I am not a great sinner,” he said slowly, measuring each word and watching my eyes for any hint of contradiction, “but I am a great avoider of God.”
My pastoral urge to correct what initially sounded like inaccurate theology quickly subsided as I took in the weight of his words. Armed with Paul’s declaration that he—the superlative apostle—was actually the “chief” of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15, KJV), I was gathering myself to gently remind my visitor how easily we are deceived about our true spiritual condition, how little we understand what Ellen White repeatedly called “the exceeding sinfulness of sin.”1 But then I saw the gray eyes smile as he watched me listen to the latter half of his line.
It was a confession I’ve often heard during 30 years of ministry, and one whose rueful truth I’ve sometimes known too closely in my own life: “I am a great avoider of God.” Accustomed as our culture is to describing spiritual condition by the number of gross sins not committed, we come lately to the realization that our most pervasive problem is actually our innate avoidance of the One who sees all sins, both public and interior. When we have, by the grace of God, grown up at least a little in Christ—when we are faithful to our vows; when we learn to speak the truth; when we abandon violent deeds and words as means of getting what we want—we’re still left with the profoundly unsettling realization that we don’t naturally seek the company of the world’s Great Physician or reach out for His healing.
“Straight-arming the divine,” one of my pastor friends calls it, and his rough football allusion nicely captures our drive to avoid being impeded or obstructed as we pursue the goal line that we’ve chosen. Too often we seek the symbols of spiritual success—the approval of the righteous, the security of a worship routine, the comfort of familiar hymns and texts, a ministry that keeps us busy—as means of holding an unsettling God at arm’s length. Not for us Jacob’s wrestling by the Jabbok or Elijah’s loneliness at Sinai: these awfully intimate encounters with God remind us how much we actually prefer our quiet life in the tents or the public spectacles on the mountaintop.
And corporate structures—congregations, conventions, and constituency meetings—unwittingly provide us with more methods and more reasons to avoid the soul-shaking encounter with the Savior that Scripture deems essential. This painful truth was openly confessed by the worldwide delegates to last October’s Annual Council meeting at the General Conference building. They unanimously voted this acknowledgment:
“We recognize that we have not always placed priority on seeking God through prayer and His Word for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in latter-rain power. We humbly confess that in our personal lives, our administrative practices, and committee meetings we too often have labored in our own strength. Too often God’s mission of saving a lost world has not taken first place in our hearts. At times in our busyness doing good things we have neglected the most important thing—knowing Him. Too often petty jealousies, ambitions, and fractured personal relationships have crowded out our longing for revival and reformation and caused us to labor in our human strength rather than in His divine power.”2
To all who seek the good of Zion, these honest words are also words of hope and encouragement. They point to the one solution that offers promise to individuals and the wider body of Christ.
We must make ourselves available to Jesus in new ways and for unaccustomed amounts of time. We must bow to Him and to each other with unfeigned and persistent humility. We must cultivate a culture of listening for His voice—in His Word, through the whisperings of the Spirit, wherever two or three are gathered in His name. And we must surrender ourselves to be held by Him and healed by Him in that reviving embrace that raises us—and all His body—to walk with Him in newness of life.
That’s how the revival begins—and continues.
1 The Acts of the Apostles, p. 504.
2 See the full statement, “God’s Promised Gift,” Adventist World, January 2011.
Bill Knott is editor of the Adventist Review. This article was published January 27, 2011.