What is God For?
Elizabeth Gilbert was unhappy. On the outside she had what many of us want. She was successful in her career as an author, she lived in a large beautiful home, and she had a husband who wanted to start a family with her. What she wanted was out.
“Out” didn’t prove to yield the happiness and contentment she was seeking right away. She had a large advance on her next book and so she used it to travel Italy, India and Indonesia. She eventually figured out that what she really needed was God.
If unhappiness was the problem, God was the answer. Where could she have gotten such an answer? She couldn’t have avoided a thousand evangelical tracts and evangelists while living in America. Christians are always selling God as a way to give us happiness.
Her path to God, however, was not especially Christian. She would discover, in the words of Ross Douthat, “The God within”
Through all these earth-shaking, all-enveloping encounters, though, Gilbert’s theological views don’t seem to change a whit. Despite meeting God in a Hindu ashram, she doesn’t become a Hindu, but then again neither does she revert to the Christianity of her American upbringing. Her initial premises endured unchallenged to the end: All religious traditions offer equally valid paths to the divine; all religious teachings are just “transporting metaphors” designed to bridge the gulf between the finite and the infinite; most religious institutions claim a monopoly on divinity that they don’t really enjoy. To the plight of so many contemporary Americans, awash in spiritual choices but skeptical of every particular religious option, eager to worship and pray but uncertain where and how and to whom to do it, Gilbert offers a reassuring endorsement of do-it-yourself religion. “You have every right to cherry-pick when it comes to moving your spirit and finding peace in God,” she insists. Not only a right, indeed, but a positive duty: “You take whatever works from wherever you can find it, and you keep moving toward the light.”
Her final theological epiphany is the same as her first one. A journey that began with God speaking to her in “my own voice from within my own self”— albeit “as I had never heard it before”— ends with the realization that the Elizabeth Gilbert-ness of that Voice is the key to understanding the nature of divinity itself. The highest spiritual wisdom, she writes, isn’t just that God waits for us inside our own hearts and minds and souls. It’s that “God dwells within you as you yourself, exactly the way you are.” The best way to remedy our “heartbreaking inability to sustain contentment,” then, isn’t to remake ourselves in imitation of Christ (or Buddha, or Krishna, or whomever), but rather to recognize that “somewhere within us all, there does exist a supreme self who is eternally at peace. That supreme Self is our true identity, universal and divine.” This is the highest religious dogma, and our highest religious obligation is like unto it: To “honor the divinity that resides within me,” and to worship at the feet of the God Within.
Douthat, Ross (2012-04-17). Bad Religion (Kindle Locations 4252-4278). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
The God of Happiness is a Tease
I hear Christians and religionists of all stripes hawking the God of happiness but I am deeply skeptical about their claims. I share that skepticism with the aisles of self-help books at the store. If any of them worked, the rest would certainly be obsolete. If any God simply provided consistent, pervasive, enduring happiness, religious diversity would have certainly ceased by now along with the rest of the market economy.
While I am skeptically chagrined about the religious diversity of the God of Happiness, I get thoroughly annoyed when this God is somehow tritely associated with the God of the Bible. I don’t know how an honest reader of the Bible should come away from even a casual reading of it imagining that this God is intent merely on making our dreams come true. If anything this God seems to be a disturber of the peaceful fantasies we naturally concoct for ourselves.
The God of Barren Women
In our journey through Genesis we bury father Abraham only to discover that infertility seems positively hereditary. Isaac and Rebekah after 20 years of marriage are barren. This promise of God for descendants like the sand of the sea has now seemed to contribute to a combined total of 55 years of fertility frustration.
When the LORD finally hears Isaac’s plea for children Rebekah gets not one, but two in her belly, and the tussling between them makes her regret she ever wanted children.
Genesis 25:21–26 (NET)
21 Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife because she was childless. The Lord answered his prayer, and his wife Rebekah became pregnant. 22 But the children struggled inside her, and she said, “If it is going to be like this, I’m not so sure I want to be pregnant!” So she asked the Lord,23 and the Lord said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples will be separated from within you. One people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.”
24 When the time came for Rebekah to give birth, there were twins in her womb. 25 The first came out reddish all over, like a hairy garment, so they named him Esau.26 When his brother came out with his hand clutching Esau’s heel, they named him Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when they were born.
