Posted on July 15, 2012 in Atheism, Suffering, Theology, Truth

Changed Expectations, Changed Reality, Changed Self

So I was having lunch the other day with two wonderful women, women who like lunch with vodka, and so I like having lunch with them, because I like them, I like vodka, and I like lunch.

We were visiting about this and that and in the course of the conversation, this little nugget surfaced from the netherworlds of my mind:

The amount of pain in your life is directly related to the distance between your reality and your expectations.

Everytime I say it, I am impressed by how ridiculously simple the notion is, and how awfully true it is nonetheless.

The temptation, of course, upon hearing this bit of wisdom, is to fall toward modifying one’s expectations.  Who hasn’t had at least one wildly out-of-hand expectation…in the last day or two, even?

Ramp ‘em down!  Be realistic!

Which then, eventually, leads to the realization that the realistic can be affected by one’s reality.

But to a greater degree than one might think, a person has permission and possibility to, get this, change one’s reality.

I grant that sun rises in the East and set in the West, and that two hydrogen and one oxygen molecules make for water, and that it is a Holy Act, a form of martyrdom, even, to be a Twins fan.

Some realities, that is, just are.

But some don’t need to be, even if for all the world they look like they do.

Perhaps it’s rather that  some realities have more than one way of being seen.

Self-portraits from Matisse's 1947 retrospective "L'exactitude n'est pas la vérité"

These illustrations (don’t be fooled by the one-of-these-is-not-like-the-other on the right) are self-portraits drawn by Henri Matisse for a 1947 retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibit, for which he wrote a little essay entitled “L’exactitude n’est pas la vérité.”

Exactitude is not truth.

Each portrait is clearly of Matisse, and  yet clearly different, one from the other.

Which one captures Matisse?  Which three don’t?

Which one is true?

And, to coin a phrase, “What is truth?”


There’s a piece floating around on Facebook lately.  It looks like this:

It irks me.

But I don’t want to settle into my reptilian irks, and so I spent some time considering why the thing bothers me.

Significantly bothers me.

1. It’s not particularly nuanced.

I realize that some Christians do look at the Bible as proof for God.

But as many, if not more, see the Bible as an expression of God.

Quite a few (we Lutherans not least of all) even see that significant chunks of it are expressions of its time (women may in fact, nowadays, speak in church, and in leadership positions, even [gasp!]); culture (babies of enemies ought not have their heads bashed on stones, acceptable thought it may well have once been); and context (simultaneous polygamy and concubine-age=jail time and gossip at the coffee shop.).

That’s not even to mention male bias.

Even so, its expression of God’s fidelity and call to care for the poor, the oppressed, the broken, and the outcasts is not too shabby.

2. The pic is insulting to Christians, suggesting that our faith is tantamount to belief in a cartoon.

It’s easy to knock down a caricature.  Harder to engage with intelligent people who believe differently than do you.

3. I wonder how many people who post it have read the Bible, vs. how many of these same people have read Spiderman.

With all due respect to the folks at Marvel, we’ve got a different gig going on in the Bible.  Actually, we’ve got several different gigs, depending on which book, which author, and which century you have in mind.

4. How many have read -about- the Bible even: its histories, its complexities, its import?

5.  All of that said, they do people like myself a favor, by raising the question about what is God.

Some people probably believe that Spiderman is God.

So how do we decide what God is, and what the “so what?” effect of this God is in our lives?

As an aside, it always strikes me as a bit curious that atheists believe in a God enough to disbelieve in it, not least of all to diss it.  I’m just not always sure what God it is in which they are disbelieving and dissing.  Sometimes, though, I get close, and find myself disbelieving and dissing that same God right there with them.


Is God true?

Is atheism true?

Is my reality true?

What is truth?

Sometimes what is true is based on how one views reality.

It is true that one’s perspective changes one’s view.

The same elements of the whole can be in place, but how they are meshed, fit, blended, focused, patterned, melded, refracted, reflected make all the difference in the world.

So I have a kaleidoscope in my OMG study, a beautiful work of art that is also a symbol.

The colors don’t change, but the way that they are configured do, depending on how you turn the cylinder and how much light you let into it.

That sounds like a perfect set up for a Life Analogy.


One of the things that I love doing at OMG is raising the questions about how we know that something is true.

When someone comes in to assert something about their theology–or purported lack of theology–it’s worth poking around to ask some questions about truth and reality.

There are reasons for everything: it’s just that some reasons aren’t as good as others.

