God is not on our side

We were on a mission to find Indian Food at one of our favorite restaurants and en route we were listening to NPR’s “Fresh Air.”  Terry Gross was interviewing Nick Paumgarten and we caught the conversation midstream.

Paumgarten was talking about on-line dating and observed that one of the random indicators he had found of potential marital bliss was whether or not a couple agreed on their like — or dislike — of horror films.  What about you, he asked Ms. Gross.

His host was diffident and responded, well, it depends on what you mean by horror films — classic or new, slasher movies or…

Woa! Paumgarten responded.  This is a binary thing.  You’re for them or against them.  If you want to qualify your view you’re not going to get dates.

That’s right.  And that’s precisely the problem with our society today.  That’s why we name-call, instead of discussing issues.  We brand and exile people who don’t agree with us.  Our news commentators and their guests talk over one another, scream, and shout.  Our politicians battle away at one another defending old positions and programs — and why none of them are capable of entertaining new ideas.  That’s also why, even in the church — if you want to get ahead, you are forced to choose a side.

For far too many people there is, quite simply, never any more than two choices available.  Left, right — up, down — black, white — yes, no.  Most of life doesn’t yield to that binary pattern, but we have imposed that pattern on it.

It won’t matter to everyone, but to those who care, it’s time to hear this and hear it clearly:

“God is not on your side.”

You meant “their” side, right?  No, I meant “your” side (And, by the way, God is not on my side, either.)

Let me elaborate (so that I avoid being binary!): In life, there are a handful of occasions when picking a side will likely put you on God’s side.  Cheating on your taxes, taking your neighbor’s life without provocation, abusing a child — under those circumstances it’s not hard to figure out where God stands.  But the problem is that most of those choices are pretty obvious and they almost never present themselves in real life.  The vast majority of life is not like that.

More importantly, from a spiritual point of view, when we conclude that we have done what God wants us to do by making those binary choices, the choice becomes an end in itself — a god of our own making.  And that’s why I think it’s time for us to hear, “God is not on your side.”

Every time Jesus was approached with a binary choice and asked —

tell me who to love and who to hate,

tell me who to forgive and how often to forgive them,

tell me who to serve, God or Caesar

— Jesus insisted on listening to God, instead of giving an answer.

Bob Lyon, a dear friend, mentor, and teacher, used to observe: Christians are meant to be a part of “the loyal opposition” — because God is “the loyal opposition.”  Everytime we want to draw a line, check off a box, or make a choice, God responds, “No, there’s more to hear — listen to me.”  And I think Bob was right.

As long as we reward binary behavior — make a choice, get a date — make a choice, get elected — make a choice, get a job — make a choice, find a welcome — the binary choices will look like the only thing possible.  They will also be all we have.

God is not on our side — yours or mine.  God doesn’t need a side.  We need to listen.  When we do, we will find fresh vision and insight — as well as new depth of community.  We will also find God, instead of our feeble binary interpretations of what God wants.

About Frederick Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Rueben Job Institute for Spiritual Formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and consulting editor at Church Publishing in New York. He is the author of numerous published articles and reviews, as well as several books: A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009), and The Dave Test (Abingdon, 2013). He and his wife, Natalie (who is also an Episcopal priest), live in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, with their Gordon Setter, Hilda of Whitby. They have four children and five grandchildren: Henry, Addie, Heidi, Sophie, and Drew, with a sixth on the way.