Plan B – When God’s Promises Don’t Work Out

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The morning started out like most of them do for me.  I paced my livingroom and kitchen with a cup of coffee in my hand, and tried to focus on the reality of the presence of God. A tough sell, some mornings.

And for some reason, an old unanswered question was rolling through my head again. What went wrong?  Why didn’t it turn out the way I envisioned, the way I felt God had promised me?

I was referring to my failed “marriage” of 15 years. Sure, failed marriages aren’t that unusual. And most people (I imagine) get through them without having to re-examine their whole theological and spiritual framework.  But, ya know, I’m weird that way.  When we first got together, X and I (I’ll just refer to him as “X” here, since I’m not trying to drag his name through the mud) — when we first got together, there were all kinds of divine indicators that we were on the right path, that we had a bright and purposeful future ahead of us.  There was every indication that we had the divine seal of approval, the go-ahead, a mission, and the blessing.  (Okay, if you’re not of a particular charismatic bent where you believe God speaks in sometimes very powerful and mystical ways, then don’t freak out. Just skip over that last part, and read on.)  But those things didn’t pan out.  The visions didn’t materialize, the promise of that loving and purposeful future evaporated, and instead of becoming more focused, we grew more and more estranged from each other. And then we ended it.

No major drama. That’s not the story here. We both knew we failed. We both recognized that we hadn’t lived up to our own expectations and obligations. We knew we had vast differences  that we’d stopped trying to reconcile; it was just too much work and too tiring to continue. Somewhere along the way, at different points for each of us, we’d just given up.  Nothing extraordinary about it — it was/is a completely human story.  I understood that part of it.

But what I still couldn’t make sense of
was how all that spiritual stuff fit in.

Hadn’t God told me that he was “the One”?  Didn’t God tell us …?  Weren’t there specific promises, clear descriptions of what would happen?  And even if we blew it, what did that say about the divine side of it all? How do “alternate endings” — ends of the story that deviate from the original plan — fit with in the divine scheme of things, especially when “God has spoken”?

So, sipping my dark French roast, trying to wake up and clear my head for the day, that question rolled in again out of nowhere.

Okay, whatever; I thought.  Let’s move on. Got lots to do today.  And I cracked open my Bible (cuz, you know, it’s always a good idea to start your day out that way, right? And if you’ve got unanswered questions rolling through your head, ya never know what might jump out at ya from the pages and make things clearer.)

And there it was. Simple. Seemingly inconsequential. And it hit me like a ton of bricks.

And the LORD said to Samuel, “How long will you mourn for Saul, seeing I have rejected him from reigning over Israel? Fill your horn with oil, and go. I’m sending you to Bethlehem, to Jesse, for I have chosen one of his sons to be king …”  (1 Sam 16:1)

Not getting it?  That’s probably because you hadn’t just read the few preceding chapters in 1 Samuel the day before.  Ancient Israel had been ruled for generations by a series of Judges, inspired leaders, who lived normal lives and then did extraordinary things when the nation was in danger.  But they wanted a king, like all the other nations.  God wasn’t crazy about the idea, knowing the particular weakness humans have when it comes to power, and seeing it as a rejection of Him as their true King.  But, like an indulgent father, he gave in to his whiney children and let Samuel anoint Saul as the first king of Israel. And as confirmation, when Saul was anointed, he became a changed person. His heart changed, he prophesied, and he did some amazing things. And he was promised a lasting dynasty and a blessed future. (Seeing the connection now?) But Saul ignored some basic commands from Samuel — instructions his kingship rested upon.  His position was dependent on God’s empowerment, and it was conditional upon his particular obedience. And he blew it. Twice. And finally God had enough.

And Samuel said to Saul, “You have done a foolish thing. You have not kept the command the LORD your God gave you. If you had, he would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time.  But now your kingdom will not endure; the LORD has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him to be ruler of his people, because you have not kept the LORD’s command.” (1Sa 13:13-14)

It was over. And God sent Samuel to go anoint David, Jesse’s son, as the next king.  And that “kingdom established forever” promise now went to David.

