The problem with letting people speak for God

by Kristin on April 17, 2009

in Belief, doubt & hope

Photo by sectionz

I love the stories people share on my blog. Some of them are heartbreaking, though, and burrow their way into me. Here’s one that a reader named Keren left on April 9, in response to my post Go ahead: Ask me about my divorce:

I left my husband of 4 and a half years after putting up with physical and emotional abuse (which started with him punching me on our honeymoon) and then deciding that I’d rather kill myself than live with him any longer. As a very staunch fundamentalist Christian (at the time) it was the very hardest decision I have ever made in my life. I just knew that I didn’t want to have children with him and make their lives hell too.

My family were utterly devastated, and my parents and several siblings didn’t speak to me for two years. That all happened five years ago, and I’m slowly patching things up with my family, but it’s taking a long time. I’m no longer a christian – the idea of worshipping the God that my parents worship is repugnant to me. Their religion meant that they turned their backs on me at a time when I desperately needed their love and support, and I don’t know that I’ll ever completely get over that.

In my response to Keren, I told her this: “As a Christian, perhaps nothing makes me more angry than Christians using their religion as an excuse to treat others unjustly, void of the love or compassion that Jesus modeled every day. When those Christians are your family and friends, it’s horrific.”

Changing how we listen instead of how they speak

I can’t stop thinking about this story. I know there are scores of others who have had similar experiences with Christians, and have reacted, understandably, by rejecting their faith and even God. Sometimes it feels like an epidemic that’s out of control.

Sadly, I don’t think I can do much to change the perspectives of judgmental Christians. Partly because people are going to be sinful, plain and simple, and partly because I think I’ve been given a different mission: to help shift the perspective of those being judged and hurt.

I was one of those judged people who almost walked away from God and the church. Here are the two things I think were at the root of my confusion, and here’s what I’ve gradually learned (and am still learning).

Only God can truly speak for God

The first is that I was giving God’s people too much power and authority to speak for God. We so desperately want to understand God, and hear him, that we’re often quick to personify him—to imagine him embodied in a certain pastor or parent or Christian author.

It’s easy to reach a point where we’ve allowed a certain, outspoken and bold group of people to become the CEO and executive board of God’s corporation. Where does that leave God? He becomes sort of a mascot, or a brand for the corporation—he’s the face of the corporation, and he represents the company’s mission statement, but he doesn’t really have authority.

I completely understand where Keren is (although I want to be clear that in my case, it wasn’t my family who turned their backs on me, and I wasn’t in an abusive marriage). But Keren is allowing messed up humans to be God’s spokespeople. As much as I’m tempted to devote my life to putting all of these loud, false-speaking people in their place, I think sometimes it’s even more important to adjust how we listen than to change how they speak.

There is no such thing as a “perfect person” mold

The second issue I needed to work through was my understanding of what God wants from me, and who he wants me to be. This is closely related to the first issue, and the tendency we have to want to personify God, and to understand him in terms of how we understand people. We think he wants us to be who our parents want us to be, or some shiny, perfect, fake pastor somewhere.

I spent many, many years thinking, perhaps subconsciously, that God wanted me to be a certain type of person. I thought I was supposed to toil away, year after year, to become this very specific ideal person. I also sort of thought that God had the same general “ideal person” mold in mind for all of us. We were supposed to squeeze ourselves into it, as best we could, even if that meant chopping ourselves up and leaving out certain parts of who we were.

When I was about to walk away from my faith, I knew two things very clearly: One, there was no way I was able to be THAT person, no matter how hard I tried; and two, I didn’t even want to try, because I was pretty sure I would be miserable being THAT person (if it was even possible to get close).

I now think this view is absolutely wrong. That person you are? Your weaknesses and desires and quirks and all the things you get excited about? I believe those things are all there only because God put them there. And he’s not trying to get you to chop off all that’s perceived to be “bad.” He might want to soften and redirect it, redeem it and use it for good, but I don’t think he’s a God of amputations.

Getting to a place where I understood and really believed this was tricky. There isn’t one clear path to that freeing place, and I’m starting to think you never fully arrive.

But I do believe that when you start to embrace who you really are, God will send you signs of affirmation. For me, those signs came mostly in the form of Jason—someone who loved and miraculously fit the very person I am (see Love in unexpected places). It was God’s way of saying “I’m not disappointed in you. See? I know you and love you.”

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  • Krissy

    Thank you for posting this today. There is such truth in what you are saying and we often forget that we have the same ability to speak to God that the so called professionals have. If only, we would listen to God’s voice and not the voice of those who think they are his chosen, select spokes-people.
    I love this, “I don’t think he’s a God of amputations.”
    The same God who created us with all of our giftings and talents would not then decide to strip or cut off the very things be gave to us to fit the “ideal” of who people think we should be, but like you said, sometimes we need to be softened and smoothed to be used.

