We all start off serving God on a “give to get” basis. When we obey Him at great costs to ourselves, we naturally expect Him to reward us within the same context. If obeying Him causes us to look really stupid in the eyes of others, then we would really appreciate God rewarding us in that same context–by doing something that shuts everyone’s faces and proves that we were right. Noah looked like a lunatic when he was building the ark–but then the flood did actually happen, thus he got his “Ha, I told you so,” moment. When Daniel was chucked into the lion’s den, he got his “told you so” moment the next morning when he was still alive. When Shadrach and his friends were thrown into the fiery furnace, they got the satisfaction of God publicly exalting them by keeping them alive. Plenty of us would be willing to put it all on the line for God if we knew our earthly humiliation would end in earthly glory.
But what if it doesn’t?
God has a long history of asking His followers to look like idiots for His sake. Jeremiah had to walk around in public wearing a wooden contraption that was normally used to steer oxen that were plowing a field (see Know Your Bible Lesson 30: The Yoke of Babylon). When you see a grown man walking around in farming equipment, do you view him as spiritually sound? Ezekiel spent over a year lying in the dirt with his body bound in ropes and he claimed that it was God who was telling him to stay in his uncomfortable position (see Prophets in Action: Ezekiel & the Siege of Jerusalem). Isaiah claimed to be acting on direct orders from God when he stripped down to his birthday suit and walked around naked and barefoot for three years (see Prophets in Action: Isaiah Walks Around Naked). Jeremiah came into town one day waving a pair of rotting underwear in people’s faces and declaring that nasty, smelly rag to be God’s metaphor for His chosen people (see Metaphors from Yahweh: Rebellious Underwear). Mary made the blasphemous claim that it was God, not a man, who had gotten her pregnant. When you’re not the one with the burning convictions, it’s so easy to write other people off as delusional and tell yourself that God would never act so bizarre. But when you are the one who God is telling to do or say something crazy, and when your claims to be obeying God sound totally ludicrous in your own ears, then you find yourself giving serious thought as to what your true motivations are for obeying God.
CHECKING YOUR ASSUMPTIONS WITH GOD
Today we often measure our devotion to God by how much flak we’re willing to take for His sake. But it’s assumed that the flak will be temporary, and in the end it has to be publicly demonstrated that God was really on your side, otherwise you’re not going to get any points from other Christians for “suffering for Christ.” If you build an ark and no flood comes, then Christians are going to write you off as delusional. If you prophesy the destruction of a city within a specific timeframe only to have it remain standing strong—which is what happened to Jonah—then people will assume you got your wires crossed. Maybe you did. Maybe you have been totally wrong in your assumptions about what God was telling you to do, and maybe what you thought was His conviction was really just your own desires talking. If this is the case, you certainly wouldn’t be the first.
Every Christian makes countless mistakes in the process of learning to recognize God’s Voice. If you’re going to get better at discernment, you have to be willing to hear God tell you that you were wrong when you thought you were right. You can’t just go by how you feel, because your emotions will deceive you. Our personal hopes, fears, and issues play a big role in causing us to want God to lead us in certain directions. When we really want to believe something is true, it’s easy to close our minds to the pride-bashing possibility that we were just straight up wrong. If we’re going to grow, we need to be willing to hear pride-grinding truths—not from mocking people, but from God Himself. So don’t be too hasty to rule out the possibility that you could have misinterpreted God’s will. But also don’t rule out the possibility that you were correct in interpreting His will, because that is a very common occurrence as well.
Whenever obeying God results in a mess, you need to get people out of your face and get alone with God so that you can review the sequence of events in your own mind. Be open to God correcting one or more of the assumptions you made along the way. Reviewing the situation with God is important because it affects the kinds of lessons you need to be learning. If you have misinterpreted His will, then there are principles about discernment which He’ll be teaching you along with other things. If you were correct in interpreting what He wanted you to do, then the extra lessons will not be about discernment, but about the wildness of God.
In the world today, there are many souls who are putting themselves through all kinds of misery out of a sincere desire to please God (see Relating to God: Recognizing the Trap of Symbolic Pain). Regardless of how flawed their theology is, their hearts are certainly in the right place, and that must not be minimized. When in doubt, airing on the side of honoring God is always the best choice.
Now because every Christian starts off with many wrong assumptions about what kinds of things God might want from them, sincere Christians have to do a lot of learning and course correcting as they mature. God is a positive, encouraging Teacher who brings the lessons to us in manageable chunks.
