Category Archives: Faith

What Can We Expect from God Now? (Essay 1 of 7)

Truth 1: Remember your limited ability to understand the will and ways of God….

Jesus meets two disciples on the road to Emmaus — Charters Cathedral, France

Where is God?! Why isn’t God doing more to help us? Is God doing anything at all? If you’re asking questions like these, it’s a sign that you care deeply about what’s happening in our world right now. You believe in God and believe that he could be of great help. Yet, you’re confused or frustrated, or just scared. You’re not perceiving God’s presence or help as much as you need or expected it, and you want more.

The following short essay is the first in a seven-part series on the subject, “What can we expect from God now?” It’s a collection of biblically-based, spiritual truths for those who know, love, and serve God, who want to know how they can trust God in troubled times.

Spiritual Truth 1: Remember your limited ability to understand the will and ways of God. Take whatever God offers.  (Isaiah 55:1-9; Luke 24:13-22)

If we examine our expectations for God carefully, most of us we will discover that we expect God to act in ways that fit with our ideas and desires. They may be prompted by something we read in the Bible or heard a preacher say, but upon close inspection, most of us are wishing and hoping and expecting God to do what we want him to do. And what happens when God doesn’t come through for us as we hoped or expected? We are easily hurt, confused, distressed, or even become angry. So, the question becomes, is God to blame or is it our faulty expectations?

Biblical writers repeatedly tell us that we should not be so surprised when God does not meet our expectations. The reason is simple. You and I cannot know or understand the mind of God, and God is often at work in ways that are unseen and can only be discerned in retrospect.

What we need to understand

Through the prophet Isaiah, Yahweh (the Lord God) explains to Israel that God’s ways are not our ways. He writes:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,

neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord.

For as the heavens are higher than the earth,

so are my ways higher than your ways,

and my thoughts than your thoughts.

(Isaiah 55:8-9, NIV)

Isaiah is saying that we must give up trying to understand the perplexing or surprising things God does (or doesn’t do). Instead, we should focus on what we can understand and benefit from. In this particular context, Isaiah is talking about God’s desire to meet their core spiritual needs. Though Israel might not be able to grasp God’s reasoning for how he was working in the world, they could benefit from God’s love, mercy and grace, if they reached out for what God is offering. They could repent of their sins and let God satisfy their deepest spiritual needs and longings. He writes:

Come, all you who are thirsty,

come to the waters;

and you who have no money,

come, buy and eat!

Come, buy wine and milk

without money and without cost.

Why spend money on what is not bread,

and your labor on what does not satisfy?

Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,

and you will delight in the richest of fare.

Give ear and come to me;

listen, that you may live.

(Isaiah 55:1-3, NIV)

In times of distress, we may be so pre-occupied with our fears and desperate longing for help that we miss out on what is available. As long as we cling to trying to get what we cannot have (be it answers to unanswerable questions, guarantees of safety, assurance of health, comfort from the wrong sources, or something else that is very important to us, but out of our reach), we will remain in turmoil and unsatisfied. If, instead, we leave aside what we cannot understand and focus on reaching out for what is within our grasp, we will experience greater inner peace. We will become better prepared to face our troubles and will start to see better how God is at work in us and through us for good.

Let Jesus open your eyes

In the New Testament, we find the story of Jesus meeting two disciples on the road to Emmaus. The last they knew, Jesus had been crucified, died, and was buried in a tomb. So many of their hopes for their lives and future had suddenly, in a matter of a few days, crashed and burned. (Sound familiar?) However, what they did not know and could not see is that God was still very much at work in the midst of the crisis. Jesus had actually already been resurrected. God had inaugurated an incredible plan to bring salvation and hope to the entire world through Jesus’ death and resurrection. In fact, they were so swallowed up in their grief that they couldn’t even recognize Jesus when he appeared to them on the road. Luke says, when Jesus asked them what they were discussing, “they stood still, looking sad” (Luke 24:17, NRSV).

In this time of crisis and uncertainty, beware of getting “stuck” on the road of life, stopped in your tracks with downcast faces, supposing all is lost. When life’s events just don’t make sense to you and you cannot imagine how God could be a part of what is happening, remember the limitations of your ability to grasp the God’s ways. God may be up to something that you cannot even imagine, let alone comprehend.

