The Nature of God – Part 12
[If you are just now stumbling onto this post without having read the various parts in this series from the beginning, I strongly urge you to go back to the start and continue on from there through each successive post. None of these individual entries stand on their own, and you may wind up with little but confusion and unanswered questions by starting here. That is easily done by entering “The Nature of God” in the search box on the home page, which will list links to all available parts.]
If you have read through this series of posts, you’d now think that presto, this guy got through whatever unexplained problems he had and now walks with God and stuff, right? Well, not exactly. I have to summarize and not explain things, because the details are not relevant to the topic, frequently involve other people, and this series of posts would top out at 700 or more parts. You don’t want that, trust me.
It turned out to be a very timely thing that God gave me such a bulletproof sense that his One-on-one affection was so deep and, when push comes to shove, unwavering. It was timely because I promptly and unknowingly headed into the swirling circumstances of what I considered to be Shitstorm #3. Without that utter convincing, I might not have made it through. Time passed, and I headed into Shitstorms #4 & #5. At some point still a decade short of the end, my very brief solace was a counselor who said, “The good news is that, obviously, this situation can’t possibly get any worse than this!” Oh, yes it could, and did, oh my yes.
In general, I never felt that constant, close connection with God that I had hoped for through all this. It was more of a distant relationship, with us crossing paths every great now and then. He would give me something intimately meaningful and restorative to keep me going, and then seem to be off and away. Something made me suspect that it was me being off and away, but regardless, sooner or later He would swoop in and I’d feel that intimate connection when I prayed. There’s little worse than always praying to the ceiling, more immersed in one’s own difficulties than actually reaching out. Then, I would feel His hand on my life for a moment, and know that He was not just hearing me, but that I had His full and caring attention. Spill your heart out to God, and He tends to do that.
Once I began to pick up a pattern in this contact, it made me a bit gun-shy, truth to tell. I mean yes, it kept me going, but the stronger the sense of contact and the greater the comfort or assurance, then the higher a wave of trouble that would follow. The good news was that He was strengthening me for each round of incoming fire, so that I could withstand it without giving up or going nuts. The bad news was that each intervention on His part also became my signal that more undetected mortar fire was inbound. I almost came to dread it, but could not do without it. Such an intimacy with the Living God was like a brief, unexpected hospital stay, recovering in comfort, and building strength and motivation. But then the hospital discharge came all too soon, and I was back out in the field dodging fire. In later years, I came to refer to this seemingly endless segment of my personal life as the Living Nightmare, named for its circumstances. It isn’t all that much of an exaggeration. I wasn’t a helpless victim – I just didn’t see any way out that would not violate my conscience.
What do I call “contact with God”? Some of it was pretty weird. Having a very strong sense that God is actively listening to my prayers, one-on-one, is unusual for me, but not weird. “Weird” is singing some kind of worship song as part of a regular church service while actually being preoccupied with what to do about whatever, and feeling thoroughly confused. Then, while I’m gazing ahead mouthing the words, I’m suddenly seeing a brief flash of an image of a vast mob of people right ahead of me and around me, all of us surrounding a towering light so bright you couldn’t see anything even close to it, except you knew that it was God’s presence. As you may have discerned from my descriptions in Part 2, I really, really don’t care to sing at all. Hear it, great. I like listening to music. Do it, no. For that brief moment, all I and that vast horde of people surrounding the Brilliant Light wanted to do was nothing more than to sing to our God, as if that was the most fulfilling and joy-filled pleasure that could ever possibly exist. They – and I – wanted it to go on forever. It was not out of duty, compulsion or fear, but simply motivated by who He is and what He is truly like. When this visual scene vanished, my spirits were lifted and I had a sense of assurance of my future as the prime and comforting message, but it was also an encouragement to focus more on what lay far ahead than on what was underfoot. I clearly saw, in abstract, where I would be one day, and how I would be fully me, and yet fully changed. I preferred the changed me. I wanted nothing more than what I’d seen, and nothing less. Didn’t look like I was going to be hiding in corners and cleaning spittoons after all.
