In our second sermon from Skye Jethani’ excellent book “With” we will the spiritual dryness of a Life Over or Apart from God. Jethani writes “my concern is those who claim Christian faith and even participate in a local church but may actually have the same life over God posture as atheists… they practice a faith that has little room for God”. I offer this sermon asking God’s Spirit, to guide us all into a deeper walk with God.
There was a time when religion ordered the world. In 1633, the church forced Galileo to recant of heresy for correctly asserting that the Earth spins around each day, each year makes a trip around the sun. Galileo spent the last 8 years of his life under church ordered house arrest. Galileo and Copernicus collided with a church that looked to Scripture as the rule, standard and guide on everything. Psalm 104 spoke poetically of God riding in a sunlit chariot and said “God set the earth firmly on its foundations, and it will never be moved” (Psalm 104:5). When Galileo’s telescope discovered that the earth moved, it did not matter, for the Scripture guided all matters. 359 years later, in 1992, the Pope John Paul 2 formally apologized and officially recognized that indeed Galileo was correct.
Perhaps in response to such wooden literalism and enforced dogma, some people began to turn away not only from the always imperfect church, but from God. They adapted a posture Jenthani calls LIFE OVER GOD! They fell out of, drifted away from, or even rejected the possibility of a relationship with God.
Jethani asserts that “post enlightenment cultures have pushed God out of the space (God) once occupied. Faith and religion have been marginalized and reserved for those few aspects of human existence science cannot (yet) explain and control.” In our age, science and market forces dominate everyday decisions.
There are at least three ways to live OVER or APART from God.
Atheism- this is a sad breaking off of purpose, universal truth, hope, forgiveness, redemption and love. It offers no compelling moral order or reason to do anything beyond becoming the fittest so you might survive and rule the jungle. Indeed, Jehtani documents the track murderous record of Atheistic governments: Stalin 20 million, Mao 65 million, Khmer Rouge 2 million, or North Korea 2 million and counting. Atheism offers no real guidance. Science can design a better weapon but not tell us when to use it. Science can build time saving devices, but not tell us how to use the time. Scientist can engineer better walls but not tell us where to put them. Science can grow healthier crops but not move us to feed the hungry. Removing God does not remove our problems or offer any solutions.
Practical Agnosticism- you do not have to be an atheist to live apart from God. Many people wear the name Christian but live apart from God. God is simply not part of their everyday lives. They do not involve God or the things of God in any part of their planning, thoughts or actions. Like bell bottom jeans or some other faded fashion they are “over” God. They are not people of daily prayer, intentional good works, generous giving, regular worship, or a spiritual community. They may believe in God, but God is not engaged in their lives in any practical way.
Christian Deism- Jethani proposes a third LIFE OVER GOD posture that covertly infects sincere faithful church going folks. Jethani writes “my concern is those who claim Christian faith and even participate in a local church but may actually have the same life over God posture as atheists… they practice a faith that has little room for God…. We may not want to admit it, but like secularism, deism, or atheism, many popular forms of modern Christianity leave little room for God.”
But how does this God-less Christianity happen? How do church folks slip into a LIFE OVER GOD posture? It happens, when Christians replace what Jesus calls “Living Water”, “Being Born from Above”, or “Being Born Anew” or “being Born in the Spirit” with a dry series of propositions, steps, or principles that one can apply to their life. Israel means “those who strive with God.” Jesus often said “your faith has healed you.” The Apostle Peter spoke of “a living hope”. Paul spoke of “Life in the Spirit”. These are not reducible principles. There is not a Science and Math Approach to Faith. Faith can’t be boiled down to a series of steps, principles and rules. The faith journeys of Moses, Jacob, Abraham, Deborah, Ester, Job, Peter, James, John, Lydia, Martha, Mary or Saul do not fit into some sort of faith-based formula. A life with God is a subtle thing, perhaps more art than science.
Jethani writes “Rather than looking to a relationship with God, the LIFE OVER GOD view seeks to discern reliable principles. It reduces and limits God to a reproducible formula. It assumes that the way God has worked in the past is how (God) will continue to function indefinitely into the future and that once we have discovered these principles that govern God’s actions, we may employ them with guaranteed outcomes. ‘God always—‘; ‘God never—‘; ‘God only—‘ are phrases used with flippant regularity in Christian communities.”
