Seeing the Invisible God: Part 2: Formed by Relationships
The human being takes longer to mature than any other animal. An antelope can drop out of its mother's womb, stand, and master the basics of running and eating in a matter of hours. Human babies, in contrast, must depend helplessly on other humans for many months. A baby cannot truly become a person apart from human relationships.
The truth is, we become who we are because of those relationships. We do not enter the world as discrete "minds" dropped magically into waiting bodies. Our experiences, mainly our relationships, form us as persons. Feral children, those rare but documented cases of children raised by wild animals, never truly develop the ability to relate to others; they can hardly be classified as "persons" in any meaningful sense. Similarly, psychologists have studied children who were locked in closets for years in grotesque instances of child abuse. These children too never develop language skills, and seem permanently stunted.
In a parallel way, I conceive of the spiritual life as a capacity built into the human person, but one that can only develop in relationship with God. Although we all have the capacity, which reveals itself in spiritual thirst, it will remain unfulfilled until we make contact, and then develop the skills of spiritual "correspondence." Considered in this way, Jesus' striking image of being born again makes perfect sense. Conversion, the process of connecting to spiritual reality, awakens the potential of brand new life. And as God's children we become who we are through relationship with God and God's people.
I think of the person who has influenced my Christian life more than any other: Dr. Paul Brand. Over a 15-year period, I wrote three books with Dr. Brand. I accompanied him on trips to India and England, where together we re-traced the key events in his life. I spent many hundreds of hours asking him every question I could think of. I interviewed his former patients, his colleagues, his family, his operating-room scrub nurses (the very best source, I found, to learn the truth about a surgeon!). Dr. Brand is both a good and a great man, and I have everlasting gratitude for the time we spent together. At a stage in my spiritual development when I had little confidence in writing about my own faith, I had absolute confidence in writing about his.
I changed because of my relationship with Dr. Brand; he became a channel of spiritual growth for me. My faith grew as I had an up-close living model of a person who was enhanced in every way by his own relationship with God. I now view lifestyle and money issues largely through his eyes; I see the natural environment differently; I look at the human body, and especially pain, in a very different light. My relationship with Dr. Brand affected me deeply, in my core, on the inside. Yet as I look back, I can think of no instances in which he imposed himself on me, or manipulatively sought to change me. I changed willingly, gladly, as my world and my self encountered his.
A similar process works, I believe, with God. I become who I am, as a Christian, by relating to God. In ways mysterious and often hard to describe—but never coercive or manipulative—I have changed over time because of my contact with God.
Indeed, I can see many parallels between getting to know God and getting to know a human person. (My friend Tim Stafford wrote a fine book about such parallels, Knowing the Face of God). I first learn a person's name. Something in his personality attracts me to him. I spend time with my new friend, learning what activities we have in common. I give gifts, make sacrifices for that friend. I do things to please my friend that I wouldn't do on my own. I change and adjust as the relationship develops. I share happy times and sad times; we laugh together and weep together. I reveal my deepest secrets. I take risks of relationship. I make commitments. I fight and argue, then reconcile.
I am not the only person relating to my friend, of course, for every relationship between people differs from every other. My wife perceives my friend differently from the way I do; his wife perceives me differently. Over time though, a bond develops between us as strong as any bond a human being can know—the word covenant comes to mind.
All these stages of relationship apply to God. If I could interview Jeremiah, Jacob, Job, James, and Jude, each would give me very different answers to the question, "Tell me about your relationship with God—what is it like?" If I asked that question of David, I would get starkly different answers from the same person! The relationship varies from one psalm to the next, and even varies within the same psalm. Psalm 143, for example, reflects on "the days of long ago," when God seemed close and intimate, then cries out, "Do not hide your face from me." David understood, perhaps better than anyone who has ever lived, the dynamic, living rela tionship that takes place between a person and God.
"Ah yes," someone objects, "you make these parallels sound so smooth. I have many successful relationships with other people. I can see them, touch them, hear them. I have tried to relate to an invisible God. Nothing happened. I never have the sense that God is even there!"
I do not discount such an objection, because at times in my life I have won dered the same thing. Even now, my relationship with God rests or falls on faith (though, as I have pointed out, all my relationships do). You can see the problem by watching scenes of religious experience in movies. They are, in a word, boring. A saint kneels and prays. Something is happening, we presume, but not such that the camera can record. The action is invisible—which, for us humans, holds far less interest than something involving our bodies, like sex.
In response to this objection, I defer to Thomas Green, a priest who has spent his life exploring spirituality. Although he serves as spiritual director of a seminary in the Philippines and has written seven books on prayer, he admits that some people never develop a successful prayer life. He estimates that about the same proportion of peo ple have a very successful prayer life as have a very successful marriage. Tan gibility is not the issue, he says, for tangibility does not ensure the success of human relationships either.
Of course my relationship with God will not exactly parallel my relationship with human beings; in some ways it will radically differ. God is infinite, intangible, and invisible. If I may use such language, we humans have little sympathy for the "problems" confronting such a Being who desires to relate to us. Baron von Hugel drew the analogy of a man's relations with a dog:
Our dogs know us, and love us thus most really, yet they doubtless know us only vividly, not clearly; we evidently strain their minds after a while—they then like to get away amongst servants and children; and, indeed, they love altogether to escape from human company. … And yet, how wonderful! Dogs thus require their fellow-dogs, the shallow and clear, but they also require us, the deep and dim; they require indeed what they can grasp; but they as really require what they can but reach out to, more or less—what exceeds, protects, envelopes, directs them. … The source and object of religion, if religion be true and its object be real, cannot, indeed by any possibility, be as clear to me even as I am to my dog.
