How do we know God? Moreover, how do we even know if He exists?
What’s In A Name?
The language of church often frustrates me. If you were saved as a child in the church you may not be aware of it, but for the uninitiated church is really, really, really weird. There are not just new words, like “sanctification” and “repentance”, but there are repurposed ones, like “conviction” and “hope” and “faith”, that carry meaning and subtext the rest of society just doesn’t share.
And then there’s the phrases. Good Lord, all the phrases to learn. “Altar call”, “laid out in the Spirit”, “bring it through the Cross”, “feeling convicted”, “praise report”, the auto-responses of the Catholic mass or the Methodist service… From the innocuous to the critically important there is this entire subsection of language the church uses that is just not open to the newcomer. Worse is that it’s actually intimidating, confusing, and outright hostile to the newcomer. It’s an exercise in exclusivity, often unintended, rarely through malice, but through a desire to find validation in each other that is just not open to outsiders.
That’s all it is. Maybe if you grew up in church you’ve never stopped to consider these words and phrases that way, but please do so for a minute. “I’m feeling convicted” is just a shorter, and somehow more authoritative, way to say “lately I have had this weird feeling of guilt over this thing that isn’t good for me, that makes me think God wants me to stop it.” “The Spirit put it on my heart to talk to you” is just a way of saying “I have this feeling that I should talk to you.” In both cases the shorthand makes it sound more official, more serious, more weighty.
But here’s the thing about language, and I’ve talked and written a lot about this: you often have absolutely no idea what it is your words are conveying to another person. The Christianese words that supposedly ingratiate us to each other actually drive some away and make others tune out. The purpose of language is to build common understanding, but we’ve built this church language that actually impedes the flow of information. We have essentially set up an artificial roadblock to our stated mission of spreading the understanding of the Gospel.
The most painful part is we’ve allowed this language to cloud our interpretation of the Word. We’ve reduced our ability to understand except by popularly accepted definition. This kind of context twisting can make the healing force of Scripture a weapon of oppression. Let me show you.
James 5:16 — in the midst of lecturing on being a good church — reads:
“Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed”
Confess your faults. Some translations read “sins” instead of “faults” and that’s contextual shrapnel. “Sin” in Greek is the word hamartia, άμαρτίαν, but the word used here is paraptomata, παραπτώματα. That word, paraptomata, just means failures. It literally means “to fall away” or “to fall aside” — the picture is that of falling off the side of the road — and the translation into “sin” is just… wrong. It’s done because a message of chastisement is so much easier to control people with than one of Love. So much easier to self-inflate with.
James, for all the questionable content in the epistle, is re-establishing a core tenet of Christ’s message here: be open and at unity within the Kingdom. In fact in Matthew 18:15 the Christ Himself said:
“Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.”
He is speaking about the power of forgiveness. But we don’t have the ability to cleanse sin, right? So this is discussion not of sin, but of the small offenses we make to each other, often unwittingly. That’s why He says to “go tell him his fault” — you don’t go tell someone else what their sin is, that would contradict the lesson of the plank and the speck. He is saying that we should be open and honest about the things that bother us lest they grow into resentment and bitterness.
No, James is not speaking of sins, but mistakes of all grade. It’s not the sources of guilt he’s writing about, but the sources of shame, of self-hate, of isolation. The stupid little things we hold against ourselves and each other that carry all the eternal weight of a stubbed toe, but which have profound effect on who we are and how we behave here on earth. Why confess your faults? Why mend fences? Why admit your mistakes? Why bother with unity and inclusion? Because it keeps life from sucking here on earth. I wrote about this awhile back, but God is absolutely concerned with all aspects of your life, from how much you enjoy your time on earth to what your comfort will be in eternity.
What Mattered Most
It is this unity on earth we violate with our custom language, and we do so because we fundamentally misunderstand God. We pick up the Bible and ask each other what it means rather than going to the source to ask Him what it means.
Reading the Bible to know God is like reading your teenager’s journal to get to know them instead of talking to them. You can get a lot of facts, and you can get some pictures about how you think they think, but in the end all you have is a hollow shade of them and very little in the way of real knowledge. If you want to get to know your child, or any person, you need to spend time with them, talk to them, experience them. God is no different!
But what does that mean? What does it mean to experience God if we can’t have an actual conversation with Him?
There’s this internet skit about this magic table, and you need to watch it. Go watch it now. I’ll wait. It’s funny, but it’s a deep truth about perspective.
Consider, from this video, the difference between belief and faith. This guy believes the table and the basket are magic. He’s seen it, he has experienced it, and nothing and no one is going to tell him otherwise. That experience, that belief, has given him faith — has convinced him — that the magic is real to such a degree that he preaches it to others. He is a minister of this magic house. The guy cop listens to this sermon and it touches him, because he’s had a similar experience he didn’t feel comfortable voicing out loud to anyone. The video ends with a church of two praising the magic cleaning furniture.
But here’s the crisis of faith and the issue with belief: they are both missing the obvious truth that their tables aren’t magic; they are each served by a living person who is acting out of Love to provide a less stressful living situation for them. I Love this video as an illustration because it strikes to the core problem of religion from a few sides.
From one perspective this skit shows the blindness of faith; it shows that we can believe some silly and stupid things, and certainly that is true. Belief is a critically important thing, but often it is based on unsubstantial nonsense, a learned behavior that bears no resemblance to truth. This is true of Christianity, but no more or less than any other religion on earth — including science.