And that some reasons which were held to be true once upon a time, well, don’t any more.

It can be a bit risky; threatening even.

Not just our reality is called into question, but the reasons we have had for believing in it are.

There is some freedom in that, however.  Some recognition that we are not flotsam and jetsam.

We can change our expectations.

We can change our reality.

And by doing so, we, ourselves, can be changed.

  1. fritz ritsch on July 15, 2012

    I came to faith in 1973, the same year that Gwen Stacy, Spidey’s girlfriend, died–an event that shocked my little fourteen-year-old self to the core and which, strangely, I have always connected to my becoming a Christian. Like a whole lot of the dorks and nerds of my generation, I had a tremendous crush on Gwen. It was easier to dwell on her admirable qualities rather than actually to personally relate to any real girls my age.

    So part of what was shocking about her death was that it was a reality check in a medium that I used for escape. When I became a Christian, part of my ermerging reality was that I was living in a troubled home with a mentally-ill mother. In retrospect, I think Gwendy’s death, combined with becoming a Christian, helped me face reality rather than escape it.

    So my answer to the above over-simplistic parallel between the Bible and Spider-Man is that Spider-Man is ALSO proof that God exists.

    And proof as well of your profound point that the amount of pain in your life is directly related to the distance between your reality and your expectations. But to take it a step further, and this is I think your point: our ability to live responsibly, effectively, and faithfully is directly related to the distance between our reality and our expectations.

    Heaven knows–and inside, maybe we each know it, too–how much our frustration that reality does not line up with our expectations not only makes us unhappy, but makes us too self-involved to be faithful disciples, or even good people.

    After all, with great insight comes great responsibility! Thanks for another good column, Anna!

    • OMG on July 16, 2012

      Yep. I like it. Spiderman is also proof that God exists.

      God need not be seen–and, to be really provocative, I’d argue sometimes is plain old NOT seen–in the Bible.

      I didn’t make that point which you so kindly attribute to me, but I wish I had, as it is a pet favorite point of mine to make. To quote you, “Our ability to live responsibly, effectively, and faithfully is directly related to the distance between our reality and our expectations.”

      One’s expectations can be stewarded. I have great pain that the world is not as it should be, but I can also be an ambassador instead of God’s reign, and in so doing can usher in my expectations.

      Thanks for clarifying my point, even for me, and thereby making the blog far better!

      • Anonymous on July 20, 2012

        Thanks, likewise, Anna. I’m intrigued by your remark that sometimes God is NOT seen in the Bible. That’s worth a column in itself. I think issues in the relationship between the Bible, reality, and faith lie at the heart of modern Christianity’s identity crisis and until we resolve them, we make the God we know through the Bible and Jesus Christ less and less relevant–and less and less like God. My friend Wendy, below, has found herself at church despite the Bible-bangers. It’s clear we need to present scripture in a more nuanced way than often is done.

  2. kris haugen on July 15, 2012

    What a wonderfully basic, yet timely reminder that we can only control our own thoughts and realities. As I weather changing job prospects and the health of my spouse, I can only adjust my own expectations for where I thought we were going. Thanks for a little time to pause, reflect, and re-adjust.

    • OMG on July 16, 2012

      I sure love you cousin.

  3. Jeff Barth on July 16, 2012

    Some think that there is no reality until we decide what it is. Most everything is empty space and may not exist until we come around the corner aand see it.

    I think something is true and at another momrnt something else is true. The trouble comes when we try to connect the two particles of truth together. In the end they never seem to fit.

    • OMG on July 16, 2012

      Good point.

      I have often thought that there can be competing truths.

      And I think that there is much to be said for reality creating itself on the basis of what has come before it, much like frost on a window.

      Many religious people–not only Christians, by the way–are wedded to this notion of a Divine Plan. I’ve got me some troubles with that whole idea. I wrote about it here (interestingly, the second time today that I cut and pasted it! Must be something in the air).

      There are some theologies out there that suggest that God and humanity are co-creators. Everything is a surprise until it happens, and when it does, then something new is made on the basis of it.

      I’ve come to think that the idea of God’s agenda is particularly helpful. God wills a certain way of being in the world, and we are called to live out, to be ambassadors of, that vision, that agenda.

      But here’s where it is so key to figure out what one’s God is. Whatever is most important to you is your God, the thing around which you bend your life. That thing, whatever it is, is what shapes your being in the world, and therefore your reality–and the realities of the lives of those whom you touch.