Remember those intrusive thoughts that weren’t mine back when leaving my disaster-car garage so long ago? Part 4? That kept on, after a fashion. Every great now and then, perhaps once in a year or less, I’d be at a total loss again. And it wasn’t just me. Professionals were stumped on this stuff, if they accepted it at all, and they charged by the hour. I was often having to wing it on my own. Or, I’d just be worrying about things during the church service, or obsessing over them. I’m into that. I’d be blathering on to myself about how solution-less my circumstances appeared to be, and a clear, loud “thought” would interrupt my own babbling thought train, stopping it abruptly. It would always be a succinct encouragement or a profound truth that reflected something I’d heard in Scripture somewhere, but didn’t fully “get”. And the statement would be accompanied by a literal visual paragraph of context and surrounding meaning to fully illuminate it. I’m talking text, in print. How completely strange! I couldn’t even skim over it all, but I’d take in all I could for the couple of seconds it lasted, like I’d take in water after a full day in the desert. The core thought stayed, while the context that illuminated it rapidly faded. Then, in another moment, it was just church again. It was wisdom like I’d never been exposed to, and I took each one to heart. That was weird, but inspiring, comforting, and directive. I was not in this alone, and the true solutions did not lie in everyday activities, circumstances or concerns. They lay in Him, my focus, and my faith lived out within the playing out of those circumstances. I didn’t have the creativity or understanding to self-generate this stuff. All of it was new to me, and although they never related even remotely to my questions (to my way of thinking), they deftly addressed the bigger view of what I was facing, a capability which was beyond my abilities. And I knew where they came from.
How about waking up to face another day, and laying there for a few moments to try to motivate myself to face it once again because I just didn’t know what might come next? Then I unexpectedly see an image that I’m looking into, one where I’m standing on the deck of a wooden sailing ship in the blackness of night. I have a lantern in my hand and hold it up to see ahead, but the glare from it is so blinding that I can’t see anything beyond it. I hear God’s quiet voice tell me “Set it behind you,” and perceive that the lamp I’m trying to see past the bow with what represents a lamp of fear. It doesn’t light much in that blackness, but held in front to light the way, there’s no way I could even see past its own blinding glare. It becomes the focus of attention, not lighting the potential pitfalls ahead to avoid. I couldn’t see anything but it. So I pull it down and hold it to the rear, and there isn’t much forward to see, but I can at least now see the deck, and a short distance ahead of the ship. Much better. Set fear behind you. I get it. I had to keep remembering that one a lot as life went onward. Weird? I’ll take it.
We tend to take things symbolically, not thinking about the reality behind them. It’s kind of natural to lose sight of the realism and the context, when we weren’t there at actual events. We prefer things to be simple. Take the American Revolution. English troops. Unrest. Some ambushes, some running, some guys shot, and some killed. It becomes kind of an abstract summary. Same with the Holocaust. It happened as an event, and we go into mental overload because of the scope of the carnage, and so trim it down to its impersonal essentials, or even dismiss it as never having occurred. Symbology is also where the “Christ died for you” thing can come in. If He was God, then dying for our sake must have been comparatively easy, right? Why should it even be necessary? And why should death be a necessity in the first place? It seems crudely symbolic, and it’s easy to lose sight of it as an actual, gritty event in living history, complete with all the human trauma that it would cause. There was no pass on any aspect of it, because Christ had laid aside the power of His deity to live fully as one of us. We don’t really get the context, the whole. It’s just a Fast Fact when we’re busy trying to live our lives.
I didn’t think that I had assumed the fix was in to make it easier for Him, and therefore less significant, but a dream I had one early morning seemed to break into whatever I had going, and got my attention. It started as a typical communion serving tray. You’ve seen ‘em, and this one was silver. The outer edge of this visual image was oval vignette, surrounded by black void. The silver communion cups were full, the tray was very slowly drawing closer, and there suddenly appeared laying across their tops a straight-bladed dagger, business end pointed forward at a diagonal. Its clean, polished blade was double-edged, and each cutting edge was perfectly straight, so the blade looked like a long triangle. I noticed a lack of translucency and brightness of the juice in each cup. It became clear to me that what filled the cups was not grape juice, not red wine. I was shocked. Then a small amount of blood appeared near the edge of the tray, and on the dagger blade itself. This communion tray coming closer to me cost something very real. Of course, I knew Whose blood it took to fill them, and got an unwanted sense of the physical and emotional reality it would take to do so.
