Living with uncertainty just may be the mark of a genuinely in-touch spiritual life. When your thoughts, your perspective of the God and the universe, go beyond the limits of what you’ve been taught, when you begin to think outside the lines, it can be a very scary thing. But it can also be a sign of profound growth. And you might be in touch with God in a way that you weren’t before. Something could be happening to you – and it could be a really, really good thing.
I’ve noticed this a lot in the past decade or so. And mostly, it’s made me uncomfortable. REALLY uncomfortable. There were these preachers that I’d respected years ago, who suddenly got a “bigger” view of God — well, in my mind, it was just a different, even heretical, view of God. They talked about how hell didn’t really exist, how the love of God extended to ALL humans, not just the chosen 3% of all humanity whoever lived who happen to call themselves Christians. And that God would never condemn those people to eternal torment because of their ignorance of the incarnation. Some of these preachers even began to adopt lingo from other religions to describe this God who created all humanity, words and images from people who experienced God differently.
But that was weird. That’s not what my bible teaches.
At least not how I was taught to read it.
Over the past few years, my own views of God and faith have shifted a bit, became “looser.” Grace was bigger. Love was bigger. The Cross was bigger than we could ever imagine. If God himself could come down and take on human flesh, then allow himself to be killed — the death of the Creator of the Universe! — that had to be bigger than our traditional religion was describing it. It had to have universal ramifications.
But I couldn’t talk about it much. At least not outside a circle of a few close friends whom I could trust not to start gathering stones for my execution. Thanks to social media, I’ve become aware of more and more pastors and teachers whose views are evolving. And now, instead of being scary, I find it exhilarating. Something is happening. Something is up in the spirit-realm, and we might very well be in the middle of another kind of revival, a move of God’s Spirit, a new expansion in God’s revelation.
Okay, I know I just spooked a bunch of you reading this. You probably always half-suspected that I had one foot out the door of evangelical orthodoxy and already on that slippery slope that leads to eternal damnation (that hot place more and more people are coming to doubt exists). But hold on for a few minutes. I’m not asking you to agree, but maybe you’ll consider the possibilities.
Progressive Revelation. That’s kinda the technical term for it. That our understanding of God expands over time, as the Spirit reveals a little bit more of the character of God as time passes, as culture progresses, as we as faithful people open our hearts a bit more. This is not something new. It happened all through the Bible. Let’s take a quick look at a few examples.
A quick history lesson
Adam and Eve had a very intimate friendship with God. They knew him (her?) in a way the rest of humanity never would. They experienced him one on one, in the flesh so to speak. But that changed suddenly. And it was like the unrestricted access, the unfiltered view of God, got shut down. Suddenly, God was distant, not readily accessible. Cain and Abel offered up sacrifices (well, “offerings” as we understand the term. There is no indication they were blood sacrifices for sin). We don’t know that Adam or Eve ever did this when inside the Garden. This was something new.
Abraham, the father of our faith, came along millennia later. God speaks to him, and he is constantly making altars to God and worshipping. And there is even this gruesome scene where he cuts up animals in a covenant-making ceremony, and God symbolically passes through the body parts in the form of a smoking pot. No sin offerings are even mentioned. Sacrifices — financial as well as bloody — are part of Abraham’s faith walk, but they seem to flow from custom, from tradition he was familiar with, not from any specific instruction from God. But when Moses 400 years later leads Abraham’s descendants out of Egyptian slavery, God gives him a set of specific instructions about sacrifice. “This is how you will approach me. This is how you will atone for your sins. This is how you can appear before me without being struck down by my awesome holiness.” And we end up with a clear statement that defined our faith and theology from that time to this day. “Without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin.”
Pretty clear. Written on stone, written on leather scrolls. Read for centuries after. Yet when King David comes along and commits some horrendous crimes (adultery, murder), he could pour out his soul to God with a new understanding that defied the written Scripture that he knew so well. “Sacrifices do not please you or I would offer them. My sacrifice is a broken spirit. A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51). He knew something intuitively that contradicted Scripture. He could approach God and receive God’s forgiveness without blood sacrifice. His broken, repentant heart was sufficient.
Stop for a second, and let that sink in. That is HUGE. David had an intimate relationship with God, one that marked him in history as “a man after God’s own heart,” and he KNEW inside his gut that killing some sheep would not set things right between him and God. Only his honest communication, his genuinely sorrowful heart could move the heart of God.
So much for the authority of written Scripture. He had a revelation that was bigger than Scripture — and it eventually became part of Scripture.
Then a few hundred years later, the Israelites do stupid stuff, they abandon their relationship with God and hook up with other gods. They end up being conquered and exiled from their home country. Guess what? No more temple to offer sacrifices. How were they going to maintain their faith, their connection with God? Thankfully, their prophets got a new revelation — or maybe it wasn’t new. Maybe it was just a new awareness of the “other” side that David and the mystics knew all along. There were other ways of having relationship. “Obedience to God’s instruction was better than sacrifice,” and a life of compassion and fidelity to God was better still: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” Besides, God had already revealed periodically along the way that their mechanical, insincere sacrifices had become repugnant to him. He hated them. He hated their long, babbling prayers, their fasts, their religious holidays. He hated it all. All the outward religious behavior. He wanted their hearts.