I am not saying that God caused COVID-19 or that everything is going to turn out OK for everyone. It’s not. But this story reminds me of what Isaiah told us. God’s ways are not our ways. God often surprises us. Over and over again in the Bible, we read that God is at work in seemingly hopeless situations to bring good out of evil, loss, disaster, and suffering.  The story of the sad disciples on the road to Emmaus who could not see the risen Christ standing in front of them reminds us that we all need Jesus to open our eyes. On our part, we need to look for Christ in the midst of the crisis, in places and ways that we wouldn’t expect him to be.

Spiritual application

By all means, pray for every need and concern on your heart, because we never know when God may choose to use our earnest prayers to bring about some healing, deliverance, provision, or some other badly needed help. But, if your prayers aren’t being answered in the ways you expected, don’t be discouraged. Don’t stop reaching out to God. Ask Jesus Christ to open your eyes to what you cannot see on your own and ask the Holy Spirit to strengthen your faith and use you for good in the midst of the present crisis. And, no matter what happens, don’t forget to seek what you know is for sure being offered to you. Repent of your sins, let go of your attachments to what cannot satisfy or distracts you from God’s will for your life. Seek God’s grace, mercy, and spiritual food that money cannot buy. “Give ear and come to me; listen, that you may live,” says your loving, merciful God (Isaiah 55:3).


This essay series, “What We Can Expect from God Now?” was created in response to the 2020 COVID-19 global crisis. It focuses on how believers can better trust God in troubled times. The essays expand on the practical suggestions offered in Chapter eight, “Trusting God,” in The Spirit-Led Leader: Nine Leadership Practices and Soul Principles (Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2005), pages 184-190.


Photo ©Jill K H Geoffrion, Ph.D., http://www.jillgeoffrion.com


Copyright © 2020 Timothy C. Geoffrion, Wayzata, Minnesota. All rights reserved to the author, but readers may freely download, print, forward, or distribute to others, providing that this copyright notice is included.

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What Can We Expect from God Now? (Introduction)

Introduction to series of essays

In response to the COVID-19 global crisis, this new essay series focuses on trusting God in troubled times.

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I want God to stop the coronavirus immediately. I’m worried for myself and especially for all the people I love and care about. I pray for God to protect me, my family, and everyone everywhere. But as the numbers of sick and dying keep increasing, along with dire forecasts for the coming weeks, so does my anxiety. I’m obviously not alone in this.

What if God doesn’t help? Already, thousands have died and many more will. Given our experience so far, is it even reasonable to expect that God will do anything in midst of this COVID-19, global crisis? If so, what?

Spiritually, many of us are at the “Help me, God!” stage. We’re reaching out to God for whatever help we can get. Others of us are wrestling with profound theological questions right now as well: “Where is God? Does God care about our suffering? Why doesn’t God do more to help? If God won’t stop the onslaught, what can we expect from God?”

Photo credit: Francois Mori/Associated Press

These questions have been and continue to be very relevant to me, personally. Ever since our first child died in a miscarriage; my mother began a long, debilitating, losing battle with Alzheimer’s disease; and I learned that I contracted a terminal disease the day after my first son was born, I have been asking more and more questions like these. Bottom line, I simply want to know, “Can I trust God? And if so, for what?”

I feel the urgency of these questions more in times of crisis, but ask them regularly in Myanmar, where I serve six months a year, where human suffering is so visible to me every day. In fact, the questions are always with me, because there are no answers that fully satisfy me intellectually or that completely assuage my grief and angst. There is so much we wish we understood about God, but just can’t. Yet, what we believe and how we act on our faith still makes a huge difference in our ability to cope with adversity and an uncertain future.

Over the coming weeks, I will be talking about seven spiritual truths for trusting God in troubled times.

  1. Remember your limited ability to understand the will and ways of God. Take whatever God offers.
  2. Expect God to be at work in your life, leading and guiding you.
  3. Expect God to build your character, strengthen your faith, and lovingly restore your hope through your suffering.
  4. Expect to share in Christ’s sufferings. Expect to share in his glory.
  5. Remember—nothing can separate you from the love of God.
  6. Expect more peace, as you put your anxieties in God’s capable hands.
  7. Expect to be renewed, as you accept your limitations and wait on God.

This series of essays does not attempt to answer all the questions any of us might have right now in the midst of the COVID-19 threat. Instead, they offer spiritual truths that so many have found helpful in any and all times of crisis and distress. They are insights that grow out of the Bible and have been validated in my own experience and by the experience of millions of Christians over the years. They are truths, not because anyone can prove them to be true by scientific testing. They are true because of how they have qualitatively improved the minds, hearts, and lives of those who believe and live by them. I hope you find them meaningful and helpful, and will share your own perspective, comments, and questions with the rest of us, each week.