God can be pretty tolerant. He puts up with a lot of stuff from us, his kids. But when it comes to important stuff — usually involving other people he cares about, things he’s made you responsible for — he can reach a point, draw a line in the sand, and say “that’s it. You’ve had your chance. I still love you, of course, but I’m giving this job to someone else.”

Plan B-whiteboardPlan B. Alternate ending.  And nevermind about all those blessings and that glorious future he promised.  His love is unconditional and eternal. But promises, it seems, are another story. Promises that go with a particular job, role or function, depend on the performance of that function.

And me and X, well, we’d given up on that function, particularly where it came to dealing with each other.  Sure, we had a mission and a purpose in our joint venture of a life beyond the love and mutual care-giving of a committed relationship.  I’m not sure if the two were dependent on each other (the mission and the love), but the mission definitely wasn’t happening when the love part got neglected.  And, like Saul’s kingship, our reign ended with a whimper instead of a bang.

But the good news is, the story doesn’t end just because the ending changes.

That’s Plan B. It’s a message of hope. A promise (this one unattached to performance) that God will work things out for our good, even if the characters and the plot of our story get changed.

“How long will you keep mourning?
Now get up, … I have provided a replacement for you …”

That’s what hit me like a ton of bricks.  My story isn’t over (not that I ever doubted that it was; eh hem!)  Those divine visions and promises for the future for X and me were performance-based.  We failed.  We didn’t hold up to our side of the promise.  And yes, we’re forgiven.  Yes, we’re still loved.  But that story line is ended.  And I don’t need to worry about it, don’t need to fret — don’t need to mourn it any longer.  A new ending is being written — an alternate ending.  And that “established kingdom” — how ever that figuratively translates into my own personal life — is being established through another.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying all marriages are mission-based, but they all may very well be performance-based. If you don’t fulfill your marital duties to each other, you can’t really expect that marriage to last, divine promises or no.  But our God is a God of second chances, of alternate endings. Of Plan B.  Hopefully, we’ll do better this time around.

I’ll send you an invitation to the wedding …

 

 

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STEVE SCHMIDT serves on the pastoral staff of Expressions Church in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York. He blogs at CafeInspirado.com, and you can always find him skulking on Facebook.
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Recognizing God’s Voice

[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #e10069;”]S[/dropcap]ometimes religious people really annoy me.

Real life requires real answers — or sometimes at least the admission that we don’t have an answer — not churchy platitudes.  Warm, religious-sounding words, full of all the right terminology but devoid of any real power don’t help anyone.  Fluff. Drivel. And that’s how I felt when I finished reading one preacher’s advice on “How to Recognize God’s Voice.”  So let me throw in my two-cents worth.

First, my disclaimer.  If I were any kind of expert on hearing God’s voice, I’d probably be the happiest and most successful man on the planet. But I’m stumbling and fumbling around here, trying to discern my way, just like the rest of us.  But there are — in my limited experience — some pretty basic signs that help shed some light on the murky fog a lot of us walk around in.  And the key lies not so much in hearing God’s voice — I believe God is speaking to us all the time. The key lies in recognizing the voice when we hear it.

Let me start by killing the churchy platitude that set me off: “The number one way God speaks to us is through his Word, the Bible.”

Pardon my French, but let me just call bullshit on that one.

That’s like saying that the number one way your parents — or your lover — speak to you is through some user manual.  God constantly whispers in your ear, tugs at your heart, gives you a sense of intuition or a “gut feeling.” God is always talking. And he isn’t waiting for you to crack open that leather-bound book.

But just to clarify, my beef isn’t against using the Bible to learn more about God. I just take issue with pretending it’s a book of magic with answers to all your questions.  And if you’d only read it … blah blah.

