Category Archives: Faith

God’s Help: Fact or Fiction? (4 of 6)

Dialogue with the Disillusioned: Why Keep Praying—Week 4

The thing is religion sellers get you coming and going. If you pray for God to help you in a crisis and the crisis goes away…all praise to God. If you pray for help and the crisis doesn’t go away He has different plans for you or He never gives you more than you can handle. So ante up. The religion sellers win both ways. BTW [By the way], why would a just and loving God give you pain to teach you a lesson? I’ll stick to the facts of the world…sh*t happens, good things happen, randomly. (Thinkingwomanmillstone, 6/9/10)*

Faith and disbelief. Two perspectives. Two very different worldviews. One claims that God’s intimate involvement in our lives is a fact. The other, God’s help is a fiction.

To someone who is frustrated or disillusioned with God, believers may seem out of touch with reality, at best, and dishonest or devious, at worst. Yet, those who trust in God and rely on biblical teaching for guidance have just the opposite point of view.

To believers, the Christian faith helps to make sense of life and opens the door to greater meaning and purpose in relationship with God. And it’s those who insist that God does not exist or doesn’t care about us who are out of touch with reality, at best, and seriously misguided, at worst.

When we start from an assumption that God is real and answers prayer, our seemingly random experiences don’t seem so random anymore. The unpredictable nature of God’s response to our requests may still confound us at times, but we can often find God at work in both the “yeses” and “no’s” to our prayers. And while we may suffer greatly from any number of painful experiences, eyes of faith see the good that can come out of even the most tragic of situations. These experiences are not proofs for God, but rather encouragements to continue believing.

If, on the other hand, we let the perplexing mysteries of God, the seeming randomness of life, and the horrors of human suffering undermine our faith, we lose something vital to our well-being. The light has not come on, as a skeptic might argue, but has gone out. When we should have been wrestling with God for deeper understanding and personal growth, we’ve given up. An absent, non-caring God becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because only those who seek find, and we’ve stopped seeking. We may think that we have reached a new height of understanding, but the truth is, we’re in a hole. But we don’t have to stay there.

From an intellectual point of view, 17th Century philosopher Blaise Pascal, in his posthumously published Pensées, put it this way. He argued that while one cannot prove the existence of God, it still makes sense to “wager” on God. If you’re right, you have everything to gain. If you’re wrong, you have nothing to lose. If, on the other hand, you wager against God, and you’re right, you have gained little or nothing. If you are wrong, you have everything to lose.

Personally, my reasons for continued faith go even deeper. I know I cannot prove that God’s help is a fact, but I can say that it is a fact that my faith improves the quality of my life. Faith in God’s love has been my single greatest source of encouragement, helping me to accept and forgive myself, and to want to be more loving. Faith in God’s goodness helps me to get outside of myself, to want to be an agent for good in the world, to seek to be a better person, and to not get stuck in the hole of disillusionment and despair. Faith helps me through times of insecurity, loss, fear, or uncertainty by giving me a rock to stand on, and prayer takes me into God’s presence where I often find peace, comfort, joy, strength, and courage in the midst of my greatest challenges. And when I can’t sense God’s presence, or I don’t see how God is helping, I continue to trust, because what I have in the love, goodness, and faithfulness of God cannot be matched by any competing philosophy or non-believing worldview.

Jesus himself died with unanswered questions (“Why have you forsaken me?”), yet refused to give up his faith. He was mocked for his faith in God the Father, and his detractors pointed to his crucifixion and inability to come down off the cross as proof that he was out of touch with reality. Yet, even in his death, when God appeared to have forsaken him, Jesus still cried out, “My God, my God…” (Mark 15:34, italics added). Though he did not understand why God was not saving him from death, he still clung to his relationship with God, his God, his abba, Father until the end.

Eventually, we see in Jesus’ resurrection that God had not, in fact, abandoned him after all. His faith was vindicated. God’s help was real. It came in God’s timing in ways that served God’s purposes, but God was faithful to him. And that’s what Jesus was betting on.

Faith and disbelief: Two perspectives. Two radically different worldviews. True wisdom is knowing on which to place your wager.

We have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light.” –Colossians 1:9-12 (NIV)

A Prayer

“Dear God, sometimes I don’t know what to think and believe about you. Please help me to face the observable facts about life, and not stick my head in the sand. At the same time, deepen my spiritual wisdom and understanding about those things that cannot be seen or scientifically tested. Help me to better see the truth about your presence, your love, and your activity in my life. Lead me in the midst of overwhelming intellectual and spiritual questions to the full and fruitful life you most desire for me.”

*To read the original Huffington Post article that prompted this and other responses from bloggers, click here, “When Prayer Makes a Difference in Suffering.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-timothy-c-geoffrion-phd/when-prayer-makes-a-diffe_b_601399.html

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Is Prayer Worthwhile? (3 of 6)

Dialogue with the Disillusioned: Why Keep Praying—Week 3

What evidence is there for the efficacy of prayer? This is an old, well worn question but if you believe that God intervenes and saves people with a terminal disease or illness because of prayer, why does he not re-grow the limbs of amputees or unfortunates born without limbs?

Why would he help you because you prayed, for example, to pass an exam, when he ignores the prayers said for something far less trivial like helping a seriously ill, close relative to recover?

