God Is Not A Trained Monkey (or: recognizing the voice of God)

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Two vignettes:

Photo by WELS.net, via Flickr

One: A priest I know once talked about throwing open the Bible and taking whatever your eye (or finger) lands on first as a sign from God. He called it Bible abuse. A provocative statement, given that probably every one of us has done that at some point.

Two: Long ago I read about a person who invited a couple of missionaries over for dinner. They would not eat from the dishes being passed around the table until they had prayed over each one and received Heavenly “clearance” to proceed. At first, the author was offended. Then he decided this was a sign of their total dependence on God to tell them what was and was not safe.

To me, these two examples illuminate how easy it is to twist faith and try to turn God into a trained monkey that performs on command. We’ve been trained, by a fascination with larger-than-life stories of faith, to expect big and dramatic communications from God–and to esteem blind, uninformed faith in defiance of reason.

And I realized that fascination with these kind of stories encourage the mindset that led to my struggles with anxiety in the first place.

There are certain catch phrases in religious conversation: God’s will and radical faith, for instance. In my brain, over the course of years, that twisted into: if you aren’t willing to leap off a proverbial high bridge, trusting God to catch you, your faith is not good enough. Never mind what you know about gravity. Having faith means being willing to do what doesn’t make sense to you, because God’s way is not your way.

It’s that whole billboard thing again: the expectation that God is going to arrange a message so clear, so obviously aimed right at you, that you can’t possibly mistake His meaning.

God certainly can and sometimes does work that way, but if you expect all divine communication to consist of a “billboard,” you’re going to spend most of your life thinking God has nothing to say at all.

In this weekend’s readings, both Elijah and Jesus went looking for God in solitude. In quiet, in the absence of stimulation and demands on their attention. In extended stillness.

Hearing the voice of God is a skill that takes practice, and if you neglect that practice even briefly, you start to lose it. If I say that modern life is not conducive to hearing God, it sounds so trite as to render the words useless, but that doesn’t make them any less true. How many people fill every waking moment with noise–and sleeping moments, too, for that matter? The radio has to be on in the car, exercise must be accessorized by ear buds, and white noise generators are supposed to facilitate sleep.

Photo by albedo20, via Flickr

There’s a reason people throughout history have gone on silent retreats and even lived as hermits. It’s silence where you learn to recognize God’s tiny whispering sound in the midst of the earthquakes and thunderstorms that make up life. It’s in the emptiness that the puzzle pieces begin to click. And it’s when you start to be comfortable in the void that you start to realize it’s not a void at all, but a wonderful sense of peace, and the beginning of a new way to know God.

I do believe there are times when God speaks in a thunderclap or a burning bush–proverbial or otherwise. The vast majority of the time, though, God’s voice speaks from within, through the utterly ordinary stuff of life. But you only recognize it if you’ve invested the time to listen to the silence that makes the connection in the first place.

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3 thoughts on “God Is Not A Trained Monkey (or: recognizing the voice of God)

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