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Wednesday, August 19, 2015

This is what a "personal relationship with God" looks like. Be very afraid.

"Well I am starting to pray every second of every day, so yeah it's getting pretty serious." Image source.

So I came across this article from 2014: We Were Praying at an Abortion Clinic When, an Abortion Center Owner Came Out. It's from the pro-life site LifeNews, one of those good Christian organizations which shows its love for Jesus and unborn babies by bearing false witness.

I'm pro-choice, but in this blog post I'm not going to talk about the pro-life/pro-choice stuff. I'm writing about that linked article because it does a really good job showing what a "personal relationship with God" looks like. And makes me really glad I'm no longer in that kind of relationship.

So, my background: I grew up evangelical. I was taught that being a Christian meant having a personal relationship with God. When I was in college, I was "on fire for God"- obsessed with praying and obeying God, passionate about evangelism, starting bible studies for my non-Christian friends, all that stuff. I loved God- or at least, that particular version of God.

I read this LifeNews article, and it sounds SO MUCH like the way I used to think. I never did any pro-life activism (but of course I held the correct pro-life stance that Real True Christians must have)- maybe for me, the equivalent would have been evangelism. But the way I thought about God was the same.

(I guess I should put a disclaimer here: maybe "have a personal relationship with God" means something different to other Christians? I'd be interested to hear if my readers have experience with a "personal relationship with God" that was completely different than mine.)

The article illustrates these 5 aspects of having a "personal relationship with God":

1. Everything is a big huge deal.

Okay, so let me summarize the article first: The writer, who lives in Alabama, was visited by her mother, who lives in Mississippi. The two of them went to stand outside a Planned Parenthood and pray- for the end of legalized abortion, obviously. Later that day, after they had left Planned Parenthood and were just hanging out, they happened to see a woman who is apparently known as "the abortion queen" because she owns several abortion centers.

That's it. That's all of the action that happens in this article. Except that the writer made it into a HUGE DEAL:
This is no coincidence; this is the work of an intentional God who collides our prayers with the politics we didn’t even know were there.

...

I wondered immediately if God wanted me to go up and talk with her. She had another woman with her in the vehicle that looked a lot like her, too. Through rushed praying, I asked Him, “Why did you want me to see her? What do you want me to do?” I couldn’t understand why He had me run into her. All I could do was pray—and that is just what He wanted.

...

There was no denying God was sounding an alarm and a warning somehow.
Having a personal relationship with God means looking for God in EVERY SINGLE MUNDANE THING that happens to you. You pray constantly and you believe that God really does work in the world and affect the things in your life.

Basically, the writer happened to see someone whom she knew of and had prayed for (prayed for her to see the error of her abortion-ways, obviously), and OH MY GOODNESS THIS IS SUCH A BIG DEAL, this is the hand of God working. Clearly God had caused this to happen, this is a big important moment full of action.

I can totally relate to the "rushed praying" and asking God "What do you want me to do?" My heart used to beat faster and I prayed frantically when I sensed there might be an "opportunity to share the gospel."

And the way I had to overanalyze everything. Everything had a deep supernatural meaning. I prayed for answers constantly.

It's so much stress, living that way.

2. Everything is a battle.

A few more fun phrases that the article uses:
so that I can pray with a target in sight and for exact precision

...

prayer siege

...

Jesus moved in power in my dream and showed me the victory that had been won; that any “power” that comes against Him is feeble and weak.
When you have a personal relationship with God, he sends you to fight against the forces of evil in the world. The battle is happening all around us, and we are God's strong warriors, using prayer as a weapon, valiantly standing up for our faith.

Furthermore, people and events aren't just people and events- they're symbols in the spiritual battle. Notice the way the writer talked about "the abortion queen"- she isn't treated as an actual human being with a complex life, but as a symbol of the evil spiritual forces that brought legalized abortion into reality.

Again, it's so stressful to live this way constantly. Back when I did it, it was so exciting and I felt like my life had so much amazing purpose. I was on a mission from God! But it was so hard on me, always having to be on guard and fighting.

3. Reality isn't the REAL reality.

In this belief system, there is a complex spiritual world that exists alongside the physical world, and the spiritual world is more real and more true than the physical one. In the physical world, we can sometimes see small signs of what's going on in the spiritual world (see point number 1 "everything is a big huge deal").

Therefore, even though we can observe what's happening in the physical world, we can't necessarily take it as a sign that this is truly the way things are. Take a look at this excerpt from that fun article:
With this news [an anti-abortion law had been struck down], my heart was in distress. My former and my current home states had politically ruined a seed of hope for diminishing abortion in our nation within days of each other. Then God reminded me of the orchestrated occurrences of my mom coming to pray from Jackson, the running into the sole owner of Mississippi’s last abortion center, and the dream where I battled and won. Politics is a thermometer, but it’s not what Heaven sees. God’s power is above politics, above the language and rulings of this world. His power will have the final word.
The writer sees that the pro-life cause has suffered a defeat in the legal system, but she doesn't consider this to be an actual indicator of how things are going in the battle over abortion. To her, the real truth is in the sign God had given her- which, remember, was "running into the sole owner of Mississippi’s last abortion center" and then having a dream about it. This showed that God was still working (toward ending abortion, obviously) and that in the future, there would be victories for the pro-life side.

