If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father who is in heaven give good things to them that ask him? (Matthew 7:11 ASV)
It shouldn’t be too surprising that in an era and place of unbridled abundance and wealth (that is the US in the 1970s and following) that these verses would be seen as part of the claim that we deserve good things and God has to give us what we want. Of the many mistakes I’ve made in my walk of faith, having a sense of entitlement, that God owes me something, was no small source of confusion and probably one of the worst ways that I could have envisioned a relationship with the Divine. Funny that I seem to get mostly what I needed, but almost never what I wanted.
In Bad Faith, Part 7: Entitlement
It might be interesting to see the tel-evangelist and the religious huckster try to preach this gospel of entitlement to villagers in a developing spot in the world where their village is routinely wiped out every year by monsoons and flooding. Or in some South American desert community where there’s no electricity or indoor plumbing, how would they spin their message there? How does this gospel of entitlement translate in parts of the world where children catch the measles and die or where they don’t have enough food to feed them and have to watch them slowly starve to death. Conversely, how about hard-working folk who are laid-off or fired because the CEO needs to cut the budget so that he can still get his quarter-million dollar. The CEO got what he wanted, but the thousands and possibly millions who are dependent on that paycheck for their daily bread certainly didn’t. Does God only listen to the prayers of CEOs, or rich Americans?
I’m currently listening to Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God, and it seems pretty clear that one mistake I made was to assume a quid pro quo relationship with the Divine and second to that was an assumption that I could have a relationship with the Divine that was a kind of mystical parallel to having a relationship with a really powerful, important buddy. I thought I had VIP access to all the good that there was to offer because God and Jesus were my buddies. “No really, check again, my name is on the VIP list. My buddy, Jesus, said he put it there,” I say to the heavenly bouncer. Imagine my disappointment and embarrassment as I’m forced to leave the line while the bouncer lets all the hot chicks in first. Damn. Story of my life…
I know that it was confusing to my mom, a devout Catholic, that I had this expectation that not only did God hear my prayers, but that He had to give me what I wanted and also that He was in control of every aspect of my life, right down to the long hairs on my shaggy head. I’d had this “experience” as a 15-year-old and blam! I was ushered into the inner sanctum and I was privy to a level of understanding that the stupid ol’ theologians couldn’t begin to imagine. Well, 15-year-olds are always over-estimating their importance and understanding, and I wasn’t any different in that department. Sad thing was that as I grew up and began to understand that I did NOT know the mysteries of the universe, that I was unable to integrate this in a meaningful way when it came to understanding my relationship with God and the Bible. In a sense Dawkins was right, while I understood more and more of the complexity of life, my relationship with God was mostly undeveloped beyond the moment of recognition and wonder.
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I felt as a child, I thought as a child: now that I am become a man, I have put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know fully even as also I was fully known. (1st Corinthians 13:11-12 ASV)
Well, it’s probably an overstatement to say that it went undeveloped because from that moment forward I struggled with my growing rational understanding of the world and this moment that changed my life. Like the Episcopal priest that my brother spoke to in my last entry, I couldn’t fully reconcile the two and instead just alternated between the two worlds and not always very gracefully. While Dawkins might say that my struggle was an irrational residual of my upbringing, Armstrong might say that my problem was that my definition of God was just too narrow and too primitive.
I’d seen a glimpse of it at Loyola Marymount when I read The Idea of the Holy, but never really moved too far beyond the “buddy in the sky” motif when I did my B.A. in Biblical Studies at Biola University. Then when I started an M.A. in Theology at Fuller Seminary it was an interesting blend between the rational and religious, but it all got cut short when I got divorced. It didn’t help that I was already too academic for my Calvary Chapel heritage, getting divorced completely knocked the wheels off of my vision for myself and ministry. And thus I abandoned all of it and except for occasionally listening to some Mark Heard or Sam Phillips I never opened my Bible or went back to church for fifteen years following the divorce.
During my fifteen year Agnostic phase I attempted to find a balance between these unmet expectations, my sense of my own responsibility for the way things turned out and trying to figure out who I was. I’d love to say that I figured it out, but that would be even more delusional than any of the foolish things I’d done as a Christian. Something was missing. A lot of time past. I had my work but… I don’t know. There was something more.
Then through an unexplainable series of events I found myself back at church, back to reading my bible and back to trying to figure everything out with my old buddy Jesus. Simply put, I’d fallen in love and there wasn’t a single damn thing about it that was right and when it all came crashing down on my head (over a Valentine’s Day weekend) I had a moment of transcendence and understanding. God was in control again and I didn’t care how anything turned out because I understood that nothing happened by chance. And I really did go through a number of “self-renovation” projects. The previous 15-years felt like I’d been standing still or asleep the whole time. I knew I had to be my best self. I knew I had to be my best self because… well, that was the problem. There was something, or actually someone who, I wanted in my life and it wasn’t happening. Christian friends repeated the verses like the ones above about how God knew my heart and wanted to give me… good things. Great, I was all for that. I knew what that meant to me, but things got a lot darker and unlike any other time in my life I learned what it meant to be completely vulnerable, to the point where a sunset would make me cry because I couldn’t be with the one I’d fallen in love with. This went on for years.
Friends and enemies around me were falling in love and getting married (and getting divorced) and I was still trying to figure out why it wasn’t happening for me. I kept the thought close to my heart that God knew what I wanted. And time continued to pass on by. It was beginning to feel like those bad old days when I began to believe that I must be doing something wrong or that there was something wrong with me. I didn’t really expect it all to be handed to me on a silver platter, but Jesus, after five years… Clearly, I’d misjudged more than a few things. Clearly I was still seeing things through a glass, darkly… So, for the second time, I closed the Book and walked away.
I know a lot of people who feel like they were rescued from horrible lives because they found God. For them life would be completely meaningless and cruelly random if it weren’t for God making everything right and loving them. I respect that. I miss that sense of knowing. I miss that sense of being connected. I don’t want to live what’s left of my life like I did during my 15-year of random wandering. I’ve learned so much, it’d be a shame for it all to be lost because it’s gone unshared and unremembered. There’s still something left undone.
Maybe the verses aren’t about some quid pro quo relationship with the Divine expressed with gifts of fishes or stones. Maybe the verses aren’t about a big buddy in the sky who wants to spoil you. Maybe it’s all meant to be an allegory about being loved and being connected to something greater than ones self. Maybe it was enough that I was loved and that in those moments I saw into Eternity, that I’m one of these weirdos who can take simple human contact and see something bigger, something that makes thoughts of entitlement feel like immature children complaining about fish and stones.