Sacred Cow 1: Mythology or Theology?
Sacred cows make the best hamburger, but the meat is often too tough to chew and swallow. We all have sacred cows. Once in the South while I was teaching, I began to explain how we have misused a verse to teach something that it really does not say. An elderly woman in the front row sighed as she said, “Oh no, not that verse also!” It was a painful experience for her as it may well be for you as you continue to read. But without butchering the sacred cows about God’s will, we may never have a great hamburger! Why would we just want to have reinforced in us what we already believe and practice?
Okay, take a deep breath! Without knowing it, we often hold mythological views that we believe are theological views, but are not. Okay, stop if you need to and read that sentence again. We must ask, “Is what we think about the will of God mythology or theology?” I realize that is a difficult question to ask because we have probably not ever thought a conscious thought that what we believe about any subject in Scripture is something other than theological, and correctly theological at that.
All of us want to make correct decisions in life because those decisions, in turn, make us who we are. A pagan practice in the ancient world has some of the same characteristics that some charismatic and maybe even non-charismatic practices have today. The kings and generals in the ancient world often consulted the oracles to ask for guidance from the gods. The oracles would often provide direction with vague and elusive counsel into which the worshipper could read the advice given as being whatever they wanted to do. Because of the supposed power of these spokespersons for the gods, the kings and generals would lead their troops into battle with the approval of the gods. Because they too often led their worshippers to staggering defeat, these voices of the gods went out of business.[ref] Garry Friesen, Decision Making and the Will of God: A Biblical Alternative to the Traditional View (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Books, 2009), Foreword. [/ref] While what you think may often feel like a valid theological view, it may be built on a rather flimsy mythological view.
In the short history of the group of churches in which I fellowship, this happened and still may be happening on occasion. A small group of prophets came to play in our churches and soon the pastors were going to the prophets to hear from God what they should do. The prophets would tell them with all the flair of the so-called prophetic office they felt they held. When they were wrong, no one held them accountable. When they were wrong, no one was around to pick up the pieces of broken lives that had been shattered by their “mythological words” thought to be theological. This is a place where I still carry a lot of passion because I was one of those “broken” by “mythological words” spoken over me as theological. My own story bears witness that the church today still plays the “ancient kings and generals” games of listening to the present day oracles, spouting their mythological balderdash and passing it off as theology. As I reflect on that sentence, it might seem kind of in-your-face. Yep, you are correct. I really meant it to be so.
I recently read an online post that described how a prophetical person had shared with them some things that were going to happen in their lives in their future. I was saddened, not because this practice cannot be real, but that the one who received this so-called personal prophecy was so happy that the person encouraged others to look up this prophet’s (their words not mine) website to see what he had to say. I’m still fascinated that God has given a gracelet to help us in this area called “discernment,” but we simply don’t seem to participate as users.
One of the best-known oracles in the ancient world was the Delphi Oracles located not far from the city of Corinth. One can understand how the Corinthians took on some of their beliefs about “tongues, interpretation, and prophecy” because of these same ancient practices by these Oracles. It was not a pretty sight in the Corinthian church. Paul had to demonstrate how these mythical practices from the Oracles were simply not the ways in which the words of God should be heard. They may have been similar in name but not in essence. For the Corinthians of the day, it was several days journey, about 125 miles. On the East Coast of USAmerica, that’s about the same as the distance from Richmond, VA, to Washington DC. On the West Coast, it’s about the same as the distance between LA and San Diego, CA. You don’t make trips to the prophets to hear a personal word from God. Why? Because these gracelets (read gifts) are enacted within the relationship of a community of faith.
For this reason and others, I have personally not made a practice of “going to” meetings to hear a prophetical type person as was the rage in some sectors of the church in the late twentieth century to go to Toronto, Canada, Tallahassee, FL, or more recently in the present century to Lakeland, FL. It seems to me that these events are driven by the need to consume because there is no real ongoing life in a local community to tap into. Yes, I do attend a local community of faith where expressions from God are acceptable, and, yes, I do travel there. The difference, I am known and know the community,s which has the focus of helping me discern anything that may be “prophetically” spoken whether an “ad hoc” word from God or the traditional Sunday sermon presentation.
