Tag Archives: dealing with difficulty

God works in mysterious ways? [False ideas Christians believe about…God’s involvement in our lives. Part 5]

22 Mar

Does God seem mysterious to you? Confusing? Distant?

In this fifth and final post in our series fact-checking phrases about God’s involvement in our lives, we’re seeking to evaluate the phrase: “God works in mysterious ways.”

This is related to “everything happens for a reason”.  When we say “everything happens for a reason” we are saying we believe God is working things for good, and though we might not immediately know that good outcome, if we look for it, we will find it.  Or we might realize it later on.  Sometimes it only becomes apparent many weeks, months or years later. 

But when we say “God works in mysterious ways,” we are saying that we might never figure it out.  That sometimes God’s purposes are unknowable.  Sometimes God is mysterious. In fact, the Bible teaches this.

In Isaiah 55:8-9 we read, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

Or we could turn to, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.” (Deuteronomy 29:29)

So what does this mean?  Theologians tell us that one of the first things we need to learn about God is that he is incomprehensible.  What “incomprehensible” means in the theological sense is that we in our human capability will never be able to fully understand God.  God will always be somewhat mysterious to us.

But that does not mean he is totally mysterious, as he has revealed himself to us.  In fact we Christians believe that he has revealed himself quite extensively, to the point that we can know him well.  He has revealed himself in nature, in his Word, and especially in Jesus, who shows us a wonderful picture of what God is like. 

What do we learn about God through what he has revealed?  That God wants to be in relationship with us, and he has revealed enough about himself for us to have a close relationship with him. 

When we say “God works in mysterious ways,” however, we are often in a quandary, unable to figure out why a bad thing has happened.  Thus it can be our attempt to console ourselves.  There is, however, another way we use “God works in mysterious ways,” as expression of trust.  Though we don’t understand our pain, we still want to express our faith in God. This is in keeping with the psalms of lament which, after a major complaint against God, still include a statement of trust.

“God works in mysterious ways” can also be an expression of frustration or despair.  We might not want to be in the situation.  We want answers and details and they are not coming.  We don’t want God to be mysterious, and we rebel against the confusion. 

Think about Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before he was going to be arrested and crucified.  What was God’s answer to Jesus’ prayer?  “I hear you, son.  But you will have to go through this.”  Sometimes God will answer in a way we don’t expect or we simply don’t like! 

The problem is that saying “God works in mysterious ways” can give the idea that God is random, or purposefully mysterious, almost like he is playing games with us, trying to be sneaky or tricky.  There is no doubt that there will be situations in life that we cannot figure out, but God also has tendencies, patterns, ways of working, and is not mysterious.   As you walk with God, you get to recognize his work in the world. 

To say “God works in mysterious ways” can be a way of pushing God to the margins of life, however, rather than embracing him in the midst of mystery.  Think again of the psalms of lament, crying out in complaint to God.  In those laments, the psalmists are fully embracing the mystery, and yet still reaching out to God, seeking to bring him close in the middle of the pain. 

So in conclusion, we Christians believe God is at work in the world.  Yes, there are times when we might not be able to figure out what he is doing or why.  But we use our free will to choose to follow him, to honor him, in the middle of the pain.

If you are trying to comfort or encourage people who are in pain, I encourage you to avoid these phrases we’ve studied in this series of posts.  I know it can be very hard to know what to say, and thus we often default back to what we have heard ourselves.  This is the tendency where as adults, to our horror, we realize, “I sound just like my parents!”  Even when we promised ourselves we would never say the things our parents said to us.  Now it’s coming out of our mouths!  Why?  Muscle memory.  We heard it said to us, and it just comes right back out.  Often we learn later in life that what our parents said was actually based in wisdom! But when it comes to these phrases we have been fact-checking, we would do well to battle the tendency to just let them spill out without thinking.  It might mean forcing yourself to be quiet.  It might mean giving the hurting person a hug and simply saying, “I’m here for you, I love you, call me anytime,” and then checking back on them over and over and over, not giving up on them.

Let go and let God? [False ideas Christians believe about…God’s involvement in our lives. Part 4]

21 Mar

I would like to recommend that you not say the following to people going through pain: Let go and let God.

This is popularized in Carrie Underwood’s song, “Jesus Take The Wheel.” 

Before I explain why this might not be a helpful statement, it is important to note that there is much to commend about “Let go and let God.”   Especially the idea of relinquishment, which is encapsulated in the common Christian sentiment: “Lord, have your way in my life.” 

Furthermore, this idea is biblical! My favorite expression of relinquishment is found in John 15:1-4.  There Jesus teaches that not only should we depend on God, but he also says that we humans need to see our powerlessness, and therefore depend on his power.  In other words, we have to depend on God because we are unable to accomplish the kind of life God desires for us apart from him.  God wants us to give up control of our lives to him, making him Lord of our lives.

So what could possibly be wrong about this statement? 

First, it might not be appropriate for certain people you are trying to reach out to.  A friend of mine told me a story about a fellow soldier in his National Guard unit.  This guy was a very typical alpha male, my friend said.  A “Get ‘er Done” guy, who could handle anything you bring him.  He is the kind of person who would receive “Let go and let God” as a weak statement.  We Americans have a tendency toward individualism, and it can be hard for us to give up control of our lives.  If you know you are talking with a person like that, it might be a bad idea to say to them “Let go and let God.”  It could even come across as offensive to them.  I would recommend looking for another way to reach them.

Second, this statement needs clarification: “Let go and Let God” does not negate the responsibility we have.  “Let go and let God” does not absolve us of effort on our part. It is very much connected to what we said in the series fact-checking common phrases dealing with difficulty when we talked about the phrase “God helps those who help themselves.” Take a look at how these two phrases could be in direct contradiction to each other: 

“God helps those who help themselves” emphasizes human responsibility to obey God.

“Let go and let God” emphasizes human dependence on God.

They could be conceived as contradictory, but I would like to suggest that these two phrases actually work together well.  Both are needed, providing checks and balances on each other.

God does not ONLY help those who help themselves.  As we saw last week, sometimes God helps people who are incapable of helping themselves, because he is merciful and gracious like that.

Likewise, when we “Let go and let God,” we must still be actively depending on him, and working to serve him and grow and become like him.  Depending on God, at least in part, means letting go of our ways of thinking, or our cultural ways of thinking, and doing things God’s way.  Following the way of Jesus.  Learning from him how to live. 

My conclusion is that “Let go and let God” needs some explaining. Avoid using it as guidance for those going through a difficult time, unless you balance it with further explanation about what it means to depend on God, and why that is so important. By itself, “Let go and let God” could be very vague and confusing, and as a result, counterproductive. At it’s root, though, is a wonderful concept of relinquishment that is vital for disciples of Jesus.

Check back in to part 5 as we fact-check our final phrase about God’s interaction with the world: “God works in mysterious ways.”