Let's take a moment to recap. Of these two things- a law which would affect thousands of people, and you personally seeing an abortion center owner getting into her car- which is more important? The writer has attached all kinds of deep spiritual meeting to the second one, so clearly that is more important, clearly that is a better reflection of the REAL reality.

I'd like to point out how self-centered this all is. When you believe that you personally have a close relationship with God, and every mundane event in your life is micromanaged by God, it's really difficult to expand your view to include other people (or to see them as more than soldiers on one side or the other in the great spiritual war). All that matters is you and God.

And the other fun part about not believing the reality you see is that results don't matter. Let's say you do XYZ because you believe that God wants you to. And then XYZ fails horribly. Or at least, from a human point of view, it failed, but in truth it was exactly what God intended. See how this works? Within this ideology, it's incredibly difficult to actually evaluate your actions and stop doing things that don't work or are clearly harmful.

4. My random thoughts are SO INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT. 

The writer describes the dream she had, the night after her HUGELY IMPORTANT encounter with "the abortion queen" (ie she saw her on the street and didn't actually interact or anything). In the dream, she meets "the abortion queen", and then prays so amazingly that "the abortion queen" is rendered speechless.

The writer says that this dream is a sign of God's power (and obviously God opposes "the abortion queen" and sees her as a symbol of evil).

Apparently this dream- and all the other thoughts that ran through her head and were supposedly from God- are so important that it's worth writing up a whole article about it and publishing it on the internet.

This is how it was back when I had a personal relationship with God. I assumed that "God speaking to me" would mean a random thought just popped into my head, with no obvious source. Of course, then there's the discussion to be had about how to determine if a thought is really from God or not- which was a very important question for me back then. And if I concluded that some thought was from God, yeah of course I would tell my close friends about it. And they believed me. Because we lived in an evangelical Christian culture where it was assumed that God regularly spoke to us all in that way.

Living this way meant I prayed constantly, asking God the same question over and over again (usually about if a particular crush was THE ONE GUY that God had destined for me), and meticulously analyzing every thought that ran through my head to see if any of them were an answer from God. Or maybe I prayed asking God what to do in a particular situation, and then analyzed whatever suggestions came to mind. And when I analyzed them, the question of "is this realistic? will is work?" was not the biggest concern. (It mattered, but other things were more important.) Remember, reality isn't the REAL reality.

I would get so nervous when I thought of an idea which I TOTALLY didn't want to do, and then I'd have to decide if this was a message from God- if so, I would need to obey. In that LifeNews article, the writer says "I wondered immediately if God wanted me to go up and talk with her." I can relate to that feeling of panic.

5. I assume God agrees with me.

There are so many assumptions about God that need to be made in order to write an article like this. God wants abortion to be illegal. God is in favor of any and all legislation that bans abortion or restricts access to abortion. God speaks to us through mundane events in our lives, and through dreams and random thoughts that pop into our heads. I saw this person on the street and it can't be a coincidence, it must be a message from God.

After all these assumptions are made, the real question is, as the writer says, "Why did you want me to see her?" That's the issue that this article is addressing. There is no indication that the writer is even aware of all the assumptions she makes about the nature of God.

That's how it works when you have a personal relationship with God. You know God's opinion all the relevant political issues and spiritual questions, and you pray for things consistent with those opinions. And God sends you to help fight the battles.

You live as if this is all true, and the spiritual interpretations you invent for the everyday happenings in your life are evidence that yes, this is the way God is. It's so hard to get out of that way of thinking. It's so hard to even imagine a God who doesn't agree with opinion ABC, because you are constantly seeing little signs from the "spiritual world" that confirm it.

This ideology colors your interpretation of everything that happens.

In the past few years, I've changed a lot of my beliefs. But this means I can no longer have a "personal relationship with God". That God I had a personal relationship with, the one I was so close to- he (yes, he) had very firm opinions about those things. I couldn't imagine God changing his beliefs. So I can't work with him anymore.

And I don't want to make the same mistake again- invent a new God and assume that one agrees with me about everything.

But I don't think possible to be close to someone- to communicate with them and work together- without some understanding of what beliefs they would hold on the topics you communicate about. Without some assumption that you have common ground to start from. Is it even possible for a person to be "close to God"?

Image source.

I'm so glad I'm out of that relationship, you guys. I'm so glad I don't have to live with the constant stress and excitement of living in a spiritual war. I'm so glad I don't have to worry and overanalyze every thought and coincidence in my life. I'm so glad I don't have to ignore reality. I'm so glad I'm not driven by devotion to a God who might want me to do something wild and impractical- we call it "stepping out in faith".

Back then, my "personal relationship with God" was the most important thing in my life. I'm so much better off now that it's over.

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Readers: So, I'm curious about whether there could be some interpretation of "personal relationship with God" that's less, umm... emotionally unhealthy. Tell me if you have any ideas.

(But if you leave a comment that suggests I misunderstood the Christian teaching I received, I will totally laugh at you. I was "on fire for God" and my Christian friends were so "encouraged" by my "bold witness for Christ." It's not til I started questioning things, that Christians told me "no that's not what Christianity really teaches." I'm looking for other possible interpretations, not "actually, no real Christian is teaching that this is what a 'relationship with God' looks like.")

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