I've been involved recently in a discussion with several people, including a faithful Mormon, about seeing God's blessings in your life as a result of following God's will.
The Mormon in these discussions has been arguing that one of the reasons he feels so confident in his faith is because once he started making the decision to listen to God and do God's will, things started turning around in his life. He uses several examples of personal experiences, which he believes are simply too astounding to be coincidental.
To repeat just one of them, he had been out of work and applying frantically for jobs. He wasn't able to find one and eventually his unemployment insurance ran out. Just two weeks after this, he got an interview at a place he had applied for more than two months earlier - and had more or less given up on. He ended up getting this job, which was a blessing in its own right, but after he started, his boss there told him an interesting story. He said that he had been going through applications, and had been set to hire someone, but for whatever reason, this person turned out to be ineligible for hire. On the same day that he called this person to let him know the bad news, the Mormon's application appeared in his email inbox. Recall that the person in question had sent this application two months earlier. For some reason, however, it came to the hiring manager at just the right time, he called the guy, and the guy got the job.
My Mormon friend regards this as a blessing from God for following God's will and making God the center of his life.
He has also argued that since he listens to God - waits for God to give him direction on big choices - he always knows that his choices will turn out good, and he can always look back and see how God has blessed him. This is a very common idea within Christian circles at large - the notion that sometimes you find yourself in what seems like a bad situation, but if you trust God and do God's will, you will eventually come to see how God was working through your life.
Most Christians, I believe, could probably give examples of situations like this. I'm immediately reminded of an old Garth Brooks hit called "Unanswered Prayers," which tells the story of how badly he wanted a girl in high school, and prayed ceaselessly about it, didn't have his prayer answered, then saw her again many years later and realized that she was nothing compared to the wonderful wife that God did give him. The moral of the story is that God is in control, and if we simply trust God and follow God's will, we will always see God's hand at work in our lives - even if we can't see it until much later. (I've always found it highly ironic, and I must say, a bit amusing, that Garth Brooks eventually divorced this wife and ran off with Trisha Yearwood.)
In any case, these discussions got me thinking about the psychology underpinning this sort of faith. It seems to me that what people like my Mormon friend call "God's hand at work," people in secular society simply call thinking positively and looking on the bright side of things. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.
Anyone, Christian or not, can look back on events in their lives and see experiences that seemed terrible at the time, but which turned out for the good. In my life, for instance, my family moved to a new city during the summer between 7th and 8th grade. The experience was horrific and traumatic for me, and quite frankly, scarred me emotionally in many ways. Yet I have always looked back and thought about all the things that wouldn't have happened if we hadn't moved. I wouldn't have met my wife. I wouldn't have gone to the college I went to, and met all the friends I met there. I wouldn't have the job and the friends I have today. I wouldn't have the children I have today.
If I were a secularist, I would just call this a positive attitude - finding the good in things. If I were a Christian, I would call this God's will playing out in my life. The phenomenon is the same - it's the language we use to describe it that is different.
In any case, I think this particular tendency among Christians can also certainly have a negative impact. When we expect God to move in our lives, and when we interpret good things as God's blessings in our lives, if those things end up turning to crap (to put it bluntly), where does that leave us in regards to God? Take, for instance, someone looking for love and finally finding someone they believe is their "soul mate." They attribute this wonderful experience to God. Two months later, the soul mate gets hit by a bus. Now what?
As a matter of fact, I even have experiences in my own life that are related to this, and perhaps this goes a long way towards explaining to people why I have more or less given up on the religious beliefs of my childhood. I'll tell you a story, and I hope you'll stick with me, because this story gets right to the heart of what I am trying to get at here.
In 2007, I was a year into a degree program in Radiology. I already had one degree, but had gone back to college at age 31 to get a second degree. I was now far enough into my program that I could begin working as an X-ray tech in doctor's offices. I was not yet able to work in hospitals.
For the first 9 months of my program, I had taken classes four hours each night, while working full time during the day. I essentially left the house at 8:00 every morning, went straight to school from work, and didn't get home until 9:30 or 10:00 in the evening. I did this four days a week - there were no classes on Friday.
Beginning in September of 2007, I had to start doing clinical rotations during the day, which forced me to resign my day job and get a part-time job in the evenings and on weekends. I went to work for about 9 bucks an hour inside the kitchen of a Mexican restaurant. This was a huge financial loss for me, because not only was I getting paid less, but I was also only able to work about 20 hours a week. Furthermore, I was now having to work on weekends, which essentially meant I was going 7 days a week between clinical rotations and work. It was a very stressful period.
