Oh, the contradictions.
I sat on the edge of my twin bed in the basement of my parents’ house, frustrated as hell. I was 31 years old, gainfully employed as a software engineer making something like $65,000 a year. But for the second time in my life, I was saddled with crushing debt.
The first time around, it was because I was simply out of control. Burdened with an only-in-the-First-World-could-this-possibly-occur sense of under-privilege, I had graduated from college with an overweening urge to live “the good life.” Before I had even started at Boeing, I had racked up debt on an American Express card for a weeklong debauch in Mazatlan and a cash advance to buy Seahawk season tickets. Within a couple years, I was dining at fine restaurants five nights a week and was on a first-name basis with my travel agent. My credit cards were all absolutely maxed, and I was spending money faster than I was earning it. I reached bottom when I bought a set of Craftsman tools with my Sears card at the Southcenter store and then drove up to Northgate to return the supposed “gift” (which I had “given to myself, Precious,” as I rationalized the lie) for a cash refund… so I could buy groceries. I was living like a money junkie.
I dug out of that $18,000 hole on sheer will power. I moved into a low-rent house, used my beat-up VW 412 as collateral for a low-interest short-term loan, stopped going out to dinner, and just “got disciplined.” By focusing on one credit card at a time rather than all of them at once, I was able to get them all paid off within 18 months.
And then I went right back into credit-card debt again. Sure, I did the double-dip quite deliberately, spending $20,000 to finance the production of my own short film, but by 1993, five years later, I was still stuck in that debt. Whatever discipline I had leveraged during Round One had apparently vanished. I just couldn’t stop buying things–particularly collectible vinyl–and the travel bug had bit me hard.
So I decided to simplify my life, thinking that would do the trick. I rented a storage unit and put my two-bedroom house full of stuff on ice. I moved back into my parents’ basement, pretty much rent-free, to see how much of my stuff I would miss. (The answer? Almost none of it.) I put myself on a budget. Finally.
And still, after several months of this monastic life, I had made zero progress on eliminating my debt. I sat on the edge of my bed, with my head in my hands. What a loser I was, thought I. “I’m never going to get out of debt. My expenses are nearly zip and I’m living like a college student, but there just never seems to be enough money. And getting raises just doesn’t seem to help. I don’t understand it.”
About that time, Normandy Christian Church, where I had started attending again with regularity, sponsored a “financial health” seminar. It was taught by the church’s youth pastor, who also happened to be a real estate agent. I thought, “What do I have to lose?” and signed up.
I heard a lot of things over those two days that challenged me. I heard that money is not evil, but it can be misused and idolized in all kinds of ways–which leads to evil. I heard that it’s impossible to serve both God and money. I learned about “stewardship,” the idea that we are at best caretakers of God’s stuff–that it isn’t our stuff at all. I learned about the difference between tithes (doing the minimum required) and offerings (going above and beyond the call of “duty”). And I learned that God expects us to take both his commands and promises seriously. And to do it both willingly and joyfully.
In particular, this bold teaching from Malachi 3 reached out and grabbed me by the throat:
“Will a man rob God? Yet you are robbing Me! But you say, ‘How have we robbed You?’ In tithes and offerings. You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing Me, the whole nation of you! Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in My house, and test Me now in this,” says the Lord of hosts, “if I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you a blessing until it overflows.”
I can’t remember if I asked the question, or if someone else did–or if I simply voiced incredulity inside my head. Seriously? Tithe? When I’m already in dire straits? Just go ahead and try to eke things out on 90% of my income when I’m struggling to make ends meet with 100% of it?
I didn’t like the answer–whether it came from the instructor, or somewhere else. But the answer was, “Yeah. Seriously.”
I went home and did the math… and as I expected, it did not add up. There’s no way to get blood from a turnip.
And still the gauntlet had been thrown. “Test me now in this,” says the Lord of hosts. “Test me, and see.”
Oh, the contradictions–these little competing truths we find in Scripture that give us a “way out.” And you can have it both ways, too.
If you cleave to the New Testament rigorously, you can quote Jesus from Luke 4, with the added confidence of knowing he’s citing the OT: “It is said, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” And from there you can say, well, God just doesn’t play that game. So don’t even think about making God dance like a show pony. You know, like Gideon did.
