Chapter OneTHIRST - A LONGING
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The excerpt below is from Reaching for the Invisible God.
How do you sustain a relationship with God, a being so different from
any other, imperceptible by the five senses? I hear from an inordinate
number of people struggling with questions like this-their letters
prompted, I suppose, by books I've written with titles like Where Is God
When It Hurts? and Disappointment with God.
I have lived most of my life in the evangelical Protestant tradition,
which emphasizes personal relationship, and I finally decided to write
this book because I want to identify for myself how a relationship with
God truly works, not how it is supposed to work.
In carving my path I am following a map laid out by many others,
the "great cloud of witnesses" who have preceded me. My struggles with
faith have at least this in their favor: they come from a long, distinguished
line. I find kindred expressions of doubt and confusion in the Bible itself.
Sigmund Freud accused the church of teaching only questions that it
can answer. Some churches may do that, but God surely does not. In
books like Job, Ecclesiastes, and Habakkuk, the Bible poses blunt questions
that have no answers.
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As I began this book, I went to friends whom I respect as Christians. I
asked this question: "If a seeking person came to you and asked how
your life as a Christian differs from hers as a moral non-Christian, what
would you tell her?"
Perhaps the most poignant response came from a friend whose name
is well known in Christian circles. He thought for some time before
responding, and then said this:
I have no trouble believing God is good. My question is more, What good is he? I heard awhile back that Billy Graham's daughter
was undergoing marriage problems, so the Grahams and the
in-laws all flew to Europe to meet with them and pray for the
couple. They ended up getting divorced anyway. If Billy Graham's
prayers don't get answered, what's the use of my praying? I look
at my life-the health problems, my own daughter's struggles, my marriage. I cry out to God for help, and it's hard to know
just how he answers. Really, what can we count on God for?
That final question struck me like a bullet and has stayed lodged
inside me. I know theologians who would snort at such a phrase as one
more mark of self-centered faith. Yet I believe it lies at the heart of much
disillusionment with God. In all our personal relationships-with parents,
children, store clerks, gas station attendants, pastors, neighbors-we
have some idea what to expect. What about God? What can we count
on from a personal relationship with him?
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Christians claim there are times, though perhaps less frequent than we
would lead others to believe, when we do make personal contact with the
Creator of the universe. "I have seen things that make all my writings
seem like straw," wrote Thomas Aquinas about one such encounter.
I too have felt the tug at times, a tug strong enough to jerk me out
of cynicism and rebellion, strong enough to wrench my life in a new
direction. Yet for long stretches, achingly long stretches, I have also sat
with my headphones on (as did Jodie Foster in the movie Contact), desperate
for some message from the other world, yearning for reassuring
contact, and heard only static.
How can something as fundamental as a God who created us to know
and love him become so tenuous? If God, as Paul told a sophisticated
crowd of skeptics in Athens, "did this," meaning all creation, in order that
we might reach out and find him, why not make himself more obvious?
Writers of the Bible lived in the "Holy Land," where bushes burst
into flame, where rocks and volcanoes gushed sacred metaphors and the
stars bespoke God's grandeur. No longer. The supernatural world has
seemingly gone into hiding, leaving us alone with the visible. The thirst
for God, though, for contact with the unseen, the hunger for love from
a cosmic Parent who can somehow fashion meaning from this scrambled
world, defiantly persists.
God is personal. The Bible, both Old Testament and New, portrays
a God who affects us and is affected by us. "For the Lord takes delight
in his people," says the psalmist (149:4); at times God also takes great
exception to his people, say the prophets. The personality of God leaps
out of almost every page of the Bible. "God is love," says the apostle
John. "Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him." It would
be difficult to get more personal.
Why, then, do we find it so difficult to relate personally to this God?
At various times people tended to pray to local saints, who seemed more
accessible and less scary. Protestant Reformers and Catholic mystics,
though, challenged us to relate to God directly, without intermediaries.
And modern evangelicalism summons us to know God, to talk to God in
conversational language, to love God as one might love a friend. Listen
to the "praise songs" in modern churches, which sound exactly like love
songs played on pop radio, with God or Jesus substituted as the lover.
Do we, like billboards for Pepsi, fan a thirst we cannot quench? Just
last week my church sang: "I want to know you more / I want to touch
you / I want to see your face." Nowhere in the Bible do I find a promise
that we will touch God, or see his face, not in this life at least.
Modern American religion speaks in "friendly" terms with God even
though, as C. S. Lewis points out in The Four Loves, friendship is the form
of love that least accurately describes the truth of a creature's encounter
with the Creator. How, then, can we have a "personal relationship" with
a God who is invisible, when we're never quite sure he's there?