A common thought today is that surely an omnipotent God can easily appear in any form and then die for us, because he can simply pop back to life at will, right? It’s God, after all! It’s nothing we haven’t seen in movies, so it becomes kind of a fairy tale in our minds. A magical legend of God-powered endurance and ultimate victory. After all, a wealthy man can “sacrifice” a large gift – even close to all he has – and we know he’ll eventually bounce back. It’s his way. An impoverished man who gives away the little he has scrabbled together means more to us, because it’s clear that he isn’t going to be bouncing back from such a loss. If he does, it’s going to have to be because someone else intercedes for him. A belief that the fix is in tends to take some of the steam out of our appreciation. Our assumptions about God and Christ’s death do us a great disservice. They also tend to derail an accurate perception of who we are in relation to God, and the depth of our need for Him.
Here, I was viewing a hard reality. Thankfully, it was a representation of suffering, but it was enough. There was pure humanity involved, complete with fear and dismay, and a sticky, smear-able cost for my ticket to ride. I awoke with a profound sadness, lamenting that it had been necessary at all. My own flawed nature helped make it so. And the price was neither easy nor abstract. There were no easy motions to go through. It was a reality I did not like or want, but it was the only way for me to have any tie to this God of healing and oddly persistent love. I felt more guilt than gratitude, since I was a part of what had made this act of suffering and sacrifice necessary. I wished that this strange reality of wrongdoing, separation and sacrifice just didn’t have to operate this way, in much the same way that I wished that car accidents wouldn’t have to happen, but that isn’t the real situation. This picture before me then vanished, and I woke up sobered and sad. The “why was this necessary?” was bound up with faith in Him, since I had quite a few limitations going.
I also woke up knowing that I did not really understand this God who had barged into my life unwanted, persisting past my objections to heal and bolster me against the tragic hardships that would come to wash over me and those innocents I loved. I could not blame Him for my circumstances, because they had been unwittingly crafted by my own ignorance and arrogance, not just by the natural uncertainties of the world.
Arrogance may be a bit harsh as an assessment, but not that much. The problem was that by the time I’d turned 10 years of age, I finally started catching on that kids have pretty much taken a set character by that time. Lots of kids were open, honest, and just trying to make their way through as best they could. They were invariably the keepers. There’d also always be a bully, always someone who got pleasure from cruelty or using people, and later, always a cluster of kids who stopped acknowledging the existence of those who lacked their own perceived social status. For them, any sign of weakness or disability was disdained and mocked, which ruled out the majority of other kids in their world. I learned by then that you couldn’t allow yourself to accept the corrosive judgements or destructive actions of others as having any valid basis, or it would destroy your sense of self-worth. Better to simply avoid ‘em and their toxic effects, believe in yourself, and press on.
By the time I was a young man, I’d learned that if you have a dream that you are determined to pursue, especially if it stands alone, you may need lots of persistence. I never sensed what I wanted to do for a living. Career tests in high school were inconclusive, and a career needed to be chosen before graduating – and I was coming down to the wire. Since I preferred to doodle in a history class taught by a phys ed teacher, and a friend with a late 40’s sedan with body removed had commissioned me to come up with a fiberglass sports car body design that would somehow both fit and not look ridiculous, the measuring and problem-solving made me think that maybe product design might be something interesting to pursue. Nothing came of the car of course, but the ill-conceived project had been immensely challenging and rewarding.
That career was called Industrial Design, and required entry into the College of Art & Design at a state university. I managed to get in despite having had not a whit of art training (and a few eyebrows went up), but I figured I could learn that from classes, as well as how they used systematic problem-solving to come up with real, workable design solutions. My artistic handicap was a bit embarrassing throughout, but with perseverance, I progressed from pathetic scrawl to full-blown mediocre. The complexities of getting real solutions instead of merely pretty ones proved difficult but do-able. In my sophomore year, I was being advised to consider changing my major because of the feedback the college was getting from at least one art instructor in landscape drawing. But, I had been getting a lot out of the product design classes, and stuck with it. I had no fallback option, my creative writing instructor having given me a “D”, which as it turned out was a pity grade because he knew that I had earnestly given my all in each effort. Hemingway, I wasn’t. To be fair, he was looking for brooding, deft, artsy “looked into the shop window and saw a reflection of his life”, while I had cut my teeth on Tom “it went over like a keg of rum in a prison camp” McCahill, automotive tester for Mechanix Illustrated Magazine. And then there was Mad Magazine. Less than a year later, the college barred admission to any new student lacking any previous art instruction, closing the gate to others after me, for which I felt responsible. The inner turmoil created by choosing a single career path, do or die, sometimes interrupted my ability to progress, but there was also one art professor who validated me as a person, cutting me some slack in my need to do well in my studies. For this teacher, the person was more important than the accomplishing. Fortunately, my later ability to address complex technical problems proved to be far more valuable to me than any artistic skills. My takeaway was: If it’s do or die, don’t allow gatekeepers or naysayers to dissuade you from the course you feel you need to take.