What are you expecting from God?

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Jesus healing the blind man (John 9), Chartres Cathedral, France

Copyright © 2020 Timothy C. Geoffrion, Wayzata, Minnesota. All rights reserved to the author, but readers may freely download, print, forward, or distribute to others, providing that this copyright notice is included.

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The Way of Jesus (4 of 4)

On the eve of my return to Southeast Asia, I am looking forward to more conversation with my students and colleagues on the way of Jesus in a predominately Buddhist context.

Like Jesus, the Buddha is usually portrayed as a gentle and wise spiritual guide. By following his teachings and example, in pursuit of enlightenment and liberation from this world, Buddhists seek to detach themselves from all those desires that produce suffering. Along the way, they seek to live peacefully and to become more compassionate toward others. Buddhists don’t expect these changes to happen overnight, to say the least. In fact, according to common Buddhist teaching, full enlightenment will probably require thousands of (re-) incarnations, if it ever happens at all.

Meditating in the Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar

As Buddhists look to the Buddha for a better way to live and for hope for their lives, so Christians look to Jesus. Yet, Jesus’ way is different.

Rather than starting with the individual, or even the community, Jesus started with God. He taught us to put the Creator and giver of life at the center of our lives, and to seek to know, love, and serve God with all of ourselves. His Gospel was an invitation to increasingly experience God’s love filling us and flowing through us in ways that truly make a difference in the lives of those around us.[1] In this way, God would be glorified in his creation, and we would experience life as God intends.

Jesus expected that those who follow him would make every effort to realize God’s vision for their lives, but he never imagined that we would try to do this in our own strength. At core, his message was not, “Try harder!” No, his good news was more radical than that. Jesus’ Gospel was a call to surrender our own will and self-reliance, so that God could do in us what we simply cannot do on our own.

Followers of Buddha—or any religion or religious figure that teaches that we must somehow earn or achieve or own salvation—must forever operate under a different system from what Jesus’ taught. They hold a different basis for hope, and live out their days in an endless pursuit of something that is always out of reach.

Followers of Jesus, on the other hand, start by capitulating. They give up the vain aspiration to reach the top of the spiritual ladder in their own strength—no matter how well-intentioned or noble the path. Instead, they gratefully rely on the mercy of God, submit to the yoke of Christ, and learn how to live by the leading of the Spirit of God.

Jesus heals the blind man (John 9)—Chartres Cathedral, France

Jesus said, “Come unto me all you who are weary and heavy burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28).

An obscure image for most of us, perhaps: a young, untrained ox paired with an experienced, disciplined partner. Once yoked together, the younger one follows the lead of the older, and stops resisting the farmer and exhausting itself. Suddenly there is less stress and distress than when it was fighting against the farmer’s will. And the field gets ploughed.

Jesus is giving us a picture of a relationship with God that is very different from one that requires our striving to some how pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Jesus is offering to gently lead us into the true life God intends for us, both by what he does for us and by what he shows us to do.

The way of Jesus makes him stand out from other great religious leaders, and his teaching from other spiritual paths. The key difference is not so much the intended goals of a becoming a better person, of creating a better society, or of attaining a better after-life. Most religions agree on much of this. No, the critical difference between Jesus’ way and all the others is how one gets there.

By being a follower of Christ, I don’t think I am better than others. On the contrary, I am keenly aware of how limited I am in my own power to become the person I would like to be. I accept this reality, and look instead to God’s love and acceptance for my sense of worth. I rely on God’s mercy and grace for forgiveness and redemption. And my spiritual journey is fairly simple—I’m seeking to learn what it means to live under the yoke of Jesus and live by the Spirit day-by-day, moment-by-moment. I take credit for nothing in my relationship with God, and am only grateful that I was given the grace to recognize the truth that would finally set me free.

A Suggested Prayer (for those tired of trying to advance spiritually on their own): “Jesus, I am so tired of trying to make my life work. I’m weary of trying to be a better person. I give up. Thank you for your gentle and loving invitation to give my life to you completely. I accept! Please teach me how to walk with you, side by side, under your yoke, under your leadership, by your Spirit, to serve God’s good purposes for my life. Please do in me and for me what I cannot seem to do on my own. Thank you.”


[1] Matthew 22:37-40; Luke 15:11-32. See, too, how John further develops this Gospel message, 1 John 4:7-19.