The God who walked with Adam in the Garden in the cool of the day, the God who spoke to prophets in the Bible … spoke.  I was reading yesterday some stories about King Saul and King David in the Bible, and was struck how often that phrase kept popping up: “the LORD said to Samuel …”   Yeah, how?  How did God speak to him?  Did Samuel crack open the Scroll of Leviticus and read, searching to discover who Saul’s replacement would be?  Yeah … no.  Guess what? While the Bible contains a record of God’s words to us, and he often speaks to us through it, the Book itself will often not be very helpful when you’re actively looking for some guidance. At least if you’re expecting the answers to be there in black and white.

A starting point …

We have to begin with the assumption that God wants to speak with us.

And for some people, that may be a huge leap of faith.  But consider this: that image mentioned earlier from Genesis, God walking with Adam, talking with Adam, calling out to him …  God speaks.  And why did God create humans to begin with?  Okay, we may be crossing over into philosophical territory here, but surely it’s more than just to worship him — despite all those great songs we may sing in church. This might sound heretical, but I do not believe we were created to worship God, nor is that our primary purpose in existence.

Based on what I can tell from Scripture, it seems pretty clear to me
that we were created for relationship with God.

Friendship. Hanging out. Socializing. Fellowship. Communion. Intimacy.

If God wanted you principally for worship, well, he’s already got plenty of angels for that. Again, theological speculation, but a common thought is that he wanted someone with a free will, someone in his own class of being, to choose to love him, to hang with him.  I don’t mean to be flippant about it. But let’s be real. Some of the great figures in the Bible were called the “friends of God”: Abraham and Moses for starters, and Jesus said he no longer called his disciples servants but friends.  We could list other references, but you get the idea.  We were created for love, to be loving partners to/with/for God.

What is the meaning of life? What is our primary purpose?  Relationship.  Friendship.  With God and with each other. So, at least that one church tune we sing so often got it right: “I am a friend of God … he calls me friend.”

And if you can make that leap, if you can embrace that basic premise, then you’re well on your way to learning how to recognize his voice.  How do you talk with your friends?

Email? Letters? Texts?  Sure.  And we can put the Bible in that category.  I’m not ruling it out (despite my tirade above) — the Bible is, as my pastor says, God’s love letter to us.  I’m just saying it’s only one way he speaks with us — and not the primary way, at that.

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God’s voice thunders in marvelous ways; he does great things beyond our understanding. (Job 37:5)
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When we want to talk to our friends, most of us actually speak, we use words. We use our ears. And we use our hearts.  Sometimes we use touch. Sometimes it’s just a nudge.  Sometimes it’s eye-contact.  Imagine sitting across the room from the object of your affection. How are you signaling him or her?  How long can you go without communicating with him? How long before you want to hear her voice?

Why would God be any different?

Sure, he created the universe. He’s paying attention to that irregular star activity in the Horse Head Nebula, and the surge of dark matter floating closer to our Milky Way (can you tell I’m no astronomer?).  But he did take the time and effort to create humanity, and the Psalms tell us that he knew us — as individuals — before we were even in our mothers’ wombs.  That’s some pretty personalized attention.  And don’t think for a second that he suddenly lost interest when we turned the age of 12. That Holy Love Literature tells us our individual names are written forever in heaven, that we are the apple of his eye, that he sings over us.  Pretty heady stuff.  So I think it’s safe to claim that he still wants to hang with us — on that individual, personal level.

Back in Eden, when Adam and Eve were hiding afraid and in shame after their little dalliance with rebellion, it is God who goes in search for them: “Where are you …?”  So why do we think he suddenly dropped into a passive mode? Is he waiting for us to brush the dust off the old King James Bible we got as a Sunday School prize, and read chapter after chapter, straining to find his will in the black and white verses?  “Oh, I see Steve is looking for my guidance about whether he should get serious with this guy he’s dating. Guess I’ll make him work his way through Colossians where I hid my will for this situation.”  Umm, no.  Seems silly, doesn’t it?  But isn’t that what most of us think?  “I need help. I want to know what to do, or at least what God would like me to do … about X or Y …  So I better read the Bible.”