Yes, I have had personal words spoken to me by individuals who are touted to be prophets. Here is one for the books. In one church position that I held, the prophets came to town so others could come to hear. One of them in a semi-private session, i.e., with other staff, gave each staff member a “personal word” about the will of God for their lives. The one that fell on my ears had to do with pastoring all the other staff in the room, a position boost if you please. The lead pastor was not in the room at the time, but his wife was. Later that day and the next, he took several occasions to tell me that he was “in charge” of the church. Over the weekend, another prophetical type within the local community told the lead pastor that during the time he was going to be away for a trip to Australia that I was going to mutiny the church and overthrow him as pastor. Two prophecies, one to me, one about me to another. The pastor called me into his office the next Monday morning, not a usual workday for him, and told me that I could not be on his staff any longer and why. He had chosen to believe the so-called mutiny prophetic word. He directed me to clean out my desk and leave that morning. In response, I asked him what would he have me do with the work project that I was doing for him. (I was writing a group of lectures for him to deliver, you guessed it, in Australia). He leaned back in his office chair an openly admitted that he had not considered that. So, I took the opportunity to tell him that while I didn’t agree with his assessment of the mutiny word that I would stay through the end of the week and finish what I had started out to do. He agreed. It was a strange segue. I asked that he instruct the other staff to not come by and talk, which would just simply be awkward and would have most likely led to unhealthy conversation. The lead pastor did not work in the church office on a daily basis, but during this week he was there every day and would often come into my office and walk behind me while I was working on the computer and massage my upper back. Now that was very strange. So what’s the point of this story? It’s not that God can’t and doesn’t use others to speak to us. It is the abusive way in which these empowerments are used to often destroy the lives of people. There are many folks in the trash heap of prophetic words that were not really from God but were delivered as words straight from God’s lips to the person’s ears via the intermediary of a prophet. By the way, several years after this incident, this pastor apologized to me for the chaos he had caused in my life. Later in the year that this conversation occurred via phone, I went back to a Sunday morning service at that church, hugged him, walked out the doors under my own power, and as the door physically shut behind me, that provided me closure for that part of my journey. I seldom think about it anymore except on the occasion of telling the story as an illustration or at this point of writing it here.
Who are the oracles today? There are myriads of them hustling the followers of Jesus with their savory words. The Charismatic and Pentecostal groups have their share, but so do those who do not see themselves as fitting into the above theological categories. In those groups, they may have a new name: “spiritual directors,” There are even schools where folks can learn the trade so to speak.[ref] New Way Ministries, “About the School of Spiritual Direction,” http://www.newwayministries.org/ssd.php (accessed December 17, 2010). This page says among other things: “I understand ‘spiritual direction’ to involve the supernatural work of relating to others in a way that guides them into the new way to think, live, and relate that the gospel makes possible.” [/ref] Since prophets and others were not sought out by the first followers of Jesus, it seems likely that we might raise the question if that is a storyline that we should follow today. Should we be seeking out prophets and spiritual directors to help us discover God’s will? In the case of “spiritual directors,” there is most likely a problem with the name. Simply, “director” is usually thought of as a person who “directs.” If you use the name as it stands with an uninitiated person, the tendency is to just identify its meaning at face value. Within certain church traditions like the Pentecostal, Charismatic, and Third Wave movements, it has the fumes of what is often called “personal prophecy.” Someone working in this field, should take on the challenge, and maybe it has already been done, to rename the concept. The clarity of language usually carries with it a huge benefit for the speaker-writer and listener-reader. If this practice is about one person giving another person “spiritual direction,” as was the case with the Delphi Oracles, so be it. That would provide us with an opportunity to discuss the efficacy of the action. If it’s about one person “listening to another,” so be it. The word “spiritual” seems to imply that the direction is just that, “spiritual.” What’s up with calling it spiritual? Why wouldn’t we call work “spiritual work” or marriage “spiritual marriage” or play “spiritual play” or sermons “spiritual sermons” or church “spiritual church,” etc? As an adjective, “spiritual” qualifies “director” and may suggest our ongoing dependence on dualism as a way of thinking and reflecting. I realize that we have popularized “gifts” with the adjective “spiritual” and therein lies the same problem. It would be more correct to identify spiritual gifts as “grace gifts” rather than “spiritual gifts.” The most often used word that is translated from New Testament Greek as “spiritual gifts” is charismata and a better way of translating it could be the word “gracelets.”[ref] I first heard this from my mentor Dr. Russ Spittler many years ago. I have endeavored to use it most of the time, however, truth be known, slipping back into the same concept that here I am arguing against. [/ref]
