In this issue there's an article about the new OBU president, David Whitlock. The article gives a few details about him, his wife, and how they found their way to OBU. He seems like a nice guy, and, based on the scant reading about him that I've done so far, I'm fairly confident he'll be a better president than the former OBU president, Mark Brister. Still, though, at least one bit of the article caused me concern.
Describing Whitlock's first visit to OBU, in 1993, to see the then-new Bailey Business Center, the article reads, "...Whitlock was impressed with the University's focus as a Christian liberal arts institution. Returning home to Durant that night, he told [his wife] Dana he believed God was calling him to OBU. He was focused, but he had no clue as to the timetable for that call."
Now, I don't know if he really did say that, or if he just says he said that whenever he's talking to OBU Magazine article writers, or if OBU Magazine's article writers just like to add stuff like that into stories in order to give its mostly christian readership goose-pimples. Regardless, this sort of thing, this kind of use of "God's calling," is what causes my concern.
I've grown up in baptist churches all my life, so I've heard the term "God's calling," and variations of it, my whole life. I heard it so much at church as a kid and then in my teens that I internalized it without really even knowing what it meant.
Missionaries would visit my church and talk about how they had followed God's calling to the mission field. Pastors of all varieties spoke about how God called them to the ministry. Married couples, when asked how they knew they should marry each other, would talk about how they sensed God's calling to marry their spouse, how they just knew it was God's will. "God's will" led people to join our church. "Gods calling" or "God's will" was responsible for just about every major decision made by any respected member of my church. Hell, it was probably responsible for most of the unimportant decisions too. I never actually heard it myself, but I'd be willing to bet solid money that somewhere within the walls of that church, a story was told about how God's will led someone to have a chocolate Pop-Tart for breakfast instead of the strawberry kind.
All of this had a profound influence on me as a child and teenager. I wanted to seek God's will and follow God's calling in my life, in every decision, because that's what everyone I respected talked about doing. Their lives turned out pretty great, so it must be the way to go. Even the missionaries seemed happy, living in their shit-hovels, eating lizard eyes, in terribly hot climates, every day (in my teenage mind, this is what it meant to be a missionary). If following God's will can make that person happy, then there must be something to it, I reasoned.
Then as I got older, found a lady-friend, went off to college, and had to start making some really important decisions in my life, that conception of God's will fell apart.
The most representative of these decisions was about my girlfriend. My father always talked about how the day he married my mother was the happiest day of his life, so finding a woman became a very important thing in my mind. I was never interested in dating for the sake of dating; I just wanted to find the person that it was God's will for me to marry.
Eventually, through a somewhat convoluted series of events, I began dating someone. It was incredibly exciting. Then, about a year or so into the relationship, something hit me like a ton of angsty bricks: I needed to make a decision. I needed to decide whether I was going to marry this person, or not. She wasn't pushing me in that direction, but remember, dating, for me, had one purpose, and that was to find a wife. If I wasn't going to marry her, then to continue dating would be a waste of my time and hers. Worse yet, I wouldn't be "in God's will," and the person He wanted me to marry might pass me by.
So, I had to make a decision, and it had to be the correct one. This was a huge decision for me, because choosing either option would lead to a profoundly different path in life than if I chose the other one. I would either spend the rest of my life with this person, or I would spend the rest of my life without this person. This was BIG. So, naturally, I began to attempt to determine God's will, what He wanted me to do.
I read my Bible. I talked with my accountability partners, I spoke with my youth pastor, and I listened intently every Sunday to every word the pastor had to say. And for all the talking about God's will and God's calling that happened in my church, there was zero talking about how it actually worked, like, you know, the mechanics of it. Was it a feeling? A sign? A flash of insight? A dream? This was stuff I desperately wanted to know, since I had a really big decision to make and I desperately didn't want to screw it up, and no one could or would just fucking tell me how to do it!
I cannot begin to describe how agonizing this was for me. Every morning, while I was reading my Bible, I was waiting for a sign, some sort of special feeling, something, anything that would tell me what to do. This was a bad idea, as everyday I'd get a different feeling. I'd read a passage about the Israelites LEAVING an area or some shit and I'd think, "Oh my gosh, does this mean I should leave her?" The next day I'd read a passage about someone continuing on with something, and I'd think, "Oh wow, is this God telling me I should continue my relationship with her?" I know, that sounds pathetic, but I was seriously messed up over this decision. I had been told all my life that you'd better follow God's will, especially in big decisions like this one, but I had never been given the tools with which to discern it. And this sort of reading into passages in the Bible, to see what God had to say to you today, was exactly the kind of thing people talked about all the time when they talked about following His will.
This lasted for months. And for the duration of it, I was an emotional wreck.
Finally, disillusionment set in, and I came to the conclusion that God's will, as it was taught to me all of my life, was bullshit.
God gives us some helpful stories and some guidelines in the Bible. Stuff like, "Don't do that, it's icky," and "Do this. I totally give this a thumbs up," and "There once was this guy, see, and he did that, and it sucked hard. Then there was this other guy, though, and he did this, and everybody in heaven was like, 'Yay!'"