Prayer is a delusion. (So writes Trevand, 6/7/10)*

Trevand is not really asking what seem to be good questions, but is trying to make a point: Even if there is a God, he’s saying, prayer doesn’t work, and we’re fooling ourselves to think it does. In his conclusion, he is assuming that a good, all-powerful God would never answer some requests and neglect others, meeting relatively minor needs while ignoring the most serious appeals.

But are his assumptions correct?

In spite of the fact that Psalm 103 says that God “heals all our diseases,” should we really expect that God will always heal us or help us whenever we pray? And just because prayer doesn’t “work” sometimes, does that mean God never answers prayer? And when we do not receive what we ask for, are there ways to understand what is happening in our lives other than concluding that prayer is worthless?

I’ve struggled with these questions, and others like them, ever since my first pastorate in the mid-1980’s. Alongside a multitude of wonderful experiences of God at work in powerful and life-changing ways are a host of disappointing or disheartening times of unanswered prayer.

When Al was dying, for example, he asked for prayer. As a new pastor, I eagerly gathered the elders together and went to his home on a cold, wintry night. We laid hands on him and prayed for his healing. I was eager to see what God would do in response to our faith.

However, within a matter of a few weeks, he died. I was crushed. After several more equally disappointing attempts to seek healing through prayer, I started to question my faith. I couldn’t figure out what God was doing (or not doing), and why God wouldn’t honor our efforts.

Was our praying for Al a waste of time? If one measures the value of prayer by whether someone is healed, and stays healed, then our prayer didn’t work. Maybe we were wasting our time.

But that’s not what Al thought. I remember well his saying to me that he had “felt something he had never felt before” when we prayed together. Al was thrilled by his experience of prayer with the elders, and wore a look of wonder and gratitude on his face. When his illness resumed in full force, he accepted his impending death with peace that he didn’t have before.

My confusing experience with Al (and with many others who suffered and died without apparent intervention from God) forced me to re-evaluate my assumptions about God and prayer. However, I did not draw the same conclusions as Trevand. Rather, instead of concluding that God or prayer was failing me in all the unanswered prayers of my life, I realized that it was my expectations of God and prayer that were failing me.

I was assuming that if Jesus and other New Testament figures healed others, we could heal in Jesus’ name on demand. However, while I have seen God heal and have even experienced healing myself, what would make me think that God would always do so at my bidding?

Think about it. Jesus promised resurrection, which comes after death, not deliverance from every disease, calamity, sickness, and cause of suffering while we are in our human bodies. We are all going to die eventually. At some point, everyone’s prayer for healing will fail. If saving us from death were the requirement for faith, then there would never be a basis for belief in God, since we all die.

No, the Christian perspective on life is that our earthly existence is a very brief season in eternity, a time for coming to know, love, and serve God in ways that may or may not include long life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

I cannot speak for God, and I cannot fully know why God does not answer prayers in every way we want or think he should. However, there are alternatives to Trevand’s assumptions and conclusions—ways of thinking and relating to God that are rooted in humility, openness to mystery, and faith, while still being intellectually honest:

1. Accept that suffering, decay, and death are indelibly etched into the fabric of human existence. Do not pray to try to escape life’s hardship and frailty, but to find greater meaning, purpose, strength, and courage to face reality and make the most of your life.

2. Give up trying to prove something about God that cannot be proven. Instead, focus your attention on what it means to live by faith in the God of the Bible. Do not simply pray for what you want, but to come to know better the God who created the universe, makes covenants with people, provides a Savior for humanity, loves sinners, forgives those who confess their sins and repent, and who promises life after death for those who put their faith in Jesus Christ.

3. Be humble enough to let your false assumptions about God and prayer be exposed and changed by your experience. As you do so, let Scripture continually inform your changing beliefs and practices. Learn how to live with unanswered questions and tensions in the biblical view of God and prayer, while never giving up on asking the questions that are burning within you.

4. Seek from God whatever God offers, on God’s terms. Pray wholeheartedly, trusting that there is a God, who wants to be in relationship with you; that this God is good, loving, and active in the universe and in your life; and that prayer does make a difference. But do not for a minute think that you can ever control God by your prayers or your will.

Faith is not having the ability to answer every logical question that comes to mind. It is a mindset that requires humility and openness to being in relationship with your Creator, whom you can never fully understand, but who rewards those who earnestly seek a meaningful relationship with him. These “rewards”—along with many disappointments, frustrations, longings, and heartaches—are well worth the effort and the difficulty of spending a lifetime walking by faith and not by sight.

“Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see… And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” —Hebrews 11:1, 6 (NIV)

A Prayer “Loving Creator, you perplex me sometimes. I really can’t understand why you seem to work in such beautiful ways in my life in some circumstances, and then leave so many fervent, desperate prayers unanswered. Your “no” seems so cruel and heartless in some situations. Please help me to grow in my ability to know the truth about your involvement in my life and the lives of others, so that my worship will be appropriate, my relationship with you genuine, and my spiritual growth real and fruitful, according to your good purposes for my life. In Christ’s name and for his sake, I will continue to pray… Amen.”

*To read the original Huffington Post article that prompted these responses from bloggers, click here, “When Prayer Makes a Difference in Suffering.”

