Looking for God. But not there.

Some years ago I was listening to a radio host talk about his doubts. He used to be a pastor, but more recently he’d come to doubt God even exists. Mainly—and understandably!—because of his utter lack of God-experiences. If God exists, shouldn’t his kids have God-experiences?

And he’s absolutely right. We should! But he hadn’t. More accurately, he’s entirely sure he hadn’t; whatever he’d seen thus far, hadn’t convinced him. He’d been Christian for years, yet was pretty sure he’d never heard God’s voice, never seen a legitimate miracle, never had any supernatural event in his life. And, he claimed, he wants these experiences, but thus far, nada.

It was a call-in type of show, so a caller responded, “What about the Pentecostals? They claim they have God-experiences all the time. Why not go there and see what happens?”

Oh no,” said the host. “I’m not going there. I don’t wanna get into that whole scene.”

Lemme pause a moment and make clear: I’m Pentecostal, but no I’m not trying to rope you into visiting a Pentecostal church. Or visiting any particular church. You can experience God anywhere.

My point is how the radio host’s knee-jerk reaction was, “I’m not going there.” He claims he wants a God-experience; this caller said, “Here’s a place where Christians have God-experiences on the regular,” and the host’s reply was, “No, not there.” It’s about when people don‘t actually want God that badly.

There are pop songs where the singer claims he’d do all sorts of crazy things of his beloved. (Bruno Mars’s “Grenade” comes to mind…although it sounds less like risking his life for her, and more like violently killing himself over her. But enough about problematic pop songs.) Singers are willing to climb high mountains, swim deep seas, cross dry deserts, and battle legions of horny suitors for their beloved. But what’ll Christians do for salvation? Anything!… well, anything but go to that church.

Anything but go outside our comfort zones.

For pagans, that’d be us Christians.

I’ve met various pagans who were curious about God, although some admit they aren’t looking all that hard for him. Others claim they’re very interested, and are learning whatever they can about him. Others don’t care at all. It’s a spectrum.

I ask the curious and the interested whether they’ve ever had an actual God-experience. Some of ’em claim they have, and point to some profound “spiritual experience.” (Turns out nearly all of them are emotional experiences, ’cause they don’t know the difference between spiritual and emotional. But that was not the time for me to nitpick.) Others say, “No; I’m not even sure God does that sort of thing.”

“He does,” I tell them. “I go someplace where he shows up regularly.”

“You mean a church,” they respond, suspiciously.

“That too,” I say.

Nah. They’ll pass. Not interested. Because they don’t wanna go to church. They don’t want anything to do with religion. They like God, and might even want God… but they really don’t wanna deal with Christians, our institutions, and our expectations.

Sometimes for legitimate reasons; we’ve been awful. Sometimes not; they were told we’re awful… and it’s not like there’s no truth to those rumors. I grew up Christian, so I’ve seen firsthand how awful we can be. And of course I’m gonna insist we’re not all that way, and that’s gonna fall on deaf ears when a pagan is wholly prejudiced against Christians. They need to see we’re not that way, and that’s gonna take time, and a lot of active love on our part. But back to my point.

Christians, and our churches, make people uncomfortable. And if you can’t fathom this, imagine you’re them. Imagine you have questions about God. Imagine there’s this friendly weirdo you know; might be a coworker, or might be some stranger you met in a coffeehouse, and she claims she can get you all the God-answers you want, and all you gotta do is visit her cult. And no, the people there aren’t mean or controlling at all; they don’t want your money; they’re the nicest folks you’d ever meet! Wanna go check it out?

Swap “cult” for anything which pokes you in your own prejudices: Mosque. Ashram. Coven. Strip club. Maybe then you’ll realize that’s why it’s so hard to get ’em to visit. We’re not part of their comfort zone. Not in the slightest.

We need to bear this in mind when we invite pagans to our churches. If you’ve ever wondered why it’s like pulling teeth… well, there y’are.

This doesn’t stop once we’re Christian.

Once we’re in—once we’ve met Jesus, decided he’s Lord, joined a church, and started following him—we often find ourselves in whole new places where we claim we wanna follow God… but we just won’t follow him there. Plenty of people tell God, “This far; no further.”

And just as in evangelism, quite often the Holy Spirit honors our lines in the sand. Problem is, sometimes he doesn’t have a plan B. There’s only one route he intends to take us, and if we tell him no, he’s not taking us an alternate route; he’s gonna sit there and wait for us to step over that stumbling block. If we refuse… well, we’ve come to a dead stop. We stop. So he stops.

I remind Christians of this, and for some reason this surprises them. What’d they think “Stop” meant? “Stop and go another direction”? Often yeah, that’s what we naïvely thought. But all these other directions are merely side trips. Inevitably we come right back to the original stumbling block.

“Stop just this one thing”? For God, our entire lives are holistic. He’s Lord of all, not Lord over just the religious parts. He doesn’t make exceptions for just this one thing. We may only want him to be Lord over spiritual things, like the happy thoughts we have when we sing worship songs, and the sense of self-fulfillment we get from agreeing with Christian memes. But God refuses to be Lord over only a segment of us… especially such an insignificant segment. He must be rule all, or nothing. If that means our happy thoughts are on their own, so be it.

Every real relationship, especially close ones, pushes us out of our comfort zones. Couples gotta learn how to put up with one another’s quirks and irritating habits. Sometimes they gotta drag one another away from their respective comfort zones, and ask, “Do this one thing, just for me.” Sometimes they gotta ride out a crisis together. Sometimes—God forbid, but sometimes—they gotta go through trauma, and learn to support one another instead of pushing one another away… and not all of ’em successfully do.

I’m not saying they need to seek suffering in order to forcibly (and artificially) strengthen their relationships: Unlike God, they can rarely control the outcome. Trials will come on their own. But when they do, “This far; no further” won’t just put your relationship in a holding pattern while your partner tries to figure out a different direction. In nearly every relationship, “No further” kills the relationship. You’re done.

Thankfully God isn’t like that! He’s not abandoning us when we balk. He’s kinder than that. But in any other relationship, “no further” is a deal-breaker. God, in comparison, patiently waits us out. He’s always willing to pick up where we left off, once we repent. But we still gotta follow the Spirit over that stumbling block: When he tells us, “Do this one thing, just for me,” it really does need to be done. For our sake. That’s why God brought us there to begin with.

So when we have doubts, and God says, “Do this, and it’ll help you deal with them,” and our response is, “I’m not going there,” we shouldn’t be surprised when our Christian growth comes to full stop. Nor when, the absence of Christian growth, our doubts grow instead. It’s easy to see this coming. It’s harder to just follow the Spirit. But that’s what we gotta do.

Same as the pagan who has to take that initial leap of faith—who has to put aside their discomfort and false expectations, because God is more important than any of that.