Your beliefs about God act like a kind of mental filter. When God says something to you that you don’t believe He would say, your instinct is to reject the conviction as invalid. When God or demons say something to you which does fit within your theological expectations, then you are far more likely to accept that message, act on it, and resist seeing any error in it. This is why it is so important that you be open to God pointing out errors in your thinking. If you aren’t open to being corrected by Him, then you’re going to end up stuck in a bad place. For example, Joe is a murderer who has been wrongly taught that God considers Joe’s actions to be unforgivable (see Understanding Unpardonable Sins: Lies vs. Truth). If Joe refuses to hear God correct his wrong beliefs, then Joe is going to remain bogged down in despair and condemnation. When Joe’s soul hears God say “I love you” or “I’ve already forgiven you,” Joe will immediately reject these positive messages because they conflict with Joe’s core beliefs. In this scenario, Joe is clinging to lies and rejecting truth.
Rejecting positive, life-changing truths about God in order to keep clinging to false beliefs is an extremely common issue among souls who sincerely care about pleasing God. Complicating matters even further is that so many humans are putting out wrong teaching about God. This is why you can’t just believe what you’re taught by humans, nor should you just accept criticism about your actions that another human gives you. But while you’re being very guarded with humans, you need to be totally receptive to anything God wants to say to you, no matter how much it might conflict with your current beliefs about Him. You simply won’t realize you’re wrong about something until God tells you, and when you’ve spent years thinking a certain way, it’s always an unsettling experience to find out that you were wrong.
IF IT TURNS OUT YOU WERE WRONG…
Now suppose God makes it clear to you that you were wrong in your assumptions about what He wanted. In such situations, you want to learn whatever new insights God is teaching you that will help you not make the same mistake in the future. Perhaps there is a core belief about God which needs to be revised—like our friend Joe, who needs to unlearn the lie that murder is an unpardonable sin. Or perhaps God wants to teach you a new principle of discernment. Whatever God wants to teach you, remember that God judges you by your soul’s intentions. God never gets angry with souls who sincerely care about pleasing Him, regardless of how confused they are about what He wants. Don’t mistake God’s educational convictions as a heap of angry criticism, because that’s not what they are (see Conviction Q&A). Remember that it is always a good thing when God teaches us, because giving us deeper understanding about spiritual things is one of the ways He draws us closer in.
For those of you who fall into this first group, you need to see this whole experience as a fabulous learning opportunity. There are some very beneficial insights God wants to teach you, and you want to be an eager learner. But while you’re learning new insights, it’s equally important that you realize how pleased God is with souls who sincerely care about pleasing Him. Okay, so you made a mess trying to do the right thing. But the truth is that you were trying to please God, and because of this, you are in a fabulous place with Him. God gladly receives all sincere gifts of love from us, and He gently corrects us when we’re giving Him things that He doesn’t really want. So realize that your intentions are fully appreciated, even if your execution was flawed. With God, it’s not what you do that matters, but why you’re doing it. Souls who have a more advanced understanding of truth don’t have any advantage over you when it comes to pleasing God. When you sincerely want to please God, you are pleasing Him. The more He teaches you, the better you will understand how easy He is to succeed with, and this will result in all kinds of soul peace.
IF IT TURNS OUT YOU WERE RIGHT…
Now suppose it turns out that you weren’t wrong in your interpretation of what God wanted. Suppose, like naked Isaiah, you were totally correct in hearing God telling you to do something that other Christians would consider ludicrous. Now you’ve done it, and since things didn’t turn out the way you expected they would, you feel embarrassed, confused, flustered, and betrayed. In your case, the lessons are different than they are for souls who were honestly confused about what God wanted. For souls in your position, there are usually two main sources of angst: smarting pride and a fear that perhaps you and God aren’t as solid as you thought you were.
When Yahweh called Ezekiel to function as His prophet, Yahweh caused Ezekiel’s tongue to stick to the roof of his mouth so that Ezekiel couldn’t speak between prophecies. When Yahweh wanted to speak through Ezekiel, He’d unfasten Ezekiel’s tongue. But the rest of time, if Ezekiel tried to talk, he’d sound like an incoherent doofus. Go ahead: try to say “Serving God is fun” with your tongue flattened against your upper palate. It doesn’t sound so good, does it?
Whenever you find yourself getting ticked by the cost of serving God, the limits of your devotion to Him are being revealed. As unpleasant as these revelations are, they’re actually a very good thing. In the process of maturing us, God pushes us up against limits we have in our relationship with Him until those fences are flattened and we advance into new territory. You will find this pattern occurring in every area of your relationship with God: your trust, your reverence, your submission, etc.. When it comes to the area of serving God, there are all kinds of fences standing that you’re not even aware of until you suddenly find yourself pressed up against one of them.
Let’s take this idea of you being upset because God made you look like an idiot in the eyes of other people. What law is God breaking by doing this? Since when is He wrong to leave you hanging out to dry? He’s not wrong, because as the Sovereign Creator, God gets to do whatever He wants. This is one of the really frustrating realities about dealing with a God who is accountable to no one: you can’t call Him out on anything because He isn’t bound by any rules. God doesn’t owe us anything, He doesn’t have to play nice, He doesn’t have to care about our feelings, and He doesn’t have to defend us. As easy as it is to say we’ll do anything for God, it’s seriously bitter to realize that we have no basis on which we can demand anything in return for our service. As creatures of God, we are quite literally His property, and He can do anything with us that He wants.
