Centered or Bounded? | 029


It seems that many of us live our lives trying to avoid zaps. We want to know what is expected of us, and, if we do not fulfill those expectations… zap. For instance, at work, most people’s jobs are defined by outputs. If you can’t output what is required, or can’t output fast enough, or can’t output with sufficient quality, you will get zapped. The zaps might be a verbal warning, a written warning, a probationary status or termination. If your performance lags, or your behavior is unacceptable you will get zapped.

Once we get zapped we have important data about where the boundaries are. We learn not to get too close to the forcefield so we don’t get zapped again. Our culture trains us to avoid consequences and punishment.

In the business world, many companies have a cover-your-ass culture(CYA). This culture is overly focused on getting approvals and permissions from others, so that if projects or initiatives fail those other people can be blamed. This fear of getting zapped leads us to avoid taking initiative and to pass on decision making.

Even in relationships, we fear zaps. Many of us discover the topics and words that trigger an emotional response from our closest friends and then we spend years avoiding those phrases and concepts. We dance around each others emotional wounds to maintain a stable relationship and avoid being zapped. Lightning shared a story of how he and his wife had made an unspoken implicit agreement to not discuss certain “hot button” issues in her life. This practice prevented Lightning from being zapped, and it seemed to foster peace in their relationship. However, over time, Lightning was being trained not to talk—for fear of being zapped— and Sara was not being challenged to grow. This unspoken agreement was avoiding zaps, but at the expense of intimacy and growth. Lightning spent his energy focused on avoiding certain issues rather focusing on knowing his wife better.

We do this with God as well. It is easy to imagine God as having lists of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors (because that dichotomy is what I experience in almost every other area of my life). If we get too close to the unacceptable behaviors, which some call sin, we will get zapped. If we get out of line, we will get zapped. If we have a moral infraction, we will get zapped. Many churches spend an inordinate amount of resources helping people to know the rules so they can be in relationship with a God of zaps.

But, if I spend my life focused on tracking the boundaries of what is acceptable and mitigating my risk of zaps, I am living in a defensive and responsive way. I am focused on avoiding something rather than creating something. Living to avoid zaps is an anxiety-filled loud inner life. We can’t focus on going anywhere when we are obsessed with zap mitigation.

But when we find God in moments of inner quiet, he seems nothing like a god of zaps. The mystics throughout the ages have described God as a lover, a mother, and a friend. Even Jesus compares God to a mother hen. What if our fear of God’s zaps is not the best way to think about relationship?

Vince shared with us two paradigms, which have been borrowed from the world of math and science, to describe different ways to think about our relationship with God: the circle and the dot.

Imagine a sheet of paper, with a big circle on it. That circle is the forcefield that zaps people. That circle defines who is in and who is out. People that touch the circle get zapped. Those that cross the circle receive a zap and are now outside of the group. In math, this is called a bounded set. The in group has a boundary that is clear and everyone can be classified as in the group or out of the group. When we apply this to God, the circle becomes the rules of acceptable behavior to stay in relationship with God. When you break a rule or commit a sin you get zapped. If that zap sends you back into the circle, you can continue to be in relationship with with God.

Now, imagine a blank sheet of paper with a big dot in the middle. This is the second paradigm. The dot represents God. There is a second dot on the page which represents me. Am I moving closer or further from God?
That is the entire paradigm. There is no boundary, there are no rules, there are no zaps. The only consideration is my trajectory toward or away from God. The math folks call this a centered-set.

In the bounded set, the zap circle, my only goal is to avoid zaps. There is no larger goal than to stay in bounds. Once one learns where the boundaries are, there isn’t much to live for. We can float around in the circle without any true intimacy or satisfaction.

If we live in a centered-set way, the quiet we’re longing for is always readily accessible.  We never have to be something we’re not or fulfill a prerequisite first in order to be “considered for the offer”. Additionally, when we live focused on the center, we’re focused on the very thing that we’re pursuing (quiet and connection with God) rather than being focused on what prevents us from having it (the zapping circle). Growth and movement never stops in a centered-set; in a bounded-set we’re tempted to coast and fall into boundary maintenance (for fear of those zaps).

Vince left us with these questions:
Do you ever believe or assume that zaps are the way that God or spirituality exist in your life?
What if you didn’t believe that?
What if there are not zaps with God?
If you believed in a zap-free God, how would your life change?

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The church that Vince co-leads: Brown Line Vineyard