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Where is God in Unanswered Prayer? (2 of 6)

Dialogue with the Disillusioned: Why Keep Praying—Week 2

I tried prayer. At one point in time, I tried prayer a lot, a whole lot, not one circumstance changed for me in life. Not one thing changed that did not require my active effort to make a change. One minister told me that I was being tested, another said I was not praying correctly. Now, I asked, if I am being tested do I get a gold star or a better part of heaven? I also asked who is the best at prayer if I am doing it wrong. Is there a special teacher as to how to go about it? …. I did it simply on my own, with no remarkable insight or feeling of comfort, no transformation, no amazing response to words sent out into the vast emptiness. (Magick1 6/14/10)*

To not get an answer to prayer, especially if you have been trying unsuccessfully for a long time to hear something from God, can be extremely frustrating and disillusioning. I, too, have been tempted at times to give up and just rely on myself instead. However, whenever I start to move in that direction, away from God and faith, something tells me that it’s a mistake. I’m not talking about feeling guilty, but getting an intuitive sense that I need to be open to something that I don’t yet understand about God and prayer.

Over time, my experiences of unanswered prayer have led to great growth and learning. I often ask God to help me to see what I need to see and to  help me to reform my requests, often resulting in sudden shifts in my perspective and experience.

Magick1, I understand why you have drawn the conclusions you have, but, there are indeed teachers who can help. No one can tell you for sure why God does not answer your prayers. And no one can give you a formula to use to get the answers you want. However, there are many time-tested ways to learn and grow through periods of unanswered prayer, taught in Scripture and practiced by millions of Christians regularly. Here are three of them:

1. Remind yourself that your spiritual pilgrimage calls you to walk by faith, not by sight (or hearing). When all is dark, and even if your life is cut short; when you cannot see evidence of what you hope for, and cannot imagine how God could provide for you; choose to continue to trust in the faithfulness of God, and take actions that correspond to believing that “God exists, and rewards those that earnestly seek God.” (See Hebrews 11:1, 6.)

Continually look for God to produce good things in your life, trusting that God is at work for good in everyone who loves God and is called according to his purposes. Trust that nothing can separate you from God’s love through Jesus Christ, and that God will not abandon you. (See Romans 8:28-39: Hebrews 13:5.) Stay on course and work the plan that you believe best fits with God’s calling on your life.

2. Second, remember that your life is chiefly about knowing, loving, and serving God. Your job is not to cling to your life and to try to use God to further your own purposes (however noble they may be), but to cling to God and use your life to further God’s eternal purposes. Prayer fits in as a way to connect personally with God, to gain wisdom and understanding, to help you to align your will with God’s, and to experience spiritual transformation to help you to better live out your purpose in life.

When your prayer request aligns with God’s will for you, expect to receive what you ask for. Since you can’t know for sure when your desire aligns with God’s will, ask for everything on your heart; but accept whatever you receive. Pray for whatever you want, but always offer up your will to be reshaped by God’s will.

Jesus is our example here. In the Garden of Gethsemane, he pleaded with God the Father to take the cup of suffering from him, yet he concluded his prayer with, “but not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).

3. Third, look for ways God may be at work in your life through his silence.

Magick1, you gave up on God and prayer because you thought nothing happened when you prayed, and that only your own action brought about changes in your life. That’s one possible conclusion, but what if God’s silence was God’s answer? What if God deliberately did not change your circumstances, because he wanted you to be changed instead? What if, among other lessons, God intended to teach you to take more responsibility for your own life, and to show you how much is possible if you put your mind to accomplishing something—which is just what happened? You say you experienced no transformation, but your response indicates just the opposite. You’ve changed a great deal, but you cut God out of the equation along the way.

Instead of jumping to the conclusion that God does not exist, does not care, or has abandoned you when your prayers go unanswered, ask God to teach you through your experiences. Listen to what your pain and suffering are telling you about your world and yourself. If God will not give you what you most want, ask for the Holy Spirit to help you to see what you need to see in order to clarify your thinking, to change your heart, to purify your motives, to strengthen your character, to lead you to deeper levels of repentance, to learn how to rely more on others in the body of Christ, or to better align your will with God’s. Look for God’s leading and working through closed doors and unanswered prayers, and not just through the blessing of your requests and plans.

Often we can only see the hand of God in retrospect, but the more you look learn to look at your life through the eyes of faith, and continue to trust in God’s faithfulness even in the midst of unanswered prayers, the more likely you will be to see God at work for good in your life. Yes, you can do so much on your own. God created you that way, and wants you to discover your full potential. But God also wants to be in a relationship with you and to teach you how to take what you can do and use it for the sake of Christ and his kingdom.

Where is God in unanswered prayer? God “is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13, NRSV).

Scripture “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.” (Romans 8:28-29, NRSV)

A Prayer “Creator God, it’s so hard for me when you don’t answer my prayers. Please help me to appropriately adjust my expectations of you and prayer, without rejecting you, and without giving up on prayer. Please teach me through your silence and my disappointments, and shape me through my painful experiences. Free me from myself, that I may more and more embrace your often obscure purposes for my life, and be able to see the good you are accomplishing in me and through me.”

*To read the original Huffington Post article that prompted this response from a blogger, click here, “When Prayer Makes a Difference in Suffering.”

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What if God Let You Down? (1 of 6)

Dialogue with the Disillusioned: Why Keep Praying—Week 1

(15 years of suffering drawing to an end)
(15 years of suffering drawing to an end)

I volunteered to read to terminally ill children at a cancer unit once, and found that many of them were bound up at first in the hope that God would heal them. He never did. I wept copious tears each time one passed away during my stint, as I had become emotionally attached to them. The pain got to me. And He claimed to have this special caring for children? But why are we blaming him, when he is only imaginary? (Kadene, 6/7/10)

As a survivor of clergy sexual abuse don’t pray for me – your prayers will not help me pay the rent to stop being evicted or pay the bills because I am no longer able to work because of the abuse. When you have provided support for all the victims of clergy abuse then you can take time off to pray. (JohnBS1, 6/8/10)*

My heart breaks when I read experiences like these. Sincere people have been deeply hurt or disappointed by God, or they have trusted in others who represent God, and they got a raw deal. They believe that God abandoned them or seriously let them down, just when they most needed his help.

