Life With God

September 26th, 2011

I had not met Joel before he came to my office for what he called “spiritual advice.” A middle aged man with some success at business, Joel described himself as a Christian with a weakness for alcohol, women, and gambling—the latter being the reason for his visit. A bad run of bets was now jeopardizing his business.

“I’m sorry for your troubles, Joel,” I said, “but I’m not sure why you’ve come to see me.”

“I don’t go to church,” Joel said, “but I know what’s right and wrong. I’m concerned that God isn’t going to bless my business because of what I’ve done. I want to make things right with him. I can’t afford to have my partners and God against me.”

• • •

Mark was a very well read man. He devoured every business leadership book he could find, but he wasn’t a business leader. Mark was a pastor. We met at a ministry conference and shared lunch together.

“The problem with most pastors,” Mark began, “is that they think they’re immune to market forces. They don’t understand the basic principles upon which every organization rises or falls. They just don’t teach that stuff in seminary.

“I can’t stand all of the spiritualizing that goes on at these ministry conferences,” he said. “We’re just coming up with excuses for being bad leaders—for not doing more. Do you think the managers of Wal-Mart sit around and contemplate? Why do people expect us to sit around and pray all the time? I’m not going to let my church atrophy like so many others.”

• • •

Rebecca was a senior at a respected Christian college. With graduation just months away she was wrestling with what’s next.

“I’ve always dreamed of going to medical school,” she said. “And I’ve got the grades to probably get in, but I’m just not sure I should do it.”

“Why not,” I asked, “what’s holding you back?”

“I’m not sure that’s what God wants me to do. I mean, does the world really need another cardiologist? I want my life to matter more than that. I want to do something really significant.” “Like what?”

“Like be a missionary,” she said. “Maybe God wants me to sacrifice my dream of becoming a doctor in order to serve him? I just don’t want to reach the end and feel like I missed out on a more significant life.”

• • •

“I don’t understand what I did wrong,” Karen said through her tears. “I tried my best to raise him according to the Bible.” Karen’s teenage son was struggling with severe depression and coping in unhealthy ways. His drug use only exacerbated the problem and led to more destructive behaviors.

“It isn’t supposed to happen this way,” she said with equal doses of anger and pain. “We have always honored God in our home. We have always done what’s right. We raised our kids God’s way; on Biblical principles. There’s even a verse from Proverbs framed in our house: Raise up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it. Why is God punishing us?”

• • •

Joel, Mark, Rebecca, and Karen represent the four ways most people relate to God.

Joel, the debaucherous businessman, sought to use God to bless his business. He embodies the posture of life from God. Those in this category want God’s blessings and gifts, but they are not particularly interested in God himself.

Mark, the savvy pastor with a focus on organizational principles rather than prayer, didn’t have much space in his life or ministry for God. This is the life over God posture. The mystery and wonder of the world is lost as God is abandoned in favor of proven formulas and controllable outcomes.

Rebecca, the graduating senior dreaming of medical school, was primarily concerned with how to best serve God. This most celebrated of religious postures is life for God. The significant life, it believes, is the one expended accomplishing great things in God’s service.

Karen, the distraught mother who tried to raise her son “by the book,” was upset when God did not uphold his end of the deal. The life under God posture sees God in simple cause-and-effect terms—we obey his commands and he blesses our life/family/nation. Our primary role is to determine what he approves (or disapproves) and work vigilantly to remain within those boundaries.

As western culture becomes increasingly secular and “post-Christian” I find many more people unconcerned about God. They give little thought to how God’s presence could or should impact their life, and that’s assuming they believe he exists at all. Many people in the secular west live over God.

But we must not exaggerate the secularization and post-God posture of the world today. Despite the rise of so called “new atheism” there are still wars being fought because of religion in the 21st century, and traditional religious values dominate many communities even in western societies. Adherence to faith rituals (or superstitions, depending on one’s point of view) remains very popular today. Living under God’s expectations is still important to many people. In fact, many of our cultural conflicts can be attributed to people living under God seeking to impose their values on those who would rather live over him.

