Eyes to See: Tim Muehlhoff
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Tim MuehlhoffTim Muehlhoff (PhD, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) is a professor of communication at Biola University in La Mirada, California, where he teaches classes in family communication, interpersonal communication, persuasion, and gender. He is the author of I Beg to Differ and Marriage Forecasting, and the coauthor of The God Conversation, Authentic Communication, and Winsome Persuasion, which received a 2018 Christianity Today...more
If God exists, where in the world is He? Author Tim Muehlhoff discusses how to find eyes to see that recognize how God’s moving constantly around us.
Eyes to See: Tim Muehlhoff
Dave: If you could go back and see a scene in the Bible in front of you—like be there—which one would it be?
Ann: Oh, you can’t even ask that.
Dave: You only get one pick.
Ann: No, you can’t even do that!
Dave: Okay, top five/top three.
Ann: I think the Red Sea—like who doesn’t want to see the Red Sea parting?—that’s pretty miraculous.
Dave: How did I know you were going to start right there?
Ann: I know. I have to walk a day with Jesus! There’s Daniel and the lion’s den. Joseph!—I want to see Joseph with his brothers/that reunion; so many things!
Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on the FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!
Dave: I mean, there are so many; but I think we often think the only way you see God is these big, miraculous moments.
Dave: I read about this question in a book, and the author’s sitting right across the studio from us. [Laughter] Tim Muehlhoff is in the studio with us at FamilyLife Today. Tim, our good friend, welcome to Florida.
Tim: Oh, it is great to be here. I was laughing because, what would be the reaction from your listeners if I said, “Hey, I want to see the early church in Antioch build sanitation systems”—[Laughter]—“to help fellow citizens, and maybe create roads.” You’d look at me like, “You used your three wishes from a genie on that?!”
Nobody would pick that; and yet, the argument from the book, Eyes to See, is common grace, those daily things—like sanitation systems, creation of roads, helping people in trouble—are as much God acting as the parting of the Red Sea. We just call that “common grace,” and we often take it for granted.
Dave: Man, you went a long way in the introduction. [Laughter] Bam!—he goes right from—[Laughter]
Ann: We love being with Tim.
Tim: —done! [Laughter] Boom!
Ann: Tim, you always bring insight. I feel like every time you’re with us, we all learn something. Even that: like nobody’s probably thought of that in their entire life! [Laughter]
Tim: I’m not sure about that. [Laughter]
Dave: And you’re my bald-headed friend; you know.
Tim: I know—and Detroit friend.
Dave: Yes, I know; I mean, how many people are Detroit Lions, Detroit Redwings, and Detroit Tigers fans?—and you live in California!
Tim: I know.
Dave: Professor of Communications at Biola.
Dave: You wrote a book that we actually endorsed. I loved it when you sent it to us—you know, the manuscript—Eyes to See: Recognizing God’s Common Grace in an Unsettled World.
You jumped in, right away, to this definition of common grace. But I don’t think I ever heard that phrase until I was in seminary. So help us to understand: “What is common grace?”
Tim: The psalmist says, in Psalm 145, “God is good to all.” The all is how we get common grace—He isn’t just good to Christians and not good to non-Christians—He’s good to everybody. We say: “Common grace is that the sun rises and sets for everybody. Thus, you can do farming; you can navigate by the stars; medical inventions—a bunch of them came from non-Christians—so God is giving these good gifts to a world that has turned its back on God; but He never turned His back on us.”
That’s what we mean by “common grace”: common to both Christians and non-Christians; it’s God’s gifts to us! James puts it this way: “He is the Father of lights,” who gives good gifts. So many commentators think He’s, literally, looking at the starry sky, seeing the plethora of stars, and saying, “His good gifts are as many as the stars.”
I think we can take great comfort in the fact that God is working today, both dramatically—I’m not discounting the overtly supernatural—but in my life, at least, it’s more the subtle ways that He’s operating in the background, that I often don’t recognize, nor do I give Him praise for.
Ann: You’re saying that God is doing this, even though people don’t believe in Him—even though they’re just scientists, saying, “It is man, who has invented this,”—you’re saying, “Yes, but this is also God.”
