by Christian Smith
A computer programmer friend of mine once commented with apparent seriousness, "What we need is a formula for creativity." I've often chuckled since then over that absurd contradiction. Sometimes, though, I wonder if that's not how we treat our life with God.
Have you browsed through the average Christian bookstore lately? What an assortment of programs, plans, guidelines, principles, and formulas to make your life healthy, holy, and happy. There are formulas for Christian dating, powerful preaching, Christian marriage, church growth, even Christian dieting. It's all so very simple; just buy the book or tape and follow the plan.
Or better yet, save yourself the trouble of leaving the house and just tune into Sunday morning television. You can choose your formula for spiritual success by just changing the station. What will it be this week? Name it and claim it? The be-happy-attitudes? Give so you will get? Or how about your basic believe and be-healed? Whichever one you choose, just remember to send in your money to keep your spiritual star on the air.
FORMULAS ARE NICE; they make life predictable. They guarantee that if we do X, we'll get Y. It's like baking a cake: just follow the recipe and it'll turn out great every time.
The only problem is, God does not work by formulas and probably doesn't even like them. In fact, God makes a habit out of debunking them whenever possible.
Nevertheless, God-in-a-box is what we want. Magic is so much safer than relationship, ritual so much easier than experience. Indeed, God-in-a-box is what people have always liked. Yet God won't be put in a box; in fact, God blows them apart every time.
Remember Job and his friends? They had it all figured out. They knew what God did and didn't have to do, what rules God had to live by. But God met Job and demolished the formulas. And what was Job's reply?
And, look at what Yahweh said when the Old Testament law became a God-formula:
INDEED, GOD'S WAYS of working in history, in our lives are very strange and unpredictable. The Lord says: "My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.'' (Isa. 55:8-9) God asks the father of many nations to sacrifice his only son, the leper to wash seven times in the Jordan, the army to carry a golden box around Jericho thirteen times and blow on horns, the murderer of believers to become the greatest missionary, the Son of God to die.
Who really can pin God down? Abraham thought he knew God's blueprint: Sarah wouldn't bear a child, Hagar would. The liberated Hebrews had a spiritual plan worked out: if Moses doesn't come back soon we just make a golden calf and worship that instead. Moses stuck with the old formula: just strike the rock and God will give you water. King Saul thought he understood the program: just keep the best of the sheep and cattle to sacrifice to Yahweh. But God was not in any of these things.
Even when God came to earth, the chosen people didn't see it; Jesus didn't fit the formulas:
Actually, Jesus went out of his way to profane the formulas of righteousness. He worked on the Sabbath, touched the unclean, forgave sins, and claimed to be God. The religious establishment had God in a box. But Jesus said, "These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. The worship they offer me is worthless; the doctrines they teach are only human regulations'' (Matt. 15:8-9).
WHY DOESN'T GOD work with formulas? For one thing, God is personal. Formulas work with chemistry and cooking. But they don't work with personal beings ' not people, not the living God. God is not a life-force to be tapped into, not a state of being to be attained, not even a wise sage dispensing proverbs and prescriptions. God is relational. God wants encounter: to reveal, to build bonds of love. Relationships with living people are dynamic and alive. Relationship with living God is even more so.
Another reason why God doesn't work with formulas is that God is sovereign, free to do what he pleases. Yahweh is no bellhop who jumps at the snap of our fingers and does not perform on demand. We do not conjure our Savior up with magic. No, God is the one who chooses which nations to raise up and when to tear them down. How can you fit this kind of a God into a box?
But perhaps the most important reason why God doesn't work with formulas is because we need to walk by faith, not by sight (2Cor. 5:2). There's something antithetical about faith and formulas. If our formulas were one hundred percent reliable, we wouldn't need faith, we wouldn't need a living, dynamic relationship with the Lord. Instead of trusting God, we could trust the formulas. But then our belief would become wooden, our growth would come to a halt, and our spirits would become stale.
GOD DOESN'T WORK with formulas. Neither does life. Life is much too messy and ambiguous to be controlled and understood through formulas.
I've read books that say the answer to every life situation is to praise the Lord. If you break a leg, praise God. If your best friend dies, praise God. If your children are going hungry, praise God. God will reward you and make everything right again for sure.
If only life were that simple. Of course, sometimes we should praise God. But other times, we should, like the Psalmist, scream at God at the top of our lungs. I think God much prefers that to the silent treatment.
For most of my life I have told God what I need. With the tacked on phrase, "if it be your will.'' I have made sure it was clear what to do in my life. But recently I've entered a phase when God seems to be saying, "Just shut up. Don't tell me what you need. I will do with your life what I will do. Trust me.'' Who knows what God will do? And who knows how long it will be before it's time again to ask for things myself?
Life is a journey, not a designed system. Walking with God is an adventure, not a program. There aren't any hard and fast blueprints. No procedures to guarantee success. There is only the wisdom of experience, the hope of faith, and the risk of relationship.
IN C. S. LEWIS' children story, The Silver Chair, Jill, a little girl from our world, accidentally stumbles into the world of Narnia. She is extremely thirsty and comes upon a stream. But a Lion, Aslan, is sitting by the stream. She is terrified. Aslan says to her, "If you are thirsty, you may drink.'' She doesn't move.
WHAT A PICTURE of the Christ we serve: a dangerous, uncaged Lion! We don't bargain or negotiate with God. We surrender our lives. We don't exercise tidy God-formulas. We encounter a living relationship.
The heavenly, benevolent grandparent who doles out candy to us at our request is a figment of our imagination. The Living One laughs and shakes the foundation of our lives to wake us from our dreaming. To our God-in-a-box theologies, God says, "Don't play games with me.'' To our trustworthy formulas, "Shelve them and walk by me.'' And to our recipes for spiritual success, "Just give me your heart.''
God is elusive ' too slippery to be pinned down or forced into a mold. You expect to find God in a mighty wind, an earthquake, a fire, but instead God comes in the gentle breeze (1Kg. 19:9-14). You expect God in the holy temple or the courts of the mighty, but more likely God is at a party with sinners or in a burning bush or walking next to you to Emmaus. But you might not know it, and certainly can't count on it. Wrap your fingers around God and you'll have nothing.
Like Jill, we want assurance, we want security, we want our life with Christ to be safe and predictable. But if we really want to know God and grow we must let go of our formulas and step out in the risk of faith. Yes, the Lion is scary, but the other alternative is to die of thirst.