The thing searched after: life
The first way: cloistered orthodox piety is life
When searching the life that God promised you will quickly hear that the “world” is evil and unholy. The first thing that comes to your mind is to avoid as much interaction with it as possible. What remains is your action-less faith, i.e. orthodoxy only: you know what is right and believe and say it, but you do not know how to experience it because spiritual things are invisible. So you simply repeat the orthodox spiritual facts over and over, and that’s all you do. The facts do not change and you see no reason why you should change how you repeat them, so things quickly develop into a formalistic, traditionalistic, liturgic faith ” life”. Needless to say that it does not feel at all like ” life”. This is not what you searched.
The second way: face-to-face community 24/7 with God is life
Now you think about your first way and you realize that you are far from the ” world” but you feel not near to God. You’ve heard that God is life so you decide to find close company with God in order to find life (and so did I). The intuitive conception of the closest company with God is perhaps as follows:
- God speaks to you at least once in a day through spontaneous thoughts, visionary images, dreams and also with an acoustic voice.
- The relationship to God is “symmetrical”: just as you direct prayers and worship to God directly and personally you expect him to direct answers and gifts to you directly and personally.
- Experiencing the supernatural power of God and his Holy Spirit is the normal case: healings and other miracles are just as usual as one intuitively thinks they were in the book of Acts.
- God speaks to your congregation regularly through concrete prophecies.
This conception of company with God is modeled after the personal, immediate face-to-face company we experience with other people. In this sense, it is very understandable. When it comes to practice, people often report the following as their experiences with God:
- They report to feel and encounter the presence of God in a Sunday service.
- They sometimes feel deeply emotionally touched when singing worship songs and take this for a direct encounter with God.
- They report that God talked to them personally through a Bible passage they read in their Bible time. It might be a passage that really hit its reader and helped him in a special situation or acute problem.
- They report that people prayed for them prophetically and it really hit to the ground of what they needed.
- They believe that lots of the details in everyday life are coordinated by God. So if they had a good day they thank God for providing this good day for them.
- They often have spontaneous thoughts and visionary images in their head and believe these to come from God.
When examining the biblical testimony, it is apparent that at least some such experiences are indeed possible:
- On Pentecost, the first congregation of Christians had a direct encounter with God when the Holy Spirit came on them (Acts 2:1-21).
- Peter experienced a vision when praying on the flat roof of a house (Acts 10:9-20).
- God spoke through prophets to the congregation and to individual persons, e.g. through Agabus (Acts 11:28; 21:10).
- Paul had the gift of healing and astonishing things happened because of that (Acts 19: 11-12).
There are good indications that all of these direct, supernatural encounters with God that we read about in the book of Acts do also happen in these days. There is however one big question: how often. That is, does God intend that direct encounters with him fill all of our days and life, does God intend immediate 24/7 community or not?
My preliminary result to this question is: such direct encounters with God are rare. I fully admit that this is not the impression one gets from reading the New Testament: the NT and especially the four Gospels and the book of Acts have the problem of being far from representative because they recount the highlights and special events only, and this from decades, a multitude of places and a multitude of people.
This preliminary result is also based on critical observations of supposed-to-be encounters with God (remember that Bible says that we should test prophecy etc.). Some of these experiences are genuine, as reasoned for above. But most are not (I think) because they can be traced back to purely emotional, psychological processes or to sociodynamic processes or might happen by chance without any problem. Let us define: whenever a person interprets a natural event as an immediate encounter with God, this is a “religious element of faith”. It’s simply not true.
This is not to say that a 24/7 immediate relationship to God wouldn’t be life. It would, and in heaven it will be just that way. But as long as we live in this world such immediate company with God is rare and we simply need to cope with this truth.
The third way: being a free and cared for child of God is life
The alternative to the lifeless first and the illusionary second way is here called the “third” way. One should read about its both elements before making up one’s opinion. And keep in mind that this is just a proposition that remains to be tested in real life … so please comment on its weak points and on your experiences with it rather than just throwing it away as a whole.
For a start, let’s consider some of our day to day experiences:
- You eat bread and thank God for it. What do you mean? Let’s say you bought the bread at a supermarket. The supermarket bought it from a large industrial-style bakehouse, the bakehouse bought the cereal from a wholesaler, the wholesaler from, I dunno, some other guys who bought it from an agriculturist. Who in turn used seed to grow the ears, buying the seed in the first instance from a wholesaler of cultured seeds, developed in several hundreds of years from wild cereal plant species. The plants reproduce automatically from the beginning of the world … and there, at creation time, we find a concrete deed of God, namely, creating the archetype of cereal plants. And perhaps it’s the only concrete deed of God regarding your daily bread … .