Tim: And it doesn’t matter if a scientist recognizes the origin of the idea—which we would say is God: every good gift—it’s okay!—God doesn’t stop giving us good gifts because He knows that we need it [common grace]. And today, we need it more than ever; because today, being a professor, think about what my students have seen: two wars with Iraq; a war in Afghanistan; 9-11; a pandemic; and now, Ukraine is filling our television sets. I think, as Christians, it’s a double-edged sword; because on one hand, we want to say, “God is good, loving, present”; but then, when I look at a world that sometimes feels like it’s spinning out of control, I ask the question, “Well, where is God?”
Honestly, I first started thinking about this book—we have three boys—and one of my kids was at an elementary school. They had this fundraiser, where the art teacher takes pieces of art, and they auction the art off. Here’s how it works: Ann, let’s say that your daughter has a piece of art, and you know that my child has a piece of art. Well, you know I’m going to buy mine at the end of the day, so you’re going to jack up the price.
Tim: And the bidding—I’m pushing yours; you’re pushing mine—and we’re laughing at the end of the day; right? The theme was “America”; so you can imagine all the pieces of art: baseball, apple pie, the American flag. We’re all having fun, jacking up the price.
The very last one—the art teacher says, “This comes from…”—I won’t mention my child’s name, but from a Muehlhoff—turns it around. You could have heard a pin drop; it was a picture of an airplane flying into the Twin Towers.
Dave: And you had no idea?
Tim: No idea whatsoever! Now, what conversation do you have with your child, in the van, heading home?
Ann: How old was he?
Tim: Elementary school! Elementary school.
Dave: Did you buy it?
Tim: Oh, of course I bought it!
Ann: Of course!
Dave: Nobody else was going to buy that one.
Tim: It was so funny, because one person went [sheepishly]: “Twenty-five dollars?”; you know?
So then, we had a conversation about it, like, “Heeeyy, so, you could have drawn anything.” Literally, this is what my child said, “Yes, I don’t get it. You say God knows everything.” I said, “Yes, He does.” “Well, then, did He know this was going to happen?” And the answer is, “Yes! God knew that.” Then he said this: “Why didn’t He stop it?”
Dave: Every person’s question.
Tim: Every person, around dinner tables, everywhere.
Now, listen, I think parents: we either have one or two reactions:
- One, we say, “Let’s go to Chuck E Cheese®” [Laughter] You know, it’s like—
Ann: “Let’s forget about that!”
Tim: Yes: “Let’s avoid this horrible question, because I don’t know how to answer it; I’m ill-equipped.”
- Or we just send them all to the youth pastor.
I wrote this because I have college students—I’m a professor, who asks these questions—and we’ve got to have an answer of: “What do we expect God to look like when He intervenes?” If it’s always the thing, that we mentioned at the beginning of the show—like the parting of the Red Sea, the raising of the dead, the blind receiving sight—
Dave: The miraculous, yes.
Tim: —the miraculous—and by the way, those things happen.
Tim: But if that’s [how] we think God always works, then I think we’re going to be disappointed; and He will be an underachiever if that’s the measuring bar that we have.
This is where common grace is beautiful, because it’s happening 24/7. I mean, think of what we’re doing right now: technologically, we can reach a ton of people. When COVID hit, the university shut down for all of two days; and now, we were all doing Zoom. Well, Zoom is absolutely a common grace. Now, we can continue our education; we can have family reunions all across the country. The isolation of COVID wasn’t quite as isolating, and I would attribute all of that to God’s common grace.
The book is called—the subtitle—Recognizing Common Grace. I think that’s where we need to adopt what C.S. Lewis said; the book’s title is based on a quote of his: “We need to develop the seeing eye to notice God’s common grace on a daily basis.” I think that’s what the book really tries to do.
Dave: So how did you answer your son’s question?
Ann: Yes! We’re all like, “Please tell us, because…”
Dave: You’re in the car; you’re driving home.