We will see in the coming weeks that the home of Isaac and Rebekah will be anything but peaceful.
Election and Happiness
The first of the Four Spiritual Laws tells us that “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” I can see Elizabeth Gilbert agreeing to this as she meditates upon her God Within, but I’m not quite so sure Jacob would agree.
Elizabeth Gilbert’s God I think mostly says “yes”. The God that Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob and Esau are dealing with seems to very much have a mind of his own and is not shy about working things in ways that we don’t appreciate. His goal in this story seems not so much to make them all feel happy and fulfilled, but to set the world on a path we can’t imagine would be right.
Election and Raw Material
When we met Abraham we noted that unlike his selection of Noah, God choose someone apart from any moral or religious qualification for service. In fact many of Abraham’s choices revealed a man who often lacked the courage and conviction to do bold work. His one shining moment of faith and obedience came as a response to what seemed the most evil and absurd of the LORD’s commands.
Isaac is now left to carry on and he too will exhibit some of his father’s faithlessness. Both he and Rebekah will pick favorites between their sons and their favoritism will set them against each other on a path that could naturally lead to a repeat of Cain and Abel. Esau will be short sighted and rash and Jacob will be manipulative and deceitful. What we have on full exhibit here are very common values of families in the Bible.
How We Try to Get What We Want
Genesis 25:27–34 (NET)
27 When the boys grew up, Esau became a skilled hunter, a man of the open fields, but Jacob was an even-tempered man, living in tents.28 Isaac loved Esau because he had a taste for fresh game, but Rebekah loved Jacob.
29 Now Jacob cooked some stew, and when Esau came in from the open fields, he was famished. 30 So Esau said to Jacob, “Feed me some of the red stuff—yes, this red stuff—because I’m starving!” (That is why he was also called Edom.)
31 But Jacob replied, “First sell me your birthright.”
32 “Look,” said Esau, “I’m about to die! What use is the birthright to me?”
33 But Jacob said, “Swear an oath to me now.” So Esau swore an oath to him and sold his birthright to Jacob.
34 Then Jacob gave Esau some bread and lentil stew; Esau ate and drank, then got up and went out. So Esau despised his birthright.
Most readers of the Bible should be able to see that this story is intended to foreshadow national identities and destinies, but just as the nations are proxied by these individuals, so also their characters in relationship to Yhwh are expressed in the story.
Esau is a man who makes his own luck, taking game and fortune in his strong, hairy hands. Jacob is careful, covert, sneaky, playing the odds. They are separated by manner, but identical in purpose. Both are looking to themselves to chart their lives, Esau just doesn’t look as far ahead. Jacob plays the long game, but both are simply out for their own self-interest.
Election as Conscription
If there is a thesis to the book of Genesis it is that what God initiate through Abraham is a covert mission that can’t even be thwarted by our rebellion.
In Noah’s flood God works directly, by recruiting the most able, the most moral, the most righteous man he could find in the world, but in the vineyard and in the city of Babel it all comes to naught. God with Noah is like Esau taking direct action for short term gains.
Now God chooses to elect and to bless unworthy men and women and in the context of covenant relationship. Slowly, sometimes painfully he brings them to faith and mission without them ever quite knowing what is up.
God here chooses Jacob, perhaps because the approach God is using is more like the heel grabber himself. We’ve seen that God can kill and save with power and has in fact promised not to use that power to judge and kill by a flood again, but now we will see if this God can woo and save with blessing.
The blessing Jacob seeks by taking advantage of Esau’s shortsightedness looks not qualitatively different from the blessing Yhwh has in store for him. He will indeed have sons, flocks, wealth, and power. The key difference will be on who whose terms this blessing is acquired. Will the blessing be a gift or will the blessing be an achievement?
Election as Gift
The deep convenience of The God Within is in fact the withinness of this God. Gilbert of course had the time and money to travel to Bali for her journey of discovery as do her legions trampeling it. She had the looks, personality and opportunity to attract the man who would become her second husband and the skill to write about it in a way that would gross her millions of dollars of royalties. The talented, the strong, the wealthy and the lucky of this world predictably seem to find what we easily identify as blessing.
