The dangers of familiarity and the dynamic nature of God…

12 12 2012

Dallas Willard said, “Familiarity breeds unfamiliarity- unsuspected unfamiliarity, and then contempt.” I am back in Sudan for two more years with the majority of one year under my belt. As I have gotten back into the swing of things here I have come to understand the truth in Willard’s words. This realization has come through the shattering of expectations and unexpected feelings of helplessness in my first few months back. There are dangers that accompany familiarity with anything that only careful self-examination and the ever essential guidance of the Spirit can reveal. They are quite deceptive in appearance, yet they can swiftly have you wondering how you got into such a dreadfully contemptuous situation. Praise the Lord that his grace is sufficient and that he has sent us his Word and Spirit to guide us as we continually fall short of his glory.

I came back to Sudan with confidence in my knowledge of everything from navigation of the transportation system to the amount of energy and time required to produce good lesson plans. While I don’t feel this confidence was necessarily misplaced, I had forgotten the Lord’s role in the growth of said confidence. However unconscious the decision was, I had removed God from my confidence which I can now safely call what it truly was. It was arrogance. At least it became arrogance somewhere along the way. I knew what it took to get my work done, how to balance my time, and how much effort I needed to put into abiding with the Lord, and I was capable of all of this among other things in my own mind. I had done all of this before and I could do it again. What a pretentious thought! Especially in a place like Sudan where things are subject to change daily.

Now is a good time to expound on Willard’s words. The familiarity I felt towards Sudan and my relationships- including my relationship with the Lord- within this setting had become incorrigible and rigid. That paired with the fact that my familiarity was far from holistic created a recipe for unfamiliarity. Due to this rigidity  and incomplete familiarity, once I began to see the different ways the Lord is working in me, the different responsibilities I have at work and the new dynamics of my relationships in my community, the sand under my foundation began washing away and the iconoclastic process of the Spirit’s exhortation was underway. While I did not resist the new season that was being thrust upon me, I did something equally tragic. In my arrogance, I attempted to fulfill my old and newfound responsibilities and endure the frequent frustration, exhaustion, spiritual attacks, and sorrow in my life here by my own strength. I can think of no quicker way to exasperate and overwhelm oneself. It is at this point when my familiarity with my life’s growth in the previous season and my supposed familiarity with God was revealed beyond doubt to be unfamiliarity. Even more, unsuspected unfamiliarity as Willard so accurately put it. I still felt as though I was familiar with the desires God had for me at the time and with the demands of my responsibilities. Therefore, as I began falling short in all the aforementioned areas, my confusion and frustration abounded. “My problems couldn’t be manifesting from within due to my familiarity” I thought to myself. Mind you, many of these thoughts were occurring in my unconscious. Nevertheless, My unsuspected unfamiliarity was crippling me.

This familiarity did not simply fade out to be replaced with unfamiliarity. Rather the familiarity in its rigidity mutated into the unfamiliarity. The characteristics and components remained identical in the transformation. It was my application and idolization of the familiar constructs and institutions in my walk with God that caused my unfamiliarity. A better explanation can be seen throughout the Gospels as the religious leaders interacted with Jesus. The Pharisees, to a certain extent, weren’t wrong about the importance of the Law, yet Jesus was clear about their extensive lack of knowledge of the Father.  Verily(thanks KJV), I proclaim the law of God was not and is not bad. Jesus himself said, “Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”(Matt. 5:17-18) The issue was that the Pharisee had lifted their familiarity with the Law up to the level of God, himself. While the following of the Law may have begun as a genuine attempt to follow the Lord, it became a tool for self-righteousness. Therefore, the very thing that made God familiar, created unfamiliarity by way of their idolization of the familiar. Inevitably, as we see in their desire to destroy Jesus, their unfamiliarity with God erupted into a contemptuous heart towards the One he sent with the Truth. Praise God, that I did not reach this point, most assuredly due to his grace and desire for us to know all Truth(John 14:26). My unsuspected unfamiliarity did become potentially destructive as the apex of my dilemma was an increase in irritability and hostility towards others. Praise the Lord that he led me to repentance of these things and is ever restoring my humanity.