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But, How Open? (3 of 4)

Benefiting from Buddhism is a series of articles on how to learn from and grow through interaction with those who think, believe, or live differently than we. In the first article, How do Christianity and Buddhism Mix?” we looked at our different options. Do we want to be Blenders, Borrowers, or simply Inspired? In the second article, “What is an Authentic Spiritual Journey?” we talked about the importance of honesty, openness, intentionality, and eagerness for those who are serious about spiritual growth. But the question remains, how open should we be? For the Christian who already believes that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, what is the real goal of being open? And, what kind of openness is appropriate for Christians and truly fruitful on an authentic spiritual journey?

What is the Holy Spirit saying?

Contrary to what you might think, staying open in the midst of a conversation is less about the thoughts, beliefs, and feelings of the other person and more about God. While each of us has so much we can learn from other people who think differently than we do, the priority is on listening for what the Holy Spirit wants to say or do through the encounter.

When you are sensitive to the Holy Spirit in interpersonal relations, you are likely to become more understanding and less judgmental. You will feel more compassion and want to respond to that person with respect and kindness as a fellow human being. The Holy Spirit is not going to prompt you to water down your commitment to Christ, but may show you something you would not have seen or thought of otherwise. The Spirit may also remind you of a truth in Scripture or in your faith that you have forgotten or put aside, but now need to take hold of once again. By being open to the Spirit in such circumstances, the possibilities for God to work in your life are limitless.

For example, within just the past couple of months, the Spirit spoke to me very meaningfully through encounters with Buddhists, Muslims, and an agnostic. An hour discussion sitting on the floor with a Buddhist monk in Mandalay reminded me (once again) to not assume I know what others believe just because of the clothes they wear or the label associated with them. His articulate philosophy inspired me to do a better job making sure others know the heart of my faith and life.

Through a brief conversation in a small city square, a Muslim mother told me how she could manage raising five small children with her husband thousands of miles away in Pakistan. Her simple faith reminded me to look to God for strength to do whatever I’ve been called to do.

An agnostic friend of mine blew me away with his ridiculous acts of generosity. He refuses to take credit and insists that he does what he does to meet some need of his own. But his example led me to prayer, to ask God for the ability (grace) to not let my fear and greed hold me back from giving more spontaneously and generously to those in need.

Not one of these people read a verse from Scripture or referenced Jesus Christ, and clearly none of them would call themselves a Christian. Yet the Holy Spirit used the encounter to speak to me, to touch me, and to move me another step on my spiritual journey in ways that I deeply treasure.

I’m not worried about being too open to others, because I know how much Jesus Christ means to me, and I am continually looking to the Holy Spirit to help me sort out and benefit from all that I am experiencing. However, I don’t want to suggest that you don’t have to be thoughtful and prayerful about listening to others.

Talking with someone who articulately believes something different can be very disorienting, confusing, or troubling for many different reasons. Yet, rather than run away from the discomfort, and certainly rather than letting yourself just get swept away by every new idea that comes along, learn how to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit in the midst of the encounter. The following are 10 suggestions that might help.

Making the Most of the Encounter—10 safe steps you can take with the Holy Spirit

  1. Ask the Holy Spirit to prepare you to hear God’s voice through your encounters with others, and to lead you to the people you can learn from.
  2. Reach out to others. Sounds pretty simple, but most of us stay within our own little, safe circles. Seek out those who think or believe differently than you, and look for an opportunity to exchange views and experiences with one another.
  3. Ask God to help you to listen without judgment and to love without strings. The goal of an encounter is not to quickly size someone up, but to genuinely connect mind to mind, heart to heart, and soul to soul.
  4. Expect and ask for the Holy Spirit to speak to you through the encounter. Notice whatever strikes you as interesting or important in the conversation. Particularly take note of whatever is true, good, or beautiful, no matter who said it or who did it.
  5. Ask questions. Be curious. Seek better understanding wherever needed or wanted.
  6. Be ready to share with the other person how your faith in Christ and your experience with God have been a gift to you. Don’t use theological or formulaic language, but talk from your heart, as you would to a friend. What is true in your own relationship with God that is worth telling someone else about?
  7. Identify further questions or concerns for yourself that arise from the encounter. What do the ideas or feelings of the other person make you wonder about your own faith or life experience? Try to put your question into words.
  8. Actively seek out answers from reliable sources: Scripture, your pastor, mentors, or other trusted resources. Don’t stop with identifying your question. Look for answers.
  9. Pray your questions and concerns. In other words, hold up what is confusing or troubling you to God, and ask the Holy Spirit to guide you and work in you through the ongoing process of seeking greater understanding.
  10. Thank God for the gifts of the encounter. What were you able to offer the other person that brings you joy? What did you receive from the experience? What will you do next based on your experience—for the other person, for yourself, or for someone else?

