I recall trying to start a conversation about Jesus with a guy doing graduate work at Oklahoma State University. I had just graduated in CMT (Construction Management Technology); I’m pretty sure this guy was majoring in CIM (Crushing Inferior Minds). I was prepared to offer him an honorary doctorate by the time he was done with me. That was one of those days when I was pretty sure the Great Commission was for the original twelve exclusively! It was as if my would-be-convert had said, “For as high as the heavens are above the earth (thou worm), so art my thoughts higher than yours.” And, in my heart, I offered the benediction: “Amen sir, it is as you say!” Isn’t that a horrible feeling, knowing your thoughts are inferior?
How do you feel when the scriptures point out the relative impotence of your intelligence? Isaiah adds that God’s ways are also in the way-higher-than-ours category. Is this less offensive coming from God? Or more? And, where do offenses with God lead us? One group just walks away from God’s ways and thoughts as agnostics or atheists. The other, which is more rare, just faces off with God as an antagonist.
Both have seen enough reality (in their assessment) to refute any possibility that an all-powerful, all–knowing, all-loving God is involved either directly or indirectly in the affairs of man. The offense often takes this shape, “No, there is way too much evil in the world for these things to all be true. Therefore I will believe in nothing.” It is an interesting phenomenon that life typically plays out for them just as they suspected it would—free of any noticeable interventions by God.
May it be done unto them according their faith. (Matthew 9:29)
C.S. Lewis used the term “materialist” to describe this crowd—those limiting their reality to only that which can be observed and quantified.
So much for atheists and agnostics. What about Christians? Are we offended by the notion of our smallness next to His vastness? Can Christians be materialists in the C.S. Lewis-sense of the word, where we insist on seeing before we will believe? What would that look like? I believe many of us Christians are materialists and that our offenses are often betrayed by our questions.
A fascinating Bible chapter regarding questions is the first chapter of Luke. Zacharias has not seen adequate proof of God’s faithfulness. He and Elizabeth had been praying all their married lives for the child who never came. When God finally answers their prayers, he demonstrates that he is a materialist by the spirit of the question he asked Gabriel: “How shall I know for certain?”
The words that formed the question sounded innocent enough, but the spirit of the question was not. In the letter of it, Zacharias’ question was no different than Mary’s “How shall this be, since I am a virgin?” Perhaps there is some advantage to youth. Maybe she had not yet accumulated enough evidence against God’s faithfulness to indict him as absent in the affairs of men. Mary’s was a question born in awe and wonder. Gabriel’s response leads to me to think Zachariah’s question was a thinly veiled indictment. In Mary, there was a precious and innocent faith that simply agreed with God: “For nothing will be impossible with God… Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.”
A few years ago, God arranged the circumstances of my life such that I could see my own Zacharias heart. I was filled with questions that were just lightly disguised complaints. My disgruntlement was always just below the surface, fueling a peculiar zeal and passion which actually passed as elder-quality spirituality. I eventually discovered a root of bitterness, which had been darkening my outlook.
While my burden as a Christ follower should have been light, mine had become unbearably heavy. Yet, I was toting it around with pride, as my cross to bear. My definition of faith at that time was: trusting that God is good in the presence of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Is this the faith we are told pleases God? I don’t think so. I had some friends operating with a different understanding of faith. Their definition was: trusting that God is good all the time. Consequently they were always looking for and regularly finding sufficient evidence to support their definition. For this group as well—it seemed it was “being done unto them according to their faith.” This makes sense because… “And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is rewarder of those who seek Him.” (Hebrews 11:6)
Since dealing with my bitter root, I have discovered that God is in a better mood than I thought. I am no longer reading books like: Why God Does Bad Things to Good People (imaginary title) or Wilderness Spirituality (real title). I’m not stumbling as badly when I find scriptures that don’t make sense. There is no question that the light in me is of a far better quality today. It is like viewing life through a Father filter as opposed to a Stepfather filter. Consequently, faith is not nearly so difficult.
I no longer see agnostics, atheists, or even Christian materialists, such as myself, as beyond God’s reach. We are all thirsting at some level. However, we have much relabeling and refiling to do. Our skewed interpretations of life have created files with labels like, The God Who Is Not or The God Who Is Indifferent. Mankind’s misconceptions of God are myriad, but, for all men, I believe there is a file labeled, Oh, But How I Wish It Were True. I believe these hearts are well within the reach of the gospel of the kingdom. Jesus can win back the most fractured and deceived hearts. Listen…
Ho! Every one who thirsts (asking honest questions), come to the waters; and you who have no money (i.e.; no discernible faith-currency), come, buy and eat… Incline your ear to me and come to Me. Listen that you may live; and I will make an everlasting covenant with you. (from Isaiah 55:1-3)
Father, may You receive the reward of your suffering—the return of us prodigals as well as us elder brothers. Thank you for your kindness and long suffering toward us. Root out the things that alienate us from your affections. Amen.