Other religions are the easy pickings: they’ve grabbed idols to worship in blind ignorance to the fact that there is no meat behind them either because they tried God and found no connection or they simply learned to parrot something someone else believed because it seemed reasonable enough. But that belief sits deeply and has grown faith of its own that is real. That must be handled carefully because challenged faith can cause deep rifts, can drive a person further into their belief. But the issues of conversion are for another post.
Christians are primed for our own unsubstantiated beliefs, though, too. Because every person interprets the Bible through their own perspective we can read His journal here and walk away with some pretty crazy ideas of who He is. The myriad of denominations shows this. The myriad of shattered churches shows this. People construct their own belief of who God is and they let that flourish into faith that guides their lives regardless of what may actually be true about Him. It’s like growing a crab-apple tree but convincing yourself it’s an apple tree: some day you are going to take a bite and be sorely displeased and feel betrayed. We compound this issue for each other because we fail in the basic assignment of discipleship. We fail to tell each other the Truth.
In another frame the video shows us the issues of the heart of a skeptic, namely: they are not always wrong. Look, there are things about the atheist or agnostic arguments that are valid, that are worth considering and dealing with. Our default response to skepticism is defensiveness and rejection. But if I learned one thing from my life as a lost man it is this: if you cannot rigorously question your belief and walk away with a stronger foundation for it then you don’t have a belief, you have a fantasy. We would do well to question ourselves sometimes, and the Bible backs this up.
In case you aren’t catching me: we’re this guy and God is his wife. God has spent eternity planning every moment of your day today. Every word you read, every sight you see, every sound you hear. You can absolutely choose to say the magic universe happened by chance to provide this magic life for you, but the truth is you’re being a blind fool. There is a living God who provides for you. Provides challenge, growth, comfort, Love, exhiliration, anger, everything.
What we need to focus on, and the reason Paul wrote Phillipians 4:8, is seeing these things not as magic but as God’s action in our life. Now that’s dangerous because you can see any of these things as evil, as punishment, as condemnation. You have to keep perspective, and this is where God’s diary is useful. “All things work together for the good of those who Love him.” “Before you were born he ordered your days.” “God is Love.” All these entries tell us that His motivation is pure and positive.
But we’ve been battered and we don’t trust Him. We see no sign of him, we feel abandoned, we feel judged, we feel ignored. All we have to do is stop, breathe deeply, and then take in the beauty, the humor, the joy amidst the pain, the positive experience that He gives us to equip us to survive this world.
It takes faith to believe that He is good precisely because it is trivial to pick out reasons that it isn’t true. It’s an impossible belief for us because we are a battered woman who has no faith in barbaric, cruel, disgusting men. All evidence points to this unless you look for other evidence, for proof that some men are kind, gentle, meek. The world — the little lion — has constructed a narrative that these men are lesser, weaker, unappealing. He wants that definition of barbarian to stick because it divides us.
Dare to be Stupid
Faith is active belief. It means believing in an action that seems unreasonable, unattainable, and often ridiculous. Every pastor has a story of buying a drum kit on faith even though they didn’t have a drummer. They skip over the feeling stupid and buy the kit and wait for God to bring in a drummer. Greater faith simply means capacity to believe a greater number of impossible things.
You can’t feel superior in that greater faith because it isn’t anything to do with you; it’s gained by your experience; it’s what God planned in your life to convince you of His existence and Love. Telling someone to have more faith is ridiculous because it’s directly equal to telling someone to believe harder that they can fly. The only way to get that kind of belief is through God giving you experiences that can push you farther into that.
Think of it another way: when a battered woman enters into a new relationship with a man she is going to be cautious, hesitant, guarded. She deeply wants to believe he is kinder, more Loving, more supportive. But she can’t. Her history knows better. She wants to believe it, but it is her experience — her amygdala — that decides if that belief can exist. If he screams at her it becomes more distant. If he comforts her and shows her patience and understanding she can open some, step slightly in the direction of belief, of trust. It takes time to erase the wounds of experience.
So it is with God: our individual history decides the levels and kinds of belief we can support. God leads us further down the roads of belief, but it has nothing to do with knowledge, wisdom, or understanding. It’s about experience. There is a reason video games use experience points to grow a character.
Life is a Highway
So what do we do if our experience is one of feeling betrayed by God? What if we have seen Him as Lucy from Peanuts, constantly pulling the football out from under us just as we go to kick it? How do we account for bad things happening to good people? And more importantly: how do we see Him when we are so disappointed by Him that the idea of even accepting His existence is disgusting?
The answer, of course, is to keep trucking. It is through your experiences that He shows Himself, and the more time you spend on that path the more ability He has to show you His light, to convince you of His truth, to convince you of His Love. And that’s where the rest of us come in: to support you, to edify you. It is our job to open each other’s heart and help to clear the debris of offense and fallen flesh to give Him an open clearing to approach you.
Father, I pray that I was able to speak rightly the Word you gave me here. Let the meat of Your Spirit burst forth and disabuse them any effect of the words that were mine. So many have allowed the Bible to take Your place on the throne of their hearts, and I pray that you free them of that weight. Give us all a new experience of You, a new touch of Your Love. A new convincing of Your devotion.
All these things I pray in the powerful name of my Brother, my Savior, my King, and Your Son, Your Word, and Your Anointed Christ. Amen.