Tim: I had been thinking about this book for a while—and I tried a version of it—of saying:
Well, God wants human partners; and unfortunately, sometimes, people aren’t good partners. People can choose what they do, and it’s for good or for bad. God has made the decision not to—every time a person is going to do something bad—hit them with an electric shock: “If you think about cheating on your taxes, I’m going to give you a zap that gets that thought out of your head.”
Well, at the end of the day, He’s got a world that is compliant—but they’re all like beaten dogs?—they’re just afraid of Him/that’s why they’re doing it. They don’t love God; they just don’t want to get the zap.
Listen, if that zap was in play, 9-11 never would have happened; right? Because if sin is—if the idea of it happening, God would have zapped it out of their minds—I don’t think God wants a world of beaten dogs. He wants a people who freely choose to love Him, and that comes with risk.
After 9-11, look at all the things that happened—this was God helping the world come together to fight terrorism—the bravery of EMS workers running right into a burning building/a building that had collapsed. This is all common grace; this is God spurring people on to help each other in the midst of tragedy.
Dave: How did your son respond to that answer?
Tim: So this is going to hurt book sales. [Laughter] He honestly said to me, “I don’t know if that works.”
Dave: Did he really?
Tim: He did; he did; these are hard scary/scary conversations.
Tim: But better to have them—messy ones—even just validating your child’s doubts/even just validating: “You’ve asked a really hard question. Mom and I—I don’t know if we have a great answer—because we wrestle with that. So let me tell you where we’re at right now, me and your mom…”—here we go!
And you just kind of put it out there. Now, it’s a process. And again, we all know the sex talk isn’t one talk—it’s talks—and so what you want to do is create the atmosphere in your house that this topic is not taboo/“This topic is off-limits.”
I quote a bunch of the psalmists, who say, “God, where were You?! [emphasis added]” One psalmist says, “God, wake up; because things are happening, and we just don’t see You.” Blaise Pascal, a brilliant Christ-follower in the 1600s, said, “The hiddenness of God is what every person has to wrestle with”; it sure seems, at times, He’s hidden.
The purpose of this book is—through using pop culture, medical inventions, historical biographies—we see God giving these “Aha” moments. Roger von Oech, a creativity expert, calls it a “whack on the side of the head.” Often, when you’re thinking about an issue, you look at something unrelated, and you get this creative whack on the side of the head.
The one I use to illustrate that is: Laënnec was a French doctor, who was having a really hard time listening to a heartbeat. Back then, they literally would take their ear, put it to the chest of a patient, and try to hear irregularities of a heartbeat. Well, he had one patient, who was kind of obese; and it just didn’t work. He goes off for lunch and notices some French kids have this long pipe. They’re whispering in one end, and they’re trying to guess what’s being said on the other end; and “It sure seems like it’s working; they’re guessing pretty accurately.” Laënnec was like, “Oh, my goodness.” He, literally, walked back to his office, took a rolled-up newspaper, and tried it on his assistant; it worked!
The basic workings of a stethoscope come from Laënnec—and I think, whether he acknowledges that or not—I think that’s a good gift coming from the Father of heavenly lights. To me, that’s God saying, “You’re going to need medical interventions, because the world’s going to get more and more nasty. You’re going to need this stethoscope. And then, eventually, you’re going to need penicillin, antibiotics; and I’m willing to give you all of these, but you have to be a dance partner. You have to be willing to receive it.”
And that’s one of the ways, to me, I now see God’s fingerprints, much more than I used to see, about God’s good gifts. And if James is right—and it’s good—it’s God’s gift. To create this list is a really fun thing I have my students regularly do: “Let’s create a list of God’s blessings and put those down.” Well, if you’re thinking about big, miraculous things, that will make it every once in a while; but the common things are around us every single day.
Ann: Well, I thought it was really interesting, even in the book, that you talked about Noreen, your wife, when she had cancer, and how you were in the waiting room. Talk about that, of what kind of went through your mind as you were in that waiting room.
Tim: Yes; so all of us pray the cancer prayer—all of us!—we initially pray the cancer prayer, which is, “God, take away cancer.” But one of my best friends has been struggling with Stage III colon cancer. So the initial prayer, seemingly, doesn’t get answered; God didn’t supernaturally take it away. We know other people—that that [miracle] has actually happened—but in this case—
Ann: And it’s so hard to reconcile that.