At the same time, a rapidly growing segment of people are seeking to use God for their personal benefit and profit. Some of the largest congregations in the United States and elsewhere are predicated on the life from God posture, as are some of the best-selling Christian books. With so many traumas within families and now the turbulent economy, people are turning to God and his representatives for solutions. In many cases they don’t actually desire God, just his supernatural help. Sometimes it is called Consumer Christianity, the prosperity Gospel, or health and wealth preaching. In each case people are looking to God to be a cosmic therapist or divine butler. He’s what one friend has called the WD-40/duct tape combo pack—all you need to fix just about anything.

What I find most among my peers in Christian ministry is a highly activist form of faith. Whether by fighting poverty, growing the church, or political engagement, we tend to find purpose and meaning through what we do for God and his kingdom. The life for God posture is highly celebrated and those capable of accomplishing the most receive great accolades and admiration.

Recognizing these four postures of life helps us makes sense of the church’s work. Much of the church’s activity is spent trying to move people from one of these four postures to another. For example, we try to convince a generally irreligious person living over God to care more about God’s values and commands and to begin living under his rule. We don’t push this simply to be dogmatic or intrusive, although at times that may be how it is received. Rather we believe that life under God is both more rewarding and blessed.

Some churches have made it their explicit mission to transform religious consumers into fully devoted followers of Christ. In other words they want people to stop simply living from God and start living for him. This shift is usually measured by a person’s participation in church activities, charitable giving, service to others, and engagement in both local and international missions. We try to convince them to do less for themselves and more for God and others. A particularly successful shift from living from God to living for him occurs when a person leaves her chosen profession and enters “fulltime Christian ministry.” Such stories are infrequent but highly publicized in faith communities.

But a few years ago I began to seriously question the four popular postures of the religious life. My discomfort with the popular categories advocated by the church reached a tipping point a few years ago when I began mentoring a number of college students. Most of these very intelligent men and women had grown up in Christian homes. They had significant church involvement in their backgrounds, and some even lived with missionary parents overseas. They knew the Bible better than most, and they could engage in meaningful theological and cultural discussions.

But when I started exploring their personal communion with Christ, their practices of prayer, their understanding of sin, and how they related to God I was dismayed. To some my questions were incomprehensible. “What do you mean, how am I experiencing God?” one would say. Others admitted never being taught how to pray apart from the perfunctory grace before meals and bedtime. Most could not identify any time of meaningful transcendence or moments of peace or joy in God’s presence. They often gauged the quality of their faith on one measure alone—how well they controlled their sexual desires.

Language about having a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” has become cliché in many evangelical communities including the Christian colleges most of these students attended. And yet when I scratched beneath the surface and used less familiar language to determine what their relationship with Christ actually looked like, most of the students fell silent. Many spoke about God as a theological reality, a sterile calculation, or the way an office worker at a large corporation might speak about the CEO whose portrait hangs on the wall but whom he’s never met.

In Genesis 2 God establishes a garden in Eden where he places the man and woman and where he walks with them. God welcomes humanity into the eternal communion he has known since before time. We were created in his image so that we might live in relationship with him.

What Joel, Mark, Rebecca, and Karen all lacked was a vision of life with God. They had entered the Christian faith with great expectations, but without being given a higher and more beautiful vision, they settled for a less satisfying one. You may identify with one of their stories, and like them you may also not yet understand what a life with God looks like.

Each of the four popular postures can be appealing, but each fails to deliver us from our fears, and risks inoculating us to the Good News of Jesus Christ. But a life lived in rich communion with God cultivates faith, hope, and love in a way that transforms both us and the broken world we inhabit.


This article is excerpted from chapter one of With: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God, by Skye Jethani. Used by permission.

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