The Steering Wheel, reprise

In my last post I argued that Christian speakers are often unnecessarily vague about the content of the decision, reaction, or commitment they are trying to elicit in their listeners — because they often work more at emotional register than precision of meaning. I ended with a suggestion for reaching out to their “literal and precise” listeners — to ask where they’re being vague and work on defining that. Easy enough to say — what does it look like in reality? This, then, is an exploration of that question. I’m going to take the question of “giving everything to God,” or “recommitting your life to Christ,” in the context of someone who’s already a somewhat serious Christian — because that’s what I know best and have been most concerned with when listening to these speakers. The question is: how would one think through such a challenge, and how might a speaker help one to do so? This is worked out against the backdrop of a retreat or evangelical event like the presentation given by Chuck Smith.

You say that I should “give everything to God.” You say that when you were my age you made a commitment to do that, and it has been an excellent adventure. You imply that I’m not enough of a Christian yet. That’s surely true: I sin, fail, am confused, and flail about looking for direction. Very well. You then give me a dozen or more ways to think about this: how it looks in your life, different kinds of ministries, service activities; how people live this commitment out in their marriage, their job, their decisions. Then you say: go! do! decide! But that’s not what things look like in experience; that’s not how I’ve met life. I’ve met life in a very “you did not choose me but I chose you” kind of way. I don’t want to discount that. I don’t want to say that up to this point I have not been a Christian, have not known or followed God at all — because that would be untrue. It would not be entirely true to say that I see the need for your kind of revival, because it would not be entirely true to say that I have fallen away in your sense — in the sense that I was ever much better or more zealous or have ever known God better than I am and do now. I ask: how do I live? How does one live as a Christian? And you answer with vague and unsatisfying apparitions of novelty. You imply things about me that sound untrue; that I do not know how to see as true. You imply that if only I were more decisive about this decision, then I would know what it is I’m deciding. You imply that I know what I’m choosing; that I know what God’s asking. If I knew that this question would look very different. The difficulty — the question in this question — is that God is apparently not asking just for a response, but for a creative response; for a response in freedom and love — and, more to the point, a response that is, from my perspective, up to my own freedom. Here are the commandments. Here are the stories. Here are the doctrines. “What will I render to the Lord for all that He has done for me? I will take the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord.”

My first choice would be for you to tell me exactly what to do — because that’s easier than having to come up with something — my second choice would be for you to at the very least admit this difficulty. At the very least admit that when one is afflicted by sins and passions; when one is mostly deaf and blind, slothful, procrastinating, conceited, tending toward non-being, with a life-wide case of writer’s block; that it is a difficulty to come upon this question and this challenge: here are the commandments. Love God and your neighbor. Do good to everyone. Glorify God. Practice faith, hope, and love. And what, concretely, does that look like? Here are some examples. But what about in my circumstances, with my person? Look around; ask, seek, knock; come up with something. Come up with something?

This “come up with something” strikes the hearer — the negligent, slothful, nearly blind and deaf hearer — as an assignment to come up with an essay on the topic of one’s choice might strike a first grader. But I have no idea what I’m doing! Into this conversation steps the preacher: give everything to God! Surrender the steering wheel of your life! If it were that easy, don’t you suppose I would have done that already? You think I like driving? That I wouldn’t get out of it if I could?

I suppose at this point it might be worth considering that different people have prevailing sins that are not only different, but even contradictory. One person might sin through being especially willful. He has some very clear vision of what he wants for his life, and is always trying to wrench control over the actual outcome of events away from God. I suppose this must be the case: I’ve heard enough sermons preached against this person to suppose that he must exist. Someone else, however, is much more disposed to sloth than to willfulness. She is always putting things often, letting whatever happens happen, and hoping that someone else will decide for her. The advice that might cure the first person could likewise make the second even worse. Even if it leaves her no worse, it will likely make no sense to her. Some retreat leaders make a big deal out of a quest for flexibility and not knowing what’s going on. This is apparently for those people who want to be in control. They go out of their way to ban clocks and give out no schedules. While I have many failings, needing to be always in control doesn’t happen to be one of them. If anything, I’m too permissive. If you were to visit my classroom you would see this. Whatever, dude. Oh, you changed my flight and I’m now spending the night sleeping on the floor of the Anchorage airport next to the stuffed mammoth, until such a time as you manage to find me another flight? That’s mildly inconvenient. There are chunks of ice floating through town and we’re not allowed to leave for a week? Ah, well. I’ve got a book.

It should come as no surprise that the crazy driven control person and the person who, left to her own devices, will literally sit in a little spot of sun on the floor and meditate on the delights of sunlight for three hours a day, every day — will require different advice.

