One of the things I love about my “new spirituality” friends is that they’ve helped increase my faith in God. They walk around with an expectation that good things are going to happen to them. They speak positive things “into the Universe,” and they believe that good things will “manifest” to them. By any other name, that’s faith.
Of course, some of them think of “the Universe” as just some cosmic force, as creative power that can be tapped into and manipulated to achieve what one wants in life. Others take a more personal approach. They see a “the Universe” as alive, full of love, as a personality, more along the lines of how traditional Christians view God. In other words, a person. And they interact with It/Him in real time. It is a real spiritual dynamic in their life. And as a Christian, sometimes I really envy that.
The difficulty I have is when they treat this divine source/God as just some sort of cosmic power source that can be drawn from indiscriminately, or as a piggy bank of creative energy that can be tapped into at will for sometimes selfish gains. In that sense, they are no different from most of us who pray and present our lengthy shopping lists to God. Sometimes all we want of God is what we can get out of him. And when I see this in other people, just how inappropriate that approach is becomes more striking to me. God is not a bank account to be withdrawn from at will, he is a person who desires interaction. “New spirituality” usually views “the Universe” as intellect, even perfect love, but without will, without personality. And I can’t understand that. Raw intelligence, raw source of creative power, without will or personality? Surely, Divine Intelligence would resist petty human manipulation, would insist on recognition and even a relationship of love.
When we interact with God, when we pray, when we seek things from God, we need to do so as though we’re interacting with a living being, a Person. We’re told all through the New Testament that we should have faith, but that faith is in God, not just in some impersonal force that creates the results we are seeking. We have faith in the fact that God loves us and wants the best for us. We have faith that when we ask for things, he knows the best way to get them to us if they’re good for us. And sometimes that means he will say no — like any loving parent. We have to be willing, we have to be open, to the idea that he may say no, or that he may do things for us in ways that we do not expect.
Expectation, frustration & leprosy
There is a story in the bible that highlights this point. Naaman was commander of the army of the king of Aram. He was a great man, a valiant soldier, and he was highly regarded by the king. But he also had leprosy. He hears that there is a prophet of God in Israel who may be able to heal him, and he gets permission from his king to go see the Prophet Elisha (2 Kings 5). When Naaman gets to Elisha’s house, with all his horses and chariots and his hundreds of pounds of gold and silver, Elisha doesn’t even bother to answer the door. He sends his servant instead. And the servant tells him, “go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed.” But Naaman storms away angry. “I thought he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, and I thought he would wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy…”
Elisha didn’t do things the way Naaman expected, and Naaman walked away. But the story doesn’t end there. Naaman’s servants whisper some words of wisdom in his ear (isn’t that what friends are for?). “My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you ‘wash and be cleansed!’” Naaman sees the logic in this, and then goes and does what the prophet had told to do: he dips himself in the tiny, muddy, insignificant Jordan River seven times. And, wonder of wonders, he’s healed. His flesh is restored and was clean like that of a young boy.
Here’s the point. Naaman expected the prophet to do things in a certain way. He expected the prophet to come to see him personally. He expected the prophet to utter the name of his God. And he expected the prophet to wave his hand over his wounds in some kind of magical gesture. That’s how he envisioned he would be healed. And because Elisha didn’t do any of those things, Naaman almost missed a blessing. He walked away without his healing. And if his servant hadn’t been wise enough and gracious enough to point out his stubbornness, Naaman probably would have died from leprosy.
Sometimes we miss God because we’re looking for something else.
Sometimes we miss the blessing because it doesn’t come in a way that we expect.
We all have shopping lists, we all have checklists of things we would like from God, and sometimes we even foolishly tell God how we would like him to accomplish them. We usually don’t think of it this way, but we are actually trying to tell God how to do his business. Naaman had faith, but he also had expectations. And his expectations nearly nullified his faith. When we go to God with our requests, with our special needs, when we want a new lover in our life, a new job, a raise, a better social situation, better health, or any number of good things we may have on our list, it’s best for us just to go to God trusting that he is a loving father, and that he wants to provide for us. When we step over into telling him how to do it, that’s when we risk losing it all.
