I don’t know how many times when I was a churchgoer I had a parishioner come up to me and say something like, “I don’t know what this means, but I was praying for you last night and I got a picture of a ladder. I didn’t understand it. Does that mean anything to you—a ladder?” Sometimes I would come up with some way that the concept of a ladder “spoke to” some problem I was experiencing, mainly because they were so earnest and I didn’t want to let them down. Sometimes it would mean nothing to me.
“Well, pray about it,” they’d say. “God will give you something.”
From this distance, it seems so contrived, almost comical. But I’m not making fun. The truth is, devout Christians want to serve the Lord their God with all their heart and with all their soul and with all their mind, as Jesus instructs them. The pickle they’re in is that the God they’ve chosen to serve is silent and invisible. They’ve been painted into a corner by their catchphrases: Christianity’s not a religion, they insist. It’s a relationship. Therefore, they must able to relate to/with their silent, invisible God.
So how is it we are to achieve this feat? The Bible, obviously, carries a lot of the water here. But that’s just general instructions. Don’t lie. Don’t eat shellfish. Don’t cheat on your wife. What believers really want are specifics. What should I major in? Which job should I take? Whom should I marry? Should I have used “whom” or “who” in that last sentence?
Pulling a MacGyver
And it’s at that very point that the silence of God becomes so conspicuous for believers. No, God must be trying to talk to me. He is love, after all. If God doesn’t speak, does that mean He doesn’t care about me? Ewww . . . that’s a disturbing thought.
So . . . they pull a MacGyver. They take whatever they find at their disposal and they make use of it.
First off, they take the fleeting thoughts and sensations we’re all prone to by virtue of having highly evolved, chattering brains and attribute them to God. Likewise, they attribute divine origin to the other stray stimuli we all encounter in our day-to-day existence—offhand comments friends make to us, a song we hear during the worship service, a billboard we pass by. (“Comfort you can afford”? What the hell does that mean?) I kid you not.
That’s why God seems to speak to believers in cryptic bursts—an image here, a sensation there, a phrase that seems strange at first but can be made to make sense once combined with the equally strange phrase clung to by a fellow churchgoer. (“I think God must have brought us together!”)
The way believers see it, the fact that it usually takes a string of messages for God to make his point—that just shows we’re thick-skulled and God loves us enough to be persistent.
That had to be God!
Realizing this, evangelical churches train believers in how to “soften their hearts” to recognize the voice of God. It’s a richly layered skill with no clear, fail-proof pedagogy.
One tip is that a thought or image that appears in your mind is more likely to be from God if it’s spontaneous and unexpected. That had to be God!
Also, they’re advised to “seek God’s peace.” More often than not, this is how it works: A particular believer has to make a difficult choice—for example, which job to take or which major to declare—and hears no definite direction from God, so he or she ends up choosing without input from God, telling Him they hope they are choosing rightly. And then, the believer “feels a peace” that confirms the decision was correct, or not.
Mostly, though, it’s not about tips or tricks to hear the voice of God. Instead, churches tell the faithful that the only way to recognize God’s voice is to spend time with Him. This is known as “having a quiet time” or “doing your devotionals”—at least a half hour set aside every day to read scripture, to “bring your requests before God” and, most importantly, to just sit and listen.
The dirty little secret of evangelicalism
But here’s the dirty little secret of evangelicalism: Nobody does their quiet time—and they all feel guilty about it. They’re no different from any of us: We can’t sit still. We’ve got to be doing something. It’s the Human Condition. When we do try to sit still and just listen, all we hear is the wind-up monkey in our brain chattering away and clanging his cymbals. Was she talking about me when she said what she said the other day?
Which is why most believers just end up hearing God as they go about their day-to-day lives—and God “speaks” to them in the ways I’ve described above, never anything certain.
It would be easy to roll one’s eyes here. The truth is we’re all just using the same meager tools to muddle through life, belivers and unbelievers. That’s why, in general, believers aren’t any more successful or happy than anyone else. Believers just explain their muddling by piously reminding us, “We walk by faith, not sight.”
This was shown to me recently by—myself. I had acted less than nobly with a group of friends. For several weeks, I had been thinking, “I really need to say I’m sorry to them.” And then one day, walking home, it hit me. Eight years ago, I would have labeled that thought—“I really need to say I’m sorry to them”—as having come from God. Yet here I was, a nonreligious person, having the very same thought.
The only difference was how I labeled that thought.
Nonbelievers call it “gut instinct” or intuition—so that when they end up driving merrily the wrong way down a one-way street, they can chalk it up to their human fallibility. Believers are left to wonder, “Why would God have told me to do that?”
I must not be listening right. Yes, the fault must be mine. God loves me, after all.
Hiding in plain sight
I can see how incongruous it is now, with the benefit of years. The believer pleading for “a word from the Lord” and the Lord of love responding with . . . nothing. The atheists cry, “That’s because He doesn’t exist, you dope!”
I don’t buy it. To me, God seems to be the most plausible answer to the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Seems to me the atheists set up a straw man of the interventionist God—a God we all know in our heart of hearts doesn’t exist—and tear it to pieces. Makes them feel smart, sure, but it doesn’t say anything at all about the God we actually have.
The God we actually have doesn’t intervene. He hides in plain sight.
“So what use is God?” the atheist sneers, to which I respond, “God has to be of some use to you in order to be God?”
We can’t put God in our pocket and whip Him out like a Jonny Quest Decoder Ring when we get in a pinch. No matter how much we plead to God for direction, all we get is . . . silence. He’s hands off.
Which might sound heartless to some. Not to me. The heartless thing would be to tease us with inklings and images—quips on the radio and obtuse slogans on billboards. Indeed, the heartless thing would be for God to act the way most believers assume He acts.
Bottom line, God is silent and invisible—but that’s no cause for panic in the streets. The heartening news is we don’t need Him to succeed. We’ve been doing it since we dragged our knuckles on the ground. We’re pretty clever, and we have each other to lean on. Working together, we always come up with great solutions that we never could have dreamed of before. God expects us to figure out this random, chaotic universe on our own, much the same way He leaves us to find the cure for cancer ourselves and do our taxes on our lonesome. Let’s not look to God for the answers we need. Let’s listen to ourselves.