This is the second in a series of three posts that have been inspired by a conversation with my oldest grandson, Tylor Smith, as we celebrated his 21st birthday. This post also received some inspiration from my niece, Kelley Longworth. I am so glad that she is seeking, too.
In my last post, I stated that it seems leaders of many and perhaps most religious groups work very hard to draw our attention away from the Word of God. I also stated that I do not think they intend to draw our attention away from God, but in their zeal to achieve some goal, they manage to miss the mark. I then provided an explanation for “the Word of God.” I promised that this post would look at excuses and impediments in understanding the Word of God in developing relationships, including your relationship with God.
I explained that sometimes the Word of God takes the form of Jesus and that the Bible is often referenced as being the Word of God. The gospel of John and other parts of the Bible teach that Jesus and the Bible are closely related or even interchangeable. In each case, whether it is the Bible, Jesus, or any other reference to the Word of God, an important consideration for the Word of God is that it reveals God’s character to us and not the “words of God”. The character of God is what we seek so we can develop a relationship that guides our lives.
I define impediments in the quest for God as anything that interferes with the implementation of the most important commandments (MIC) in a person’s life. For those who say that this would apply only to Christians, I ask that you consider that all of the major religions and spiritual traditions possess similar teachings at their core. The MIC is often referred to as the golden rule, even by the Pope. For Jews, it is important to note that Jesus drew this statement from Jewish teachings such as the shema. For Muslims, it is claimed that Islam grew from the beliefs of Jews and Christians and that the Bible is considered scripture for their faith. In all religions and their institutions, we find that it is easy to bury the core beliefs with the trappings that come with building and maintaining the religions and their institutions.
Impediments in our quest for God seem to arise from concerns about self, from organizational self preservation, and from teachings that can divert our attention from God.
Concerns about self include the desire to reach heaven and avoid hell, the desire to belong to a group and not rock the boat, a self-centered attitude about life, a natural human desire to always be correct, and a lack of focus upon the character of God.
Many religious traditions of the past two thousand years include teachings about heaven and hell or some similar spiritual destinations. At least in the Christian and Muslim traditions, it appears very common that the followers and their institutions can become focused upon making it to heaven to the point that it obscures most if not all other considerations and teachings of the faith. It can be very disturbing for Christians and Muslims to learn that Judaism, from which both of those traditions developed, did not consider heaven and hell to exist until around the time of Jesus. Prior to that time, the focus was on life today.
I do not know of any church or mosque where there is not so much emphasis upon heaven that any and every other teaching is considered as having nothing greater than secondary importance for the follower of the faith. I have asked many Christians to consider whether or not the key to following Jesus (and thus being a church member) is found in the MIC (most important commandments) and they always say that the MIC is the key teaching. Yet, in observing their lives and their words, one will find that most of them consider reaching heaven and recruiting others to go to heaven to be the primary objective of the church. This in turn leads to many people believing that once they have performed certain acts, they are “saved” and need not be concerned with future actions, thoughts and behaviors. Even worse, it can lead followers to believe that they are entitled to certain actions, thoughts and behaviors toward others that would otherwise be considered improper.
Related to concern about heaven and hell is a strong desire to belong to a group of people with similar beliefs and experiences. Once a person has become a member of a group, it is normal for the person to want to fit in and solidify membership in the group. The group demand for allegiance and uniformity can be of utmost importance. Outsiders tend to be considered with some level of disdain and disapproval. An “Us versus Them” mentality can easily develop. There is a tendency in a group to consider the MIC as being important only within the group so that outsiders are excluded. There are teachings in which the group is considered to be “God’s people”.
Common for many people whether part of a religious organization or not is the cultivation and promotion of a self-centered attitude toward life. To some degree, all of us are self-centered. That is why I included in the statement the words “cultivation and promotion”. A balance is necessary so that one loves self while retaining the ability to adequately love others. Carried to an extreme, the cultivation and promotion of a self-centered attitude can be very destructive to the world. In a religious organization, it can sidetrack the work of the organization.