Tim: Oh, yes! That’s brutally disappointing.
Tim: So now, we’re in the waiting room of a hospital with a test that’s going to tell us, “Has it metastasized? Is it localized, or has this thing spread?” In other words, are we about to have the worst day of our life? We’re standing there, and I’m holding Norene’s hand. And I literally said—and it just struck me that I don’t often reflect on this—I said: “Thank God for this hospital,” and “Thank God for this machine.” Think about this: a multi-million-dollar machine, run by a lab tech, who hasn’t seen the light of day in weeks, who got a medical education to do this.
So we went down there—it was a full-body scan—so now, we’re going to know. I said to Norene, “Now, however this comes out, praise God for this machine; because then we can fight it [the cancer].” Well, it came back that it was localized; and then another specialist, who wasn’t a Christian, by the way, did an operation; and now, Noreen is cancer-free. But thank God for a diagnostic machine.
In a way, that’s bittersweet, because it sure would have been cool for him to scan her entire body and walk back and say, “I’m sorry; why did your doctor order this?” “Well, because she has cancer.” “Well, she doesn’t,”—now, that makes the parting of the Red Sea—that makes my greatest hits parade. But that wasn’t the case for us; and for many listeners, that is just simply not the case.
Ann: So now, you’re making your list of: “God didn’t do it that way,”—but—“Let’s look at the ways of His common grace that we are experiencing even now.”
Tim: Yes; “So let’s have two lists.” I’d say: “Three lists, Ann, actually”:
- One list is the overt miracles: I wake up tomorrow; I have hair; okay? [Laughter] Overt miracle!
Ann: And we all love the overt miracles.
Tim: And I’m trash-talking Dave the next day. [Laughter]
Ann: I know!
Tim: I’m sending him a picture of me. My hair is blowing in the wind, and I just say, “God answers the prayers of righteous men”; [Laughter] okay, that would be my text to you. That’s one list, and I’m not denying that list.
- The second list is God’s common grace. Okay; so now, Noreen has cancer; and we have a dedicated group of doctors/specialists, who now are absolutely pros; and they know what to do, because we’ve now learned about cancer via common grace.
Then, I would add a third one. I think this is a mistake we make, as Americans.
- Often, my praise list is materially-based, like: “How’s my career going?” “How’s my bank account?” “Are the kids healthy?”—you know, those kinds of things, which are not to be minimized; but that ignores the spiritual blessings.
Regardless of how my life is going, I’ve been forgiven of all my sins; regardless, if I’m getting promoted or not, I know that I’m a child of God. I do think there needs to be that spiritual list that can’t be touched by circumstances. We can’t ignore that.
And again, I would say: “As parents, we can’t ignore what our kids get on the internet, 24/7”; it’s like you can’t lock the technological liquor cabinet. And now, listen; obviously, when they’re young, we have very general conversations with them; but I’m saying—you hit high school/college—and these students are sitting here, going, “Man, I don’t see God acting! I don’t see Him answering my prayers in ways that I want Him [to].”
So I always say to them: “Well, what was your prayer? Let’s talk about, maybe, how common grace could be at play.” But then, also: “Let’s also recognize that we all get disappointed in our prayer life every once in a while. There are things that I want to have happen, and they just haven’t happened; that’s okay. The psalmists gave us permission to periodically say, ‘God, where are You?!’—that is Scripture—and we are allowed to emulate the psalmists.”
Ann: I think it’s important, too, to allow our kids to sit in that a little bit—because I’m just sharing this out of my failure—when my kids would voice a complaint, or a doubt, or a skepticism, I would find myself jumping to: “But God…!”; you know? “But God, in His common grace and His goodness…” And I didn’t let them sit in the questions, sometimes, and even pull out what [they’re] feeling; and then, gently go over to: “Are there any other ways that you’ve seen Him do things or work?” Does that make sense?
