Abba Sisoes said: Seek God, and not where God lives.Desert Wisdom, Sayings From the Desert Fathers, p 3
In seminary, one of the women I knew wanted to get married and start a family. It didn’t matter who the man was. She wanted to get married with such a singular clarity of focus that those of us who knew her could feel the energy toward that goal flowing from her no matter what we were doing at the moment.
She would go on dates with anyone who asked her, and she would continue dating them until she pushed the question on whether the men could see this becoming more than simply a dating relationship – most often sooner than the men had time to realize they were even in a long term relationship. Invariably, most men would say “No” because they felt rushed, and didn’t want to feel pushed into making a decision. Until, one day, she found a man who said “Yes.” And then they ended up married. She dropped all of her classes and took up the mantle of being a “good” girlfriend, then wife, then mother.
In some ways, you can say that her singular devotion to finding a husband was commendable, because in the end she got what she wanted and didn’t waver until she accomplished her task. You might even say she was determined, and a strong woman.
For those of us who knew her, we could only watch from the sidelines with difficulty. It was obvious that she was looking for anyone who didn’t want to leave her. I phrase it like this, because it seemed like the decision was based more around future safety than a choice. She didn’t end up with someone who chose her, but instead with someone who feared her leaving him as much as she seemed to fear being alone.
Why am I telling this story? Especially when it seems I should be talking about seeking God?
Because relationships are weird.
And a relationship with God is not supposed to be a friends-with-benefits arrangement, nor is it supposed to be settling for someone out of fear of being left out in the cold alone. Or in this case, the heat.
Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician came up with a thought exercise concerning the existence of God. A quick summary is this: if people believe in God, and they are wrong, then no harm has come their way, and life continues as it is. But if they believe in God, and they are right, then they would go to heaven after death.
The trouble with this viewpoint is that it seeks to benefit from faith without putting any work into it. It looks for safety, it looks for rescue and the salvation from eternal damnation, rather than a relationship with God. It is purely practical. Practical, with the intention of achieving the greatest benefit for ourselves without really putting any effort into the relationship that God desires from us.
When we view life through this idea of what we want to attain, then everything becomes a calculus of appropriate actions and reactions, of right deeds, and wrong deeds. Our motivation is that we want to avoid eternal damnation no matter what. It’s not about God, but about our own desire. Our entire lives can be broken down into the concept that what matters most is what I get out of the relationship, rather than what I put into it. Said differently: what we desire is more important than who we desire.
When it comes to human relationships, it’s often easy to detect that something is off between people, that there’s some underlying feeling that is missing. But when it comes to our relationship with God, we can often confuse activity with relationship. I go to church, therefore I’ve spent time with God. I volunteer at the food bank. I help cook for church potlucks, I belong to various committees and attend meetings regularly, I usher, I serve at the altar, and therefore, I have spent time with God.
But all of that is activity. I can go to church, and refuse to be moved by the sermon or by the liturgy. I can volunteer at the food bank, but look with disdain at all the people I am “helping.” I can spend time on various committees and push my own political agenda instead of spending time in prayer with others to determine what might be the best course of action for the church. I can usher or serve at the altar, and do it just to be seen, rather than doing it to serve God and others. All that activity can be empty, and devoid of any meaning other than helping to make us look and feel good.
If we wish to seek God, then we need to examine whether what we are doing is intended for our own benefit, or because we wish to draw near to God.
Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.James 4:8