Have you ever been in a conversation with someone, maybe someone you considered to be close, and realized that who they thought you were is not who you actually are? Some comment or story retold or joke shows you a glimpse of this person’s concept of you in their head. Suddenly you realize this person has been relating to a caricature instead of you yourself. Your relationship feels theoretical. Sometimes this realization can bring clarity to confusing dynamics, other times it’s just a bummer.
To some extent, don’t we often do this to the people in our lives? Everyone’s afraid to be vulnerable so we leave out those parts of ourselves and only share the parts that are not vulnerable. Then as we get to know each other we take what we know subconsciously from movies or TV about character types and we fill in the blanks that the other person has left out. Until we believe the caricature in our heads to be the real thing.
It’s all theoretical, and abstract. I think this happens because the virtual side of our lives is abstract and theoretical but we treat it like its real. Real things do happen somewhere in there, but mostly it’s just an abstraction.
I know a lot about abstraction. I studied philosophy as part of my major in college. I love a good abstraction. I had to learn that there is a difference between abstract and real. Otherwise I would get lost in the abstract theory and so beguiled by it that it might become more real to me than reality.
However, as soon as an abstraction becomes real it loses what made it good and becomes a shallow imitation. Abstract is wonderful in its proper context, and cheap out of it. Just like we saw in the relationship example above.
We are bombarded with abstract versions of reality in advertisement. Abstract versions of interpersonal relationships on the TV or tablet. Abstract versions of human interactions on social media. Our culture is desensitized to theoretical and abstract. In that desensitizing the lines have been blurred between abstract and real. Now we are lost in the theory and we don’t know how to know each other.
I’ve talked about knowing the actual God before. But in that post I didn’t cover the danger of thinking we know when all we know is a theory. It’s a dynamic between people and God that is not new and we can learn from the people of God that have gone before us.
Throughout the prophets we see examples of Israel trying to serve the idols and God, trying to serve money and God, trying to “fit in” with the nations around them and be set apart for God. God sends the prophets to ask Israel to stop this double-mindedness in their worship and return to Him.
Israel thinks they know God, they think they know what He wants so they keep up the temple worship and the Mosaic Law along with these other things they have going. All along that is not what God wants, He wants their whole heart in worship, not just the motions. God doesn’t share His people with money, or status, or other idols. Israel doesn’t realize this because they are functioning based on an abstraction they made about who God is.
In Malachi we pick up on the conversation at a point of confrontation, “‘I have loved you.’ Says the LORD. ‘Yet you say, ‘In what way have you loved us?’” God goes onto describe how He favored them over their ancient relatives through Esau (Jacob’s brother). Then God says, “A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If then I am the Father where is My honor? And if I am a Master, where is My reverence? Says the LORD of hosts to you priests who despise My name. Yet you say, ‘In what way have we despised your name?’” God then goes onto describe the ways they cut corners in their worship at the temple. God challenges them to treat the powerful people they were trying to impress the way they treated God, knowing they would be embarrassed to do so and hurt their status. Ultimately God tells His people, “I have no pleasure in you … nor will I accept an offering from your hands.” (Malachi 1:2-10 NKJV)
There are a few more of these confrontations in the book, but in each one God comes to His people and says, “You think I’m like this, but that isn’t true. You treat me like this, but I don’t deserve such treatment.” So God promises to remove the false teachers and those who will not let go of their false perceptions and He promises to remain faithful to those who are faithful to Him.
This is somewhat echoed by Jesus in the gospels. In Matthew 25 Jesus tells a parable about judgement day. Jesus is the Shepherd and He divides His sheep from His goats. The sheep were the ones who cared for the sick and hungry, clothed the naked, and sat with the sick and imprisoned. They took an especial care for the most vulnerable around them and Jesus (who has a deep love and care for the most vulnerable) says they did it for Him. The Goats were the opposite. They did not care for the sick and the hungry, they did not clothe the naked, or sit with those who were sick and imprisoned. The goats answered, “‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then He will answer them, saying, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’” (Matthew 25:31-46 quoted, Matt. 25:44-45 NKJV)
If the goats had really known Jesus they would have known how important the vulnerable are to Him. They would have cared for those vulnerable, because Jesus cares for them. They thought they knew Him, they thought they were on good terms with Jesus, but they didn’t know what was most important in the end and they didn’t really know Him after all.
How can we keep from finding out we’re goats? How can we learn how to know God and each other again? The answer is fairly mundane and a bit of work, but this is good news because that means we can actually do it.
The way you stop going off an abstraction of the person in front of you is to let go of the abstraction. Gather it all up in your mind and throw it out. Everything you think you know, and assume about the other person needs to be dropped. Then you spend time with your friend, preferably in person. You talk, ask questions, listen; be present and not thinking about ten other things in the moment. Your friend will likely surprise you when you take the time to see them for who they are and the time spent will likely deepen the friendship. Over time you will know them and hopefully they will reciprocate and know you.
It’s the same with God. Let go of the idea of God in your head, what you think He’s like and what He wants. Spend time in the bible and in prayer. Those are the equivalent to talking, asking questions, and listening with your friend. When you read your bible (the living word of God) in prayer, the Holy Spirit breaths life into what you read and speaks to you. Spend time in quiet prayer, making space for God. You don’t have to fill up every minute with words of your own. It is ok to sit quietly and listen. Even if you don’t “hear” anything from Him, God appreciates when we make space for Him. It is never time wasted. In fact, sitting quietly with God and making that space is giving God a bit of that honor and reverence He was searching for in Malachi.