  • Meredith

    I’ve been reading your blog for awhile and while I am happy to lurk, I felt compelled to comment on this post in particular.

    I’ve never been divorced (never been married, even) but I am the child of divorce and as such grew up always feeling “outside” the Christian community for that fact. My large extended family is fairly conservatively Christian (Catholic) and when my parent’s divorced, it felt like they – and by extension me – were being judged as “sinful.” My mother tried to reconcile herself to it and find a new, supportive church community while my father left the faith. I found myself stuck in the middle.

    I’ve encountered many people who pity me for coming from a divorced home, who think I shouldn’t be allowed to fully participate in the church community because I was raised by parents who, in their minds, will go to hell for their decisions. It’s left me disdainful and distrustful of these church communities, while at the same time, I still long to belong to some kind of faith community. It often makes me feel aimless.

    My point: thank you for putting into words what so few people do: only God can speak for God and there’s no such thing as the perfect person (I’m always reminded of Matthew 7:1 and John 8:7 when I think of the “perfect” person). Reading these thoughts and this post helps remind me that I shouldn’t let my encounters with one group of people ruin my perception of the much larger Christian population. So thank you for putting words out there. It may not seem like a lot, but it does help.

  • Kelley

    I agree that only God can speak for God and I appreciate the way you address that. It is painful to see or hear of someone turning their back on God, not because of who He is, but because of sinful, flawed human beings who represent Him.

    I like the sound of the amputation line but I believe He is a God that amputates. I believe He wants to amputate the things that are displeasing to Him and harmful to us. He also prunes us so that we can continue to grow and thrive spiritually and develop into the person He has called us to be. God desires the vey best for our lives . . .
    John 15 says
    Jesus Is the Vine–Followers Are Branches
    1″ I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser.
    2″Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit.

  • Trina

    Everytime I read your posts describing aspects of your beliefs, it gives me hope for Christianity. I dont actively follow a path to God, generally due to the ‘bunk’ that surrounds it. I can see through your eyes, that need not be the case. Hmmm, things to ponder.

  • Elaine Tolsma-Harlow

    I have been pondering this over in my brain while tinkering around the house and these thoughts came to me. I was very accepting when I was told I had cancer. I accepted this was God’s plan for my life. What I had a near impossible time accepting was the chronic condition that resulted from the cancer treatments I now have & will possibly have for the rest of my life. Wether it be the failure of those around us or the failure of our bodies, there comes a time when we need to do a little wrestling with God. I ddi not walk away unscathed from wrestling God, but what I have learned is that ultimately it is not about me, but it is about Christ and his deep love for me. If his eye is on the sparrow, it must also be on me. Suffering makes us self-centric. I still struggle daily with that, but being compassionate, loving, forgiving brings it back to God. It is not just about being whole, it is about also being holy.

  • Kristin T.

    Krissy, isn’t that interesting, that we tend to see some people as closer or more connected to God because they are “professionals” or have a certain degree? Clearly some people are more learned when it comes to the Bible, and some people spend more time praying and meditating than others, but God speaks to all of us. Sometimes we just forget how to listen to him, because it seems so much easier to listen to other people.

    Meredith, I’m so glad you chose to speak up here. Your experience—particularly your sense of being shut out, and the disdain and distrust you’ve felt for the church—is exactly what compels me to write about these issues. I have to admit, most of the time I’d rather not. I’d rather write about happy, funny things, that don’t make people uncomfortable. But when I hear about where you’re at, and your longing to be a part of a church community in spite of your hurt, it gives me lots of hope.

    Kelley, you make a very good point about the pruning God does. I wrote about that very image in a post last month, “Making room for new life in an old faith.” But the way you word this does not quite line up with what I have come to learn about God: “I believe He wants to amputate the things that are displeasing to Him and harmful to us.” Maybe this is the key difference between my approach to the pruning metaphor versus the amputation metaphor: I think of pruning as something God does in my *life.* He has pruned things in my life, like harmful relationships and habits. But I think of amputation as cutting off a very part of who and what I am and was created to be. And I don’t believe he does that. Nothing about who we were created to be is “displeasing” to God. A good example might be a person’s sexuality. It can certainly be expressed in negative, harmful ways, or those energies and desires can be directed in beautiful, affirming ways. If we’ve struggled with our sexuality in the past, God doesn’t “amputate” it. He reworks and redeems it.

    Trina, finding hope and seeing beyond the “bunk”—what a great summary of what I ultimately set out to do in these posts! Thank you for recognizing that, and for letting me know that you do. :)

    Elaine, this is a great connection—”the failure of those around us” and “the failure of our bodies.” There are so many disappointing and distracting messages coming at us, whether they’re coming from people’s mouths or from within us. What’s important is that we learn to differentiate what God is saying to us, and focus in on that.

