Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Finding Direction in the Missio Dei

A God-is-Distant Beginning
For me, and some others with similar journeys, we started out with a very removed God. He worked closely with his people in "Bible times" - miracles, prophecies, inspiration, and direct guidance - but in our day had drawn back, no longer doing anything "supernatural." Fortunately, God had left us a manual, the Bible, which we were to follow carefully, mining it for clues about how to please him by doing the right things.

Obviously, though we wouldn't have said that God was an impersonal force, practically our interaction with God was very impersonal because all we had was the Bible. We lived with and by a set of documents. God was passive and an observer while we worked hard to please him according to the instructions he'd given.

A God-is-Near Discovery
Something world-changing happened when I was found by the reality of a near God, who was not only known distantly through texts, but immediately by his continued work and presence. Obviously, I didn't throw away my Bible. I did, though, need to discover how to live within the presence of God, interacting moment by moment.

Now I can change my verbs to present tense - and I am still learning how to live with God as a person. This is not easy, because besides the old view I had, there are other ideas about what it means for God to be real and active in our world, and for us to shape our lives to his reality.

A God-is-Leading-Me View
See, some would tell me that since God is living, active, and present - I can expect constant and daily guidance in everything. Walking in the Spirit means taking every matter to God and looking for divine help - answers, direction, or whatever is needed. Being a spiritual person means being in touch with God's voice, and his word is personalized to me and directs me each moment to do His Will. We learn to hear God's voice and to faithfully respond.

In it's best aspects, this view takes seriously God's involvement in our world and encourages constant reliance on Him. I am to think of God always, and trust Him for everything. That is good.

One of the possible problems with this approach is the assumption that there is personalized divine direction for everything. Will God tell me specifically which car to buy? I don't mean does he establish principles of moderation, of propriety, of extravagance, and of stewardship under which I look for how to be godly in my decision, but will God pick the Toyota over the Ford for me directly? Am I to look for a sign of God's leading when I am in the dealership?

It may sound as if I am making fun of this view, but I am not. These are real, practical questions for how I am to expect God's Presence to shape me. These are faithful questions. Do I look for specific, addressed-to-my-question answers?

An associated problem is how to know whether I am getting that direction from God, or is my "impulse" coming from somewhere else? It can become too easy to be certain that all my urgings are from God. If I adopt this approach, at least let me be hesitant with my "readings" of God's Will lest certitude close me off from God's direction which may not always come from within me. A good question is whether God's direction is regularly or only occasionally a matter of an "inner" message laid on the heart.

A God-is-at Work View
I actually like another understanding of God's immediate action and presence, and a different expectation of what it means for me to receive direction - and this is the Missio Dei, or Mission of God. This is a different starting point: God is at work with his purpose or mission, rather than God is at work guiding me. Let me try to unpack the difference.

Starting from the Missio Dei we would say that God is not distant, but as throughout history, intimately involved in his creation. God is near and active. What God is doing is completing his work. His constant activity is not attending to me (answering my questions, directing each decision) but attending to his purpose. This doesn't mean I have no direction. It doesn't mean God is leaving me out. On the contrary, my work is to join God in his mission! He has shown us what is good . . . act justly, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.

I do have constant direction from God, but it is not centered on me and my questions about this or that in life, but centered on Him and his purpose. My direction is not what car to buy, but how to be about God's purpose. Ultimately, with this view, I do have to bring my purchase of a car under God's direction. I do not expect God to make something happen to direct me to the right car dealership, and choose the "right" model, but I do have to ask how my choices might be in harmony or out of harmony with God's purposes.

The spiritual life, walking in the Spirit, or however you want to describe this God-centered life . . . is not learning to be a "sign-reader" of all God's personalized messages to me, but how to conform myself to what God is really doing. God is not attending to me; I am learning to attend to Him. There is a world of difference here.


Frank Bellizzi said...

Wow, Greg. A terrific post. In the name of God, I plan to swipe some of this.

When I was working with a church in Connecticut, there was this one faithful lady who interpreted every snowfall theologically. Of course, it always drove me crazy because she was so sure, and I was so good, yet ineffective, at saying, "Yeah, but what about . . . ?" We finally called a truce, and from that point on the whole discussion was a good-natured joke between two fellow believers.

Regarding views of God and the world, I was just so very relieved when I realized that there had to be a difference between the God who is and my conceptions of God. That one took a long time for me, mainly because you can work with blueprints for years and never think much about the designer and what he might be doing these days.

Scot McKnight said...

Get that corrected, friend, to missio Dei.

Now that I've done my "teaching thing" let me say that I like your post and urge you to keep thinking along these lines. Have you seen the long chp in Bosch's book on this (Transforming Mission)?

Anthony Parker said...

I think that this is a very helpful perspective. As we struggle to fine God's purpose in our future direction, and have looked at different ministry possibility, I've had people tell me with confidence that this or that was definitely God's will; when it didn't work out, what was I to make of that? It would be more helpful if people who have not had a word from the Lord would not speak as if they did. (Though my native skepticism did keep me from putting too much stock in it.)

I do, however, still need the Spirit's help in making choices that are in harmony with God's purposes.