In December, I finished that particular round of clinical rotations and was now qualified to get a job as a doctor's office X-ray tech. My plan, and my sincere hope, was to get a part-time job at an office somewhere, working in my new field and getting paid pretty well, while continuing with my schooling and clinical rotations. I would go so far as to say I was desperate for this.
Around this same time, in December of 2007 - and totally unrelated to my work/school/financial situation - I decided to take a hiatus from blogging in order to do what I called a "Spiritual Quest." In the post where I announced this, I said that I was wanting to take some time off to better understand God. I had spent several years formulating new ideas about religion, but still felt confused and uncertain about what I actually thought of God. Who is God? What does God do? How does God impact my life? What, essentially, is my basic philosophy on God? I didn't have answers to these questions, but I hoped that by going on this "spiritual quest," I might figure it out.
As laid out in that post, my quest involved prayer, meditation, and directed reading. Specifically, I was going to read three books - one scholarly book on the "history of God" within Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, one book by an atheist about why God doesn't exist, and one book by a former atheist who changed his mind and embraced Deism. I hoped that by reading from among these three perspectives, I might better formulate my own ideas about God.
I felt, at the time, that my decision to do this was in some ways serendipitous. I had just finished the famous self-help book "The Road Less Traveled," which talked a lot about concepts of God, and I had also just finished a novel called The Source, which traced - in fictionalized form - the history of Judaism and dealt quite a bit with the evolving concepts of God within Judaism. I had known that The Source would involve topics like this, but I had not expected The Road Less Traveled to deal so much with philosophical concepts about God and religious faith. The fact that I had, quite accidentally, read these two books at the same time, seemed serendipitous to me, and it is what ultimately inspired me to begin this "spiritual quest," where I took about two months off from blogging and writing about religion, and focused all my energy on, basically, "finding God."
So this was all going on at the same time that I was finishing up the first part of my degree program and frantically trying to find work as an X-ray tech while I continued on with school. I wanted out of the Mexican restaurant, I wanted to work in my chosen field, and I wanted the better money that I knew would come with that change.
In early January of 2008, I got an interview with a chiropractor who was interested in hiring a student X-ray tech. Another of my classmates also interviewed for the same job. To my great surprise, I ended up getting hired, even though I had fully expected my classmate - who was every bit as qualified as I was - to beat me out. He had actually been more aggressive in going for the job, and I figured this would probably give him an edge.
I was very relieved and excited to start working in my field and receiving significantly better pay. I went in to work at the Mexican restaurant on a Sunday, planning on telling them that I was quitting and that this would be my last shift. I was starting at the chiropractor's office on Monday. When I arrived at work that day, I found out that the restaurant was shutting down - closing its doors for good - that very night. The lunch shift I was working, in fact, would be the restaurant's last shift. We had been given no prior warning. We all just showed up for work to find out we were unemployed.
I felt immensely blessed. I could not believe my good fortune. Had I not gotten this job at the chiropractor's office just two days earlier, I would have found myself in an even worse situation than I was already in. I hated the job at the restaurant, but I definitely needed the job from a financial standpoint. If not for the incredibly fortunate timing of this new job, I would have been out of work with no unemployment benefits.
Naturally, I began very quickly connecting this situation to the "spiritual quest" that I had been on, by that time, for about four weeks. Here I was, explicitly and intentionally "seeking God," focusing all my creative and spiritual energies on understanding God and my relationship to God, and voila, this incredibly good situation seemingly drops into my lap. I avoid unemployment, get a job in my chosen field, increase my pay - and all this happens with unpredictably good timing during a period of deep spiritual reflection and meditation.
Surely, I reasoned, there must be a connection? How could there not be? The coincidence was simply too great.
I started my job at the chiropractor's office the following day. From virtually the moment I walked in the door, it was a horrific situation. I had actually sensed this even during the interview, but had more or less tried to ignore it. I could write 50,000 words on everything that was terrible about this job, but I will attempt to condense it.
The chiropractor I worked for was what I can only describe as a "fundamentalist Catholic." I hadn't even known, up to this time, that such a thing really existed. He had actually asked me about my own religious beliefs during the interview, and had more or less implied that he wouldn't hire a non-Christian to work for him.
He was training someone in the office to take X-rays along with me, even though you have to have a state license to operate X-ray equipment - which this person didn't have, and couldn't get without going through an accredited program.
He was an herbal-medicine charlatan who essentially told his patients that all prescription medicines are poisonous. This includes everything from ibuprofen to antibiotics. I explicitly heard him tell a patient one day that antibiotics weren't as effective at attacking bacterial infections as garlic supplements (I think it was garlic - anyway, some herb). He once criticized me for talking about how I had taken Advil that morning for a headache. His comment was something to the effect that if I wanted to "pop pills" on my own time, that was one thing, but don't be talking about it in front of his patients.