The Life Over God posture is a bit like Sheldon Cooper from the “Bing Bang Theory.” As the consummate scientist, Sheldon seeks to find a discoverable principle for everything. Sheldon seeks to live his life in accord with these applicable Principles. So a formal “Roommate Agreement” governs his relationship with Leonard and 31 page “Relationship Agreement” guides his relationship with Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler. The Relationship Agreement asserts that hand holding is allowed under 3 circumstances: if either party is in danger of falling off a cliff, deserving of a hearty handshake after winning a Nobel Prize, or for moral support during flu shots. Few of us would enter into such a rule bound relationship, and yet many Christians have exchanged a relationship with God for a series of rules and steps.
Jethani writes “When the Bible is primarily seen as a depository of divine principles for life, it fundamentally changes the way we engage God and (God’s) Word. Rather than a vehicle for knowing God and fostering our communion with (God), we search the Scriptures for applicable principles that we may employ to control our world and life. This is not Christianity! In other words, we actually replace a relationship with God for a relationship with the Bible.”
So ask yourself, do I primarily hold a relationship with a mysterious and loving God or a relationship with the Bible?
Naming the Bible as an Owner’s Manual or as “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth” shows a focus on principals instead of a relationship with God. You see this in sermon and Christian book titles: Seven Bible Principles For A Happy Life, Effective Christian Parenting, The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts, The Ten Most Common Objections to Christianity, Quieting Your Heart, Jesus CEO, or Intentional Living. Not that steps and principles are bad, but there is more for us! Christianity is not an argument or a set of principles- it is a deep soul connection to Christ. Indeed, the rules can buffer God’s gracious streams of living water! Rules, principles and steps, may dodge or resist God’s deep mysterious love. The Apostle Paul was all about the rules before encounter Christ!
In LIFE OVER GOD we begin to speak for God- we become the tellers. We control God. We become the judges- the scribes- the experts. Rules, steps, and principles allow us to become careful lawyers picking passages to fit our worldview.
Do you see LIFE OVER GOD in the way church folks can argue about the Bible? What parents enjoy their children’s arguments? We sinful kids need to prove our ideas about God are right. We argue about how to baptize or who exactly is included in faithful Christianity. Few of us ever quote 1Timothy 3:16 “Without question the mystery of our faith is great.” Like self-centered children we stop loving each other and argue about who Dad loves the best or knows Mom better!
I have seen this in myself. Growing up in a “Bible Believing” and preaching church, we were solidly protestant. Now, I am not sure what non-Bible preachers preach about. I hope I always preach the Gospel! But my home church continued Martin Luther’s protest even 500 years after Luther posted his 95 objections on the Wittenberg door church! We espoused “faith alone,” against any Roman Catholic stressing of “good works” in God’s salvation calculus. We preached against “salvation by works” which we maligned “works righteousness”.
As a freshman in college, my home church hired me to be “Assistant to the Youth Director” and like most young preachers I began repeating the themes I had heard all my life. One day as I prepared for a Bible Study on “works righteousness,” I turned to a Scripture I had memorized years before. Ephesians 2:8-10. “8For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God-!! NOT THE RESULT OF WORKS !!, so that no one may boast.” Ready to unleash a rehashed sermonette, my eye encountered the very next verse: “10For we are what (God) has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” An alarm went off in my soul. I thought maybe I should use another passage. What if the teens read the next line of the Bible and missed the “truth”- “NOT -WORKS”? My faith began to sway, I grew nervous and anxious. When old idols, like a certain way of reading the Bible, topple over the soul’s ground may shake. I began to realize that I prepared for Youth Bible Study by coming to the Bible with an idea and finding Scripture to back up my pre-convinced notion. I trotted out my Naves Topical Dictionary of the Bible and or my Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance and sought verses that matched my preconceived notions. When I found something contradictory, I kept on looking until I found what I wanted. I used the Bible like a magic reference book to pull lines from and then I wove its’ ideas into my inherited designs. Ephesians 2:10 shook me up; it challenged my childhood theology. I realized that preaching, which jumped all around the Bible grabbing various verses was usually an attempt to make the preachers point. That is not Bible preaching. Indeed, our constant Scripture citing perhaps dodged God’s still small voice with a series of cuts and pastes. There is a way of wielding the Bible that never hears the Spirit that inspired the Text.