Now this business about God not being bound by any moral code both enrages and scares us. We humans resent having all of the obligations and rules on our side, while God has no obligation to reward or even appreciate the things we try to do for Him. And while the fact is that God does generously reward those who sincerely care about pleasing Him, He doesn’t have to, and this is a very important distinction.
In this world, if you go out of your way to be really kind to someone, you expect something in return. If all that person gives you is a bunch of rude attitude, then you feel like you’ve been treated very unjustly. Because God commands humans to love each other, you have grounds for accusing another human of falling short in his moral duty towards you. But while God commands you to love Him with all that you are, He never said He’s obligated to love you back. He says He chooses to love you—and that choice has nothing to do with obligation. God expresses His love for you in ways that He prefers, and often His preferences are quite different than yours. So while God is indeed a very good, kind, and generous Creator, He does not allow us to dictate the ways in which He will express those qualities.
To get out from under the stress of looking like a fool for God, you need to start with remembering that God judges you by your motivations. When you know that you were sincerely trying to please Him, then you can know that He is pleased with you, and that gives you something positive to stand on. As for the messy fallout, here is where your challenge is to face the real source of your upset. There is no way that Isaiah felt comfortable dropping his drawers for Yahweh. Isaiah was human like the rest of us, and he lived in a society where it was considered very shameful, humiliating and perverse to walk around in one’s birthday suit. So what keeps a man from running back home and putting his tunic back on before God gives him permission to do so? The only way we can persist in such assignments is to focus on the underlying issue of our devotion to God. How limited is it going to be? Are we only going to serve God as long as He’s giving us cushy assignments or are we going to reach for a deeper level of commitment? There’s no doubt that Isaiah’s personal commitment to Yahweh was much deeper at the end of his three year naked assignment than it was at the beginning. To continue obeying God under such humiliating circumstances, a man has to do immense wrestling with his pride and decide to keep stripping away the conditions that are attached to his obedience to God. Isaiah chose to keep obeying Yahweh in the face of great embarrassment, mean gossip, public mockery, and probably a good deal of physical abuse. Being a married man with kids, Isaiah’s obedience to God would have put great strain on his relationships with his loved ones as well.
There’s nothing fun about pushing out the limits of our devotion to God. Those limits exist for reasons which we feel are very important, and we don’t want to let them go. But the more we keep saying “yes” to God’s convictions, and the longer we choose to keep obeying Him despite the mess that it’s getting us into, the deeper our commitment to Him becomes.
Submission is a soul attitude which says “Not my will, but Yours be done.” Submission is one of the foundational pillars on which intimacy with God is built. Nothing strengthens submission like God pinning you into a situation where you have to practice cooperating with an agenda that you intensely hate. And yet it is through the development of submission that we end up better positioned to correctly relate to God.
We often say that relating to God requires a different approach than relating to humans. It’s a different dance, with different steps and different rules. Overdoing your submission to humans will only result in a dysfunctional, abusive relationship. It is only in your relationship with your own Creator that total submission becomes an appropriate and necessary goal. We aren’t going to get far with God by trying to control His behavior towards us, or by trying to reserve a long list of rights for ourselves. By presenting us with pride-grinding assignments, God eases us into the right position with Him.
Now while difficult assignments challenge our submission to God, they are also very good at bringing our underlying insecurities to light. Is God really good? Does He really care about you specifically? Can He be trusted? Is He really wise? These are critical questions which every Christian needs to be asking at some point. But asking such fundamental questions scares us, because we’re afraid of receiving answers that are different than we hope for. To help us find the courage to face just how insecure we really are in our relationships with Him, God will sometimes push us into messes which will drag our deepest insecurities and fears about Him to the surface. See if you can summarize your current stress with a series of questions that will reflect your unresolved concerns about God. Creating such a list can be very useful, and it will help you understand part of why God has dragged you into this mess. It will also help you identify the kinds of specific issues God is currently working on with you.
In the process of spiritual maturity, God dredges up the fears we have about Him and resolves them in ways that only He can. When large amounts of time pass between the first and second step, great disillusionment occurs as we fearfully conclude that God will never get around to fully resolving our fears. And yet the truth is that He will—just not according to our timetable.
With God, we eventually learn that all of the negative experiences He leads us into are strategically designed to greatly benefit us if we are willing to listen to Him. The longer we walk with God, the more we realize that “God is good” is far more than a Christian cliché or a secret hope that all humans are carrying with them. The Creator and Sustainer of all life really is good—far more so than we even dream. When we are receptive to His guidance, He leads us on to abundant peace, joy, and rest. Obeying Him is always the right choice.