Whoosh. I snatch the frisbee out of the air and toss it back across the grass. I love frisbee; the mad dash across the lawn to reach it, the simple satisfaction of catching a difficult toss. Thunk. I take a breath and grip the disc like a lifeline.
I want a lifeline because, prosaic as it might sound, I am learning that life and love and faith are not as simple as catching a frisbee. I’m stuck in the midst of a decision: whether or not to spend the next few months teaching English in Vietnam with my boyfriend. We have connections there, we’ve been wanting to travel together for a while and we are a couple of free-as-birds post-grads, so it seems like a no-brainer.
Hearing specific answers from God is not the main event of faith. It is supplemental to what really matters: a personal relationship with Jesus that informs our everyday lives.
Unfortunately, I can’t get myself to feel good about the decision to go. This is why I’ve asked a friend whose faith I respect if they’ll play frisbee and dialogue with me about understanding how God speaks. Faith, at this moment, feels like a foreign language that I need an interpreter to navigate. What does God want, for me to go or not to go to Vietnam? That is the question.
I grew up among Christians who scoffed at the idea that God might speak with a specific, discernible voice. So, I have a very difficult time feeling confident about discerning God’s will for my life. It turns out that there are quite a few others who feel this way too, since one of the most commonly Googled questions about God and faith is this: “How does God speak to us?”
Dallas Willard, American philosopher and author, wrote in his 1999 book Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God, that “In many cases, our need to wonder about or be told what God wants in a certain situation is nothing short of a clear indication of how little we are engaged in His work.” Ouch. So the fact that I’m in crisis about this decision means that I’m not engaging with God?
Well, not quite. Willard is trying to convey something a little more subtle, something those of us who frequently ask the question “What is God saying to me?” could stand to ponder.
Willard’s book Hearing God is about living a life that harmonizes with God’s voice. To Willard, it is less about what you’re hearing from God and more about how you’re living with Him. He writes, “In our attempts to understand how God speaks to us and guides us we must, above all, hold on to the fact that learning how to hear God is to be sought only as a part of a certain kind of life, a life of loving fellowship with the King and His other subjects within the kingdom of the heavens.”
So, hearing specific answers from God is not the main event of faith. It is supplemental to what really matters: a personal relationship with Jesus that informs our everyday lives. Willard is saying that when you’re in close relationship with God, you don’t need to constantly ask, “What are you saying, God?” because you’re already attuned to Him.
Or, at least, that’s the idea. Obviously, that’s easier said than done. Attaining this kind of closeness with the Lord is the work of a lifetime: the race worth running. Please don’t take my pontification on the subject as indication of any kind of mastery in this area. I have just had occasion to realize, in the last 6 months or so, how prone I am to seeking God’s voice only when I’m in a quandary. Willard’s observations convict me because, with this Vietnam thing, I think I’ve been focused on getting an answer from God more than developing a relationship with Him.
In fact, I have coined a term for this phenomenon. I call it “the groundhog effect,” (patent pending), because my tendency is only to poke my head out of the dirt when I’m in dire straits. Otherwise, I’m content to tunnel my complacent, myopic way through the dark. Or, as Willard puts it, “Our failure to hear His voice when we want to is due to the fact that we, in general, do not want to hear it, that we want it only when we think we need it.”
We all do this, asking specific questions of God when we’re flummoxed. We seek His will when we’re trying to decide who to marry, maybe, or when we get a job offer. And then we want God to speak—and enunciate clearly—so that we can get back to the real business of our lives. That’s a bit harsh, I know. But sometimes the question “How does God speak to us?” presumes that God will make a cosmic entrance and deposit an answer at our feet about one particular dilemma.
And that’s not the kind of God I want to worship. When it comes down to it, I don’t want an answer FedEx-ed to my door. I want the sweat and the strain of a real relationship with Jesus, answers or no answers.
I catch the frisbee for the last time and my friend and I walk back. I remain muddled, but as we talk I can sense some order taking shape in my thoughts, beyond the confusion. I am realizing that I am desperate—for my romantic relationship to be successful and to feel like a bold, adventure-taking kind of person. Neither of which sounds like someone prioritizing her relationship with God, and both of which are exacerbating the groundhog effect in my life.
So, I decided not to go to Vietnam, finally sensing that it wasn’t God’s best for me. It was heart-wrenching but it also felt right. And then, soon after, I found myself giving up my relationship too—even more heart-wrenching. The things I was desperate for ended up evaporating from my grasp.
And a few months down the line, I am still mulling over the words of Dallas Willard. He writes, “An obsession merely with doing all God commands may be the very thing that rules out being the kind of person that He calls us to be.” For a while, I was so preoccupied with figuring out God’s exact directive for me that I forgot about the kind of person I think He wants me to be: aware of her worth, kind—to myself and to others, and open to the stirring of the Holy Spirit.
It is this kind of person that emerges within us when we learn to pursue our relationship with God above all else.
And if you’ve been experiencing the groundhog effect lately, don’t hesitate to return to relationship with the one who made you. In His presence there is freedom, and when you ask “to go or not to go?” this relationship will sustain you until you swipe an answer from the air.