I understand all of these feelings and reactions very well. I’ve had them myself. I am convinced that I will never be able to fully understand why God seems to be very helpful in some circumstances, but does nothing in others, especially when a little help could make all the difference in the world to someone who is suffering.

For example, one of the most troubling, difficult, and faith-testing experiences of my life was when my mother was dying slowly of Alzheimer’s disease. For 15 horrific years, I had to watch her, my father, and the rest of us suffer. At first, I prayed that she would be healed, but she wasn’t. Then I prayed that God would put her out of her misery (and us out of ours), but she continued to linger on.

She was a strong Christian who helped many different people, and she and I were very close. Her death was going to be a huge loss to me. Why God would let this happen to her? Even though I should have known better, and should have asked this question on behalf of millions of others who suffer far worse horrors, I was caught off guard. I had falsely assumed that if someone was a good person or did good in the world (or was my mother), then God would spare them from extraordinary suffering. But there she was, slowly dying before my eyes. What was I supposed to think now? What was I going to do?

One day, in the midst of my angst and distress, I came to a crossroads. I had become bitter, and I was going to have choose which way I was going to go: continue in my bitterness, choose to trust to God in the midst of unanswered questions, or quit believing in God all together. When the options finally crystallized in my mind, I suddenly saw the way forward for me.

To cling to bitterness seemed just plain stupid and self-defeating. Holding a grudge against God and stewing in negative emotions was getting me nowhere and poisoning my soul.

Logically, I had to consider the possibility that God didn’t exist, didn’t care, or was powerless to help (as others have suggested). However, I had a problem with this option: My belief in God went to the core of my being, and my relationship with God had led to significant changes, meaning, and fruitfulness in my life and relationships, in spite of all of the disappointments and frustrations. Further, the existence and work of a divine being remains the most compelling explanation to me for the universe and human existence.

That left the middle option—humble myself to accept that fully understanding God was beyond my ability, and to seek whatever God offers to me on God’s terms. I can leave open unanswerable questions, and embrace the hope that comes through Jesus and the power that I experience through the unpredictable, and uncontrollable working of the Holy Spirit.

In that moment, I suddenly knew what choice I was going to make. Or perhaps I should say, it was made for me. I was given the grace to trust again in God. I accepted that I would wrestle with important questions about God, but that they need not hold me back from living by faith and enjoying a relationship with God, while I was continuing my exploration for deeper understanding.

When the light came on, I suddenly was set free from the bitterness I felt, and free to love and serve God again wholeheartedly. You might even say, I forgave God in that moment. Not that God needed forgiving, but in my own small mind, arrogant enough to think that I should be able to understand God and all of God’s ways, I needed to let go of my charges against God.

That’s what forgiveness is. Letting go of real or imagined offenses, and choosing to go on with the relationship on a new basis—sometimes with renewed hope, and sometimes with altered expectations. Either way, humbling yourself, forgiving God, and embracing what is available to you through Christ, may give you the fresh start you’ve been looking for in your relationship with God.

Scripture

As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God.

My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God? My tears have been my food day and night, while men say to me all day long, “Where is your God?”

These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I used to go with the multitude, leading the procession to the house of God, with shouts of joy and thanksgiving among the festive throng.

Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me?

Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.

—Psalm 42:1-6a (NIV)

If You’re Stuck….

I don’t know what kind of raw deal you might have experienced in your life, or what impact it might be having on your relationship with God. You may feel you have a right to be angry at God, and really good reason to reject religion or faith in God. You probably do. But how well is turning your back on God and prayer working for you?

What would happen if you chose to forgive God for not helping you when you expected or begged for help? What might happen if you chose to move toward God, instead of away from God, with all of your hurt and pain? I know you might instinctively respond, “Nothing! Nothing would happen!” However, that is not my experience. You may not experience what you want or expect, but, in time, those who put their hope in God will again know and experience his love and presence.

A Prayer

Dear God, sometimes I feel so abandoned by you. You are so silent. I feel so alone in my suffering. I cannot understand why you are not helping more. I don’t even know what to say to you anymore. Please show me the way forward. Help me to know how to wait for you and to see your presence where it may be found.

*To read the original Huffington Post article that prompted these responses from bloggers, click here, “When Prayer Makes a Difference in Suffering.” “Dialogue with the Disillusioned” is a series of articles addressing the question “Why Keep Praying?”

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Seeking God for Real (7 of 7)

This series is about knowing God, the creator, more deeply and being able to experience God more personally in your daily life.

To what extent can you honestly say that you are “seeking” God?

I’m talking about going beyond what we’ve been discussing over the past few weeks. Seeking God may certainly include studying (learning what the Bible says about God and God’s love), reflecting (drawing on your past experience to draw near to God in the present), and asking God for what he most wants for you (to reveal God-self and Christ’s love to you). Yet, actively seeking God is more creative and more open-ended than looking for specific, prescribed outcomes.