One has to wonder why we continue to think in such dichotomies. The whole concept of using spiritual in this way comes from translations in our English Bible translating a Greek word, pneumatikois (pnyoo-mat-ik-os) as “spiritual” and then providing it with a meaning that denotes some higher human capacity over against normal human capacity.[ref]Anthony C. Thiselton, 1 Corinthians, a Shorter Exegetical & Pastoral Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006), 57. [/ref] Rather, it simply can mean “from the Spirit.” So in 1 Corinthians 2.13 where NIV says “This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words.” It could be translated, “language which the Spirit teaches, interpreting things of the Spirit to people of the Spirit.”[ref]Ibid., 58. [/ref] Incidentally, this verse has given “rise to the use of this text at the popular level to support the analogy of Scripture, i.e., comparing one text with another so as to derive its meaning from within Scripture itself.” [ref]Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987), 114-115, (Footnote 72) [/ref]
It is not that the Spirit doesn’t speak to us today. He does. It is the way we have created to try to hear his voice to which I am objecting. Len Sweet may have a similar concern.[ref]Len Sweet, October 18, 2010, “On Spiritual Directors.” October 18, 2010, in email communication.[/ref] In an email conversation, Sweet wrote the following:
From my experience, I love “spiritual directors” but I hate their title. It suggests you can “direct” the Spirit, the very Spirit that blows where [he] wills, the very Spirit that is so unpredictable and uncontrollable [he] leaves us bushed and ambushed. Too much of “spiritual direction” is also based on the presumption that God’s Spirit is not still blowing and directing as [he] did in the past. So “spiritual direction” is focused on doing what our ancestors did when God’s Spirit did move, and it “worked”— hence its “Latinate” and backward-looking preoccupations. God is still speaking. God’s wind is still blowing. God’s finger is still writing.
On the other hand, Dr. Rose Madrid-Swetman, Co-Pastor of Vineyard Community Church, Shoreline, WA, suggests the following as a way of thinking about this subject:
Spiritual direction is an ancient tradition of a covenanted relationship with a spiritual companion occurring in an atmosphere of trust and loving presence. The goal is to lead a person into a deeper awareness of and appreciation for God’s presence and movement in the interior and exterior circumstances of daily life. The fundamental assumption is that God speaks to us in our daily lives, is present in all experience, and reveals self through creation, scripture, life experiences, human relationships, dreams, creative expression, solitude, and prayer. Spiritual direction is a process of deep listening designed to help people who are seeking to live a more fully human and reflective life. Spiritual direction embraces both the quest for God and the quest for a transformed world by emphasizing the call to both contemplation and action. [ref]Personal email November 12, 2010.[/ref]
She also pointed out to me that the best thing she had read on the subject was a book by Margaret Guenther,[ref]Margaret Guenther, Holy Listening: The Art of Spiritual Direction (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1992).[/ref] where the author writes about “holy listening,” waiting (attentiveness), and presence. I note again, it is called “holy listening.” Again a descriptive tag is being added to it to make it spiritual over against something that is not spiritual. It is my opinion, that we as Jesus followers need to discover how much of what we believe is built on Greek dichotomy that keeps us focused on division versus wholeness and how many of our present practices reach back to ancient traditions as the root of our present action, which may not really have roots in the storyline of Scripture.
I realize that some may resist this line of thinking. That doesn’t mean that one should not challenge a practice just because it is widely used and often given the cloak of authority as biblical. Of course, I could be accused of providing a service about which I am here offering some criticism. i.e., giving direction about finding God’s will. So, as critical thinkers, followers of Jesus should question everything, even the words on the page you are reading. It’s just good common sense to do so.
