I still remember when the MercyMe song “I Can Only Imagine” hit secular radio. I’m not sure how much of this is folklore and how much is fact, but the story goes as such: a secular DJ thought it would be a funny prank to pull on listeners if he played “I Can Only Imagine” on a pop station. However, after the song was played, the DJ received numerous calls asking about the song and requesting for it to be played again. For this reason, the song continued to be played on this station and others soon joined force. The song had already been on Christian radio for several months, but its listener base exploded when secular stations began to pick it up. Many Christians I knew saw this as a great success. I commonly heard people at church say things like: “It’s about time another Christian song made it big!” It was viewed as a great success, and understandably so. It was the first song (that I know of, at least) to go mainstream since Jars of Clay’s “Flood.”
Part of me wonders if the same thing happened in 1990 when Bette Midler released the song “From a Distance.” Unlike “I Can Only Imagine,” “From a Distance” had not been written as a “Christian” song (in that it was not first released to Christian radio stations). Nonetheless, I have to wonder if the reaction was similar in the Christian community – excitement over a song that clearly references God yet becomes successful in mainstream media.
Since I decided to begin writing about songs that offer a misguided perspective on God, I thought it would be fitting to begin this series with the song that got me thinking about this in the first place. When I was a child, my dad listened to a radio station that played “From a Distance,” but I never really considered the lyrics until it got stuck in my head one day recently. Consider the chorus of the song:
God is watching us / God is watching us / God is watching us / From a distance
It’s written to be a kind of “feel-good” song, which probably explains why I never thought much more about it. After further consideration, though, I’m a bit troubled by the picture of God that this song paints. Does God just sit up in heaven all day and watch?
I’ve come to realize that many people end up on one of two extreme ends of the spectrum when it comes to providence (what/how much God does):
- God is essentially seen as one who was active in creation but hasn’t been active in the world since. Some philosophers have described God as a “watchmaker.” When referencing the past, this is an argument for God used against evolution indicating that the design of the universe must be attributed to an active designer. When referencing the present, however, the analogy can also be used to indicate that God is no longer active in the world. To me, this is the view the song espouses.
- On the other hand, others tend to view God as extremely active (or “meticulous”) in the world. To those who view the world in this way, God’s hand is involved in everything that happens. The wind blows? God made it happen. You get asked out on a date? Dinner and a movie is God’s will. Natural disasters ravage an area? An evil genocidal ruler kills thousands? Now you’re starting to see the danger of this view.
I had already begun writing this post when I stumbled upon this one. I highly recommend reading it, as Rachel Held Evans hits on several of the issues I’ve been considering as I’ve been writing. Essentially, the overarching question is this: how much does God do? I definitely wouldn’t say God only sits and watches, but I also wouldn’t say God forces everything to happen just the way it does. Each view is incompatible with characteristics we know to be true of God.
So what, exactly, is wrong with a view of God as simply a benevolent but passive watchmaker?
It essentially implies that God doesn’t care about what goes on in the world. The Bible tells us that God loves us deeply, and that God pursues us with His love and draws us to Himself. In order for this to be true, God must be more active in the world than those who subscribe to the watchmaker view of God believe.
On the other hand, what is wrong with the view of God being meticulous in the world? Several things. Here are a couple of the major ones:
- As I alluded to previously, it holds God responsible for evil. If God forces everything to happen just the way it does, it not only means that God is responsible for everything good that happens in the world but also everything bad. When terrible atrocities occur, does God force that to happen? Did God instill in Adolf Hitler the idea that some people are supreme to others and he should obliterate those less perfect from the face of the earth? Since this mindset contradicts the way God teaches us to treat others it doesn’t make sense.
- I find this view to be fairly selfish as well, oftentimes unintentionally extending from prosperity theology. Meticulous providence doesn’t sound so bad when God “blesses” you with perfect weather for your vacation, but does that mean that God is punishing you when it rains on your day at the beach? Consider this: if every time a Christian went to the beach on vacation, it would never rain. We’d never get to enjoy Florida orange juice because the climate would be much too dry to support growing anything there, and a trip to Disney World would feel more like a trip to the desert. If God we believe that God blesses us with good weather but has nothing to do with bad weather we are inconsistent, but if we believe God blesses us with good weather and curses us with bad weather we are simply selfish and nonsensical. While weather is but one example, the point remains: we must view the world with a bigger lens than one that simply surrounds ourselves. I think this is the point the movie Bruce Almighty was trying to make in the scene where he pulled the moon closer to himself to make his date more romantic. In so doing, he caused flooding in other parts of the world because the tides are related to the gravity of the moon. What’s good for you might not be best for the whole world.
- This viewpoint also removes the possibility of love. If I am forced to love God, it is not love. I don’t have any kids, but when I do, I don’t plan on holding a gun to their heads and asking them if they love me. If I remove choice from the equation, I also remove love from the equation. Likewise, God shows us love and offers us love, but He also gives us the option of whether or not we will reciprocate it.
Could it be that some sort of middle ground exists? I believe so. I believe that God has a plan for us, but I believe that it is somewhat general in nature. I believe God called me to be a minister. I believe that God led me to the schools I attended and to the congregation I currently serve. I believe that God sometimes leads us in very specific directions but does not necessarily always do so. I also believe that following God’s will can, at times, be complicated and difficult. I believe it is possible to disobey God’s will and do something God would not have us to do. Therefore, evil exists because of disobedience, not because God forced it to happen that way.
Instead of “From a Distance,” a better song for explaining the way God works is the Chris Rice song “Smell the Color 9.” In his honest, transparent outpouring of his struggle to sense God’s leadership, he compares finding God’s will to smelling the “color nine.” If you’d like to read the lyrics to the whole song, you can here if you want. At the end of the song, he clarifies this notion:
Nine’s not a color / And even if it were you can’t smell a color / That’s my point exactly
Following God’s will is difficult. It’s even possible to miss it entirely. It’s also possible to disobey God. But on the other hand, God does care about the matters of the world and is involved in it. To an extent, anyway. God does not force people to follow Him. I believe that sometimes God acts specifically. Sometimes God calls us to do specific things or go specific places. God also gives us general principles to live by. I believe God called me to Texas, but I do not believe God forced me. On the other hand, I also don’t believe God’s will is so specific that God willed what shirt I would wear this morning.
Understanding God’s will can be tricky sometimes. It’s not something I can adequately explain in a blog post. Numerous books have been written on the subject, but hopefully these few paragraphs will prove to be helpful.
What is your experience like following God’s will? Has it been easy for you to discern or difficult? Feel free to comment with any stories you may want to share. Be on the lookout for thoughts on another song soon!