Instead of asking for a specific grace (as we talked about last time), you enter into a posture of readiness to learn, to see, to feel, or to experience whatever God might want to teach, show, or do in your life. Though you may be driven to seek God out of your own need and desire, the more mature your seeking becomes, the more you will seek to know and experience God on God’s terms and in God’s timing, in ways that fulfill God’s purposes for your life.

This kind of seeking is both active and passive. You take initiative, and yet wait patiently. You are earnest and diligent in your pursuit of God, while expecting God to reveal God-self in surprising ways, independent of your efforts. You insist on never letting go of your desire for God, even while you continually empty yourself of all concrete expectations and demands. You keep knocking on the door of heaven like the persistent widow, while praying, “Not my will, but yours be done.”

In 2006, when my family and I were walking the Camino, I had many opportunities to seek God in prayer. In fact, the whole 500 mile pilgrimage over the Pyrenees and across northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela was largely about seeking God. At one point I began praying, “God, help me to know you better, and specifically to know you as abba, father.” I had no idea how God might answer this prayer. It wasn’t up to me to figure that out, but to stay open, observant, prayerful, and ready.

One day, not long after I started praying this way, I got my first answer. Though Jill questioned my sanity, Tim (my elder son) and I took an alternative route over the mountains and met up with Dan (my younger son) and her twelve hours later. The scenery was spectacular. The experience was the best of the pilgrimage so far. Hours in silence or simple conversation, in such beauty and hardly seeing another soul, created a peaceful, joyful feeling that was so deep neither of us could imagine ever feeling otherwise.

Yet, the best part of the day for me was simply being with my son. The joy did not come from what we did or said as much as it came from being in his presence when we both felt completely free to be ourselves and to enjoy the various experiences together.

Spiritually, the most powerful moment came when I suddenly realized something about God the Father that had never sunk in before. If God loves me as I love my son, surely God delights in just being with me as I was delighting in being with my son. If I can feel such joy just seeing Tim so happy and peaceful, I have to think that God—whose parental love must far exceed mine (see Psalm 103:13; Isaiah 66:13)—must be thrilled to be with me any time I am experiencing life as he intends for me, and I am conscious of the depth of his love and relationship with me. (Excerpted from One Step at a Time: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Spirit-Led Living.)

What is God going to show you if you seek him more earnestly and diligently each day? I don’t know exactly. Seeking God doesn’t try to answer that question before undertaking the journey.

Rather, we seek God in order to find what we cannot find otherwise. And when we knock, and no one answers; when we ask, and you do not receive; when we seek, and we do not find, then we must continue to knock, ask, and seek. And wait.  There’s no other place to turn for what we most need and desire.

“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you” (Luke 11:9, NRSV).

The Point In addition to studying, reflecting, and asking to know and experience God more fully, actively seek God in the midst of your daily life. Open yourself to insight and experiences with God that you cannot predict or orchestrate. Ask for eyes to see whatever God may want to reveal to you, and then keep looking.

A Prayer “Creator God, I want to know you better and experience you more fully. Please show me more about who you are in ways that I can understand and believe. Help me not to be afraid of you, but to trust you to reveal what I most need to see, according to your will and purposes for my life and our relationship.”

© Dr. Timothy C. Geoffrion, http://www.spirit-ledleader.com

Please feel free to copy or send to as many other seekers of God as possible!

Proper crediting of author and source required.

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Ask for What God Most Wants for You (6 of 7)

This series is about knowing God, the creator, more deeply and being able to experience God more personally in your daily life.

What do you ask God for when you pray?

Most of us routinely ask God for help in one way or another—a very biblical, natural, and helpful practice. However, we can easily get stuck on our physical and material needs, or on our ideas and desires for our life, when God wants something far more significant and lasting for us.

Instead of just asking God for what you want or think you need, seek the most important gifts he has for you that best fit with his will for your life.

When I was on a seven-day silent retreat a few weeks ago, we prayed several times each day, using methods developed by Ignatius of Loyola. Each time we went to prayer, we read Scripture and asked God for a “grace”. We weren’t asking for forgiveness, but for a particular experience of God. For example, we asked for the grace…

• to see and experience the enormity of God’s love,

• to see our sins and how they are affecting our life and relationship to God,

• to recognize the magnitude of God’s mercy,

• to be able to love God more fully, or

• to be able to follow and serve Christ better.

These are the experiences God most wants for us, because they are the ones that have the power to truly transform us and to move us more fully into the life God intends for us.

When I was 13 or 14 years old, I wanted to know if God truly loved me. I knelt by the side of my bed. My eyes were closed. I clasped my hands together. I prayed, “God if you care about me, show me. In some way, help me to believe that you truly love me.”

While waiting for an answer, I suddenly saw in my mind a huge hand extended through the clouds toward me. I knew at the time that I was probably creating an image that fit with what I wanted to believe. However, something else within me said that God was responding to the cry of my heart. I’m convinced God was revealing his love to me that day, because the joy I felt, and the comfort I received, fit with how the Holy Spirit has frequently ministered to me ever since.

Similarly, in the Psalms, David praises God and describes God’s help in his life like a hand descending from the sky. He wrote. “[The Lord] reached down from on high, he took me; he drew me out of mighty waters” (Psalm 18:16).

Then, what David experienced through a personal experience, God has done for all of us in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Talk is cheap, and feelings are fleeting. The love that you most need will reveal itself in action. You can know you are deeply loved when someone intentionally does something for your well-being, especially if their gift comes at a personal sacrifice—as God’s incarnation and Jesus’ death dramatically illustrate.

