I called my friend last week and after 3 rings she answered breathless, “Everything OK??” We see each other several times a week, sometimes text dozens of times a day, but rarely talk on the phone. By calling her, I broke code. I indicated an emergency. This phenomenon is not unique to us. There is a whole meme market revolving around our cultural disdain for phone conversations. Texting is in vogue for more than introverts: it is fast, clean, and efficient. It puts us in the driver’s seat of our communications with other people. We are no longer dependent on them to take a long time to formulate their thoughts, we don’t have to pause while they shush their kids. We don’t even have to wait for a polite break in conversation to insert our own thoughts (or emojis) in return- we can interject them at will, rapid fire, like a gun. Then, we wait, dopamine flooding our brains, knowing those anticipatory three little dots could become anything.
Our approval, en masse, of this type of communication highlights hidden desires. Our prayers follow closely behind, reflecting our desire for God’s answers to our life’s problems. Throughout history, humans have sought out God’s will for their futures. Only now we want it with a texter’s speed, efficiency, and clarity. Just text me the address where you want me to go God, I’ve got GPS, I can find it. Just tell me what spouse, what job, what house, just give me the answers to what I need for this crisis, this relationship, this trial, and could you snap it up? Please and thank you. We can take it from here.
The problem is, of course, what it has always been: God moves neither succinctly, nor quickly, and often not at all what we would define as clearly. He does things His way and in His time which is His right as inventor and maintainer of all creation. Scripture reveals a God who refuses to work on other people’s timelines, as He led the Israelites in circles on a 40-year journey that should have taken about 2 weeks. Let’s go here, the pillar said, ok, now over here. Now let’s go back over here again. I once sat through a sermon where the pastor put a map of the Israelite’s desert wanderings into his PowerPoint presentation. It looked like a plate of cooked spaghetti noodles.
Yahweh said, ‘Lets go, Abram, start walking and I’ll show you the way when I feel like it. I’m taking you to a place I will show you.’ One can picture Jesus abruptly standing up mid-conversation and walking off into the forest for days on end of solitude. He was not concerned with other people’s schedules. He did not consult their temple bulletin. He did not ask their permission. He went where God told Him to go, did what God told Him to do, when He told Him to do it.
The desert wandering and the prophets calling shows us that God has been and always will be less concerned with information and much more concerned with transformation. The Israelites were not on a nature hike. God was using their surroundings and experience to re-form the damage done to their souls under a brutal and systematized Egyptian regime. The human soul is molded and shaped in real time and in a real culture, and unfortunately, God is not the only forming agent out there. The normal human tendency to want a plan, to want answers, is exacerbated in a culture like ours that says to one another with our thumbs: I care more about the content of what you have to say than how you wish to say it.
So, what happens when we attempt interaction with God? To be sure, we want to know the content of what God says. To the believer, Scripture is the authoritative voice of God; we test everything else by it. But the Bible is also a living word and a living document speaks with nuance, with purpose, with precision. It is crackling and sparking with personality, with character, with grace. I will read a verse today that will speak to me in an entirely different way than when I read it 2 yeas ago. It is alive, and when we submit to it, the Holy Spirit is free to speak to us through it. What happens to this sparking, crackling aliveness, when we read it like a text, only for downloadable content? Only reading it for how it can reinforce what we already think or help us win an argument or only to get clever quips, like my friend Chad says, ‘like an insight junkie’? Or worse, when we rely on other people to tell us what it says? What happens when we ignore Paul’s words and we stifle the Spirit that carries those words? What happens when we say to God, “I care more about what you have to say than how you wish to say it”?
We are beginning to see the corrosive effects of the internet age on human relationships. Likewise, the more we demand content over conversation from God we erode intimacy. Imagine a marriage without face-to-face interaction. Imagine sustaining any kind of intimacy solely through the transactions of written words; the passing of texts when one has the time. I can send my husband an “I’m at Costco, what do we need” text without qualifiers, without sweetness, without tenderness because I rely on face-to-face time for that. But when we reduce God to a deity who is at Costco asking what we need we become interested in Him only for what He can give to us. We don’t care anymore what He sounds like, only what He has to say (and mostly about how that pertains to our current circumstances). He becomes more and more a vending machine god who we turn to only in crisis or need: here’s my dollar, god, gimme my snickers.
We have failed to wait on God to speak the way He wishes to. We don’t want to wait because waiting in our culture gets you run right over. In our vapid efficiency we have stopped lollygagging with Him. We no longer stroll along with nowhere to go. If we do gaze into His face it is to discern the answers to what we need, to seek His expression, His intent. We look into His face like we look in a mirror, to read what it says about us. We’ve stopped gazing at Him simply because He is beautiful. We need purpose, we’ve got places to go for the Kingdom; we are a driven people. I read recently that it is important that Scripture likens us to sheep and not cattle. Our souls were never meant to be driven; they were meant to be led.
Perhaps I’m being too harsh. Let’s look at the fruit of our texting culture to see if my argument sticks. Let’s look at the current flood in the literary market regarding hot button topics and how to interpret them through Scripture. They tell us: Here’s how to get the right answer scripturally to (fill in the blank) homosexuality, feminism, race. Here’s the Greek word, here’s the original intent, here’s what God meant to say. We are supposed to be convinced by their intellectual arguments. But what about when both sides of the hot button topic claim superiority? They both claim to know what God says- who wins? The most charismatic interpreter? The smartest one? The one with the most degrees? The one who yells loudest? The one with the best publicist?
I called my friend that day because I wanted prayer. God was calling me in an uncomfortable direction and I needed reminding from her that the Voice was worth listening to. Our family’s finances were at rock bottom, and the Voice was calling us to give more of ourselves away and I was scared. There was no clear Scriptural example for the trial I was facing. There was no roadmap. There were no Greek words that I could translate enough to make it make sense.
But the tender voice of the Shepherd was clear to me, crystal. I know because it always stands in sharp contrast to how the world speaks to us: barking, snapping at our ankles, driving us relentlessly forward, shoving us along with the masses. The wolves of the world must use persuasion to coerce us. Or they use jealousy, telling us to grab and consume, shove in anything we can find to fill our desires. Fear and anxiety drive us onward: fear of being passed over and passed by. This is where the tone and intonation of the Shepherd helps us see Him clearly; the way it lilts when something is important to Him. We begin to feel the cool of His breath on our faces, like a breeze in field of wildflowers. We feel our chest loosen when He speaks; the enticement of freedom. We feel ourselves beckoned forward in curiosity instead of driven frantically from behind.
From the world’s perspective, even the Christian world’s perspective, waiting on God looks like completely unproductive time. But it has been the most formative of spiritual practices for me. I’ve learned that even when there is no roadmap to whatever circumstance I’m facing, and there rarely is, there is still always the voice of the Shepherd leading on those quiet enough to listen. A field full of sheep would stand dumbfounded if Siri read aloud a text of their shepherd’s instructions, ‘Sheep. Go here. Sheep. Move this way. Graze that field’. They would not move an inch. They do not need a thorough scrutiny of the letters, they do not need a better translation. They need the familiarity of his speech. The sheep know when and how to move not only because of the wording of the command, but because they know their shepherd’s voice.