An actual conversation:
I was shopping today at a Giant Eagle, the main grocery store chain in Pittsburgh, when I reached the aisle for “bottled water.” The very moment I reached for a jug of Spring water, a man rushed up to me and asked excitedly, “Why did you do that?”
“Why did you pick Spring water?” he continued.
“I have tried tap water, and don’t like it,” I replied cautiously, still a little shell-shocked at this ambush.
The man accosting me was middle-aged, ragged-looking, with beard and mustache and long hair poking from beneath a tassel cap.
He continued in rapid fashion: “When you get home, put the Spring water in the refrigerator–it’s healthier for you.”
Then for further authority, he hit me with the Bible: “Jesus said, ‘Whoever gives a cup of COLD water…’ ”
“See,” he continued. “COLD water is good for you.”
This fellow didn’t know I’m a minister. He also didn’t know that I have been in the tropics–when living in Tanzania, East Africa. I have drunk what seemed like COLD water because it was kept in the shade rather than in the sun. Merely the contrast between shade and sunlight makes a BIG difference in the tropics.
I remarked, “In a desert climate, water doesn’t have to be refrigerated to seem COLD.”
I think what the Bible passage means is: Giving a cup of COLD water to a believer (Matthew 10:42) stood in contrast to giving somebody a cup of unclean, dirty water. Jesus, omniscient as He was, wouldn’t have been referring to a refrigerator.
But–there was more. The man who accosted me kept going. He said, “The other good thing to drink is ‘well water.’ ”
He quoted again, “Jesus met the woman at the well.” (John 4)
I didn’t have the heart to tell this fellow that I HAVE drunk well water–and it tasted worse than tap water. I also didn’t want to carry on the conversation any further, so I didn’t mention that in Jesus’ day, there WAS nothing BUT well water. ALL water in the Holy Land came from a well (unless it was taken from a Roman aqueduct or from a stream or a river).
I was relieved when the encounter ended. But the conversation made me think:
How many people interpret things ONLY according to their own, individual experience?
This fellow obviously had done no research at all into the conditions in which Jesus lived. If Jesus talked about a cup of COLD water, this fellow thought immediately of his own refrigerator.
People who think like this isolate a statement only according to their own experience, and therefore–they get it dead wrong. Their ego is foremost in their interpretation–therefore, they get it wrong. Ego, ergo error.
It never fails that whenever we have a heavy snow in Pittsburgh–such as we’re having right now–some people scoff, “Hah! So much for global warming!”
It isn’t “PITTSBURGH warming.” It’s “GLOBAL warming”!
The evidence is primarily thousands of miles away–the shrinking polar ice caps. The enormous amount of ice at the poles is shrinking, causing water levels all over the world to rise.
But “global warming” is interpreted only according to one’s own individual experience right here in Pittsburgh.
Ego, ergo error.
Furthermore, many Christians interpret the Bible and the activities of the Supreme Being not just according to their own selves, but according to their own nation. Many think that the United States stands in some special favor with God. Our patron saint is said to be Jesus’ Mother. The famed preacher that I wrote a biography about, the Rev. Dr. Bruce Thielemann, used to hear these “patriotic Christians” making their ego-based interpretations of the Bible in his decades as a pastor. He talked once about the woman who said, “Have you noticed that the middle letters of “Jerusalem” are “USA”?
It gets to be too much to respond to in one breath. Never mind that “Jerusalem” is not the real name of the place. It’s just an English transliteration of the Hebrew name for: City of Peace. “Ier-shalom.”
And it’s not even the lone Jerusalem in the world. Tanzania has its own “Jerusalem.” In the Arabic influence of the coast of Tanzania, the largest city in the country is called “Place of Peace”, Dar-es-salam (Dar es Salaam).
During the walloping the East Coast of the USA took from Hurricane Sandy, I noticed on Facebook the posts from people in the area. They wrote things like, “The electricity in our house didn’t go out! God is so good!”
Talk about an “ego-based” view of things! Fatalities occurred, entire towns were flooded, residents were driven out of their homes…But God is so good–“the electricity in MY house didn’t go out.”
Now, this gets down to my own situation–as a cancer survivor. I am now fighting cancer for the fourth time in eight years. All during this time, I know people who didn’t make it: teenagers and kids, as well as young moms and dads and the elderly.
And yet I have continued hearing all during this while such nonsense about God. When a person survives, “God is good.”
How about when a person dies?
“All things happen for a reason.”
These are apologies for God based on individual lives–what about. the wholesale destruction of lives in places like Syria? But Syria is at a distance. It doesn’t fall within the viewpoint of the ego.
If God is so caring about ONE life, and that ONE survival indicates “God is good,” what can be said about the MASSES being destroyed in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Liberia…let alone the tsunamis that have crushed entire populations in Thailand, Indonesia, etc. And we haven’t even touched on the Holocaust.
The problem reminds me of kids being told about Santa Claus. “Santa is going to visit all of the houses in the WORLD–in one night.”
When kids are told this, they don’t worry about how Santa does it. They don’t fret over how Santa reaches several billion households in one night. Rather, a kid’s concern is: “Will he get to MY house?”