How open should we be to others? Open enough to receive everything the Holy Spirit may want to do in us or through us through the encounter.

A prayer “Loving Creator, thank you for the many different ways that you reach out and speak to us. Please help me to be more open to others and to whatever the Holy Spirit wants to show or teach me through them. Please speak to me in all of my daily encounters, and lead me to deeper levels of faith, hope, and love in every possible way. Amen.”

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What is an Authentic Spiritual Journey? (2 of 4)

Monk at Mandalay Monastery, Myanmar

First of all, an authentic spiritual journey is the one that is, not the one we aspire to, not the one we create in our minds to fool ourselves, and certainly not the one we fake to impress others. We may feel scared to admit the truth about the quality of our relationship with God, but we don’t need to be afraid. Such honesty can actually be quite liberating, freeing us to build a more vital spiritual life upon a solid foundation—the truth.

By letting go of pretense, we can more fully appreciate the love and grace of God, who forgives us and sets us free to truly love and accept ourselves. The more we stop worrying about what others think of us, and look instead to Christ, the author and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2), the more likely we are to find the way, the life, and the truth we are looking for (John 14:6). Upon a foundation of truth and grace, we are in a much better position to start out fresh on our journey to discover more of the riches that can be found in Christ, more understanding, more truth, more of whatever it is the Holy Spirit wants to show us or do in and through us. It is at this point—more honest, yet hopeful; flawed, but forgiven; humbled, yet empowered—that we must get our priorities straight. We must line up our actions with our deepest held beliefs and values. But what does an authentic spiritual journey look like? An authentic spiritual journey: A case study Son and grandson of Protestant missionaries, Hermann Hesse was dissatisfied with the emptiness and over-reliance on the intellect that he perceived in Western society and the Christian religion. In his angst he sought insight in psychoanalysis and Eastern religion. Finally, in 1951, as the fruit of his own quest, he published Siddhartha, an evocative novel that has since inspired and captured the imagination of millions around the world. His story traces the life-long, spiritual journey of a fictional character named Siddhartha, who is positioned as a contemporary of the founder of Buddhism, Gotama (aka Gautama, Buddha). As a true seeker, Siddhartha is willing to look for answers wherever he can find them, and to experiment with different ways of being in the world. He is trying to find the truth about life—not intellectually, but practically. He wants to know what truly makes sense in the here and now.

Buddha at Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar

Siddhartha sojourns with the ascetics for a few years, yet finds such extreme self-denial unsatisfying, and leaves their company. He welcomes the arrival of Gotama, and listens carefully to him; but, in the end, he cannot agree fully with his teachings, and chooses not to be one of his disciples. Siddhartha then swings from asceticism to self-indulgence in his search for truth and fulfillment. He plunges freely into the pleasures of sexual love, wealth, and luxury. However, eventually, the emptiness and the corroding influence on his soul from living so dissolutely drives him to take to the forest. There he lives the rest of his life very simply, in the company of a ferryman, who teaches him to listen to and learn from the river. By the time he grows old, Siddhartha concludes that love is the most important thing to pursue. He increasingly becomes disillusioned with any kind of teaching, with ideas, and even words themselves. Increasingly, he is drawn simply to “action.” Concepts, theories, and articulated philosophies are not as valuable as simply focusing on the manner in which one lives, and the affect one’s life has on his or her soul. Sadly, the intellectualism and spiritual barrenness of Hesse’s day obscured the relevance of the Christian faith for his life’s deepest longings and questions. So much of what he was looking for, and what he came to believe about the tremendous importance of love, simplicity, humility, and gentleness, was already right at hand had he only been able to experience the love of God and leading of the Holy Spirit. He went searching for truth but did not take Christ with him. The real contribution of the novel, in my opinion, is not in where Siddhartha ended up. The jewel of the story is not in Hesse’s blend of spiritual beliefs taken from multiple religions and his own imagination and experience, having created his own eclectic spirituality, as all “Blenders” do (see the first article in this series, “How do Christianity and Buddhism Mix?”). Rather, what inspired me was his portrayal of an authentic spiritual journey, as far as it went. Siddhartha faced his own dissatisfaction with life and religion as he knew it, and sought help and a better understanding. He thoughtfully and respectfully engaged those who thought differently than he. He was open to learning from others. He was willing to experiment with different ways to live out his beliefs and convictions. He was willing to change, and he didn’t stop pursuing the truth until he found what he was looking for. Or should we say, …until he found a way of being in the world that he could live with. You may not be satisfied with where Hesse’s Sidhhartha ended up on his spiritual journey, as I am not. Yet are you willing to search as sincerely and earnestly as Siddhartha did to find answers that truly “work” for real life, for your life and relationships, in the here and now?