Hey, the Bible is great. I’m a firm believer in Scripture. God speaks to me using it all the time. When I’ve got deep issues I’m troubled with, it’s amazing how suddenly a verse will jump off the pages, highlighted in spiritual neon, and it’ll ring inside me with new meaning I never saw before. And there it is: the answer I’ve been looking for.  But it wasn’t the magic of the Book.  It wasn’t even the words themselves on the page. It was the activity of the Spirit, making those words come alive.  It’s what theologians call illumination — spiritual highlighting.

And he does the same “spiritual highlighting” with all types of situations.

It’s the message that’s important; not the medium it comes through. God can speak through my trusted friends. He can use a song on the radio. He can use a preacher.  He can use a TV commercial or a Facebook status.  He can use an audible voice from Heaven. He’ll prompt your intuition, or give you a fresh moment of inspiration, a thought you’d never had before. From what I know of God, it seems like he’ll use whatever means, and as many means, as possible to communicate with us.

Filtering out the Background Noise

But when you’re reaching out with your heart, there will also be a lot of background noise: your own thoughts and worries, other people’s opinions, coincidental signs.  How do we filter all that out?

The way we know it’s from God is that there will be this gravitas to it.  It will ring like a bell inside us with power and heaviness, and it will fit. It will fill every corner of the question we’re chewing on. And there will be absolute certainty: done deal, “this is it!”  The answer will “settle” inside you with a kind of solidness to it, like the closing of a door on the question. And then there will be peace. Like freshly fallen snow on a quiet winter night. Like a cool breeze blowing across you after a time of sweat and strain.  These are tell-tale signs. These are the work, the activity, of God’s Spirit.  And that’s how you recognize God’s fingerprints on the answer you’re looking for.

God is Spirit. And you are a spiritual being, created in his image.
And though he will speak to you in a wide variety of ways, recognition of his voice is a spiritual activity.
You’ll know it in your gut.

There are no clear-cut methods, no great formulas or strategies to reach that point where words suddenly take on divine significance, where you suddenly develop ears that discern that whisper of the Spirit or eyes that see his illumination.  But when you’re genuinely seeking God, when you want to hear his voice, he won’t hide from you. Like a lover, longing for your presence, he may string you along a bit, just for the pleasure of your company.  But he won’t leave you guessing.  And he won’t put you through religious gymnastics, he won’t make you wade through holy texts.  Hey, if you’re already there, he may speak to you through them.  But if your heart is open, he could just as easily drop a flash of insight on you while you’re walking at your favorite park.

Elijah was in trouble. It’s another story in the Bible. He’d just had a major spiritual high, a victory in wiping out the false prophets of Ba’al. And then he crashed.  Fear gripped him. Uncertainly hounded him. And he sought God in the sacred places, the place where God had moved in history. He ran to historic Mt Sinai.  And God shook him up.  The answer he was looking for was not in the fire. Not in the earthquake. Not in the wind. It was in the still, small voice. That whisper deep inside, whispering “this is it.”

Hearing from God is not some extraordinary phenomenon, reserved for saints and the sober-minded. It’s normal for us to seek divine input. It’s part of being human to reach out and communicate with the God who created us.  So, as Jesus once told a group of his followers, “ask — because the one who asks receives. Seek — because the one who seeks finds.  Knock — because to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”   Go ahead.  Ask.  Then keep your ears open to hear, keep your eyes open to see the answer.

To hear God’s voice, pay attention. Just be listening. He’s always trying to talk to you. The answer will be there.  To recognize God’s voice, to know when it’s really him, look for the gravitas, that sense of “settledness” in your gut.

It isn’t that hard.  You’re asking. He’s speaking.  We just need to learn to recognize that internal resonance, that ringing of certainty and truth, that finality when the answer comes.  You’ll feel it.  It will be a knowing in your gut more than in your head.  That’s the “still, small voice.”