A natural desire to always be correct seems to be present in most if not all humans. This leads to arguments and enmity in groups of any kind. I recognize this in myself so that it is one of the desires upon which I frequently must focus my prayer to keep it in check.
The lack of focus upon the character of God is most easily recognized when we think of God in terms of a human. It is common to ascribe human emotions and behaviors to God. We can talk about “pleasing” or “angering” God. We can expect God to behave, think, and feel as we do. It seems to be very difficult for us to think of God as being beyond our understanding. It is common for us to state that God is beyond understanding, but I have noticed that often, perhaps just a minute after stating that we believe God to be mysterious or beyond understanding, we return to describing God in human terms and stating that we know what God feels, thinks, and would do in a given situation. An example of this behavior is a person who claims that God saved them in a tragedy, but God let others die in the same tragedy. When the inconsistency is pointed out, it is common to hear something like “The Lord works in mysterious ways!” Such episodes have created many atheists over the years.
Organizational self preservation includes behaviors, teachings, and actions that a religious organization will do to promote its growth or to protect itself when it feels threatened. In most organizations, it includes a desire to make disciples, raise money, promote traditions, insist that the organization is the only one that truly knows God, and declare holy wars, jihad, and make pronouncements of discrimination. This has helped lead to wars, witch hunts, terrorism, murders, and many other evil activities.
Hierarchies develop in any organization and they tend to take on an existence of their own. Just look at Congress. Many times it appears Congress and its members have totally forgotten the purpose for its existence. Inertia easily develops in the leadership, traditions, and structures of an organization so change is very difficult. In the church, rules and procedures are usually adopted to keep those in control in place or in power. It seems to me that the call to follow Jesus via a focus upon the MIC comes too close to allowing individuals to develop a personal relationship with God and thus possibly eliminating the need for the church.
Seemingly instinctual tribal behavior causes a group to automatically be suspicious of outsiders and those who are different from our group. This is because we actually worship the group. Such worship hinders relationship with God since relationship with many others is blocked.
Teachings that can divert our attention away from God can be some of the most insidious and difficult to overcome of the impediments in the quest for God. The prevalence of teachings about heaven and hell have led to many distracting stories and to frequent misreadings of scripture. Belief in Satan seems to me to cause people to act powerless in too many situations. It can be so convenient for me to say some evil supernatural force took over so I am not really responsible and there was nothing I could do to change the outcome. Satan tends to be a cop out for so many of us. Similarly, angels can be given credit for outcomes where it would be better to look around for factors that are more appropriate. The idea and teachings about Satan and angels are some of the most frequent out of context usages of the Bible.
The many traditions of organizations can distract us from a productive relationship with God. Prayer is a very popular tradition that is used to numb our minds and hearts to the world around us. In prayer, it is so easy to focus upon our own desires and ignore a focus upon the character of God. The relationship can be so one sided that God has little effect in our lives. Prayer is a tool of and for relationship. It is important to use it to encourage our relationships to grow not only with God, but with other people and all of the rest of creation.
When we consider all of the above factors in our lives and in the lives of our religious organizations, it is easy to see how we can be distracted. A church can become so focused upon making disciples that it does not get very far past the recruitment of new members and the activities necessary to maintain or increase membership. We frequently fail to encourage and pursue growth in relationships with God and God’s creation. The church can become so focused upon the business of being a church and distracted either by desire for growth or by a resistance to change that Jesus may rarely be present in more than name. We can roll him out for story time, especially at Christmas and Easter, but we take little time to learn what Jesus first taught us to do which is the MIC.
I hope this helps you to reflect upon your beliefs, behaviors, and actions. There is much more to consider since so much in life can distract us from God. Maybe these thoughts will help you to more readily recognize when you face an impediment or obstable in your quest for God. In your church, I suggest asking whether or not activities, programs and statements reflect Jesus and do they fit within the most important commandment as stated in Matthew 22:36-40.
For myself, I use the MIC to help me detect impediments and deal with them as they occur. As I have stated previously, this does not mean I am always successful, but I have noticed that my success rate has improved.