I was still still fresh from the heat of battle when I made an ill-advised life decision, and this advice against was from trustworthy people who were in a much better position to objectively weigh things than I was. But I applied my “persist and pursue” mantra to that too, which turned out to be a serious misapplication in this type of personal situation. I assumed that I knew best what was right for me, and forged ahead. I refused to listen or ask questions. That proved to be a mistake with lasting consequences, and one which I was unusually ill-prepared to handle. But, well-intentioned arrogance is still arrogance.
So, my circumstances didn’t just happen, nor did God engineer them. Naiveté can blind us into getting all that we wish for, the unanticipated bad that so often accompanies the good. I did know that He is a saving God, but not just of souls. He is a God who also wishes to save us from ourselves, here and now, but we rarely allow that. This is a God who works in context. The dream/vision of the communion tray was a gritty reminder of that. His purposes will get accomplished, but not in a way that will violate who He is nor go against His nature. My worldview needed some heavy adjustments, and understanding a little more about the nature of God was one of them.
After all, we have the freedom to rail against the very concept of any God who requires death as a penalty for wrongdoing. How barbaric is that? Who wants to follow a God like that? Yet, difficult as it is to accept, we do not have the power to see, pick or define what full reality is, nor what the true circumstances of our existence are. We can pretend to do so, certainly, and sit back and critique. But it may be better to become aware of more than we presently are, and perhaps trade judgement for appreciation. The reality of crossing a busy, wide highway on foot takes its own toll, and to reach our goal on the other side may require following someone who can get us across it safely and without causing mayhem to ourselves or others as we make our way across. To deviate from that helping hand has natural consequences, and to view that hand as instead seeking to push us into traffic is what keeps us at risk. Picking our own path across is “freedom” in one sense, but following Christ across becomes a freedom from living out and answering for the natural results of having followed our own lead before.
We have only the power to apply filters to what we observe in life, and to accept or reject what little makes it through them. This is intellect, with emotion – often fear or anger – as the engine. None of this has any effect at all on what the situation actually is, but it allows us to construct the particular framework we need to get through it, one which tends to reflect who we are and what we’re like. Our musings and conclusions are ours alone. The fact that I would like something disagreeable to better resemble my concept of the way it should be, is like being born at the start of a bitter 30-year war. I can refuse to acknowledge that there is an ongoing war and try to take an apathetic outlook, or train and go fight, act as a change agent for peace, help those harmed by it, enrich myself from it, or whatever I like, if opportunity provides. In life, a few perceive God’s true nature accurately early on, and respond in kind with love and gratitude. Most, like myself and the ancient Hebrews, respond only to hardship or the threat of it. There are just two responses that we all have to hardship. Hardship either drives us away from God, or it draws us toward Him. Our responses to hardship are up to us, and are shaped by our perceptions of what He is like. We either blame and resent Him, seeing ourselves as innocent victims and our hardship as some kind of unjust punishment, or we sense our contributions to our current state and see Him as our only hope. Too often, our response fits Proverbs 19:3, “People ruin their lives by their own foolishness and then are angry at the Lord.” Like the 30-year war, the reality of the circumstances existing at our births will remain intact, whether we perceive the actual situation correctly or not. Our common assumptions that God either has the world just the way He likes it, or is helpless and/or unwilling to change its many miseries, are both condemnations rooted in convenient thought and frustration. These are our interpretations of His basic nature, the problem being that we picture Him as being like us.
A closer path to understanding the core of a largely incomprehensible reality is not the slathering on of more flawed intellect. Often touted as the mark of superiority, and an unbiased and incorruptible arbiter as inerrant as mathematics, intellect is fueled and directed by emotion. Emotion spans everything from a love of learning and discovery, joy and contentment, to resentment, pride, jealousy, insecurity, hatred and fear. Emotional makeup is the engine, and depending upon that, intellect is either its tool or its weapon. While men of science look for evidence which will support their biases, pure intellect demands a single answer, a single best solution to everything. Yet highly intellectual people seem to joust on a regular basis.