But if you are inclined to Old Testament literalism, you know that Gideon most definitely did put God to the test. “You know, God, I’m pretty sure you’ve called me to lead Israel. But just to be sure, I’m gonna throw this sheep skin on the ground tonight; if you’re really serious about this, put dew on the fleece but nowhere else. Oh, and if you can do that one? The next night, do the reverse. Put dew everywhere else, but not on the fleece.” And God did that dance for Gideon.
And then there’s that bit in Malachi. Where God says, quite explicitly, to test Him.
So when you want to make God dance, as I distinctly remember trying when I was kid, you can replicate the fleece test. And when God doesn’t do the dance, you can say, “Well, I guess God wasn’t very serious.” Or, “I guess God’s got better things to pay attention to.” Or, “Well, God just doesn’t exist.”
And when you want someone else to do God’s plain and obvious will, no questions asked, you can trot out Jesus’ words to Satan.
I’ve learned one thing about biblical contradictions: they are not there to confuse us, or to make convenient excuses, or provide fodder for agnostic or atheist argumentation. They are there because, quite frankly, there is no cookbook approach to following God. Everybody pretty much has to figure this out for themselves, and follow a uniquely ordained recipe.
Not everybody is going to be asked to throw their only son on the altar. Not everybody will be asked to preach to Nineveh. God is not going to send everyone to Cornelius. God doesn’t whisk us all around like Philip the Evangelist. We don’t all have a Road to Damascus. We don’t all need one.
And I can tell you right now: as much as you may well ask, as pastor Caleb Mayberry has put it, “Where are my ‘signs and wonders’?” God does not respond to everyone in the way He responded to me when I took Him up on His Malachian test.
And how did He respond?
Well, in spite of how the numbers crunched, I decided to take the whole tithes-and-offerings routine dead seriously. I decided to take God at His word, particularly since nothing else I had tried even remotely worked.
So with my next paycheck, I took ten per cent off the top and wrote a check to the church. And I kept doing it. Religiously, as it were.
Lo and behold, within a matter of weeks everything in my financial picture had changed. It literally seemed like I had money coming out my ears, which it certainly should have since I was earning plenty. Within a year, I was again debt free.
This time, I am happy to report, it stuck. Twenty-plus years down the line, and in spite of now living in near poverty (thanks to the skyrocketing cost of health care), God is still keeping my financial house in order.
How does that work, exactly?
Well, it’s not hocus-pocus. And it’s not the power of positive thinking. It’s being responsive to what God is telling you, and putting Him first. As we decode the recipe of our journey from the clue-like ingredients God supplies, He “breaks through the stubbornness of our heads and hearts,” to again quote Mayberry. And we are then indeed “dealing with a whole ‘nother animal.”
This was the first of many lessons God had for hard-headed me. “Test Me in this. See if I’m not faithful.”
Yes, God got my attention. After 30 years of doing things my way, I had finally gotten serious about my faith, and instead tried things God’s way.
“Great apparent coincidences,” wrote the late Christopher Hitchens in his memoirs, “only occur to the intellect that has rehearsed and prepared for them.” By this I took him to mean that miracles only appear to those facile enough to believe in them in the first place–though I’m not entirely sure, since Hitchens’ mind and breadth-to-depth of experience were far greater than mine could ever hope to be.
But I hazard a guess, nonetheless, than my human journey has been perhaps richer than his precisely because I began to “rehearse and prepare” for “great apparent coincidences.” After all, the opposite is also perfectly likely: that one is likely to miss great miracles, if they do in fact occur, if one has rehearsed and prepared to dismiss them on the basis of a priori commitments.
One doesn’t change one’s mind, Hitchens avers. “Your mind changes you.” I agree with him on that point. But I also believe that in 1993 my mind began to be renewed by God, and that I have been in turn transformed by that renewal. If we rely solely on ourselves or other deeply flawed human beings to shape our minds… well, good luck with that.
I am entirely convinced, however, that God knew the “slow boil” would never work for me. What my mind needed was “evolutionary leaps.”
There were much more to come.