 

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STEVE SCHMIDT is a teacher at Expressions Church in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York. He blogs here on IMPACT’s Cafe Inspirado column, and you can always find him skulking on Facebook.
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You Need Some Help!

"Adam and Steve" by Rahul Gabrielle
“Adam and Steve” by Rahul Gabrielle

 

As a single guy, feeling the full weight of taking care of the house, the yard, the laundry, the cooking, the dogs, a full time job …, I think I now know exactly why God gave Adam a “suitable helper”.

Funny, how every single person I know is focused on finding Mr. Right or Miss Right. The desire for companionship is strong in us humans. And with rare exceptions, that’s how it’s supposed to be. Unless you happen to be graced with the spiritual gift of celibacy, you’ve probably more than once quoted that famous passage from the creation account in Genesis: “It is not good for man to be alone …” (Gen 2:18). And your sights are usually zeroed in on finding a romantic partner, someone to love, to be loved by, to “have and to hold,” and to experience that physical/mystical bond of “the two shall become one flesh”. (Thank you, Genesis, for providing us with all those great images.)

But I recently became acutely aware of what was perhaps the original intent of that spousal description. The King James version of the Bible reads, “an help meet for him”, and thus was introduced into English idiom the term “helpmeet” (and not as some of my more amorously focused brothers think, “helpmeat“). God gave Adam the herculean task of tending a huge garden and all the wildlife in it. And practically speaking, there just weren’t enough hours in the day or strength in the body to do it all alone. Adam needed help — and a help specifically suited to him, to his personality and to his specific needs. A helper was needed to help him accomplish his task. Not just to be a romantic partner. That “becoming one flesh” stuff is all just a wonderful fringe benefit.

Without that help, it is likely that Adam would not have been able to successfully do the thing he was charged with doing.

And that’s the point.

You were put on this planet to do something significant,

something important,

something no one else but you can do.

You were designed to be that unique piece in the cosmic jigsaw puzzle needed to complete the picture. And without you, without you fulfilling your assignment, that puzzle will always remain incomplete. And guess what? You can’t do it alone. None of us can.

Two by two

Two-by-two2It is interesting and informative that when Jesus sent out his disciples to do the work of the Kingdom — to proclaim the message of Freedom, to heal the sick, and to break the power of the enemy — he sent them out two by two (Mk 6:7).

Like Adam, like those disciples, we weren’t meant to try to accomplish the work by ourselves. It’s too big for any one person. We need help. And based on these two important passages, it seems clear that that’s how God intended it. And if that’s the case, then we can also assume that it is God’s will that we have that help. He WANTS us to have our “suitable helper”.

And that’s good news for most of us:
God is right there in the mate-finding game with us.

But here is the kicker. You gotta look beyond the surface. You gotta get past your own romantic and sexual needs, and look at the bigger picture.

God wants you to have the love of your life, that partner who will be faithful in good times and in bad, in blessing and in trouble. Just make sure you find someone who will actually “help”.

Find someone whose heart will align with yours, who will cooperate with your purpose on this planet, who will come into agreement with the important things in your life, and come alongside to help. Make sure your prospective mate can actually contribute. You don’t need another burden, another weight to carry. You don’t need the distraction or the drain on your energy and time. You need someone who will share the burden and help you carry the weight, who will help you stay focused and will re-energize you. Make sure the person you’re considering will be an asset to you, and is of some earthly good — other than providing you some sugar.

Your pursuit of a life companion is a wonderful thing. And if you stay purpose-driven and mission-focused, you’ll have God as a recruiting partner. Because He wants you to succeed even more than you do.

You’ve got important work to do. And you’re gonna need some help! So choose your helper wisely.

 

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STEVE SCHMIDT serves on the pastoral staff of Expressions Church in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York. He blogs at CafeInspirado.com, and you can always find him skulking on Facebook.
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