It is an ego-based viewpoint. The way kids think of Santa Claus is the same way many people think of God. It doesn’t matter what happens elsewhere in the world; in their individual lives, “God is good,”
Cancer is a very individual thing. Even though I know the widespread nature of the illness–one out of four Americans can expect to get it–it feels very personal. But my viewpoint of God regarding this illness is not individualistic. I have no illusions about why I have survived. It isn’t because God has chosen me, but has not chosen others.
I DO credit God–as far as why did the surgeons who saved my life decide to dedicate their lives to this line of work rather than something else? I believe it was the Spirit of God that was working in their decision-making. Why did the researchers who devised the radiation treatments and the chemotherapy that have helped me survive choose that line of work? I credit the Spirit of God nudging them in one direction vs. another.
But I don’t care to portray God as the Supreme Being who chooses one life over another, and if we can’t figure out a loss just now, we are reassured, “Everything happens for a reason.”
I don’t think any parent who has lost a child CARES that there’s some strategic payoff down the road. They’d rather have their child back!
Let’s get away from this idea of God CHOOSING. This idea is a throwback to the distant days of paganism, when the gods were thought to be behind everything that happened. Even centuries before Jesus, the poet Homer poked fun at this typical way of thinking. In The Odyssey, Ulysses is shipwrecked. He is bobbing in the ocean, clinging to a board. Up on Mount Olympus, the king of all the gods, Zeus, comments to the other deities: “I’ll bet the humans blame this on us.”
That is the typical pagan belief–whatever happens, the gods are behind it. The belief has carried right over to what we find in the Bible: Whatever happens, GOD is behind it.
But there are places in the Old Testament, and throughout the Gospels, where the thinking changes. There arises a view of God that is primarily one of not anger or power–but compassion. As Christians, our clearest idea of God is–Jesus. And what’s clearest about Jesus is: compassion.
I think God choosing one over another is not compassionate. In truth, God choosing becomes the cruelest story believers haul out in times of loss. They think it’s a message of comfort. “Everything happens for a reason.”
Or, “God only tests those that He loves.
A childhood friend of mine has heard this so many times–because my friend can’t walk. He has had multiple sclerosis since his early 20s. So many times he has heard, “God only tests those that He loves.”
“I wish,” my friend once told me, “God would stop loving me.”
If this is the way “things happen for a reason,” honestly, I’d have trouble going to church and singing “Praise the Lord!” Because if this is the best that the Supreme Being of all wisdom and power can accomplish, if THIS what we’re going through is the plan–frankly–it stinks.
But this kind of viewpoint exists–and persists–because we tend to think of God as individuals. It is an ego-based interpretation. And we tend to think of GOD as an individual: a being like us who thinks and acts and chooses. The portrayal has not changed since the time of the pagans.
Rather, we need to get away from the idea of God as being so individualistic in our interpretation, let alone thinking of GOD as an individual. Instead, it seems to me a better match for the reality of life to think of God as–Spirit.
That is one way Jesus portrays God–as Spirit. It gets back to the woman at the well.
The woman says, Where is the right place to worship God? You Jews worship God in Jerusalem. We Samaritans worship God on our own mountain.
Jesus says, God is not to be worshipped as belonging to any one place. God is–Spirit.
What does it mean to say: God is Spirit.
The power of God is spiritual–not physical. God doesn’t govern world-shaking events like tsunamis and volcanic eruptions, nor smaller events like the weather on somebody’s wedding day nor whether an NFL player is going to make a field goal in the final second of a playoff game.
God is Spirit. The power is not physical–it’s spiritual.
As such, God’s power–God’s influence in life–is primarily: relationships.
The Holocaust didn’t end because of the Almighty taking unilateral action. Millions continued to be methodically murdered year by year. The only way the Holocaust came to an end is when American GI’s pushed open the gates of concentration camps.
COULD God have ended the Holocaust earlier? COULD God have intervened by almighty power–like making the Red Sea part?
We tend to think that calling God “almighty” means: The Lord can do any thing at any time.
Obviously, that is NOT the way God truly is (else the compassion of God is sorely lacking, holding back while watching a child drown).
Rather, when we think of God as “almighty,” let’s give up the idea of “almighty” in terms of an individual–like Superman being able to do any thing at any time. Rather, we can think of “almighty” in terms of “Spirit.” And since Spirit is not physical, it is spiritual, God’s power is–the Spirit working through people.
As such, God is not some kind of Superman who can do any thing at any time. Rather, spiritual power works more gradually–because it works through people. When Dwight Eisenhower was the Supreme Allied Commander in World War II, being supreme didn’t mean he had the power to accomplish any thing at any time. Rather, “supreme” meant: eventually, ultimately, good would conquer evil.
That is how I view God as “almighty” and “supreme.” Good will eventually, ultimately overcome evil. But in the meantime, the Spirit works gradually, because of working through people–and stuff happens.
Whatever happens, God is not choosing one person to survive while choosing another to not make it. Rather, God is fighting just as hard for each one of us.
God is not choosing one house’s light bulbs to continue burning while “allowing” entire towns to be wiped out by flooding. Rather, God is fighting just as hard for all of us.
It’s just that God is spirit–the power is not physical–it’s spiritual–which means, relational.