God’s love you is already well established in the historical, concrete existence and life of Jesus. You never have to question it. And at the same time, it is not uncommon for God to reach out to us in various ways to convince us of his love and presence. Perhaps the revelation will come as a feeling, through a vision, in a dream, by a new understanding, or by setting you free in a new way. The Holy Spirit may speak a timely word to you, love you through someone else, or work through you to bless those around you in some way. Or, you may simply be given an inexplicable peace or joy.

You cannot know how God is going to reveal his love to you on from day to day, and you can’t manipulate or control God’s interaction with you. But you can ask. You can ask for a special grace to draw you closer to God and to experience more of what God has already revealed to you in Jesus.

“And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:17-19, NIV)

The Point To move from knowing about God to experiencing God more personally in your life, let your prayers be guided by what God most wants for you. Ask the Holy Spirit to reveal the depth of Christ’s love for you. Ask to become increasingly convinced that God is present with you and truly does care about you. Ask that your heart’s desires will be increasingly purified until nothing is more important to you than your relationship with God and your ability to love and serve Christ. Ask, and it will be given.

A Prayer “Eternal God, you are beyond my ability to understand. I often cannot perceive your presence in the ways I would like, and I long for more of your touch. Please reach out to me in some way that I can grasp that I may be assured of your love and your care in my life. Help me to treasure my relationship with you above all others, and to accept your love on your terms.”

Suggestion: Start a journal expressly for the purpose of recording the ways that God reveals himself to you, loves you, and helps you to sense his presence and care for you.

*For more on knowing God and my experiences in seeking to know God through experience, see pp. 124-125, One Step at a Time.

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Drawing on the Past to Draw Near in the Present (5 of 7)

This series is about knowing God, the creator, more deeply and being able to experience God more personally in your daily life.

In response to last week’s article, “Why we think God might love us,” one reader wrote, “I do not just want to know about God, I want to feel God in me!”

If this at all describes what you want, there is hope. While you cannot control God or your dictate your experience with God, you can “draw near to God” with confidence that God will “draw near to you” (James 4:8).

But how does one draw near to God?

In the next three articles, we are going to look at three powerful spiritual practices—reflecting, asking, and seeking—to help you move from knowing about God to experiencing God more personally in your life. First, the practice of spiritual “reflecting.” 1

No matter how distant God may seem at the moment, what has been your personal experience with the presence and love of God in the past? If you think back to the many significant moments or turning points in your life, what could you point to as evidence of God’s activity? When have you felt God’s touch?

You may have received an answer to prayer or had a special experience with Jesus or the Holy Spirit. Perhaps you perceived God’s love through someone else or an extraordinary series of circumstances. If you are feeling distant from God or want to feel his presence more, now may be a very good time to stop and ask the Holy Spirit to refresh your memory of all the ways God has been and is at work in your life for good. (Take a moment now to jot down the first few memories that come to mind.)

In the Magnificat, Mary celebrates in song what God was doing for her and would do for all of humanity through her son Jesus. At the time of the “Visitation” at the home of Elizabeth, Mary sings about the great works of God—not ideas about God, but the concrete actions of God. In reflecting on her experience with God, she is filled with joy and praise, perceiving the love of God in her life.

And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.

Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

for the Mighty One has done great things for me,

and holy is his name.

(Luke 1:46-49, NRSV)

When I look at my past through the eyes of faith, I can see how the Holy Spirit has worked through many significant events, people, and circumstances to shape who I am and my relationship with God. I meet someone special, take an incredible class, experience a great success or devastating tragedy, discover something profound or powerful in Scripture, use my talents in ways that open my eyes to meaning and purpose in my life, or make a critical decision with far-reaching consequences. Each experience then joins a whole train of other significant life-changing moments, which together become my testimony of God’s work in my life.

While anyone can point to noteworthy “chance” encounters or “coincidences” that have altered their life significantly, when you look at your life through the eyes of faith, you will see God at work. Then, not only will you think differently, you will feel differently as well.

Why? Because as you let the Holy Spirit open your eyes to the truth of God’s love and activity in your life in the past, you will be experiencing the Holy Spirit in the present. And, with Mary, the more you sense that you are truly blessed, the more you will have your own song to sing.

When you look back over your life so far, what in your experience suggests to you that God knows who you are, cares about you, and is in fact at work in your life for good purposes?

What is your song?

I will remember the deeds of the LORD; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago. I will meditate on all your works and consider all your mighty deeds. (Psalm 77:11-12, NIV)

The Point: To move from simply knowing about God to experiencing the presence and love of God more personally in your life, you need to create enough space to let the Holy Spirit speak to you. Start by taking some time alone to look back on your life. Pray for eyes to see the many different ways God has been at work in your past experience, so that you may be better able to see and feel God in the present.

A Prayer: “Dear God, by faith I believe that you love me and are at work in my life, but sometimes I feel so alone and empty. Please help me to see where you have been active in my life over the years, and to feel your presence now. Teach me the song of praise and gratitude that only I can sing, because the lyrics express all the ways you have loved me and love me still.”

1 Many of the ideas from this article are discussed at greater length in One Step at a Time: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Spirit-Led Living, pp. 126-129.

© Timothy C. Geoffrion, 2010. All rights reserved. Please share this article with as many people as possible, with proper acknowledgment of authorship and web-address.

Photo: © Jill K.H. Geoffrion.

To sign up to receive a personal email every time a new article is posted, please email me at tim.geoffrion@fhlglobal.org. Simply write “add me” in the subject line.