The story into which Jacob is born, is quite different.
What happens when Abraham and Sarah can’t conceive? What happens when Isaac and Rebekah can’t have sons? What happens when their sons seem determined to fight in a way that seems will naturally end in the stronger of the two murdering the weaker? What will Esau do when he, the skillful hunter is unable to hunt the game? What will happen when Jacob the con man meets someone who can take advantage of Jacob’s short term desire? We are not so much defined by what we do when we are strong and have options, but rather what we do when we are weak and have none.
The track record of humanity’s use of power is consistent. The strong take the weak. The first born finds life at the expense of the second. Men use women. The strong nation subjugates the weak. What God begins to do with Jacob is to begin to upset our pattern and begin to move history in a different direction.
Why I Want the God Within and Why you Don’t Want Me to be God
I want a god who always says “yes” to my dreams. I want a god who will expand my power and enrich my experience. I want a god who will answer ever prayer I pray with a sweet “as you wish”. What I really want is a god who will make me God.
Every good parent limits their children’s power. They don’t give them everything they ask for. They know that in fact giving that child power will only make that child and everyone around that child misery. This is the story of humanity in the world.
A God Who Can Tickle
Did you know schizophrenics can tickle themselves? Do you now why you can’t?
This predictability that you develop between your own actions and the resulting sensations is the reason you cannot tickle yourself. Other people can tickle you because their tickling maneuvers are not predictable to you. And if you’d really like to, there are ways to take predictability away from your own actions so that you can tickle yourself. Imagine controlling the position of a feather with a time-delay joystick: when you move the stick, at least one second passes before the feather moves accordingly. This takes away the predictability and grants you the ability to self-tickle. Interestingly, schizophrenics can tickle themselves because of a problem with their timing that does not allow their motor actions and resulting sensations to be correctly sequenced.47
Eagleman, David (2011-05-31). Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain (Kindle Locations 849-854). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
Elizabeth Gilbert didn’t just find spirituality in her quest for happiness, she also picked up another man, and in her second book had to admit that in order to satisfy US Immigration married him. Do you know why relationship with a real person has the capacity to bring joy beyond almost anything else? Because that person has the ability to tickle you, and so much more. That person also has the ability to bring misery. Don’t forget, her story starts with a man who was making her miserable.
Joy requires relationship, happiness doesn’t. A schizophrenic can tickle his or her self, but relationships with that disorder are extraordinarily difficult. We will often find a schizophrenic talking to his or her self because he or she can’t recognize their own voice within.
If God is nothing but our own self writ large, then I’m afraid we are alone. But if there is a real God, a good God, a God who loves us like a parent to the degree that this God will challenge us, defy us, tickle us, woo us, love us, then we are blessed indeed.
Users and Lovers
In her second marriage Gilbert will likely find the same challenge she faced in the first. We want other persons. Because they are not us they can give us joy. Because they are not us they can give us sorrow. What we deeply desire is to use the other, who is not us, to give us joy. We want love, but we want it as use and love can never be such a thing.
Election is finally, simply love. For it to be what it is, it must be freely given.
The owning of God is the ultimate quest for humanity. If God can be owned, tamed, subjugated, harnessed, we imagine we will have it all. We find, however, the paradox of tickling and the power of power to make us monsters. How can we escape?
If God is not free to not love us, then his love is no love at all.
What is God For?
The question we began with is wrong. God is not a tool that he is “for” anything. He cannot be used, as Jacob will learn. He is not a means by which we find happiness, or meaning, or fulfillment or love. We can be “for” something only to God, but God can never be “for” anything in that sense to us.
In the other sense, however, he is “for” (on our side) us. What we finally need is to be released from trying to make God “for” (as an instrument) our use. Jacob must learn that God is not for his use, and in the process must learn that neither is Esau. Joy will come in learning to love, not use. When he learns to love, and not use God even for happiness, he will have joy.
Our desire to use and not love this free God beyond our control is deeply tied to our desire to use, and not love each other. We domesticate God in our religion, and we manipulate and use each other in our daily world. The unmaking of that dream of using God is what unmakes our habit of using each other.
The story of God teaching Jacob to trust, and to love, has just begun.