Spiritual pilgrims on the Camino, en route to Santiago de Compostela, Spain

Final thoughts Different religions define their spiritual goals and methods differently, but every major religious tradition affirms what most of us know from experience: The journey necessarily involves movement and change, and little happens without a sincere and dedicated investment of ourselves in the process. From a Christian point of view, spiritual growth depends upon God as well as us. We can only grow by God’s grace and activity in our lives through Christ and the Holy Spirit; and our part is to seek to know, love, and serve God—and love our neighbors as ourselves—in ever deeper and more profound ways throughout our lives. An authentic spiritual journey, then, will be marked by honesty, openness, intentionality, and earnestness—and, over time, real growth in how we think, how we live, how we relate to God, and how we love. In Scripture, we’re also taught to seek union with God as our ultimate destination, to look to Christ as our guide, and to depend on the Holy Spirit as our source of strength and power. As we experience life-giving changes that reflect Jesus Christ and the fruit of the Spirit, we will know that God is at work, Christ is leading us, and that our efforts have been worthwhile.

Questions to ponder

• How much do I want to grow closer to God and to live more authentically?

• How could I be more honest, open, intentional, and earnest in my spiritual journey?

• What help do I need from the Holy Spirit in order take the next step?

Suggested prayer “Loving God, I know you are the source of my life and the only real hope that I have. I don’t want to live in pretense or with so much emptiness. Thank you for waking me up. Please take my hand now, and lead me forward on my spiritual journey. Show me what I can do, and must do, to live more authentically and to pursue you more wholeheartedly. Amen.” This posting is Article 2 in a series of articles on “Benefiting from Buddhism.” © Timothy C. Geoffrion, 2012.

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How do Christianity and Buddhism Mix? (1 of 4)

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar

Since first interviewing Buddhist monks in 2007, I have become increasingly aware of the contributions of Buddhist philosophy and practice, not only for Buddhists but also for Christians. (See “What I learned from the Buddhists.” ) Now that I am teaching theological students in Southeast Asia on a regular basis, my interest in benefiting from Buddhism and in learning how to do contextual theology continues to rise as well.

Intellectually, Christianity and Buddhism are largely incompatible, but just as Christians have something most Buddhists do not, Buddhists have something Christians often do not, or need more of. For example, how many Christians know how to effectively practice deep breathing in order to relax the body and reduce anxiety? How many know how to comfortably and confidently access their inner wisdom?  How many have an ability to detach themselves from the desires and preoccupations that bring them suffering? How many genuinely value humility, patience, and mutual respect, in ways that actually lead to kinder, more peaceful relationships? Certainly, many Buddhists do not possess these qualities either, but as a well developed, psychologically oriented, practical philosophy, Buddhism offers many helpful tools that are not accessible to most Christians.

Looking to the East is nothing new for occidental thinkers and seekers alike, though a concerted effort by Christian theologians to look to Eastern culture and religion for new insights into God and how God works is relatively recent. Yet, for many Christians, especially in the West, just the suggestion that we might have something to learn from Buddhism makes them feel uneasy, or outright furious. The notion flies in the face of traditional mission philosophy, not to mention (conscious or unconscious, stated or unstated) assumptions about Western cultural, intellectual, or religious superiority. So let’s talk about the issues.

Our first question is: How can devoted Christians beneficially draw on the wisdom, insights, and practices of Buddhism (or any other religion)? I don’t mean, at this point, what are the specific benefits that Christians should seek? (I addressed some of these contributions earlier and will again in the coming articles.) Rather, here, we are focusing on, how should Christians think about encountering another faith?  What are the options? What are the issues?

Among those who are truly curious, open, and willing to listen to those whose culture and religion are different than theirs, I see three different groups emerging.