When we ask the question, “Can I know the will of God?” we may in fact be asking a wrongheaded question. Scripture does not provide us with a step-by-step set of principles to help us find God’s will for our life choices. That’s simply a myth in the simple sense of the word. Yet, with all diligence, we continue googling God’s will for our lives. We have been, without our knowing it, duped by the Enlightenment Project and its reductionistic forte. Could it be that, in some cases, we are simply seeking relief from our responsibility to make responsible decisions and we feel less of a threat if we function as a passive part of the equation rather than taking an active role in making life decisions? And when this journey doesn’t work out, we scapegoat God. Look out for mythology serving itself as theology.
I realize that some of you reading this are thinking, “That sounds like those Pentecostals or Charismatics who play around with all those gifts that ceased when the Bible came into its final form.” Not so fast. Those who may not hold to a Pentecostal or Charismatic theological system have their own “prophetic” faults to deal with. As we will see later, prophecy for some today is simply preaching. And there’s enough “poor” preaching that lays a trail of wasted lives of followers of Jesus to go around. None of us gets off the hook — we are all guilty!
Sacred Cow 2: Exposure that forms our way of thinking and acting.
All of us have been exposed to many concepts in our Christian walk that form our way of thinking and acting. Good theology can and does help us think more appropriately about the way we walk out our new life in Christ. Our exposure to the topic of God’s will is no exception. We have heard it sermonized. Here’s a barn burner of a title that I found on the Net:
Predestination: God’s Will Versus Man’s Will (Sin) — Only God Has Free Will — Free Will Believes That ‘When A Man Is Dead’ In Sin He Must Cooperate With God In Order To Allow Himself To Be Birthed In The Kingdom — This Is The Great Delusion Of Free Will.”[ref] Grace and Truth Ministries, “Messages Upon Request 2501-2682,” https://www.graceandtruth.net/videos-pdf-mp3s/request-messages/107-messages-upon-request-2501-3000 (accessed originally August 25, 2010, second access: August 28, 2020).[/ref]
Wow! that title is a sermon in itself, albeit, in my opinion, a poor one. I have sat through lots of those sermon snoozers as I am sure you have. I can’t even imagine the agony of those who had to sit through that sermonic presentation. Of course, my hunch is that they really felt good believing that they had been given the “true” word of the subject over against all the others who did not have the privilege of sitting and listening.
We have sung about God’s will with songs about God making a way, well, some of us have. We have struggled from time to time, hoping that the hand of God was guiding us. Often we spend time that is not replaceable just googling God’s will. Sometimes we think we are frozen in life by not knowing what God wants us to be or do. This is time that the enemy of our life uses to bring frustration, confusion, and even doubt about the care of God. Clarity is freeing! And clarity begins with finding another way to think about living in God’s will over against “searching for it when it’s not lost.”
Sacred Cow 3: Exposure to and living within a different storyline
It appears that the world today is looking daily for something new — something to which it can devote itself, a new cause. The world is lost in its own swirl. Googling, but not finding! Seeking, but not discovering! Frustrated in its ability to reach its supposed goal.
There seems to be no difference in this matter between those in the church and those who are not affected by the church. The church is lost in its own swirl, trying to discover who she is, googling God’s will in all the wrong places. The culture of the world is influencing the church, while the church should be influencing the culture of the world. Stated simply, we often live in the wrong storyline. What might be the wrong storyline?
On my blog at drwinn.com, I wrote the following:
Conservative Christianity Telling the Wrong Story
It is easy and dangerous to distort the telling of the story of Jesus. Within American Conservative Christianity, we have come to think of Jesus in one of two ways. First, an embodiment of divinity like a computer avatar rather than the unique incarnate son. We think of his death as an example of great sacrifice and his resurrection becomes a way of thinking and talking about God’s continuing work in the present world. Second, we think in a dualistic way. Jesus is someone who is from the outside of our world, a superman of sorts who has come from another sphere to tell us that our true home is someplace else, namely heaven. His coming was to teach us how to follow him to that distant and unearthly destination.
There is something wrong with that picture. Neither way of thinking comes close to the Story of Jesus as presented in the Gospels of the New Testament. American Conservative Christianity, served up regularly in America and exported to the global world, simply ignores what the Bible actually says about Jesus for another story that has been created out of bits and pieces of perception and refracted through various biblical passages, which misread the text of the biblical Story.
