(Mis)understanding God's Message

When I was a kid, occasionally teachers would invite us to play The Telephone Game.

In this game, you all get into a circle. The teacher will come up with a phrase and whisper it in the ear of the person to their right. The person must then whisper what they heard into the ear of the person immediately to their right. Usually there are a couple dozen people in the circle.

When the last person receives the message in their ear, they stand up and say what they just heard. More often than not, the message is wildly different from what the teacher originally said.

"Elephants cannot tango" can become "Elephants can tend and go" or some other variation.

Occasionally, you'd have a diabolical participant who would completely change the phrase, not even trying to maintain continuity. You'd end with "I like flying airplanes at night," and everyone would laugh before we'd figure out who the culprit was - which wasn't particularly difficult.

When God created humanity, he told us he wanted us to enjoy his creation (Genesis 2:16), be in community (v.18), to be involved in God's creative process (vv.19-20), and cultivate God's creation (v. 5). We can also make the inference that God wanted us to be in community with him, based on the fact that God came to walk with Adam and Eve in the garden in 3:8, a seemingly regular activity at this time.

However, after the fall of humanity and subsequent exile from Eden, we began to distort God's original message to us.

I recently listened to a podcast where a former leader in the white supremecist movement in America talked about his journey out of that belief system. It's an excellent podcast and I highly recommend it for your next run/workout/commute.

He said that every person needs identity, community and purpose. I completely agree with him, and I believe that God provided all those things to humanity at the start.

Our identity was that we are made in God's very image. We are all of us image bearers of our creator.

Our community was to be close to God and close to other humans (in the case of Adam and Eve, each other.)

Our purpose was to be part of carrying out God's plan for creation. To cultivate - that is, to care for and develop - that which God made and put under our care.

Yet after the fall of humanity, we quickly changed our purpose to seeking our own pleasure and following our own desires. The message God has whispered in the ear of the first humans had been almost completely lost.

After the flood of Noah, God chose a new messenger to communicate his message - Abraham. Abraham teaches his family about God's truths effectively enough that several generations stay faithful to God. Their identity as God's Chosen People prevents the catastrophic loss of God's message we saw from the time of Eden to the Flood.

Then Moses arrives on the scene and he captures very detailed instructions from God (See Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Numbers)

And rapidly, the message from God is lost again, But this time, it's not lost completely, but rather, it's forgotten as the details overwhelm the purpose.

God's people think that God wants them to become rule followers, when in fact, God has created rules to protect them in order to make sure they don't forget their identity, community and purpose.

They miss the forest for the trees.

So God graciously comes in the person of Jesus and he pauses the game. "Guys," he says. "You've lost the message we started with. Let me remind you."

And he teaches us that God's message has always been telling us who we are, where we belong, and what we're supposed to be doing.

Now, 2000 years later, many people would look at the multitude of Christian denominations and argue we've lost the message again. 

When Muhammad founded Islam around 700AD/CE, his message was that Christianity, like Judaism before it, had corrupted God's message and needed to be reset again.

When Joseph Smith founded the Latter Day Saints movement (Mormons) in the 1820s, he likewise argued that Christianity had lost the true message of God and sought to reintroduce truth.

Martin Luther, of the Protestant Reformation, to his credit, does not attempt to form a new faith or denomination. He simply points the church he is a part of back to Jesus. (While these actions do end up creating new Christian denominations, that was not his goal.)

But John 14 explains why Christianity is different, and not in need of another reset along the lines of the coming of Christ. Jesus is telling the disciples that he is about to leave - referring to his upcoming death, resurrection and ascension, and he says the following:

...I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, who will never leave you. He is the Holy Spirit, who leads into all truth. The world cannot receive him, because it isn’t looking for him and doesn’t recognize him. But you know him, because he lives with you now and later will be in you. No, I will not abandon you as orphans—I will come to you...I am telling you these things now while I am still with you. But when the Father sends the Advocate as my representative—that is, the Holy Spirit—he will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I have told you. (John 14:16-18, 25-26)

After the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, we no longer have to rely on hearing God's message from other people. We can hear it from God directly. Now, does this mean we Christians never get it wrong? Certainly not. We frequently have made mistakes, still make mistakes now, and will continue to make mistakes.

But each of us has been made responsible for listening to the original message directly from God. Most of the errors come from placing another person between ourselves and God. Whether that person is a prophet, a pastor, a priest, a minister, an evangelist, or some other category.

It's far easier to simply repeat what somebody else says than to work to hear God in our own lives. And if that person gets it wrong, we can simply point the blame at them. "I didn't get it wrong, I was just following his/her orders."

It's why philosopher Jean Paul Satre said that humans try to restrict our own choices, because if we really accept that we have complete freedom of choices, then the results of those choices can only be ascribed to us. We fear making choices that lead to bad results, so we want to give our freedom away to somebody else.

This is the terrifying freedom Jesus not only gives, us, but demands of us. To be accountable for our own choices and actions. And it's why we need God's empowerment - through the Holy Spirit - to handle this freedom. Because that's the great part about this. The Holy Spirit not only tells us what we need to do, he helps us do it...if we'll let him.

But functioning in this incredible arrangement means we never need to worry about misunderstanding God's message. We may not fully understand all the details in every given moment - that's where faith and trust come in - but we never need to be confused about our identity, community and purpose.