  1. The Blenders. Blenders are eclectic syncretists, who consciously try to wrap their arms around both Buddhism and Christianity, thus creating a hybrid religion of sorts. Such individuals may call themselves Buddhist-Christians (or Christian-Buddhists), believing that, in spite of contradictions and tensions that exist between the religions, their spiritual experience is best explained or best advanced by embracing them both side by side, or some hybridization of the two.
  2. The Borrowers. Many Christians in the West have been exposed to Eastern thought through the media and popular literature, and wind up mixing and matching various beliefs, whether or not they realize they are doing so. They do not significantly alter their basic Christian world-view or faith, but they freely take from Buddhism whatever they think might be helpful to their life. They may embrace various insights (e.g., the power of attachments to produce suffering in human lives) or adopt helpful practices (e.g., meditation) as “add-ons” to their faith and spirituality. Often such borrowing is done without any rigorous intellectual theological reflection, and thus Borrowers are often unconscious syncretists. (Post-modern scholars generally argue that all religious people, including Christians, are syncretistic. They just don’t know it.)
  3. The Inspired. Then there are those for whom an encounter with Buddhism or another religion becomes a catalyst to look more deeply into their own faith tradition. They are inspired to see if they have missed something that may have always been there but has been lacking in their experience. Spiritual growth for the Inspired, stemming from the encounter with Buddhism, will still look, sound, and be very Christian, in the best sense of the term. Yet, at the same time, if you listen carefully, you will notice that the Inspired develop a larger, more inclusive worldview. They are more compassionate, sympathetic, and understanding. They care less about adherence to rules and traditions, and more about being “the real deal,” as one of my friends like to say about those who genuinely love God from their hearts and want to be an effective, fruitful servant of Jesus Christ.

Does it matter which path one takes in seeking to benefit from Buddhism and other religions? I think it does. Regardless of whatever degree of syncretism may secretly exist in everyone’s faith and spiritual practice, Christians still have the responsibility to reflect on what they believe, why they believe, and where they are going to look for spiritual truth, wisdom, and power. Our view of God, of how we may know God and relate to God, and of how God works in human lives, will all greatly affect our beliefs, thoughts, feelings and actions. I am not talking just about intellectual reflection, but integrating reason and experience.

In the end, every attempt to blend religions falls short of providing a secure spiritual foundation to build upon. I want to learn whatever I can from the wisdom and cultures found in the East, but Christian-Buddhist syncretistic blends tend to be so subjective that they resemble a host of individual, self-made religions. A Blender’s faith will likely depend mostly on his or her personal feelings and experiences in a vacuum, betraying fidelity to Jesus Christ in some way, and divorced Christian community reflection over the centuries, thoughtful examination of the implications of the competing worldviews, and a balanced interpretation of Scripture.

The second route is less radical and seems fairly popular in some circles. Open to benefit from whatever might enhance their lives, Borrowers gratefully embrace meditation, yoga, ancient rituals, or anything else that they find helpful or meaningful in some other religion, but which is unavailable in their own tradition. Unconcerned about, or simply oblivious to, whatever underlying beliefs may be at odds with their Christian faith, they focus more on the immediate benefits of the borrowed ideas and practices that they are enjoying. I wonder, though, how often these “add ons” wind up being a distraction from spending time and energy seeking a more dynamic relationship with Christ and from learning how to live by the Holy Spirit. Personally, I feel more relaxed when I meditate, and my body feels better after yoga, but the most life-changing spiritual experiences I have ever had usually involve being consciously aware of God; heart-felt, honest prayer; or hearing God speak to me through Scripture.

Most of the time, my journey looks like the third path. I’m on a quest for greater understanding about God, myself, and how human beings function and best flourish psychologically, socially, and spiritually. I am open to learn from any credible source, and will gratefully borrow insights and practices from other religions, providing they genuinely cohere with how the Spirit speaks to me through Scripture, prayer, and my relationship with God in Christ.

I especially value dialoguing with those who offer alternative answers to ultimate and existential questions, because they help me to think more deeply and thoroughly. Yet, I do not journey as a lost soul. All along the way, I understand my identity as defined by my faith in and relationship to Jesus Christ. My quest is part obedience and part longing to better know, love, and serve God. I want to experience more and more of the abundant life Jesus offered to his followers, and if an encounter with different cultures and religions will help me to see something I’ve been blind to or ignorant of, I welcome the opportunity to learn and to grow.

What about you? How do you seek to learn from “others” in ways that truly move you forward in your spiritual journey and relationship with God?

