* Another version of this article was published some time back under another title. During prayer time today, I felt led by the Spirit to bring it forward and post it a second time. Perhaps there is someone out there who needs it.
Many times I find I have to remind myself to keep things simple when it comes to my walk of faith. I am a thinker, a questioner, and an unapologetic mystic by nature and taking things on face value is sometimes difficult for me. Still, I do need to keep ever before me the principle of simplicity and work hard to refrain from climbing aboard my train of thought when it pulls out of the station, bound for a destination I know from experience is not worth visiting.
I am fortunate and thankful that for some years now the Holy Spirit seems to be both alerting me when I am about to let my thoughts get the best of me and assisting me in refraining from doing so. I still have major problems with this but I am getting better.
In my own case, this admonition of the Spirit to keep thing simple means that I have to make every effort to not get caught up in my thinking. An old buddy of mine who has been sober in Alcoholics Anonymous for over 30 years now once told me that the most valuable lesson he learned early in his recovery was that when he was alone he was “behind enemy lines.” In some ways, I think this can be true in my case as well. I have a marked tendency to over-think things, especially spiritual issues, and, as a result, experience one of two mental states and neither is positive.
In the first case it seems that when I climb on board the train of my thought and allow it to leave the station with my ticket punched, I many times never arrive at a destination. Instead, I end up confused, frustrated, angry and, in the final analysis, spiritually paralyzed. This state of affairs makes it difficult for me to apply certain aspects of the Lord’s teaching to my daily life, which ends up making me even more frustrated.
These situations tend to occur when I become somewhat obsessed with some aspect of the Christian faith that I find especially hard to understand and/or accept. For example, I have major difficulty wrapping my mind and my heart around the whole notion of what theologians have long called the “substitutionary atonement.” This is the idea that the blood of Christ, shed on the cross at Calvary, somehow appeased a wrathful God that was more than a little ticked off with us humans because of our disobedience, otherwise known as “sin.” According to this theory, we owed God big time and, to make matters worse, there really wasn’t any way we could pay up. The only solution was for God to come down here, take on flesh, and be sacrificed in order to pay the debt.
I am well aware of all the explanations of this doctrine as well as the notion that blood sacrifice of animals was a common practice among humans since recorded history began. I am also aware that it was the central practice of the Jews. On the Day of Atonement the people brought their sacrifices into the Temple and they were offered up to God as a covering for their sins. The Old Testament is filled with the details of these sacrifices and, at least to the casual reader, they make Jehovah appear to be a barbaric tyrant whose forgiveness and clemency must be purchased with the currency of life and blood. Those who support this notion of substitutionary atonement put forth the idea that Christ was sinless and the ultimate, perfect sacrifice. His death on the cross appeased God once and for all.
I must confess that I still struggle with this teaching. I cannot fathom how God, the incomprehensible intelligence that forged this universe, would somehow be moved to mercy after a man in colorful robes and a big hat walked into the Holy of Holies and slit a lamb’s throat. Even now, after all these years of being associated with the faith, as I sit here and type this I am appalled and mystified.
My reaction to Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion” was not like most. I walked out of the theater wondering, “What kind of God would require such a hideous thing?” My conclusion was: God wouldn’t.
This is an example of how I have, with the Holy Spirit’s help, learned to put certain issues on the shelf and not waste valuable spiritual energies trying to resolve them in my own way and in my own time. In terms of the “Substitutionary Atonement,” I eventually came to a resolution on the issue and, in so doing, was able to clarify several other issues as well.
In the second case, I sometimes allow the actions and thoughts of others to drive me to distraction. For example, when a Christian leader of the fundamentalist/conservative persuasion does or says something that is patently stupid and offensive, but gets a lot of press nonetheless, it tends to get me riled up more than it should. Rather than letting this slide off my back as I should, I start over-thinking the event, ruminating on how it is these very sorts of things that gives Christianity such a bad name in our society, and just in general working myself into a lather. I especially have to struggle with this issue during election years, like this one. When the Religious Right, joined at the hip with the Republican Party, engages in dishonesty, distortion, and other forms of “less than Christ-like” behavior, all just to gain political leverage, I am disgusted and find myself wanting to flee any association with Christianity.
A prime example of this second tendency to let my mind run away with itself occurred a few years back when a very prominent Christian leader and pastor advocated “taking out” the President of Venezuela. I was mortified as were many other sincere believers. My suspicion is the Christian leader in question didn’t have his WWJD bracelet on that day.
On more than one occasion, these very sorts of happenings have nearly convinced me that it would be best if I just jettisoned Christianity altogether. I have explored many faith systems over the years and can see much benefit in many of them. When I work myself up to a near-Chernobyl state of mind over the comments or stridently-voiced opinions of a believer who thinks he or she is the final authority on God’s truth, a big part of me wants to declare myself a Buddhist and be done with it.
It would seem, however, the Hound of Heaven will not allow me to take such a course of action, no matter how much I may want to. I am, at the end of the day, eternally grateful for this. I love Christ, his mission, his Holy Spirit, and his faithfulness to me when I am far less than faithful to him. Further, I believe each of us, myself included, has a specific mission to accomplish in this life and if I, like Jonah, head in a direction other than my own revealed Nineveh, I just might end up in the belly of a whale.
I am sure some of you can’t relate to this dilemma of over-thinking things that either you can’t get your mind around or you just can’t tolerate. For you fortunate souls, all I can offer is the suggestion that you express a deep thankfulness for being so blessed. As to those of you who are afflicted as I am, I can offer the strategies that seem to work for me. I hope you find that they work for you, at least to some extent. However, I also understand that we are all wired differently and what works for me may not be your solution.
I have found that with all things it is best to begin with prayer. I ask the Lord to help me where I can’t help myself. I confess that I have major difficulty accepting certain things, or that I am angry at a Christian leader who said or did something that most civilized people would consider an affront to either reason or personal dignity. I ask for a forgiving spirit and to have the capacity to put away those aspects of the faith that I can’t understand or accept. I also ask for wisdom just in case it might be the Lord’s prerogative to give me valuable insight into the issue I am ruminating about.
After prayer, I have found that focusing on the very basic principles of my worldview is of immense help in keeping things simple on the cognitive front. In essence, what I remind myself of is those things that I do firmly hold to be true and, beyond that, give the rest to God.
Fueled by prayer, I next engage in the ongoing and often difficult process of taking every thought captive for Christ. By this I mean that I do not allow myself to get past the first one or two thoughts on one of these issues. I just shut it down, period. There are times when I will pick up a troubling issue and let my mind work on it, but these days I try to do this only by appointment. In terms of my thoughts, I now try not to accept “walk-ins.”
(c) L.D. Turner 2008/All Rights Reserved