This whole experience has served to remind me of a few things about God and my walk with him. First, there is the dynamic nature of God, or more accurately, God’s will. He is forever leading us into newness. We see this throughout the Bible from Abraham, who had a life familiar to him and was called to leave it, to Paul, who was constantly moving away from that which had become familiar in search of the unreached. Of course, those are macro examples of God’s dynamic nature. Just look at your life and the various seasons you have gone through. Relationships begin and end, and new ones come into your life. You are dependent on others, studying in university, crawling and walking, traveling, decomposing, working, falling in love, waiting-oh how I loathe waiting. With each new season in our lives we have the potential to develop into entirely new people with new struggles, relationships, responsibilities, desires, shortcomings, and lessons to be learned. I am writing this in this season and the next season I enter I will write about some other brilliance of God’s grace. As we follow him, we are forever becoming all that we were intended to be. In this context we must realize that God is infinitely creative and can even use what was meant for evil for the good of many(Gen. 50:20). Hallelujah! He spoke through burning bushes, donkeys, should-be kings(Jonathan to David), wandering and weeping prophets, angels, a large variety of educated and uneducated people. He blinded Paul, allowed Job to endure all manner of suffering, and He gives and takes away(Job 1:21). Again, he is inexhaustibly creative!

We mustn’t get so caught up in the ways that God works which are familiar, that we reject his will as it moves on from our familiar ideas about him and his ways. In the tenth chapter of Acts, Peter was called to carry the Truth to the gentiles and he struggled with abandoning the familiar and going in a new direction. Thankfully, Peter trusted in the righteousness of the Lord’s ways and obeyed. Even more, one would think Jesus was trying to challenge as many traditions and principles as possible while he was on Earth. I’m speaking in jest, yet he deliberately challenged major ideologies through his words and actions. He ate with sinners(Matt. 9:10), washed his friends’ feet(John 13:15), worked on the Sabbath(Luke 6:1), and loved his persecutors all the way to the cross(Luke 6:27-28 & 23:24). He said the last would be first(Matt. 20:16), that cultivating lust is committing adultery(Matt. 5:28), that what comes out of a man’s mouth rather than what goes in matters(Matt. 15:11), that to truly live we must die(John 12:24), that he is one with the Father(John 10:30), and, most importantly, that the kingdom of God is available to all in this current life(Matt. 4:17). Jesus displays so well for us that the Lord’s will is always fresh and fluid. It is not stagnant or dull and is anything but predictable(Isa. 55:8-9). Therefore, we must constantly seek His will in our lives through His Word(2 Tim. 3:16-17), prayer(Matt. 6:9-10), good counsel(Proverbs 11:14) and the leading of the Spirit(1 Thess. 5:19).

In closing, I want to encourage those of you that endured my ramblings thus far by saying that God’s grace is utterly sufficient for us all as we continue to stumble along the straight and narrow. Sometimes our familiarity becomes incorrigible and legalistic, but grace! Sometimes we may swing to the other extreme and become overly fickle and timid in our journey to discover his will, but grace! I pray the Lord would give you balance in this area of your life’s pilgrimage towards the Lord’s presence. I encourage you to notice signs of rigidity in your path such as anger, hostility, bad exhaustion, unfulfilled goals or a lack of growth, or potentially contempt towards others. Though, I hope you don’t reach this point. Take ownership of these emotions and seek the root of them rather than acting on them prematurely. However, if you do there is grace for that too. Hallelujah! Balancing the familiarity and the creativity of God’s dynamic will is a righteous goal that by grace alone we can grow in. Finally, speak out about your thoughts and bring them into the light of Christian community so that we can all continue the tradition of binding and loosing(Matt. 16:19). My closing prayer is from 2 Corinthians 3:18 which says, “And we all, with unveiled faces, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit”. Amen.

 

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