- You got to be friends with someone and thank God for this guy or gal. What do you mean? In nearly all cases this will be simply a natural consequence of how God created men: he created them so that they love to socialize and enjoy friendship, which enables you to make friends (cf. Gen 2:18). So actually you thank God for the way he created this world!
Natural things like these make up our day, and the supernatural things make up perhaps 0,3% only (audacious estimate). Now “natural” should not mean that t
hese things have nothing to do with God; in the Bible, every good gift is attributed to God (James 1:17). But they have an observable mediate character: we receive these gifts because God created once a system that produces these gifts on its own accord (e.g. food, human relationships). And not because God personally and directly distributes these gifts – in this case one would have to explain e.g. why God distributes the food on the world in such an unfair manner.
What then is an adequate reaction to God’s mediate gifts if we cannot thank him for providing them individually to us? We can live in these things “for God” in that we are conscious that we are free to deal with such seemingly ” unspiritual” but enjoyable matters because God himself made our relationship to him whole through Jesus Christ. We are free to do what we see fit and interesting because God has done anything else for us so that we do not need to bother about our redemption any more!!
Another thought: God wants to teach us how to deal right with the huge amount of freedom he imparted to us by a world full of mediate gifts where we can act as it seems fit to us. God, as a father, takes care of us: giving us all freedom that’s possible, just limiting it where he needs to protect us from hurting ourselves or others. We just need to take care of our relationship to God: as long as nothing is between God and us (i.e. nothing is more important than God and what he says), everything is fine and we’re on the right track. So if God keeps silent it means usually: everything’s o.k., just move on; or: just remember what I said and the truth you read in the Bible, and you’re fine, knowing all that’s necessary for now. Probably we should fully dismiss the idea that the amount of time and effort invested into our spiritual and our worldly life says anything about their respective quality and about their importance to us. Not time but the quality of our relationship to God (in analogy to the quality of human relationships) defines the quality of our spiritual life.
Now, the second part of the “third way”: if there would be nothing else than these natural experiences, these mediate gifts of God and mediate words of God, this would be a mildly deistic point of view. Because then we’d think that God created the world once and then left it alone as a gift for us; and that he gave us his word once in the Bible and then left us alone with this truth; and that no direct immediate contact with God is possible in this world, until we arrive up there.
This, indeed, would be no life also. Men would have to feel helpless and alone in this world, sort of marooned by their heavenly father in a big, cold world, all on their own, without any concrete help. So let’s be glad that this is not the case! 🙂 There is the second element:
As argued for above, there always was and still is God’s immediate, direct agency, his dealings with us personally, our direct encounters with him. As said also, this is rare. There are not yet any measurements what frequency you can expect, but: if you experience one really, justifiably supernatural encounter with God every several months you are lucky. There might be a greater number of cases where you cannot discern if it was really God (e.g. having some spontaneous thoughts, some visionary images and dreams, and for events where you suspect supernatural coordination). This is just normal and shouldn’t bother. And additionally, there might be an even higher dark figure of God’s immediate agency where he works below the threshold of what is perceivable and measurable. But anyway, the mediate agency of God as demonstrated above occupies by far the largest part of our experiences.
While God’s immediate agency is rare, it is important, and enough to encourage our faith. We see God at work therein, in the 21st century!! This reignites our faith and proves anew that God is still alive, that he will help us when we need it and that he will fulfill all he promised to us. Jesus talked about this experience when saying something about praying in his name: “Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be made full.” (John 16:24 WEB).
To take the most encouragement out of these highlight experiences it seems a good idea to write them down. Just as Luke did in the book of Acts, encouraging millions until today. That way we won’t forget what God did in our life, and we can share it with others. And, seeing the misuse of the “miracle” term today and therefore the problems of many people to accept something as a miracle, it seems a good idea to collect well-funded contemporary miracles in a book and publish it.
Summing this up: a world full of mediate gifts and words from God is there to have fun with before God, and immediate encounters with God are to encourage your faith in an invisible God and sometimes to correct you. Together, this makes up the “life in this world” promised to us in I Tim 4:8, namely: enough experiences to believe and to know that God cares, and enough mediate gifts for a grateful, interesting, satisfying life until we go up there. Every attitude (such as the first and second way) that does not value the material world as our place to enjoy God’s gifts is ” religious” and simply does not work.