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Why We Think God Might Love Us (4 of 7)

The series is about knowing God, the creator, more deeply and being able to experience God more personally in your daily life.

What are you doing to know God and God’s love for you better?

Answering this question is critical for the person who is seeking to know God’s will, because, as we said last week, discernment requires personal transformation, and our ability to be transformed depends upon the quality of our relationship with God.

In the coming weeks, we’re going to look at several of the most powerful spiritual practices that can help you to grow in your relationship with God. Today, I want to start with something you already know, but—if you are like nearly every other Christian on the face of the earth—it is something that gets minimized or neglected.

No matter how intelligent, experienced, wise, or knowledgeable you may be, you simply must be reading the Bible for yourself, if you want to hear the voice of God and to keep growing in your relationship with God. Even if you’ve already mastered the content of the Bible, read it existentially: ask God to reveal God-self to you in fresh ways.

For example, right now I’m reading through the Torah and asking God for new insight into who Yahweh was for ancient Israel—and for what I need to come to grips with better in my own understanding of and relation to God. Yet, no matter what passage I turn to, I pray, “Speak to me, Lord. Show me what I need to see. Take me to a place of understanding that I cannot get to on my own.”

Psalm 103 is one of my favorite passages for reflecting on who God is and the relevance of God’s love for me. David writes:

The LORD is compassionate and gracious,

slow to anger, abounding in love.

He will not always accuse,

nor will he harbor his anger forever;

he does not treat us as our sins deserve

or repay us according to our iniquities.

For as high as the heavens are above the earth,

so great is his love for those who fear him;

as far as the east is from the west,

so far has he removed our transgressions from us.

As a father has compassion on his children,

so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him;

for he knows how we are formed,

he remembers that we are dust.

…from everlasting to everlasting

the LORD’S love is with those who fear him,

and his righteousness with their children’s children—

with those who keep his covenant

and remember to obey his precepts.

The LORD has established his throne in heaven,

and his kingdom rules over all. (103:8-13, 17-19)

As a complement to the paternal and sovereign characterizations of God in Psalm 103, the beautiful maternal imagery for God in Isaiah 66:13 helps me to see that God of the Old Testament is tender as well as intense:

As a mother comforts her child,

so will I comfort you;

and you will be comforted over Jerusalem.

And then there’s the amazing teaching that God decided before the creation of the world to love us and to make us his children:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who … chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons [and daughters] through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding. (Ephesians 1:3-8)

Going forward, we’re going to look at how we can move from knowing about God to knowing God in ways that are more and more personally transforming. This week’s article was simply a reminder to get back to the basics in order to develop a stronger relationship with God.

It’s only by reading the Bible that we know that God loves us even beyond the capacity of the most loving father or mother. Though he knows our weaknesses and failures, he loves us and helps us. God chose us before the foundation of the world to be his children, dearly loved by him. And God sent his son, Jesus, to save us and to bring us to live by God’s side forever.

The Point: The most intuitive among us might be able to guess some of God’s characteristics, but there is no way we would know God’s character, the magnitude of God’s love, or the significance of God’s activity in history apart from the teaching of the Bible. So what’s your plan for reading it?

A Prayer: “Dear God, please remind me every day to keep looking for you where you reveal yourself. Lead me to the biblical passages that will most help me to see what I need to see about you so that my relationship with you will keep growing stronger and stronger.”

© Timothy C. Geoffrion, 2010. All rights reserved. Please share this article with as many people as possible, with proper acknowledgment of authorship and web-address.

Photo: © Jill K.H. Geoffrion.

To sign up to receive a personal email every time a new article is posted, please email me at tim.geoffrion@fhlglobal.org. Simply write “add me” in the subject line.

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How Bright is Our Light?

This is the third in a series of postings on my recent trip to China.

The Troubling Surprise

To me, in spite of all the obvious and subtle differences between China and America, and between an atheistic/syncretistic religious environment and a predominately Christian-influenced Western world, I was surprised at how at home I felt in many places we went. The children laughed, played, teased and fought with each other just like in every place I’ve ever lived or visited. Teenagers liked hanging out with their friends, buying the latest style in clothes, and clinging to their boy- or girlfriends in public. Young adults seemed consumed with selling in the market places, getting ahead, and marrying. Older people were concerned about their kids and grandkids, their standard of living, and comforts. People seemed more or less just as friendly as anywhere else, just as courteous (or not), just as forthright (or not), and so forth. On the surface, age, personality, social status and economic means seemed to be just as big determinants of behavior for the Chinese as they are for us in the U.S.

I don’t know what I expected to experience, but why was I so surprised that human beings in China acted like human beings everywhere else in the world? At first I was even a bit crabby to discover how “normal” life could be with virtually no visible or verbal reference to God or faith in Christ anywhere I could see. Again, I don’t know what I was expecting. Was I disappointed that “communists” (or people in a Communist country) didn’t have horns or that their society wasn’t in disarray?

No, what was really bothering me was that my own society, rooted in the Judeo-Christian religious and moral tradition, didn’t seem to be that different or better. My crabbiness came from suddenly realizing that a) Christianity has not transformed our way of life as I had imagined and would hope, and b) what we are transporting to China is not our best selves, but our humanistic, materialistic philosophy of life.

As a Christian, I would hope that my life would be so thoroughly characterized by Jesus Christ that others would be able to visibly see a difference in how I live, what I think, and what I value. I would hope that the love of God would shine through me so vividly that others would experience Christ through me and be inspired to seek out God for themselves.

