Friday, July 15, 2005

Easy to see, hard to be

A Christian friend of mine posed a short question to me in a recent email about spiritual discernment which got me writing a response that I thought was blogworthy. Here is the question and my response:

"question for ya: how do you know when God is talking to you and telling you to do something versus your flesh?"

Personally, it's usually evident to me when I'm being motivated by the Holy Spirit versus the flesh, because of the nature of the motivation. For instance, when the motivation is centered on me, my ego, my insecurities, or my desires, then it tends to feel "fleshy", so to speak. When the motivation does not serve my own interest, but someone else, then it feels divine in origin and not generated from the cravings of my flesh.

I'll use a party that I attended last month in Los Angeles to illustrate what I mean.
In the past, my motivation for going to a party was usually something like this: I want to forget about my stressors, have a good time, see friends, and maybe meet new people. Now those can be Godly motivations. I may honestly need a break from work/ministry (ministry meaning serving others) so that I can be refreshed and continue to be a good minister. I may want to see friends to edify relationships, and build up one another in love. I may want to meet new people to broaden my perspective with new points of view, and maybe serve/minister to them.
Well, when I was in college my motivation for going to parties was mostly to serve the desires of my own flesh. I was there to feel better about me. I wanted to feel loved and attractive, and if I met anyone new, the last thing on my mind was that person’s spiritual needs. I was trying to meet attractive women, because attractive women that want to be around me, make me feel better about me. The theme here is: me, me, me… When I would go to these parties in college my flesh would be excited, but I had palpable spiritual conflict. I felt like I was doing something wrong. I could not name it, and did not want to be a prude, so I would go in defiance of that spiritual warning. In my spiritual immaturity, I was too juvenile to see that the party was not evil, it was the way I was using the party to serve my base desires that would have eventually led me to emotional emptiness.
But last week, my motivation for flying across the country for a party was not centered on me. I sacrificed the time and expense of going to LA, because my brother’s friends were throwing him a surprise party. My primary motivations were to get away to Los Angeles for a weekend to bond with both of my brothers, and to build one another up in love. I was not trying to get any “points”, and I did not go out of guilt…I went because I wanted Kacy to know that he is a valuable person who is loved so much that his friends and family would come from out of town to celebrate his birthday. Of course, my flesh did try to sneak in there still: "I better wear something nice in case there are some fly honeys at Kacy's surprise party..." (I did not say I had completely matured yet), but overall my motivation was centered in love. And the end result was fitting, because when I flew back to New Hampshire, I felt good inside about my participation, instead of that hollow feeling I felt in college when I retired from a night of serving the desires of my flesh.

I think many of our decisions and motivations clearly fall into either the fleshly or spiritual category, and there is little blurring of the line between the two: In Paul's letter to the Galatians he told the early Christians: "For the flesh lusts against the spirit and the spirit against the flesh, and these two are contrary to one another so that you do not do the things that you wish."(Gal 5:17).

Having stated the distinction between fleshly motivations and spiritual ones is sharp, I know that many times we as Christian pilgrims feel like we are looking ahead to where we should go, and what we should do, and desperately want God's guidance and don't feel that we are getting it. Should I get married? Should I start a family? Should I relocate? Should I go back to school? What does God want me to do with my life? When we ask these questions, we may honestly have no spiritual discernment about what to do. Neither choice we could make seems like it's motivated by the flesh or the spirit, but never-the-less, you have a decision to make. I felt like this when I was trying to decide what medical specialty to do my residency in. I honestly did not know if surgery was right for me, and did not have a clear feeling that my motivation to go into internal medicine, emergency medicine, or surgery was consistent with God's plan for my life. Then it dawned on me, that maybe it does not matter to God what I choose. We are, after all, beings of free will. I don’t think God wants to shape every aspect of our lives. He gave us free will to express ourselves, and be creative in life, to find our own way. Perhaps sometimes God allows us to express who we are and it is not a matter of good and evil…instead, it's a matter of apples or oranges.
When I got dressed this morning, I had a choice of putting on a green shirt versus a red shirt. Neither green nor red has any spiritual implications, and I did not consult God, about which color to wear. That would be silly. I just put on the shirt that expressed by mood this morning. I can obviously stay in fellowship with God no matter what color I wear. Likewise, there are some decisions that we make in life that seem to have weighty consequences to us, and we want God's guidance, but to God it might as well be red shirt vs. green shirt. I thought choosing surgery was the biggest decision I had ever made, so I assumed God had an opinion, but just as God's plan for my life does not depend on what I wear, his plan for my life may not require me to be a surgeon or an internist. Instead, His plan for my life may require obedience about some "small decision", like whether or not to apologize to someone or hold a patient's hand a little while after I give bad news, but that's God's unknown ethereal agenda. Isaiah 55:8-9 says: "'For my thoughts are not your thoughts nor are my ways your ways' declares the Lord. 'For as the heavens are higher than the Earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts higher than your thoughts'."
Of course, God deals with everyone on an individual basis. God may lead one person to get married, and may very well tell another person what type of shirt to wear on a particular day, but I don't believe the Holy Spirit is difficult to "hear" if you are open to the guidance. The Holy Spirit may prod one man to get married, but his flesh wants to stay unattached to play the field, so he “tunes out” the voice of God. Another man may block out a clear word from God to stay unmarried because of his self-centered desire for the validation and security of marriage. But for some, God may very well give no guidance about a decision as “important” as marriage, because for that individual the decision is a matter of personal expression, no more spiritually significant than whether he wore a red shirt or a green shirt. However, after that man gets married, his decisions regarding how he honors his marriage covenant remain important to God. God may care more that a man decided to turn down drinks at happy hour after work to spend some quality time with his spouse than He cares that the man decided to get married in the first place.
God does give us guidance when it’s necessary to point us in a certain direction. Spiritual guidance may come when there is an opportunity to be a blessing or be blessed. Likewise, spiritual guidance may come when we are being tempted by something that would lead us into personal destruction. That temptation may seem like an insignificant compromise, but God’s guidance is calibrated by his omniscience of what is ahead. For instance, it’s not that looking at pornography for a few minutes would destroy me instantly. But, pornography would pervert the way I view women, which would further distort my interactions with women, which would subsequently limit me from having rich full healthy relationships with the women in my life, which would steal a portion of the joy I should be having in life. God does not say “no”, just to say “no”, he says “no” like any father would say to protect his children from things that will hurt them when the children do not know any better.