Okay, centuries later, the Jews have returned from their exile in Babylon and have resettled in their promised land. The temple is rebuilt, sacrifices re-commence. Jesus comes on the scene, and he is constantly debating with the religious leaders: “You’ve got it all wrong. This stuff is not important. Your tithes, your sacrifices, your rules, your ‘holy’ lifestyles mean nothing.” And he tries to change their way of thinking, their way of viewing God — from a somewhat distant, Almighty God, the King of the Universe, the Father of all Israel, to a more personal relationship with God the Father of us as individuals, to Abba, Daddy. And this was revolutionary. It shocked and disgusted the conservatives. It was a shift in their religious view, and most couldn’t handle it.
And it wasn’t just about relating to God on an intimate level. Jesus tried to renew their perspective about how they lived, what they did. You know those rules in Scripture that said not to work on the Sabbath — possibly the most significant law in the Hebrew faith next to devotion to God alone. And Jesus overturned it all the time. He healed people on the Sabbath. He allowed his disciples to grind wheat to satisfy their hunger on the Sabbath. “If your ox falls into a pit on the Sabbath, won’t you break the rules out of compassion for the animal and pull him out?” And, “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath — it was intended for your benefit, not to burden you.” And he did this in other areas as well, from the way they washed their hands, to whom they could hang out with. Jesus taught them something beyond what was written. He broke Scripture, contradicted what was written. He reinterpreted it BIGGER than they had imagined. He gave them a new revelation.
Oh, sure. That was Jesus. He was the Son of God, so he had the right to do that. He could add stuff to the bible.
But then his disciples did the same thing. After Jesus’ ascension into heaven, non-Jews started flocking into the new Jewish church. They liked what they heard about Jesus’ teachings, Jesus’ view of God, and they wanted in. But the bible clearly stated that to join the faith, you had to be circumcised. And these uncircumcised non-Jews were considered “unclean”. You couldn’t eat with them, or even enter their houses. The early apostles wrestle with this. And then one day Peter has a vision. God shows him all the animals that the bible clearly stated he was not supposed to eat, and then God tells him to eat them anyway. God tells him to break Scripture. The vision really wasn’t about food — although it is used as one of the justifications why Christians can now eat bacon and shrimp in direct contradiction to the bible. It was about those gentiles, those non-Jews who wanted to join the church. They didn’t need circumcision, they were not unclean. “Call nothing unclean that I have made clean,” God told him. And, of course, the apostle Paul follows suit a bit later, declaring that the whole Law of Moses — the bible as they knew it — was no longer binding on Jesus’ followers.
BAM! They got a bigger revelation of truth. A new look at the character of God that was in direct contradiction to what was written in the bible. So much for “The bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.” Nope. The vast depth and richness of the character of the God who created the universe could not be limited to a handful of scrolls. He is bigger than that. He’s got bigger plans than just that. And his love for all humanity is his #1 personality trait. Everything else is subject to revision, change, in order to fulfill his great love.
Okay, that was kinda a long history lesson. The key point to walk away with is that even in the bible, the great heroes of faith were continually getting a bigger view of God that surpassed what was previously written. Their perspectives, their revelations, were consistent with the character of God, but definitely contradicted the plain, black and white reading of the bible. So why should that suddenly stop?
Why are we — who hold so tightly onto the sanctity and authority of Scripture, who pride ourselves in our knowledge and adherence to the bible — why are we shocked, scared, when we suddenly get a new, bigger view of God that goes beyond what is written in that book?
If that “newer, bigger” view of God seems inconsistent with the character of God — specifically, his #1 characteristic: Love — then yes, we should be skeptical. But that “new perspective” in reality may be just a fresh take on a view of God already described in the Holy Book. And if it lines up with the description of God that Jesus showed us, then perhaps we should give it some attention. Maybe, little by little, we’re recovering some glimpses that Adam and Eve had before the great cut off.
That doesn’t mean we have to swallow every new doctrine or teaching or insight someone has. But Jesus promised that God’s Spirit would lead us into all truth. Doesn’t that mean that there still must be truth to be lead into beyond what is written on the pages of the book?
Fresh insights means a new move of the Spirit
I’m getting this subtle feeling more and more recently that we are experiencing a new wave of fresh insight into the character of God. One that challenges traditional views of the afterlife, of heaven versus hell, of eternal judgment and punishment, of who is “in” and who is “out”. Of whom God loves and wants to show himself to, and whom (if any) he wants to leave behind. I’m still walking delicately with this stuff. I’m not likely in the near future to burn a bible from the pulpit. But I think, like all those heroes of faith described in the bible, and like Jesus’ own followers, we are still getting fresh glimpses into the vastness of who God is and what he is like — and what great extent he will go to include people in his redemptive plan, his love. God’s plan is bigger than us. It’s bigger than what can be defined and limited on a few hundred pages in a leather-bound book. And he’s still showing it to us. To those whose hearts are listening, receptive, willing.
So if your view of God is expanding in new and scary ways, it doesn’t mean that you’ve lost your faith or that you suddenly have to leave the church. It doesn’t mean you’re now some other religion. It may just mean you’re in touch with the next move of the Spirit. Something is happening, and you are a part of it.
photo credit: “Unio Mystica,” Hartwig HKD via Flickr, cc
STEVE SCHMIDT is the Teaching Pastor at Expressions 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 is editor of IMPACT Magazine, and blogs here on the Cafe Inspirado column. Plus you can find him making random comments about life on Facebook.