads me, guides me and is always with me and reminds me of his presence throughout each day.

(Originally posted November 5, 2012)

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 each of these words, starting with 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