Baron von Hugel was kind to us. An infinite God relating to human beings presents far more of a challenge than a man relating to his dog—perhaps a man communicating with a wood tick is a closer analogy.
Communication between such un equal creatures will inevitably cause confusion and disappointment on both sides. What we humans want out of a relationship may well run at cross-purposes with what God wants. We want God to be like us: tangible, material, perceptible. (Hence the long history of idolatry.) Apart from the In- car nation and rare epiphanies, God has little apparent interest in corresponding on our level. God has, in the current phrase "been there, done that," and has no reason to confine himself to time and space any longer than necessary. Rather, God seeks from us correspondence in a spiritual realm, and seems most interested in other kinds of growth: justice, mercy, peace, grace, and love, "spiritual" qualities which can in fact be worked out in a material word. In a word, God wants us to be more like him.
As an ancient Orthodox writer put it, "God cannot be grasped by the mind. If he could be grasped, he would not be God." We are profoundly different, God and I, which is why friendship is not the primary model used in the Bible to describe our relationship. Worship is.
Victor Frankl survived internment in a Nazi concentration camp and went on to become a famous therapist. He recalls a time when, fearing death at any moment, he and other prisoners were forced by Nazi guards to walk toward an unknown destination:
As we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew; each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife's image, imagining it with an un canny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look.
A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth—that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which men can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart; the salvation of man is through love and in love. …
In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way—an honorable way—in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, "The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory."
I have mentioned the impact of Dr. Paul Brand on my life. Yet as I read Frankl's memoir, I know beyond doubt that if I were ever put in a position like Frankl's, a place of terror and suffering and imminent death, I would not be thinking of Paul Brand. Like Frankl, I would fix all my remaining powers of concentration on the face of my wife, who has shared my life and has taught me the meaning of love. If we become persons through relationship, the person I am today is due in very large measure to her. When we met, I was painfully shy, socially inept, emotionally damaged. She looked past those handicaps and graced me with her love and attention.
She is visiting her family two thousand miles away as I write these words, and yet she "lives" inside me. The history we have shared fills my mind and shapes my very personality. All day today I have felt her absence as a kind of presence. I think of what she might be doing just now. I pray for her. I miss her.
As I think of the ways Janet affects me, I understand why the Bible so often turns to love and marriage as pictures of the relationship God wants with us. Victor Frankl, thinking of his wife, understood for the first time the meaning of a worship that had always eluded him. We are not angels, however, but flawed human beings, and a love contract with God is as unsteady as the love contract of marriage. My own marriage, which has endured for almost three decades, is based on an underlying covenant that we both renegotiate daily. Fidelity, not romance, has kept us together.
I once likened marriage to mountain climbing, an avocation we took up after moving to Colorado. At first the mountains intimidated us. Eventually we learned, though, that climbing mainly consists of picking up one foot and putting it in front of the next one. You take a thousand steps, no matter how much your legs ache, and eventually you reach the top. This is the law of mountain climbing.
Early in our marriage an older and wiser couple counseled, "Don't depend on romantic love. It won't last. Love is a decision, not a feeling." Honeymoon-blinded, I dismissed their advice as symptomatic of an older generation out of touch with its feelings; now, years later, I would agree. Yes, marriage lives on love, but it is the kind of love that parenthood demands, or Christian discipleship: a gritty decision to go forward, step by step, one foot in front of the other.
For me, much has remained the same after my decision to follow Christ. Some things have grown harder and more complex. Yet, as with marriage, I have found life with God to be far more satisfying. Following Christ was a starting point, a choice of a path to walk down. I am still plodding that same path— for more years even than I have been married. God, too, lives inside me, changing me, orienting me, reminding me of my true identity.
Differences exist, of course, between a covenant of marriage and a covenant with God. I never doubt my wife's existence. Each morning, except when one of us is traveling, I can reach over and touch her to get tangible proof. Both covenants require fidelity; only one requires faith in the sense of being "certain of what we do not see." God's absence does not always feel like a kind of presence.
In a prayer meeting I attended, I heard a woman beg God to "flash his presence" to us in the room. I nearly burst out laughing at the image of God as a flasher, an exhibitionist in a raincoat, and immediately felt guilt over having such a blasphemous thought. Some thing about the notion fit, however. By nature God is a self-revealer; he must make himself known. When he does, when we sense his presence, everything else seems thin and light by contrast.
Yet God is a self-concealer as well. "The secret things belong to the Lord our God," Moses told the Israelites, "but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever." We live dangling between the secret things, withheld per haps for our own protection, and the revealed things. The God who satisfies our thirst is also the great Unknown, the one no one can look upon and live. Perhaps it takes God's absence and presence both for us to remain ourselves, or even to survive.
Pascal wrote, "If there was no obscurity, man would not feel his corruption, and if there was no light, man would have no hope for a remedy. Thus it is not only just, but useful to us that God is hidden in part and discovered in part, for to man it is as dangerous to know God without knowing his own misery as it is to know his misery without knowing God."
This is the concluding installment of a two-part article.
Philip Yancey is the author of many books, including most recently The Bible Jesus Read (Zondervan). This essay is adapted from his forthcoming book, Reaching for the Invisible God, which will be published by Zondervan in the fall.
Note: For your convenience, The Bible Jesus Read, by Phillip Yancey, is available for purchase from the ChristianityToday.com Bookstore.
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