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.