Tyler Wigg-Stevenson: "What does the shape of my service look like? If I cannot save the world, what can I do in it?"
Excerpted from The World Is Not Ours to Save: Finding the Freedom to Do Good
By Tyler Wigg-Stevenson (IVP)
A 2014 OUTREACH RESOURCE OF THE YEAR
FEAR GOD: GETTING GOD RIGHT
Christian activism is grounded in claims about God. It’s about how we understand our role in God’s will being done “on earth, as it is in heaven.” Different theologies give us different pictures of our relationship to the manifest will of God, ranging from the hands-off “let go and let God” approach, to that of human beings as “co-creators” of the kingdom alongside the divine.
The way we understand the relationship between God and our earthly work matters a great deal. After all, in Christian activism we can’t be pure pragmatists, saying that situation X would be materially better if we employ solution Y. No, we are making assertions about the intention of the Creator of the universe—a rhetorical trump card if ever there was one. So Christian activism does not merely invoke the will of God; it is equally a witness to it. And telling the truth about God—in biblical parlance, not taking God’s name in vain—is a fearful, weighty matter.
Two perils of the activist spirit are that we will get ourselves or the world wrong, as the previous chapters caution against. But it is far worse if our activism offers an incorrect or even false testimony about God. When we are trying to save the world, it is an all-too ready temptation to search for a God who will validate our preexisting purposes—a sort of cosmic Fix-it Man. The misrepresentation is seldom willful; I don’t know any Christian activists who intentionally misuse God’s name willy-nilly. But I think a great many of us frequently speak about God, in relation to our work, in ways that domesticate the divine to our earthly causes.
What does it look like to correct this distortion? We need to remember that God defines, rather than supports, our positions. And this requires coming to terms, as best we can, with who God is and what God’s purposes are. The results are profoundly uncomfortable. Not for nothing does the Bible speak of the “fear and trembling” accompanying true faith. This fear of God is precisely what must be recovered for Christian activism to be faithful.
The God on My Leash
The 19th-century philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach theorized that we make our own gods by worshiping a projection of ourselves. This, he said, is why god is so powerful. Feuerbach was wrong about God, but right about us. How often and in what ways do we worship a version of God that confirms what we think and validates who we think we are?
The danger for those who care about causes is that God winds up playing the role of the parent—“because I told you so!”—when we get tired of making our case. For example, it’s easy to talk about God as a God of justice and peace or as a God who loves families. I happen to think these statements are true. But they’re also a good deal more complex than we often allow.
For example, God the lawgiver gave the Israelites ample instructions about how to treat their slaves—but didn’t prohibit them from having them in the first place. God brings shalom, peace, but God is also a warrior who commands the angelic hosts, killing entire cities and armies in one stroke. Yes, family seems to be the basic unit of created human community, but the rampant polygamy in the Old Testament is not always condemned. Also, Jesus seems fairly clear in his replacement of biological ties with the bonds of faith, as is Paul’s Spirit-inspired directive that celibacy is somehow superior to marriage.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe that Christian ethical teaching permits slavery, loves war or allows polygamy. But don’t we often invoke God as if the divine purposes line up perfectly behind the moral sensibilities of our culture? A god I can lead around on a leash isn’t much of deity. To fasten that chain around his neck I have to shrink him down to a manageable size. The fundamental dilemma here is that (a) God cannot be leashed, which means (b) that the scrawny little rodent I’ve got collared to my agenda is not, in fact, God, and worst of all, (c) the real Deity is standing right behind me and is not super thrilled with my dancing monkey-god show.
The alternative is the “God of the Bible.” But invoking that phrase doesn’t end discussion. Usually when people use that term they mean the God they think is in the Bible, which of course misses the whole point. None of us has a lock on “the biblical God.” Engaging the living God of Scripture is a daunting and always dynamic task, worthy of fear and trembling and most of all humility. God can always show up and prove us wrong, after all.
A couple years after the voice in the stairwell saying, The world is not yours, not to save or to damn. Only serve the one whose it is, I still didn’t understand this. As a peace activist and a novice Christian, I was still trying to put God in the box that validated the anti-nuclear positions I already held. I’ll ruin the ending for you and say that God does, in fact, hate nuclear weapons. But this is a wildly different thing than God supporting my anti-nuclearism. Ponder Joshua, who asked the angel standing in front of him if he was for the Israelites or their enemies and got the response, “No, I am the commander of the army of the Lord” (Josh. 5:14, paraphrase). It took me a while to get it.
After I heard the voice of God, I chased this unknown “one whose the world is” into seminary study, where I began reading the Bible. The stories that were old hat to my classmates were new and wonderful to me, with all their shine and sharp edges intact. Though it was a long time ago, I still remember the first time I read the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree (Mark 11:12-14, 20-21): Jesus is hungry, and this fig tree has leaves but no fruit for him to eat, so he curses it, and it dies. I remember that it felt shocking and arbitrary and kind of sad. I was sorry for the fig tree, and I tried to think up ways that the episode might mean something other than exactly what it means. Surely God is too tenderhearted for such an act.
I still knew very little about God.