An interview with Nancy Ortberg, author of Looking for God: An Unexpected Journey Through Tattoos, Tofu, and Pronouns …
Nancy, where did the idea come from?
What was presented to me in building a relationship with God was this very prescriptive, boxed-in approach to God that had merit and helped but wasn’t always the best way for me to connect to God. The book really is a journey both to get out of a box and find fresh and new ways to build a relationship with God and to go on that journey to find out is God good. I don’t know how many other people struggle with that, but I’ve never doubted the existence of God. I’ve often wondered: Is he good? Or is he mad at me, disappointed in me? So that’s really part of what prompted what I wrote.
What was refreshing for me was that the book consists of short stories, lessons and milestones.
A collection of essays. In my mind, everything is connected, but that’s just sort of the way my mind works. I think to the average reader it will feel like just a collection of essays about different things in life and different learnings about God.
How have you struggled spiritually?
Yeah, I think it would be great some time for somebody to write a book on spiritual disciplines that nobody talks about. One of them certainly is the truth that most of us learn our deepest lessons and find our deepest connection to God when life gets really, really tough. There have been many of them in my life.
I grew up in a very good home, although my dad was a functional alcoholic. My mom is a wonderful person, but I think she struggled with that whole codependent spouse thing. For me growing up as an only child in that environment there was this sense of if life is going good, you better get on your guard, you better tense up a little bit, you better look left and right and get ready because the rug is going to get pulled out from underneath you. From the time I was a young girl, that’s how I saw God. That was one thing I had to spend years working through to see God differently and more correctly.
There were a couple times in my life where I was tested for a neurological disorder that would have left me incapacitated. As a young woman in my 20’s, that was pretty terrifying, asking the hard questions: What does that mean when it comes to who God is? How would I get past my anger and my fear to find what I hoped would be comfort and peace?
For a lot of my journey, it’s been fighting, struggling, asking hard questions, getting angry with God, listening, learning, reading, processing — until I moved along my journey, saw God more clearly and discovered that he’s staggeringly good.
Nancy, you’ve worked in a number of areas: the medical field, you’re a pastor, a consultant and an author. Are you able to integrate business into your spiritual life?
Absolutely. When it comes to business, one of the things that I believe very deeply is that work is spiritually formative. It’s not a result of sin. It’s one of the ways in which we understand God better and God redeems the world. I think work is noble. From that perspective I believe very deeply that my faith greatly influences how I lead, how I work, how I view my work.
I had an “aha” moment when you talked about quiet time and how, as Christians, there’s guilt around quiet time — how you do it, how much time you spend on it. It’s affirming for me that you found God in some non-traditional venues.
Yeah, that was a big part of my journey. I think someone who hears that would quickly say, Sure, you can find God other ways. But then when we do there’s that little voice saying, This doesn’t count. This isn’t as good as the 30-minute, 45-minute thing in the morning called a “quiet time.” And I’m not really sure where that came from, but I sure grew up hearing that was the primary way to connect to God. And while I don’t think there is anything wrong with doing a quiet time, I do think that in any relationship if you do everything the same every single day your relationship is going to get pretty small and narrow.
There is a great passage in Isaiah 29 where God’s complaint against the Israelites was that their mouth and their lips said the right thing on the outside but that their heart was far from him. And then he goes on to describe it and says, ”You’ve followed a religion made up only of rules taught by men.” That grabbed me very early on — that’s part of what can happen to a quiet time pretty quickly. There is this pressure to have it in the morning. It needs to be 30 minutes — 45 is better. It has to follow an acronym. It has to spell something out like Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication — you need to do it in that order. When you’re done you’ve got to find a way during the day to let people know that you had your quiet time and you have to let them know how meaningful and profound it was.
For me it just felt like such a disconnect. There were days when I would have quiet time and I felt nothing, but it wasn’t okay to say that. Then I found that there were days and weeks and months that I did, but my relationship with God was very stagnant.
There are lots of other ways to connect to God that are equally valuable as doing a quiet time. I think “quiet time” is one of many ways to connect to God that we should use, but it’s not the only or primary way.
For me experiencing God outside of that and allowing it to count has expanded my view of God and really deepened my relationship with God.
Nancy, how do you and John experience spiritual intimacy in your marriage?
That’s a great question. Hey, let me tell you how we don’t do it.
We don’t do devotions together. We don’t have prolonged prayer times together. For John and I, the primary way we do is through conversations. We have frequent and good conversations about how God is prompting us on our own internal journey. Conversations sometimes in bed late at night, sometimes on the phone, if one of us is traveling, sometimes just over a meal. That works for us when we’ve tried all the other things, and it’s always felt sort of contrived and awkward and weird. Because we’re both teachers sometimes we feel like, I think we’re trying to teach each other something here.
For us these authentic and natural conversations in the course of a day or in the course of a week communicate what we’re learning about God. It doesn’t take us long after the wedding to realize, I think we’re similar, and we’re different. What works for John in his spiritual pathways does not work for me. Instead we should say, What if we both do it the way we connect to God deeply. That’s a gift we bring to our marriage. I think that’s very, very healthy.
That’s very freeing.
Christians get bogged down in this quicksand of guilt. We forget that on the other side of everything, God gives us freedom. It’s perfectly appropriate to feel guilt, apologize and ask for forgiveness when we’ve done things that are wrong. However, it’s not okay to feel guilt over “not doing enough”. That puts us right back into Satan’s trap, denying that the cross was enough. We start thinking, We’re in charge, we’re so powerful…If we could just do enough for God. We have to break free of that to experience this kind of freedom in God, in Christ, and be able to accept the way that God deeply loves us just the way we are right now.
I’m guessing that earlier in your marriage more discipline and structure was necessary?
Yeah, maybe not so much in the marriage piece between us, but I do think what you’re saying is very true when you’re a new Christian. I think I was the recipient of great discipline and study, in my school and church. It provided a great foundation. I began to sense God saying, “There’s more. I need you to keep moving forward and do this in new and fresh and different ways.”
I think you’re right. There is a place and a huge value that more disciplined structure offers us, but we’ve got to stop putting them on the scale and weighing them and saying, They’re better than other ways of doing it.
I think often of when I was driving in Chicago after I dropped my kids off from school one day and the thought popped into my head, Jesus never journaled. And, Jim, I pulled the car over to the side of the road for probably about five minutes and I sat there stunned by the thought and I wasn’t sure whether I should laugh or cry, be happy or angry, because nobody had ever said that out loud.
Everybody had presented to me, “If you don’t journal, I’m not sure how you can have a close relationship with God” — and that’s almost a verbatim quote — I think most of us grew up on that. How did we get from “a practice that Jesus never practiced” to “this is the only way to meet God”?
So, a quiet time is just one expression of meeting God.
Exactly. That’s a fabulous way to say it. Put it in the toolbox. Put it in your arsenal of things you can use to connect to God — “arsenal” is not a great choice of words — put just in your inventory and use it, but don’t elevate it and then don’t try to do it the same way every day.
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