Tim: Totally! I recommend my students, once in their life, have to read one book—it’s C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed—because, you know, he got married late in his life to Joy; then, Joy has cancer. He prays for a miracle—and again, this is a man who wrote a book on miracles—and she goes into remission. He believes she’s cured: “This is it! This is the parting of the sea!” “This is it”; right?—he’s praising God. Well, she goes out of remission very quickly and dies.
He then writes A Grief Observed, where the classic line is: “You go to God when you need Him the most, and you knock on His door, and there’s silence—not just silence, but a double bolting on the inside—you might as well be alone.” Biographers of Lewis have said he never publicly defended his faith, again, after the death of his wife. Now, he never left the faith. And the end of the story with A Grief Observed—he never stopped believing in God; he wondered if God was good—and so, at the end, he does come out of it.
But Ann, let kids wrestle with all of it before we get to the end. And if C.S. Lewis struggles like that, that gives me permission to struggle like that. By the way, when he originally wrote the book, it was a series of notes to himself. His lifetime publisher/friend said, “Jack! You’ve got to publish this; you have to!” And he said, “No, no, no; it’s too personal. I just won’t do it.” Well, thank goodness this guy kept pressing him; so he finally published it. The original edition was written in a different name; it wasn’t C.S. Lewis’ name.
But here’s a really cool part of the story: when he died, and they went into his study, there were stacks of the book with his different name; and in it were things written: “Mr. Lewis, I know your wife died. I read this book; I think it could really help you. I’m sending it to you.”
Dave: No way!
Tim: So people sent him his own book. How beautiful is that?
Tim: But to me, when Lewis can suffer like that, it gives me permission. And he’s quoted throughout this book, Eyes to See, all over the place. But we need to allow our kids to verbalize these doubts; otherwise, they’re taking it underground. And even if you have imperfect answers, like, “Honey, I don’t know! I don’t have a good answer for that.”
Dave: Well, I also think it’s good for them to hear us verbalize our doubts, like: “I have the same question. I’ve struggled with this, and I’ve resolved it; and yet, I still get triggered; and sometimes, still struggle. It’s okay to struggle. But there is a God—He is alive; He is at work—it’s sometimes hidden; but underneath all of this, I’m still holding onto a faith that sometimes I can’t even feel.”
Shelby: You’re listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Tim Muehlhoff on FamilyLife Today. We’ll hear more from Tim in just a minute, including his opening sentence, in just a second, that says, “I don’t want to be blasphemous, but…” I’m pretty sure you want to stick around to [hear] where he’s going to go with that.
But first, Tim’s book is called Eyes to See: Recognizing God’s Common Grace in an Unsettled World. We’d love to send a copy as our “Thanks,” to you when you give to help more families hear life-giving conversations like today’s. You can partner, financially, online at FamilyLifeToday.com or by calling 800-358-6329; that’s 800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
Okay, back to Tim Muehlhoff, trying not to be blasphemous.
Tim: I don’t want to be blasphemous, but didn’t Jesus have that moment; right?—when Jesus says, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” Either He’s play acting or those are the emotions He felt. And I’m in the camp that believes He was human; those were the emotions He felt. So even, in a weird way, the Son of God is saying: “My God, My God, where are You?” and “I need You right now!”
Remember, at Gethsemane, He’s walking and collapsing, weeping to God: “Take this cup from Me.” That all gives me permission, Dave, to have these imperfect conversations—by the way, evangelistically, I don’t shy away from these questions when people ask me—“Well, where is your God today?!”
Sting, the frontman for Police [band], wrote a song that had the lyrics I put in the book: “Well, if Jesus is alive, He certainly don’t live here.” I think that’s pretty powerful. The book is actually written to recognize God’s common grace; but then: “How do you use pop-culture illustrations to share it with those outside the Christian community?” I think this gives us a great way to bring up the God-conversation with people, as we all watch the same news feed; we’re all getting the same world events: “Where is God in the midst of that?” I think the book can help begin those conversations.
Shelby: Do you ever get sad, wondering where the big God-miracles are in your life? Well, tomorrow, on FamilyLife Today, Dave and Ann Wilson are joined, again, with Tim Muehlhoff to challenge us with this: “Question how we are viewing the small miracles around us; do we have eyes to see them? Well, we might if we look.”
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We’ll see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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