Pavlov’s Dogs, My Senator, and Knowing God

In Mark 10, a blind man named Bartimaeus sits by the side of the road literally screaming for Jesus’ help. When Jesus finally addresses him, he asks, “What do you want me to do for you?”

I love that question. Jesus wants to know what Bartimaeus wants, presumably to give him exactly what he wants.

I used to believe that God always operated this clearly, quite similar to Pavlov and his dogs. Ivan Pavlov, you might remember, was the Russian physiologist famous for his classical conditioning experiments with his dogs. Pavlov would ring a bell, and his dogs would salivate in expectation of food. Always.

That is what my faith looked like for many years. I would ask something of God (ring a bell), and God would answer in some satisfactory way (salivation: the expected response). It was great. I feel warmth and tenderness when I recall those engagements with the creator. Now, it seems like a special kind of grace, but back then it was just…normal.

I remember when I was a young English teacher asking God for grace and favor over a conversation with a difficult parent that had told me explicitly that she did not approve of my teaching methods. God answered exactly as I had asked: the churlish parent turned kind and understanding and even apologized for her tone in previous conversations.

Answered prayers like those affirmed my belief in Christian cliche verses like, “You do not have because you do not ask” or “God gives us the desires of our hearts.” I seldom even considered that the contexts of those verses have nothing to do with God having to respond to every one of my whims, needs or desires. 

God, My State Senator

One day I rang the bell and nothing happened. I was alone in the wilderness furiously ringing that bell, but there were no salivating dogs anywhere. All this took place after a particularly painful time in my life–I was suffering and needed some reassurance, some whisper of certainty, some divine knowledge that would give meaning to my suffering. But I got nothing. Or rather I did get something but it was not certainty or reassurance that all suffering has meaning.

Imagine if Pavlov rang his bell, and the dogs heard it, acknowledged it, but opted for a nap.

I can only describe the experience as absurd and incongruous–something I had never known in relating to a loving God. Like Pavlov with his dogs, I had conditioned myself to expect a certain response from God and was not equipped to deal with my present reality.

This dissonance went on for months, and then, before I knew it, four years had passed. I had long since stopped journaling my prayers, and I had a difficult time remembering where I last saw my little leather-bound Bible, so I started using online versions when I needed it. I still went to church where I had supportive Christian community–they helped me survive, if not thrive. I would regularly preach or teach and then feel guilty about the little time I spent with God outside of study or theological conversations with friends. But not guilty enough to do anything about it.

Last month I was talking with a friend, telling her that I was struggling through some things, especially pending unemployment. She asked what I needed from God right now. I told her the truth—that God and I relate to each other in the same way that I relate to my state senator: we agree on the big things of justice and love of neighbor but do not know each other personally. Not anymore.

It was the first time I had acknowledged out loud to myself or anyone else how deeply my past disappointments and long seasons of suffering had separated me from the experience of God. I still believe and live out a Gospel of word and deed but not of experience or connection to God. It is not the holistic Gospel I had always strived to live.

The most difficult thing about admitting this truth is that I am still in that season. I wish I could tell you that I am looking back on it fondly and reflecting on all it taught me—that it deepened my present connection to Jesus, so it was all worth it—that light has entered through the cracks and illuminated everything. But none of that would be true. And that’s because…

I don’t know what to make of suffering that has no meaning like my mother’s death and the plight of 60,000 vulnerable refugees who after a single U.S. election will languish in camps, perhaps never to find a home. It is all senseless and terrible with no benefit to anyone, and it has hurt my ability to fully trust God.

I don’t know how to read the Bible post-seminary—now that I no longer read it literally. I camp out in the Gospels—the words and actions of Jesus—and wonder if it is enough. What many Christians do not like to admit, myself included,  is how much misogyny, genocide, and slavery fill the pages of the Bible in vivid description. I cannot gloss over that and read it comfortably anymore. 

I don’t know how to pray when so many good prayers have gone unanswered. Prayers for myself but also prayers for the common good—prayers for justice for Freddie Gray; for the missing Nigerian girls kidnapped by Boko Haram; for the Central American immigrants fleeing violent gangs.

Moving from a place of certainty in my prayers to one of doubt and questioning has left me without a road map for relating to God.

What Do You Want Me to Do for You?

There is no way for me to know if Bartimaeus struggled with questions of faith and doubt like I do. He certainly suffered a lot in his culture and time. But from the text, we only know that he says wants to see, and Jesus heals him of his blindness.

In Sacred Rhythms, Ruth Haley Barton notes that Bartimaeus thinks that all he needs is sight but Jesus recognizes that Bartimaeus needs to be restored back to his community—the blindness has kept him isolated and marginalized. Sight brings him into community, into a sense of belonging that he has longed for. Jesus provides not just a physical healing but a social healing as well, one that Bartimaeus did not even know he wanted.

Armed with that knowledge, I imagine Jesus coming to me and asking the same question, “What do you want me to do for you?”

“So many things, Jesus!  But I no longer want to relate to you like Pavlov, my cosmic vending machine, nor like my state senator, a formal and distant being with whom I mostly agree.”

So I am going to sit here quietly in this space of doubt and uncertainty. I know Jesus is here, and I am willing to be Bartimaeus by the side or the road, crying out and hoping Jesus will see through my begging for sight to the deeper soul-level desire and need that I am not aware of. It is not a comfortable place, but where else have I to go? As Peter rightly observes in John 6:68: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Image Credit: Brian Jekel, Healing of a Blind Man

Karen González

10 thoughts on “Pavlov’s Dogs, My Senator, and Knowing God

  1. SO good. Sharing. Thank you for these words today. They are timely in my life, Karen. Godspeed.

    • Thank you for telling me that, Carolina. It’s great when we can help each other on the journey.

  2. Finally a voice to a season I was in for a really long time and had no words for and thought no one else experienced. Also, this is about the 5th time this month that this question has come back to me from different avenues: What Do You Want Me to Do for You? Thank you!

    • Right?! Nobody writes enough about this. It’s a hard season that I’m sure many of us experience. I’m curious to see how God will work in your life after answering that important question 🙂

  3. Thank you so much for your writing — I resonate with so much of your experience with God, and I think so many of us do. Thank you especially for writing at a point where you are still in this hard season, rather than “after the fact”. So helpful!!

    • Thank you for taking the time to read it, Kristin. I think it’s important to write while in process and not just at the triumphant end. Even in the midst, I’m hopeful that God will meet me somewhere in the in-between.

  4. “God and I relate to each other in the same way that I relate to my state senator: we agree on the big things of justice and love of neighbor but do not know each other personally. Not anymore.”
    This sentence is a little crazy act of faith and bravery: to name where you really are, even if it does not sound happy or cheerful. I don’t know why (why? WHY WHY?) the silence or disconnection happens. But I affirm with you that it is no less holy than the easy parts.

    • I was more nervous writing about that then I thought I would be. Most people write when those kinds of experience are in the distant past, but God is in the ambiguity, too. It’s just hard to see God in this season.

  5. I read this blog daily and don’t always relate to the issues. Not this time, you expressed my heart. I am sure it is hard being so vulnerable and public in your disclosure. Yet you express the truth of my heart and soul. Please keep blogging as we journey together.

    • Thank you, Denise. I always read to know I’m not alone, and now I’m glad to write to let others know that, too. Blessings to you!

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