A suggested prayer: “Loving God, sometimes I feel overwhelmed and confused by all that I do not know or understand, and I want so much more for my life and relationships. Please help me to see what I need to see; give me courage to face truth wherever it may be found; and fill me with wisdom to know how to best learn from those whose beliefs do not fit neatly into my way of thinking or being in the world. I want to know you as you truly are, and to experience more of the abundant life Jesus came to give his followers. Please continue to lead me deeper into this life. In Christ’s name… Amen.”

This posting is Article 1 in a series of articles on “Benefiting from Buddhism.”

© Timothy C. Geoffrion, 2012.

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Is Prayer a Cop-Out? (6 of 6)

Dialogue with the Disillusioned: Why Keep Praying Article 6

“Prayer does nothing. Absolutely nothing. There is no efficacy to prayer. AT best, prayer will make people less action oriented and more accepting of social inequities due to the false idea some higher power will look out for them.

How about teaching people to read, change the lending institutions in the area to provide micro-loans, start up local businesses that pay western wages, open medical clinics with real medicines, provide family counselling and contraceptives?”(gthink, 6/7/10)*

Are you, as gthink charges, mindlessly and passively expecting God to do what you need to do for yourself and for others? If not, what is the connection between your prayers and your taking responsibility to address the problems of the world?

In my opinion, gthink misunderstands the role of prayer, but so do many Christians. Pitting prayer against action, as if one had to choose one or the other approach to dealing with life’s challenges, is a false dichotomy. In our mission work around the world, we don’t teach pastors and leaders to pray instead of taking action, but to do both. We coach our students to create a vision and plan to address the pressing needs of their congregations and communities, but to do so from a place of spiritual depth and vitality.

As I argued in my last article in this series, it’s human to want to help others, but most of us are too pre-occupied or self-serving to sustain our good intentions, especially if our own interests are threatened. Here, I am taking that concept one step further. Not only do we need God’s help to be able to get past our own self-interest, a vibrant prayer life empowers us to serve others more wholeheartedly, effectively, and sacrificially.

Jesus saw no conflict between maintaining and developing a strong relationship with God and serving the needs of others. He told us to love our neighbor as ourselves, and to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. (Mark 12:30-31) In fact, loving God came first, and loving others second.

A look at Jesus’ life reveals the same two-fold priority: his service for humanity grew out of his relationship with God. By maintaining a rich prayer life first, he found the compassion, love, wisdom, strength, and courage he needed to fulfill his purpose in life and to serve humanity effectively in the face of great opposition and personal sacrifice.

Thus, if you pray to ask God to do what you cannot do on your own, to work through you in extraordinary (even miraculous) ways, and to equip you to take whatever action you are capable of taking, then you are praying as Jesus did. However, if your prayer is making you passive, you’ve misunderstood the point of relying on God.

Indeed there are times for letting go—in times of irretrievable loss, in death, or when we simply are not capable or called to address some need or crisis. And, it’s OK to admit your frailties and fears to God, and even throw up your hands in frustration and despair, if need be. But don’t assume the matter is finished at this point with your Amen.

If you are “letting go, and letting God” simply because you are scared, you are tired, you can’t be bothered, you are overwhelmed, or for any other self-excusing reason, then pay attention. You may be copping out. Your responsibility is not necessarily fulfilled just because you prayed or expressed your feelings.

I’m not saying that knowing how to integrate dependence on God and taking action is always easy. I’m saying it needs to be done, and requires discernment. You will need wisdom and the Spirit’s guidance to know when to press forward and when to back off. You need to discern when to act, when to wait, and when to let go.

God loves and accepts you in your inadequacies, and cares about your needs, but never stop looking for God to work through your weakness to help you move beyond yourself for the sake of others. Stay engaged, and keep looking for God to work in and through you according to his good purposes for you and for all those your life may touch. And keep working yourself.

Gthink is identifying a really important issue here, something every Christian needs to seriously think about. Are you relying on God as an excuse to be passive or avoid taking responsibility? Or, are you doing as St. Augustine advised: “Pray as though everything depended on God. Work as though everything depended on you?”

“God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.” (2 Corinthians 9:8, NIV)

For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:10, NIV)

A Prayer

“Lord Jesus Christ, thank for teaching me to love God and to be a conduit of your love to others as my highest priorities. Create within me a burning desire and the requisite power to do all I can to respond to the needs all around me. Work through me in extraordinary ways that fit with your good purposes—not for my glory, but for yours, and for the sake of those you want to love through me. May your good purposes be fulfilled in my life.”

*To read the original Huffington Post article that prompted this and other responses from bloggers, click here, When Prayer Makes a Difference in Suffering.”

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