Let’s bring things down to earth a bit. Say you’re single. You’ve been looking for a spouse, a partner, a new boyfriend or girlfriend. And you’ve probably been taught in well-meaning churches trying to encourage your faith that you should be very specific in your requests to God. You should know exactly what you want. You should create a “blueprint for your faith.” So, you may have said, “I want him to be tall, dark, and handsome. I want him to have brown eyes, dark hair, to be a certain height and weight. I want him to have the heart of a Romeo, the gallantry of a Lancelot, to be self-supporting and financially independent, to be masculine, ….” None of those is a bad thing. But we can become blinded by our checklists, by our too-specific expectations, so that if God were to drop our dream man right in front of us, we might not even recognize him.
The same with a job. Say you have specific desires for your next job. You’d like more flexible hours, better salary, better working conditions. You would actually like to enjoy the people you work with, doing a job that suits your talents and your interests. And you know exactly what it is you want to do, you know exactly what it looks like. So you pray that, and you tell God exactly what you want. So now you’re scanning the internet, looking at all the job sites, looking for your dream job. And most likely, you’re not finding it. But there are several that are close candidates. So you apply to those. And some of them even respond to you and invite you to interviews. One of them even offers you the position. But you have to pray about it, searching your heart, probing the heavens, seeking the will of God to know if you should take this job or not. Your friends may be telling you not to take it because it’s not what you were praying for. Or they may be telling you to be practical and take what you can get.
You have to go with your guts. God is spirit, and you are a spiritual being. Most of the time, he will try to communicate with you spiritually, through your spirit. And that normally translates as gut feelings, instincts, intuition. So, what is your gut saying to you?
And even though this wasn’t your dream job, it didn’t fit all your checklist items, all your expectations, you decide to take it.
And now you’ve given God the opportunity to do what only God can do.
To do some of that “God stuff.”
I’ve been in both these situations I just described: I dictated my wish list to God for a new life partner and for a new job. And at least in my case, neither of these situations worked out exactly as I was expecting, what I had set my “faith” upon. But in each case, God did some pretty wonderful stuff. When I let go of my detailed spec list, my dating life took on a whole new dimension I wouldn’t have imagined. And that job turned into a career path that’s paid my bills comfortably for years. Because, like Naaman, I was persuaded not to stubbornly walk away angry because my specific details were not being met line by line, I untied God’s hands, and he was free to move in my life in ways that he saw fit, not as I dictated to him. And I’m a better man in a better situation now because of it. I’ve learned more, grown more, become richer not only financially but also emotionally, psychologically, spiritually — because of these prayer requests that were answered not exactly the way I wanted.
If I’d been stubborn, if I’d said “no, this is not what I’m looking for,” then I would have missed out on both those blessings.
It’s good to have faith. And it’s good to make checklists. It’s good to identify what we want and what we don’t want. But we also have to realize that God is not a coke machine or a juke box. We can’t just push some buttons and expect to get exactly the product we want. This is where I part with my new spirituality friends. We can’t just “speak it out to the Universe” and expect it to “manifest” exactly as we describe. We’re dealing with a Person who is more powerful and has more options available than we do. He sees things we can’t even imagine yet. And it’s best if we give him as much flexibility and leeway as possible to accomplish those goals for us.
Naaman almost missed it. He knew exactly what he wanted and how he want it to happen. But reality didn’t work out quite the way he imagined. And his expectations nearly robbed him of the blessing. But because he listened to the wisdom of his friends, and stopped being so stubborn, he let God do it the way God wanted to. And he walked away a healed man.
We are children of an amazing, powerful, and loving God. When we speak, he listens. And Jesus said in the gospels, “Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Lk 12:32). He wants to give us the desires of our hearts (Ps 37:4). But the key to receiving the desires of our hearts is to not tie God’s hands with our too-specific expectations. Our faith must be in God, as a loving father, not in the specific ways and means we expect him to do things.
We have a relationship with a Person, a personality, someone who walked with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden in the cool of the day. There’s a degree of trust in that relationship, a trust that he knows us personally, and loves us personally. And if we give him the flexibility of our trust without tying him down with our detailed expectations, we might actually be surprised at what good things he will do for us.
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.