He asked us to pray for more business.
He had a machine in his office which he claimed could diagnose any disease known to man, including cancer, AIDS, and anything else - simply by hooking up a few leads to your wrists and forehead and evaluating your energy fields.
He claimed that he once saved his son from death during an asthma attack by giving him an emergency back adjustment.
He performed a ritual on new patients that involved putting a bottle of the discontinued anti-inflammatory Vioxx onto a patient's area of pain. With the bottle held at the source of the pain, he would then perform a strength test on them which was aimed at demonstrating how the body knew that the medicine was poisonous, because the muscle strength would weaken. He would then pull out a trusty bottle of his magic herbal pills, stick that bottle on the source of the pain, then perform the strength test again. Magically, the strength test would now be positive, because the body knew the herbal medicine was effective. The entire thing, of course, was a magic trick that involved him using differing levels of pressure during the two strength tests. I watched these performances in horror, and so did many of his patients. I know of at least one who never came back.
He was committing insurance fraud by billing Medicare for therapeutic treatments that he was not actually performing. He would do some other treatment - which Medicare would not pay for - but call it the thing that Medicare would pay for. I know this, because the other chiropractor who worked in the office told me.
He once paid me and another employee cash out of his wallet for working with him at a vendor show. This was done "under-the-table," not reported to the IRS.
There are so many other things I could talk about, but I've already failed to "condense" this the way I had wanted to, so I'll just note that, in short, he was a lunatic, a charlatan, a virtual dictator, and a criminal.
Within three weeks of starting this job - still in January of 2008 - I was already trying to figure out what I was going to do and how I was going to find another job. He solved that problem for me by laying me off, claiming that there just wasn't enough business to justify keeping me on the payroll. I briefly considered reporting him to authorities, but decided to wash my hands of the whole ordeal and move on.
As a result of this horrific situation, several things happened. First of all, I was out of work with no income. Secondly, I was questioning whether I was even doing the right thing by going into the medical field. Are all jobs like this?
I ultimately decided to stick with Radiology, realizing that the bad job experience really didn't have anything to do with my own career field. But I also decided to simply go to school full time and not work. I felt burned, as it were. As a result, I had to take out living expense loans to help support my family financially.
Fast forward almost four years, and here I am today, working full time as an X-ray tech in a hospital. I love my job and my co-workers, and I get paid reasonably well. My wife and I have a dual income and we have a new house. However, we are immensely burdened by school loan debt, a significant amount of which comes from those living expense loans. Had this horrific job situation never cropped up, I may never have decided to stop working, and may never have taken out all those loans. This would make life, today, considerably less financially tight.
What all this means, of course, is that the entire situation was a negative one. Virtually nothing good has come from it, except an emotional scar and a burden of school loan debt. It most definitely had nothing whatsoever to do with God working in my life, rewarding me for faithfulness because I was on a "spiritual journey" and seeking out a better understanding of God.
It was just a coincidence that seemed wonderful at the time, but turned to crap.
I wish I could say this was the only time I had experienced something like this in my life - a situation where I thought God was at work, only to find out later that it was nothing of the sort. Unfortunately, I've had several of these experiences.
And of course, these experiences are one of the biggest reasons why I tend to be skeptical when I hear others attribute good fortune to the workings of God. It's one of the reasons why I tend to view it as being underpinned by psychology - seeing the good in things, making lemonade out of lemons, having a positive attitude.
The fact is, we all face choices every day, and sometimes we face very important, life-altering choices. What I have come to learn, however, is that most of the time, life will be okay regardless of what choice you make. Human beings are enormously adaptable creatures. It's written into our very biological code because it provides a significant evolutionary advantage.
So if someone is deciding whether or not to move the family cross-country, there may be good things that will result from that, and bad things that will result from that. Similarly, there will be bad and good that comes from staying put. If you move, you may have to get used to a "new normal," but you will ultimately adapt.
If you are a Christian, you might look back on the situation and remark at how many wonderful things have happened since moving, and attribute those things to God's blessings for following God's will. But, of course, that conclusion would ignore all the possible good things that might have happened if you had stayed put. Maybe you would have won the lottery. Who knows? The possibilities are endless. In the end, you adapt either way.
I believe this is the psychological underpinning of attributing good things to following God's will. Maybe God really does respond to those who follow God's will. But if that's true, then God also responds to people who are not explicitly trying to follow God's will. Both good and bad things happen to everyone. It's ultimately your attitude that determines whether you view events in your life as a blessing or a curse. If you choose to couch that language of attitude in religious terms, that's certainly fine, but attitude is what it's ultimately all about.