Much of religion, Christian and otherwise, has always been the attempt to persuade God (or the gods) to give us what we want, whether it be security, victory in warfare, peace in our homes, or eternal life. The primary task of faith, however, is moving us to want what God wants for this world and all its people and, yes, its non-human creatures as well. I grow in faith and discipleship if I am learning to want for myself what God wants for me and to want for others what God wants for them (with enough humility to realize I am not in charge of dictating to them what they should believe or do). Jesus does not tell me to love others rather than myself but to love my neighbor as myself. No self-hatred is required. Some sacrifice of self-interest may indeed be required, but we are to care for the life and well-being of our neighbor because we are learning to know ourselves as people God loves and cares for. We matter to God, but we need to grow into the family business, so to speak, which means learning to care about what God cares about, to be hurt by what hurts God, to work for the changes God wants in human life and societies, and to long for the day when God’s longings will be satisfied.
“Thy will be done on earth!”
Last time, I listed some questions that belong to religion in contrast with a life of faith and discipleship. They were not evil questions, but they were shallow and restricted to the management of life (and the prospect of death) in self-interest. Religion really is the human attempt to manage God. Faith is humble trust in the God who cannot and will not be managed. The more I fool myself into thinking I have all the answers about God and life and can rest comfortably in those answers, the more clearly I need better, deeper, and more honest questions. If I refuse to allow myself to hear better questions from other people’s expressed doubts and anxieties or from my own suppressed doubts and anxieties, life will slowly (or sometimes quite suddenly) hammer me with them.
Here again are the first three of the questions I listed that have generated religion for as long as people have thought about life and realized how tenuous it is:
- How do I please God enough to keep God off my back, to be insulated from blame and guilt?
- What do I have to do to be a good (worthy) person and to believe I am one?
- What do I have to believe (assent to) in order to qualify as religious or good or saved or whatever is the term in my religious group for a validated person?
At a crisis point in Israel’s history as God’s covenant people, a prophet (Micah) speaks out for the people in their frustration with being judged for their injustices, self-deceit, and religious practices intended to pacify God. They sound like petulant teenagers demanding to know what it takes to get their parents off their backs. How many sacrifices do I have to make to please you, God? Do I have to slaughter every animal in my herd or flock? But then the frustrated and resentful religious people step over the line: Do I have to sacrifice my own firstborn child to shut you up? Child sacrifice was forbidden in Israel, and the question is as offensive as it can be made. I have paraphrased it (see Micah 6:1-8) to show that offensiveness. But if Israel will not be Israel, the covenant people, they are still creatures, and so now the prophet addresses them, not in their chosen people status, but in their raw humanity.
“What is good has been showed to you, human! What does the LORD require of you, but only this: to act justly and make justice happen, to love kindness and faithfulness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Here religion gets slammed up against some truths about God upon which the Bible, the prophets, and Jesus of Nazareth insist:
- God cannot be controlled or managed.
- God does love this created world with its creatures, and God will not abandon it despite its corruption and delight in evil done to the vulnerable.
- The individual person matters very, very much to God but not as an individual apart from others because human life is relational, and the human becomes a person in relationships with others and responsible relatedness to human society and to what we call the natural world.
- God calls us into our rightful humanity.
- We cannot secure our own lives, but we can live them in humble trust, and God will honor that trust.
- God has special concern for the vulnerable, the poor, the outcast, the shamed, and the oppressed or enslaved.
- Judgment is not itself the truth of God, even though judgment is sometimes necessary to open people to God’s truth, which is love that forgives, heals, and restores.
- As we are the creatures who can know God’s love and learn God’s will for healing the corrupted creation, we are made responsible to represent God’s love to each other and to the creation.
Doubt is not the enemy of faith. True enough, stubborn cynicism can shield a person from faith, hope, and even love, but honest doubt arising from the real anxieties, fears, and disappointments of living does the opposite: it opens a person to trust, hope, and love. The religious enemy of faith is authoritarian certitude: “Here are the questions you are permitted to ask, and here are the correct answers! Just learn them and accept them on faith!”
Enough for now. We have entered a time when, even here in North America, Christians will need to learn what it means to walk humbly (much more humbly than we have walked previously) with our God. If we do, then I believe we will hear our call to discipleship renewed.