This brand of Christianity passes itself off as authentic because it believes the items that have come to be thought of as orthodox, namely incarnation, atonement, resurrection, spirit, and second coming. What has happened is that all these beliefs have been joined together into the wrong narrative, sorta like a kid who is drawing a “draw by numbers” picture but decides to follow another sequence rather than following the numbers. The result of this activity: of not following the right sequence, is drawing a picture other than the one intended. If you put all the elements of Conservative Christianity within a story of a deist God who sent his superman son to undergo some redemptive violence to satisfy his primal vengeance, then raised this dead body to life to show followers a way back to heaven and away from earth, only to come again and snatch them away from earth as earth finally rolls toward rotting in hell. If that is the narrative that one sets incarnation, atonement, resurrection, spirit, and second coming into, then that production produces a violently distorted parody of biblical Christianity. Alas, this is the story of American Conservative Christianity.
So What Biblical Story?
A fresh way of understanding the Story of Scripture is to understand it as a story where humankind, though created good, became radically flawed by sin. Into this flawed world, Jesus came as the long-awaited King of the Jews for Israel, who themselves had been the redemptive promise of God for some two thousand years. Jesus came to do what Israel had failed to do. Jesus took on the weight of sin and exhausted it, not so those following him could escape this world because it was bad or evil, but because of his resurrection could become part of the project of new creation, a new heaven and earth, or one might say a new garden. This project started after the first created beings chose to follow themselves and not God. The second coming, then, is not a day in which Jesus will snatch away his bride from this evil earth and take them to heaven forever, but a time when the rule of Jesus, which was already established in his first coming: birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension, will finally be established in peace and justice in a transformed heaven and earth. It is this biblical narrative that should replace the present Conservative Christian narrative so that this narrative can make a fresh impact on the world in this present time.[ref]Winn Griffin, “Conservative Christianity Telling the Wrong Story,” http://drwinn.com/2007/04/10/conservative-christianity-telling-the-wrong-story/ (accessed November 23, 2010). Tom Wright was influential in these thoughts.[/ref]
When we know where we are going and how to get there, a map to guide us has little value, but in a swirl of lostness, a map may become a high value. We all want to know where we are going and how we are going to get there.
There are many questions that are often asked when thinking about God’s will. They are simple, practical, and straightforward. Questions like:
- Should I marry this woman or man even though she or he is not a follower of Jesus?
- Is there a perfect will of God?
- Is there a permissive will of God?
- How do I know when I am out of the will of God?
- Why can’t God make his will simple and plain?
- Where should I go to college?
- What career should I pursue?
- Should I move to another city, state, or nation?
- Should I have kids?
- Since I’m single, should I adopt a kid?
- Should I change jobs?
- Is it God’s will that I am gay or straight?
- Should I go to war or stay home?
- Should I sleep with my partner or get married?
The real question is: Does God tell us what to do in every situation or does he give us the freedom to make up our own minds impregnated with his story and then improvising our part in his story?
There are many more questions that could be listed, but these will suffice! How does one begin to answer these questions and others like them? It seems to me that we often only provide a Band-Aid to place over an open sore, which obviously needs another kind of treatment. Simplistic answers to questions like the ones above don’t really get anyone anywhere except more frustrated! We need to find a cure for the sore, not just a moment’s relief by covering it up with some salve and a Band-Aid.
Here’s a place to begin our thinking: In Christianity, the fundamental need for every follower is to understand how God acts. When we understand how he acts, revealed to us in his story presented in Scripture, the questions of where to go, what to do, and who to marry, will be better understood.
In the next chapter, we begin the process of seeing how other parts of the world express themselves which can help us begin the journey from Western to Eastern thought. Remember, the story was first lived in and told to Easterners. To grasp its meaning today, we must understand what it meant to them then. In that first intentional meaning, we discover a possible present meaning.
As we proceed through the chapters ahead, we will talk about the following ideas:
- Thinking differently
- The many faces of the will of God
- Scripture and will of God
- Guidance by the Spirit
- It’s a marathon, not a sprint
Let’s continue then.