But sometimes, I think God does not say anything, even when we really want to hear his voice. The decision feels so important to us, but His voice remains as quiet as if we were picking out a shirt to wear. All the while we are facing the decision with thoughts like” “What if I quit my job to go back school, and my financial situation changes, and I miss my payments, and…” Just as it requires faith to trust God when he leads you to do something that seems treacherous, it also requires faith to know that “His eye is on the sparrow” even when you are not discerning a clear instruction regarding a decision you have to make.

By the way, I’m not saying that you will prosper continuously in every dimension of your life when you make life-altering decisions. In fact, you may suffer trials and tribulations, even when you follow God’s leading, but “His ways our higher than our ways”, and He may be perfecting you spiritually while you suffer in the natural. Jesus Christ was led to allow himself to be beaten and crucified, but he submitted to this physical torture to fulfill a spiritual purpose that was worth enduring torture to fulfill.

So that's how I answered my friends email query. I don't think the Christian walk is hard to figure out. God's plan for our lives is not some esoteric quest. Those notions come from mythology, the astrological arts, etc.... I believe that God's plan for my life is easy to discern, but difficult to be obedient to. I make choices all the time. Many are “big” and some are “small” decisions, but the Christian walk only requires that I be sensitive to the voice of the Holy Spirit when present, not that I uncover hidden prophetic messages with trance-like meditation, incantations, and superstitious gestures. My charge as an imitator of Christ is to scrutinize my motivations, and admit when I am being led by the flesh and not by the Spirit. As I said it is easy to know the difference, because the motivations are so disparate in nature: Paul went on in his letter to the Galatians to outline the nature of fleshly motivations versus spiritual motivations: “The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law” (Gal 5:19-23).

Some decisions will have motivations rooted in the sinful nature, and some, the spiritual nature, and it won’t be hard to discern the two…but perhaps difficult to remain obedient. On the other hand, when we are facing a decision or a cross roads in life that seems big to us, and we don't get a clear word from God, I think we must have the faith to trust that God can bless us no matter what we decide. We must have the faith to know that God would never let us walk into a spiritual abyss without warning us that we were being led by the flesh into destruction. Likewise, when God urges us to do the smallest act of obedience, we also must have the faith to know that God can use a little act of obedience to change the world.

Your always discerning and occasionally obedient brother,

“Only he who believes is obedient and only he who is obedient believes.” ~Dietrich Bonhoeffer


At Tue Jul 19, 04:38:00 PM, Blogger Mr. Wilson said...

so did you wear the green shirt or the red shirt papi? everyone knows you look so much better in red, muy caliente.

on the real, its interesting that you talk about spiritual guidance and bring up the example of pornography. i can empathize with your experience of pornography as dangerous in terms of threatening how I relate to someone I would want to be build an authentic human relationships with. pornography allows me to completely use someone else. i can rationalize that they already took the picture or shot the movie and the damage has been done, that i don't purchase it and legitimize it financially, but it allows me to treat another human being like a means to an end mor my own purposes, regardless of the impact on that person's dignity. I had to determine those things as an adult. I had to determine that what was going on inside of me and my own heart. But at the same time I think about the honest curiosity I had about sex and the female body when I was a child and how my desire to satisfy that natural curiosity was considered bad. I think of the fact that if someone (parents, community, media) had not stepped in and told me that sex and nudity were bad, there wouldn't have been so much confusion and shame and thus no need to try to view pornography (which allows us to titillate ourselves without experience the shame of sexuality in front of another individual). In other words, I think the confusion we have placed on us through dogmatic sweeping judgments of things like pornography that attribute evil to inanimate things and actions, instead of communicating that the only evil is only contained in hearts and the choices we make...not in things.

As an adult I look at the ubiquitousness of pornography and pornographic content in mainstream movies, music videos, etc. as evidence of the sexual confusion we have created as a society. people no longer trust their hearts and the indwelling wisdom of the spirit to command them to make the right we look to society to determine what is acceptable. I hardly know the difference between Maxim, Playboy, and some hardcore magazine like Hustler, but they all get marketed to different segments of the population and its obvious that Maxim is much more acceptable (and has higher ad revenues) than Hustler even though the same motivations probably lie in the hearts of the readers...

interesting times we live in.


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