Elon Musk recently tweeted, “Violent crime in SF is horrific.” A responding headline in the Sunday Los Angeles Times caught my eye: “Sorry, San Francisco is not the crime-ridden hellhole the far right claims it is.” The reason, we’re told, is typified by an “iconic transgender cabaret” named AsiaSF.
The writer admits that San Francisco is plagued by what she calls its “tech bust,” “crisis of addiction,” “anti-Asian hate crimes,” and overall lack of safety. However, she cites one of the owners of AsiaSF, who calls San Francisco “a beacon of hope for so many people.” In his view, “No matter who you are, you have to find your truth and live your truth.”
The author responds: “And that is the enduring strength of San Francisco.”
What “very happy” people have in common
Reading the Times article left me with great sadness, not only for so many deceived people in San Francisco but also for the degree to which the writer speaks for millions of others across our nation.
I would think more people would connect the cultural dots: in the years since our society has decided that all truth is “your truth,” the values of patriotism, religion, and community involvement have plummeted. Meanwhile, the percentage of Americans who say they are “not too happy” has more than doubled, while the percentage who say they are “very happy” has fallen by more than half to a mere 12 percent, by far the lowest percentage in the five decades the poll has been conducted.
When asked about their values, “very happy” Americans cite belief in marriage and community involvement. And 68 percent of them point to belief in God (contrasted with 42 percent of those who say they are “not happy”).
My first response upon reading the report was to claim vindication for faith in a culture that increasingly views religion as irrelevant, bigoted, and dangerous. But upon reflection, I realized there’s an urgent issue here we need to discuss, a fact about religion that our society completely misunderstands.
Aspirin won’t cure a broken leg
I’m glad “very happy” people consider “belief in God” to be “very important” to them. Here’s the problem: our pluralistic culture thinks all such beliefs are the same, just “different roads up the same mountain.”
But religions are not all the same any more than medicines are all the same. Aspirin for a headache won’t cure a broken leg. When Islam’s holy book rejects the Trinity (Quran 4:171) while the Bible consistently teaches this doctrine (cf. Matthew 28:19; 2 Corinthians 13:14), they are clearly not teaching the same truth.
Furthermore, belief in God by itself will not change us or our broken world: “Even the demons believe—and shudder!” (James 2:19). In recent years, religion has brought us horrific clergy abuse scandals. Denominational internecine fights have dominated headlines with conflicts over partisan politics, theological controversies, and church property. Evangelicals are stigmatized as homophobic and Trumpist; mainstream denominations are labeled wokeist and liberal.
Clearly, belief in God is not enough. The Greco-Roman world was highly religious, as Paul noted (Acts 17:22). But they treated women as possessions, threw unwanted babies out with the trash, and engaged in sexual activities too horrific for me to describe here.
“By my God I can leap over a wall”
By contrast, Psalm 18 models transforming faith in the one true God. Here David proclaims: “The Lᴏʀᴅ is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold” (v. 2). Note the eight times he calls God not “the” God or even “our” God but “my” God.
Consequently, he can pray, “It is you who light my lamp; the Lᴏʀᴅ my God lightens my darkness. For by you I can run against a troop, and by my God I can leap over a wall” (vv. 28–29). He therefore asks, “Who is God, but the Lᴏʀᴅ? And who is a rock, except our God?” (v. 31).
Now you and I have a choice to make. We can believe in a generic God and think that because we are religious, we have all of God we need. Or we can follow David’s example by making God our “rock” in every moment of every day as we “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).
How do we do this without being monks in a monastery?
Moving to a “God-centered dialogue”
I found help and hope in a reflection by Henri Nouwen that begins in a surprising way: “To pray, I think, does not primarily mean to think about God in contrast to thinking about other things, or to spend time with God instead of spending time with other people.” This is precisely what many of us think praying does mean.
But Nouwen notes, “As soon as we begin to divide our thoughts into thoughts about God and thoughts about people and events, we remove God from our daily life and put him in a pious little niche where we can think pious thoughts and experience pious feelings.”
Nouwen offers us a better way: “Although it is important and even indispensable for the spiritual life to set apart time for God and God alone, prayer can eventually become unceasing prayer when all our thoughts beautiful and ugly, high and low, prideful and shameful, sorrowful and joyful can be thought in the presence of God.”
As a result, “We convert our unceasing thinking into unceasing prayer when we move from a self-centered monologue to a God-centered dialogue. This requires that we turn all our thoughts into conversation. The main question, therefore, is not so much what we think, but to whom we present our thoughts.”
Will you live in a monologue with yourself or a dialogue with God today?