Encountering God Through Those
in the Bible (3-5 minutes)
Read Psalm 42:1-11. If you are reading in a group, choose two readers
to alternate as follows, representing each part of the psalmist's self.
Reader 1: verses 1-4
Reader 2: verses 5-6a
Reader 1: verses 6b-7
Reader 2: verse 8
Reader 1: verses 9-10
Reader 2: verse 11
Reaching for God with Others (20 minutes)
If you are in a large group, break into groups of four to six for this discussion
time. Introduce yourselves to each other. Tell the others briefly
about yourself. Are you single? Married? Do you have children? Do you
work outside the home?
1. When you think of the invisibility of God, how do you feel?
Crazy. My senses are very important to me. I really struggle in
relating to a God I can't see, hear, or touch.
Frustrated. I can accept that God is Spirit, but often I can't seem
to scale the hurdle of how to get to know this Spirit.
Doubtful. God is so vague to me that sometimes I'm not convinced
he's really there.
Grateful. I struggle at times, but the material world hasn't filled
me up. I get more from God as a Spirit than I do from anyone or
anything else, despite the challenges.
2. Briefly discuss with the group your response to the writer of Psalm
42. Can you readily identify (now or in your past) with Reader 1, the
part of the self that longs for God but has trouble finding him? Can
you identify with Reader 2, the side of the self that insists on hoping
in God, believing he cares?
3. Turn to page 14 in the book, and as you review the paragraphs about
Philip's college reunion, tell the group how long you have identified
yourself as a Christian. Can you relate to the experience of disillusionment
when the heady concepts of Christianity bump up against
the realities of daily living? When in your life has this kind of bump
occurred? If you are still exploring Christianity and considering where
your beliefs lie, have you experienced any similar disillusionment?
4. Consider the following lines from a letter Philip wrote to God a
decade ago (pp. 17-18 in the book).
Occasionally I get caught up in your world, and love you, and I've
learned to cope OK in this world, but how do I bring the two
together? That's my prayer, I guess: to believe in the possibility of
change. Living inside myself, change is hard to observe How
do I let you change me in my essence, in my nature, to make me
more like you? Or is that even possible?
Do you, like Philip, struggle with finding a continuous unity with
God and seeing him change you within? Or do you struggle more
often with understanding what you see God doing or not doing in
the world around you?
5. Philip, on page 19, tells of three respected Christians from past and
present who met difficulties in relating to God. Saint Augustine
struggled to place absolute trust in an invisible God and an imperfect
church. Author Hannah Whitall Smith (The Christian's Secret of a
Happy Life) experienced distress because of an unfaithful husband
and children who left the faith. Author Eugene Peterson, as an adolescent, observed "Spirit-filled" hypocritical Christians. How do you
feel as you read about the struggles of these spiritual leaders?
Surprised. I thought there were some people who just believed
God and never doubted.
Unsettled. I have so far to go in my walk with God. If these spiritual
giants couldn't "arrive," I don't think there's any hope for me.
Tentative. I feel Yancey is bending their stories to fit his theme.
These leaders struggled, but it was through their struggles that
they gained the wisdom and perspective to impact many.
Relieved. These stories are a reminder to me that I can keep progressing
in my relationship with God despite my doubts.
6. Review the story of the Russian Orthodox priest on pages 25-27 in
the book. Brother Bonifato performed a series of time-consuming
formalities in a Russian prison chapel in order to offer a prayer, requested spontaneously, for the prisoners. Some complain that in
Russia God seems far away and unapproachable to the individual, due to these formalities. Yet Thomas Merton said, "If you find God
with great ease, perhaps it is not God that you have found." What do
you think? Talk about your own church. Does it seem formal or
casual to you? Is God approachable? Is contact with God too easy?
7. C. S. Lewis wrote, "There comes a moment when the children who
have been playing at burglars hush suddenly: was that a real footstep
in the hall? There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling
in religion . suddenly draw back. Supposing we really found
Him? We never meant it to come to that! Worse still, supposing He
had found us?" (p. 28). Can you tell about a time when you felt what
Philip calls a "tug" from God?
Philip writes, "Nowhere in the Bible do I find a promise that we
will touch God, or see his face, not in this life at least." Quoting
C. S. Lewis, Philip adds, "Friendship is the form of love that least
accurately describes the truth of a creature's encounter with the Creator"
(pp. 32-33). Considering the times you have felt a tug from
God, how do you respond to these statements?