What is not in the Bible is, "UnkieMidriff should marry his girlfriend, because she's really nice," or "UnkieMidriff should really think about finding someone else." It doesn't get that specific; it is not a fucking magic 8-ball.
Yet that is exactly how God's will is treated in most baptist churches I've been in. They grab their Bibles, give'em a good shake, and then base huge decisions off the feeling they get from what they read that day. At least, that's how it works when they tell their stories about deciding to be missionaries, becoming pastors, running for office, choosing church staff members, or eating Pop-Tarts.
Ever since I wrestled with the decision about my girlfriend (we're married now, by the way), I've been equal parts fascinated and disturbed by this phenomenon. Every time "God's will" comes up in a sermon, testimony, or conversation, I perk up and try to determine why the person is saying the retarded things that are coming out of their mouth. Through a life of study, I've come to conclusion that there are about four potential reasons that God's will is presented how it is in most churches:
- Desperate Hope
Pride. This section could also be titled "Religious Masturbation." Some people seem to get a thrill from bringing God into every stupid little area of their lives, especially when they're talking about it at church. Just saying, "This morning, I had a chocolate Pop-Tart for breakfast" isn't enough. Instead, they have to show everyone how in-tune they are with God, the all-powerful creator of time and everything that is, when deciding what kind of breakfast food to shovel into their stupid mouths. The same goes for every other decision in their lives (when talking about it at church). This is even more intolerable when served with a side of false humility: "We decided to move to this area of town because we really felt it was God's will. Oh, I just don't know where I'd be without God's direction in my life."
Cowardice. Everyone has to make a big decision or two in their life, and no one wants to make the wrong choice. Inevitably, though, you'll screw up every now and then. That's embarrassing, right? Well, not any more! Now you can slap "God's will" on every fuck up you've ever made and watch the responsibility disappear!
I attended a men's breakfast at my church, and the speaker there was a guy who'd lived a lot of places, and done quite a few interesting things. The reason for all this variety in his life, I gathered, was because he was a monumental screw up. He once ran for some local office because the other guy running for it was really gay or something. He ended up losing the election. Was this because he didn't do a good enough job in getting people to vote for him? Maybe he didn't adequately convey why he was a better candidate that Mr. KissesDudes. Nope. That's all wrong. According to him, he didn't win because it was God's will that he didn't win. Granted, it was God's will that he run in the first place, but you know that God, He's a mysterious guy.
God's will is given as an excuse for our screw ups all the damn time. "Well, God sent us down this path, but it didn't work out, so He must have other things in store for us that we just don't understand yet." How about, no. How about you take some damn responsibility for your actions and just admit that you set out to do something and failed at it? How about that? I understand that no one likes to fail, and that when you do fail, you start looking for the reasons why it happened, and that reasons that don't involve you are really attractive, but sometimes you just need to buck up and say, "Yes, this was my fault this happened. Now here's what I'm going to do to do better next time." Blaming it on God doesn't really help anyone.
Desperate Hope. I see this mostly when church leadership makes a big decision and then presents it to the church as though it is obviously God's will. They could be doing this because they don't want to take responsibility for their decision, which would fall under the previous category, but I think often they're hoping that if they say "God's will" enough times, it'll be true and everything will work out ok.
This happened a few years back at my church, when they decided to relieve our youth pastor of his duties because they knew God had someone else in mind for the job. Well, it's years later, we still don't have a youth pastor, and the old youth pastor and his family have moved on to another church. If they try to tell me now that it was actually God's will that we have no youth pastor, then I'll place this situation in the cowardice category, just before I die from being annoyed to death.
Manipulation. Other than maybe pride, this is the worst use of "God's will." This can be a reason for anything, from building a new wing onto the church, to going to war with another country. And for some reason I can't understand, most christians think that once something has been proclaimed to be God's will, it is off-limits for debate. They cannot separate attacks on the idiot proclaiming something to be God's will from attacks on the Almighty Himself.
The common thread in all of these categories is that "God's will" is used in situations that are so specific and/or trivial that I doubt He really cares one way or the other, thus making His will unknowable and the motives for using "God's will" less than pure. And almost without exception, whenever you hear a christian talking about "God's will," one of these categories will apply. No one ever says, "I don't lie, cheat, steal, or bang my friends' wives because it's God's will that I don't," because that's obvious even if you never make it past Exodus. Thus, "God's will" is almost always brought into the conversation to impress, justify, assure, or manipulate.
So, when David Whitlock talks about God calling him to his new position at OBU, maybe he's telling the truth, but I doubt it. He's either trying to show us how wonderfully pious he is, manipulate us into thinking he must be a really great guy, covering up some screw up that led him here, or hoping that if he says God called him here enough times, God will be convinced.
I'm feeling charitable, so I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume it's the last reason. Hopefully, he's a nice guy who hopes he's doing the right thing by accepting the job. I can identify with that.