  • Scott

    I’m a bit speechless. All I can say, and it comes from the depths of my souls, is AMEN Kristin! I feel like I should say more, but you’ve said it all. God is so much more awesome than what tradition tells us. I’m just in awe. Thanks so much!

  • The Modern Gal

    Great post. Living in the South, I find myself face to face with these so-called Christians like the ones Keren was surrounded by. I found myself resenting them many, many times over because their type of Christianity just didn’t jibe with me. But, I’m learning to trust my own faith and my own belief of what being a Christian is and trying to pray for these people who do use their religion to treat others unjustly.

  • Kristin T.

    Scott, I’m so glad these words moved you and touched some deep part of you. As I mentioned in my response to Meredith, even though it’s tempting to just tell funny, happy stories, I often feel a topic like this just nagging at my soul, in a way that’s impossible to ignore. In the end, because of people like you, I’m always glad I paid attention and put down the words that needed to be written.

    Modern Gal, I have a Christian friend who’s a Yankee kid transplanted to the South. Her stories and frustrations sound very similar to yours. What you say about “learning to trust [your] own faith” is so important. I’ve noticed that confidence growing in myself these past few years. It’s a confidence that’s similar to a teenager who’s able to have their own very distinct style rather than just wearing what everyone else has determined is currently “in.” It’s so freeing, isn’t it?

  • Ron Simkins

    Hi Kristin,

    As always, I enjoyed and am challenged by your writing. This time especially referring to “The Problem with letting people speak for God.” I appreciated very much the two steps of personal growth that you shared near the end. Three comments:

    (1) As one of those “professionals” referred to in several of the responses, let me assure everyone that we are not more “holy” than others. I know many sisters and brothers with simpler, more direct, and more loving faithfulness than I have ever been able to muster even with God’s help — even though , I really care about continuing to grow. So, I would say, please never be intimidated by a “God professional,” there is no such person. Like experts in all other fields, even the most expert biblical language scholar, counselor, church administrator, meditation technicques guru, or media communicator is only an expert in that specific area, not in faithfulness to the living God. Never let any religious leader try to tell you differently. I have known many, and they have all been, like me, at best seekers for more of God, and at worst arrogant spokespersons for that which is not really God.
    (2) There is a great Rabbinic story that emphasizes your point about growing by learning to be more who you were meant to be yourself. A young Rabbi kept beating himself up because he couldn’t be more like Moses, until the wise old Rabbi said to him, “Eli, when you stand before God, God won’t ask you why you didn’t live more like Moses, God will ask you why you didn’t live more like Eli.”
    (3) I agree about not letting “experts” overwhelm us and intimidate us about what God is saying to us. But, we do have to live in a polarity that is dynamic and risky. We cannot let others speak for God as though they were God, and yet at the same time most of what God speaks to us comes through “incarnation” — ie., through people past and present including both other people and ourselves. God’s chosen method of communicating is through people. People are God’s method, means, and purpose. That is why it is so important that we push one another to both hear and speak in terms of the big picture of God who loves us enough to love us as we are, and also loves us enough to push us to keep being more the wonderful person we are made to be.

    Again, thanks Kristin for pushing all the right buttons. You often do!


  • Kristin T.

    Ron, your take on being a “God professional” (I see it in all the pastors at our church) is very refreshing. It’s one of the main reasons I came (and stayed) in this community of believers. Thank you for the honesty and humility and desire to seek for more of God. Regarding what you say about God speaking through others—yes! This is the tricky part of it all. It would be relatively easy to just tune people out and say “I’m busy listening to God.” But I know, first-hand, that “People are God’s method, means, and purpose,” as you say. For me, discerning which words are from God and which aren’t has had a lot to do with gradually better understanding who God is—through the Bible and teachings and what I believe he’s done in my life. As my understanding of God grows, my ability to identify his true voice grows, too.

  • Sam

    Kristin, I am SO GLAD to have found you. I really needed to hear this – such a powerful realization! I’ve been really struggling in the midst of a group I’ve found myself in. I think it’s important for me to be there, but it’s hard to feel like I’m a heathen, to know that I believe *so differently* even though we’re all following Jesus. I fluctuate between wanting to be like *them* (in full people-pleaser mode) and knowing that I can’t go back, I can only be who I am and who God wants & calls me to be.

  • Kristin T.

    Sam, that makes me SO glad, too! With just the little bit you’ve shared about your situation, I can completely imagine myself in it. For most of us, the people-pleaser mode has a mighty strong pull—one that we have to intentionally, consistently resist. But you’re absolutely right: “I can’t go back, I can only be who I am and who God wants & calls me to be.” And I guess that’s part of the whole point: He doesn’t create and call us to all be the same, which in my mind indicates there’s a lot less “right and wrong” and “black and white” than many people want to think.