It is risky to rely exclusively on the perceived purity of something, when it is in fact highly tainted. Einstein once expressed that “Scientific research can reduce superstition by encouraging people to think and view things in terms of cause and effect. Certain it is that a conviction, akin to religious feeling, of the rationality and intelligibility of the world lies behind all scientific work of a higher order… This firm belief, a belief bound up with a deep feeling, in a superior mind that reveals itself in the world of experience, represents my conception of God. In common parlance this may be described as ‘pantheistic’ (Spinoza)”, and “I have always believed that Jesus meant by the Kingdom of God the small group scattered all through time of intellectually and ethically valuable people.”
This rather elitist view in the latter part of the quotation is a direct contradiction to the whole of the Bible and Jesus’ speech and actions. The Kingdom which Jesus repeatedly pointed to was not a gathering of intellectually and ethically valuable people. Although He circulated among the mix of those around Him, His attention leaned toward those who had little status, or were people that no “decent person” would be caught around. They were known to others as “sinners”, the others being those who considered themselves as righteous, or what Edison called the intellectually and ethically valuable people. It was such that sought to accuse Him by asking, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” In Luke 5:32, Jesus said, “I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners and need to repent.” Oddly, it was those self-righteous complainers whom Jesus considered to be without the hope of ever seeing His Kingdom. God neither recognizes worldly status nor grades on a curve. The fact that “at least I’m not as bad as Hitler” makes no difference at all, and that’s what tends to frustrate us. As His own astonished disciples asked Him after He’d shot down their similar assumptions, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus replied by pointing out both a harsh reality and a true hope: “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” At the time He spoke, God’s work to create The Way had not yet been finished.
Not surprisingly, I feel that a closer path to understanding the core of a largely incomprehensible reality is faith, something abounding in Jesus, and it delighted Him when He found faith in others. Hebrews 11 defines faith as “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” According to Matthew 9:22 and other verses, faith carries power: “Jesus turned and saw her. ‘Take heart, daughter,’ He said, ‘your faith has healed you.’ And the woman was healed at that moment.” Where faith in God was present, His impossible works flowed effortlessly.
The New Testament specifically recounts that Jesus did few restorative or healing miracles where an opening toward faith was completely lacking, and He immediately left those areas, a note which should poke at the inquiring mind as to just how actual reality works, and what it encompasses. Matthew 13:58 notes, “And He did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith.” God does not respond to demands to prove Himself, since there is no faith contained in it, only false pride or arrogance. Inventor Thomas Edison could not get much action on his end, either, concluding in 1911, “I have never seen the slightest scientific proof of the religious ideas of heaven and hell, of future life for individuals, or of a personal God. … Not one of all the gods of all the various theologies has ever really been proved. We accept no ordinary scientific fact without the final proof; why should we, then, be satisfied in this most mighty of all matters, with a mere theory?” Edison’s disdain of anything straying from the narrow confines of scientific thought is palpable, and this is an even more popular sentiment today than it was in his time. When we demand that God approach us on our terms, we experience only absence. We must approach the Creator on His terms, as an indicator of sincerity.
Edison was not open to “things unseen”. God does not seek to win over those who will not have Him, but He responds to the smallest seed of faith in those who know that they are blinded by the limitations within themselves. Matthew 7:7 notes a very different response to sincerity and humility, quoting Jesus as saying, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” Is the universe really limited to Nature, celestial bodies, mathematical models, convenience, prestige and accumulated wealth? If you cannot touch it or Paypal money to it, does it exist? Is reality wider than we’ve been taught in school? The answer depends on you, and how big a view you want. Does it matter, for what kind of life you want to have? You bet it does. I can hardly explain away my experiences with God as either emotionally-driven aberrations of the mind, or as anomalies that await Science’s explaining away such mysteries. God has proven Himself and His nature to me, but not by anything remotely resembling the scientific process, and not by the intellectual juggling of Scripture. Scripture has merely confirmed what He has already revealed of Himself to me, His Spirit interrupting my internal busyness, that I might have at least the faint start of understanding the One who sustains all things.