Faced with a crisis of Biblical questions and answers, I laid down my Exhaustive Concordance and offered my tired brain and weary soul to God. God’s love broke through. There were no answers. I prayed and my answer was a wall of love that defies explanation and offered no answer to the exact theological issues that vexed my 22 year-old soul. Leaving my fundamentalist nest was the most painful flight I have made. Would I crash and lose my faith? God’s Love is the answer.
Thomas Merton writes in “Opening the Bible”
“The basic claim made by the Bible for the Word of God is not so much that it is to be blindly accepted because of God’s authority, but that it is recognized by its transforming and liberating power. The Word of God is recognized in actual experience because it does something to anyone who actually “hears” it; it transforms their existence…. There is an implicit contrast between the dry academic and official learning about religion and the living power of the Word. Paul contrasts the deadening study of the letter with the living, giving power of the Spirit by which God manifest himself in the text. …The message of God to us is not a matter of ink and paper, but of the new life that has sprung up with the believers.”
We see Jesus address the “Life over God” folks in Matthew 22. The religious experts come to Jesus with some obscure Old Testament law that required a brother to marry his brother’s widow. They bring their math and science approach, seven brothers die, that adds up to one poor brother married to six widows. With their math and science question they glibly say: “Jesus, tell us who is married to whom in heaven?” Jesus does not enter their math contest, but says “You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God.” Jesus explains how they do not grasp the glory of Heaven found in Scripture, but Jesus’ deeper critique is they do not know God’s power. God’s power is personally transformational. You can know your Bible up and down, cover to cover, in and out, and not know the power of God’s love found within the Bible. Indeed, some who seem to know the Bible’s rules the best somehow don’t seem to bear the Fruits of the Spirit, which inspired the Biblical writers and empowers us. A Bible expert is not someone who knows all the rules, but someone who lives with “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” You are not a carpenter because you can quote “This Old House” and like saws. No, you are a carpenter when you build something. Love is the proof of a life lived with God. 1 John 4:12 promises “if we love each other, God lives in us and God’s love is made complete in us”
Jesus concludes the Matthew 22 passage proclaiming “God is God not of the dead, but of the living!” God is not “I was” but “I Am”! God is not locked up in the past. God is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob today! God is not bound by the Bible but unleashed by it into our lives today. The problem of these Bible scholars is that they are not open to the Living God. Such experts use the Bible like a reference book or a legal book! There is nothing wrong with the rules, but with the Spirit the rules deaden the soul. They do not know God’s Power; they just regulate it!
There is a deep dry sadness in a Life Over God posture. Bible-idolatry robs people of a relationship with God. Legalist never know how to truly read the Scriptures. They miss the power of God to heal, uphold, forgive, and love. Easter becomes for them a second hand experience.
“My heart was strangely warmed” is surely one of the quirkiest lines of Methodist jargon. This John Wesley quote is not about rebellious pizza stirring indigestion, but about the deep-mysterious-personal feelings of love, power, hope, forgiveness, change, and release Wesley experienced in Jesus Christ on May 24, 1738. You can’t reduce or explain love. God’s Love is beautifully strange. Love resists definitions, predictions and formulas. It is mysterious, elusive, evolving, and living. Let us exchange a dry knowledge of the things for God for the strange warmness that is a personal walk with God.
Listen to the words of Saul now-named Paul, who once was a legalist. Listen how Paul, who is now beloved by the legalist, still seeks to know Jesus, not some steps or rules- but God! Listen to Paul, who wrote most of the New Testament, acknowledge the mysterious, unconquered, non-formulatic call of God. Listen to what drives Paul! Listen for the transforming fire that burns inside this once religious expert. Hear the mystery! Seek the strange warmth!
“But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in Christ, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ… I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to make it my own because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you.” (Phillipians 3:7-14)
Do you live a relationship with your Bible or the Living Water, the Good Shepherd, The Way, The Truth, The Life, The Resurrection and the Life, the Savior, The Crucified One, The Lord, The Light of The World, The One who walks and talks with you, Jesus the Christ? Is your Christianity a second-hand set of steps or the presence of the “Living Hope”? Do you bind God to a Relationship Agreement or a series of “always” and “nevers”? Will we live with God or settle for some nice rules and guiding principles? Let us run after the mysterious love of God. Let us press on to make “it” our own, because Christ Jesus has called us God’s own!