Life With God
Skye Jethani's book With provided another brick in the foundation of how I think about God. I had a subscription for a while to Christianity Today and was introduced to Jethani there through his work as a contributing editor. Then later, I discovered The Phil Vischer Podcast (now The Holy Post) where Jethani is a co-host and that's where I fell in love with the depth of his thought. He'd clearly been asking the same questions about God that I had and he had some great answers.
With looks at five different ways in which people relate to God; Jethani calls them "postures." In Life From God, people see God as a cosmic vending machine. They say their prayers and hope to get a blessing. It's quite popular (whenever you see people praying in movies, it's usually from this perspective), though I've never been tempted to think of God this way, except maybe when I was very very young. It's just not how God was presented to me by my parents or congregation.
I'd never really considered Life Over God, either. In this posture, believers look for promises and principles that God has made and then try to live according to those. It's a self-help approach where they're basically trying to unlock the secret formula to a blessed life. God himself doesn't play much of a role other than being the author of the principles. Followers of this posture more or less take God out of the picture once they believe they've learned what they want to know.
Life For God is something I related to more than the previous two. It sees God as the purpose for everything you do. It's attractive, because it's noble and because doing good on God's behalf has a ton of support in Scripture. This is something that we're supposed to do. But Jethani explains that at its heart it's still a transactional relationship. That's the problem with most of these postures. In this case, we're using God to determine our ambitions.
Where I saw myself most was in Life Under God. This one is very covenantal, which is how God's relationship with his people was always described to me as a young person. God has given us commandments and we hold up our end of the covenant by following them. His end of the covenant is to bless us. We do our part; he does his part. We don't do our part; he's off the hook and will probably discipline us in some way. Again, very transactional. And it also leads to a lot of heartache when people do their best to obey God, but still suffer, as we all do.
Jethani explains that what God wants from us is Life With God. In other words: pure relationship. There's nothing transactional about it. He just wants to be with us. This will of course lead us to lots of activity and changed behavior, but the activity and changed behavior are the natural result - the fruit - of the relationship; not the reason for it. The relationship is its own reason and reward.
Jethani paints a beautiful picture of Life With God that improved my understanding of God's very nature. Even believing deeply that God is Love, I had a lifetime of thinking that his primary feelings toward me were disappointment and frustration. Honestly, that's still my default way of imagining God's attitude about me. It's taking a lot of work to change my thinking so that when I fail most royally, I know that God's first impulse is to hug me, not scold or punish me. This is something that I know in my head to be true (Scripture is filled with it; Jethani just pointed it out), but it hasn't fully reached my heart yet.
It's also what led to my taking a sabbatical from teaching in my current congregation. Teaching a class on a regular schedule has always been a great motivator for me to study the Bible and I always got a lot out of it, but it was starting to feel very transactional to me. I was filling my head with knowledge that I could pass on to my students, but I was internalizing very little of it. Eventually, I got to the point where I felt the need to quit reading and talking about it and start diligently trying to put it into practice. But I needed some space and solitude to do that.