It should, I suppose, not be so very surprising that people in leadership positions are more sensitive to the dangers of the first position than those of the second. You don’t build up a mega-church franchise by behaving like a contented cat. You don’t organize youth outings that way, either. It stands to reason that the sort of person who can pull off an action-packed, time-sensitive, narrative-driven religious retreat would find not looking at a clock or knowing what’s coming next to be a challenge. If they didn’t, they would have planned their retreat this way. Since “basically I’m just going to show up and see what happens” is how I plan pretty much everything, and it’s how these other people plan when they’re consciously stepping way out of their comfort zones, it is hardly shocking that I have trouble seeing quite what the big deal is.

Upon inspection, then, it makes a certain amount of sense that God would challenge the person who makes to-do lists every day, schedules tame slots for everything, and actually adheres to them, in one way; and people who might greet “I’d like you to help a missions team in China doing in whatever way they need you” with: ?!?!?!?. that’s… wow… OK, sure, I’ll go buy a dictionary and be at the airport tomorrow with my stuff (she’ll cry about it later, when she’s in a foreign country surrounded by people she can’t understand, but by then it’ll be too late and she’ll just have to deal with it as best she can) with something altogether different. That person might be challenged with freedom. How are you going to do something, rather than nothing? Because, lacking some immediate duty, she might do absolutely nothing — which might not even be a temptation for the church leader with all his to-do lists.

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3 thoughts on “The Steering Wheel, reprise

  1. What’s that verse in Romans (I’m too lazy to look it up), let him who eats not condemn him who doesn’t? There is a profound truth in what you write–mainly the extrovert / introvert difference and how big programmatic things tend to favor the former. I have a deep sympathy for this, as in fact it has been exactly my own long held opinion. Let not the introvert condemn the extrovert (or visa versa). I know you are not judging–it’s just that in my case the tendency to use this as an excuse functions in a way similar to judgement.

    Lately my experience around the real distinction of extrovert/introvert has changed. I find that knowing it has helped me very little. I’m still looking for someone to answer, “Well yeah, that generality is true, but what does that mean for me–introvert that I am with, x, y, and z hang-up?” But I have stopped asking it, because every time I have, I have received the same answer (in different ways).

    It seems that the answer is, in fact, that I must find out for myself, which feels an awful lot like “make something up.” It isn’t, of course, the same thing as that, but perhaps it’s more like “I’ll know it when I see it.”

    All I can say is, the best help along the way have been the monastic writers I connect with (Theophan, for example) who write about the individual working out salvation in his own way, but along well know paths (prayer and obedience). And sympathetic friends who in some way challenge me to keep trying.

  2. “Surrender the steering wheel…”

    Some people mean different ideas with this phrase. Some use it to say:

    “Let go and let God.” – this is unbiblical and therefore not reality nor true. I.e. all we need to do is rest and just let God lead us to do the something i.e. let’s follow the whims of our emotions and feelings (this is how it works out in practice). All heart and no brain (and no wisdom).

    But there is another way to take this statement, for our purposes:

    “Seek Jesus in the scriptures, read His word, in His word we will find Him and then let’s follow His word, walk in His words. Bring the truths of the Bible into our lives. Trusting in His promises. And asking Him to fulfill His promises in us, to make us love Him truly. And when we sin, when we stumble, we trust that the cross of Christ bears our sins away. Our wonderful Saviour God. He was and is enough. He finished it.”

    And then, again, it’s always the Gospel, our focus. Christ should be our focus, because God has made Christ the focus (Colossians, Hebrews 12.1-3, Ephesians 3.14-21, Isaiah 53). We trust in God’s work at the cross, in the grave, above the grave. We trust that God is enough. No longer are we called to “do something” for God, because God has shown that He has done everything for us already. What can we give back to God? When God has given us, freely, His very own Son? (It’s the 5 Solas).

    So, either as introverts or extroverts, we can still follow God in the Gospel, but it will look differently in how it is lived out. We should manifest the fruits of the Spirit, no duh! But how we live those fruits in our lives will be different. And they should be. That’s how God intended it from eternity past. (Galatians 5.22-26)

    We can’t all be feet. Or eyes. We need BIG toes too.

    And all this because, you know, I’m human too and, more than anything else, I need Jesus Christ in my life, living in me, being my life. Else, I don’t know how to live (or die). Without Christ life is empty and meaningless and hopeless.

    I definitely don’t need just another slogan I shout out and then become numb to. I need His word. I need His Spirit. I need Him. And I want to follow His word with all my strength and to know Him as He is and to trust in Him, that He (ultimately) works for my good in Christ (Romans 8). Even in the suffering and pain.

    So I empathize with the calls to “do something” without knowing what to do. At the end, I think, we must rely on Christ, we trust in the promises found in God’s word, and then we pray to God that He would make them true in our lives. That said, it’s not easy. Jesus said to carry our crosses, and when has that ever been associated with something easy or pleasant?

    I need the Saviour. Or I won’t make it. So we trust in His promises and ask Him to help us (trust in His promises).

    btw, you have an interesting blog. 🙂

    Shalom.

  3. yes, in some way keep trying. I suspect your challenges have the same roots as mine, but your point of view is very different. I encourage you to keep trying. I would respond but it won’t make any sense.

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