      Competing truths are painful. Lutherans love Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Here’s a brief sketch as to why:

      He was a pacifist and yet tried, albeit poorly, to off Hitler. Both his commitment to non-violence and his deep objection to Hitler’s vision and agenda moved him to several assassination attempts.

      So he decided, in the face of these two competing truths, that he had to jump toward the one that seemed to be truer. He did so with conviction and humility, and, hoping against hope, trusting above all, for grace.

      That helps, or helps me any way. In the end, when perplexed while also knowing that something needed to be done, I trust in grace more than in the possibility that I probably am wrong.

      Regardless, whenever a person acts, a new reality is created, and we go from there.


  4. Norma on July 16, 2012

    I felt like I was going through a maze until I came to the last sentence and viola – all clear!
    Thanks, Anna

    • OMG on July 16, 2012

      I just plain old don’t think linearly, do I Auntie Norma! Sorry about that! ;-)

  5. Kirsten Mebust on July 16, 2012

    And to bring it back around, being changed, especially changing your reality, can be painful. Oh, and not all pain is bad.
    I am also bothered by the way the juxtaposition of pictures. I think there’s another post in whether God is a superhero, or anything like a superhero. My sense is that the steady diet of fantasy and superhero movies that we feed the young means that many of my students find it very difficult to change their reality sufficiently to read the Bible without seeing God as the superhero who performs miracles just in time to save the good guys (and makes the bad guys pay.) It’s not that they’re not smart enough, or mature enough, but the frame we give them through the culture is superhero God/sacrificial Jesus.
    Too much said. Nice movement in your discussion.

    • OMG on July 16, 2012

      It is never too much said when you comment. It is rather always too little!

      Yes. Being changed is painful.

      I think too that the point isn’t to remove pain. It is rather to slough off unnecessary, unproductive, or useless pain.

      You made me think of how I love Frederick Buechner’s quote, “Your vocation, namely the place to which God calls you, is where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” However, living out one’s vocation isn’t always cause for gladness, is it. Sometimes there is a cross at the end of the road.

      I am annoyed that I didn’t think of Father Robert Farrar Capon’s Superman quote in time to put it into the blog. You jostled my memory here too. I googled it just now, and found a hit to my own blog on it! Grin. I’d forgotten. (Arg. There seems to be a latent theme here which raises question about my mental acuity….)

      Here it is:

      There is sacrifice, i.e., pain, in being a follower of Jesus. One can expect it, AND it is part of our reality.

      So perhaps the remaining pain is pain that, as I said in a reply above, can be stewarded. It is the pain of righteous indignation. The pain of protest…and even protest against a God who seems to be just a bit distracted. As the clipping on the wall from Elie Wiesel says:

      Zurzeit träume ich nicht mehr vom Messias. Er besucht meine Träume nicht mehr. Er kam nicht, als er erwartet wurde. Also hat er Verspätung. Macht nichts, der Jude in mir wartet weiter auf ihn.”

      “These days, I don’t dream any more about the Messiah. He doesn’t visit my dreams any more. He didn’t come when he was expected. So he’s late. Doesn’t matter. The Jew in me will just continue to wait.”

  6. Wendy on July 17, 2012

    I really like your characterization of the Bible, though I think you greatly overestimates the number of Christians who see it that way. OR, for that matter, who have read it or read about it. It took me a long time to come around to viewing the Bible as you’ve described it, mostly because the majority of Christians who talked to me (or to the public) about it have as nuanced a perspective as the people who compare it to a comic book.

    In talking about atheists, I think you make the same mistake as the people who repost that picture that irks you. Not all believe or disbelieve the same things. Most, I imagine, just don’t think about it. To the extent that I diss any God, it is a God who has been revealed to me by believers, not the God expressed in the Bible as I read it.

    • OMG on July 19, 2012

      Wendy, thanks for this.

      I’m sure you are right about my overestimation.

      I hang out with Lutherans, and of Lutherans, I hang out with a progressive batch.

      Still, the trend seems to be in this direction. Even Rob Bell, a Baptist, has gotten a lot of publicity as of late (if not some shunning) for asserting that the Bible might not be literally true, and that it is able to be questioned.

      I appreciate your gentle push-back about my reaction to atheists. I should have been more clear that I’m referring to the folks who post this sort of photo. I have written about my thinkings on atheists here

      For that matter, he’s a link to a whole list of reflections I’ve had about atheism.

      And your last line makes me think of Gandhi, who wrote that “I’d be a Christian if it weren’t for Christians.”

      Target hit.

      Pax, and write again.

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