To be fair, over the years, I’ve seen many Christians live out their faith in compelling ways—generously giving of themselves and resources to help others, faithfully enduring false accusation and persecution due to their faith, serving sacrificially, forgiving and being gracious to others. Not one of them is perfect, but I can see the difference their faith is making in their life, and how others benefit from their spiritual growth. My own life is different as well, because of my faith and spiritual growth over the years. Yet, is it different enough that others can see and feel the reality of God through me? Are our lights shining brightly enough for others who do not know God as a God of love, and Christ as Savior and Lord, to see the reality of God through us?

I suspect that regardless of whatever our official beliefs may be, we Christians often undermine our spiritual vitality and witness to others by our materialism, faith in human capabilities and technology, status-seeking, and power-grabbing. We’re so close to our way of life—I’m so close—that we often cannot see how much these secular and self-serving values affect us.

A Flash of Insight

The flash of insight I got since coming home is that syncretism is simply not just a phenomenon of Asia (or Africa or anywhere else where ancient traditional religions are still widely practiced). And godlessness—not knowing, honoring or serving God—is not just a phenomenon found among atheists or agnostics.

Christians can also be syncretistic. Christians can also live in ways that appear to be godless. I realize that this insight is nothing new to most of us, but the power of its truth hit me a new way while I was in China.

When it comes down to it, I’m not really concerned with the question, why are so many Chinese people increasingly like Americans? What I’m really wanting to know is this: why doesn’t our faith in Christ and relationship with God make us more noticeably different? If Christ is truly the Savior of the world, who calls us to radically re-orient our lives to follow him and serve God’s purposes, and the Holy Spirit is in us transforming us, then why do so many American Christians act so much like nonbelievers?

In Christ, we have forgiveness of sins, a personal relationship with a loving God, hope for eternity, and a sense of God-given purpose—concepts largely absent in Chinese religion. Through the Bible, we have wisdom for personal and community living. Chinese have Confucius, but not the teaching of Jesus, the prophets, and apostles. Most of us wouldn’t trade these huge gifts for anything. Yet, have we gone far enough? Is it time we think more seriously about how to take the next step in integrating our faith and our life?

Jesus warned us in the parable of the sower:

Others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—thirty, sixty or even a hundred times what was sown.” (Mark 4:18-20, NIV)

In the years ahead, I hope many Americans and Chinese will become close friends. It’s already happening through an increasing number of students and tourists visiting one another’s country and through this year’s Olympics in Beijing. In spite of our many differences, we have much in common, too, that can be celebrated and enjoyed.

At the same time, I hope my life increasingly looks different from those who do not believe in God and do not follow Christ—not for my sake, but for theirs. Materialism is empty. Humanism can be misleading. Syncretism is confusing, contradictory and ultimately undermines a healthy relationship with God. Godlessness is false and dangerous, often leading to more suffering. Only Christ can rescue us from ourselves and lead us into the fullness of life God intends for us. My life has hugely benefited from understanding these things and growing spiritually. My prayer is that I can step up my faith and faithfulness so that others will be able to see better what truly makes me tick and gives me hope.

What do you think American Christians need to do differently to reflect the light of Christ more vibrantly in the world?

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The Spiritual Vacuum

This is the second posting in a series of reflections coming from my recent experience in China.

Chinese Religion and Culture

Historically, politically and religiously huge differences still exist between East and West, in general, and China and America, in particular. In contrast to less than 250 years of history as a nation, China has had 2100 years of emperors, beginning in 221 B.C. with the Qin (pronounced “Chin”) dynasty, finishing with the Qing (pronounced, Ching) dynasty in 1911, followed by not quite 100 years of two different forms of “republican” government. Since 1949, the People’s Republic of China has been officially “communist” and ruled by a Central Committee. Mao Zedong sought to eliminate (or minimize) all traditional and foreign religions, and members of the Communist party are supposed to be atheists. However, for the masses, other religions are more or less tolerated and capitalism has been embraced to various degrees, as the country has increasingly opened up over the past 15-20 years.

Chinese religion and philosophy are rooted principally in Confucianism, Daoism (Taoism), and Buddhism, with the three often co-existing side by side, sometimes even within one temple. The couple of guides that were willing to talk to me about how Buddhism is practiced helped confirm what I have read. In China, as well as in South East Asia, “Buddhism” as practiced is mixed with traditional religions, including beliefs in many gods and spirits in trees, stones and other inanimate objects, having been highly influenced by Taoism (emphasizing inner communion with nature) and undoubtedly other traditional religions. Ghosts and spirits are widely believed in as well.

A handful of animal figures represent key Chinese beliefs or values. The dragon is seen as both a dangerous and benevolent divine-like figure (in contrast to Western views of dragons), symbolizing power. The Phoenix represents the high value placed on longevity on life. Fierce mythological, winged creatures (guardians) are frequently depicted in sculptures and art.

As opposed to Theravada Buddhists (see “What the Buddhists Taught Me” under the category of “Inter-Faith Dialogue at https://spirit-ledleader.com/?p=24), Mahayana (major way) Buddhism is practiced in China. Mahayana Buddhists are likely to view Buddha as a spirit to whom they can pray and who can come to help them. Like Hindus, Chinese Buddhists are likely to believe “in all the gods” (as one Chinese Buddhist informed me). Perhaps the closest parallel to Christians’ belief in a loving, gracious God who sent his Son for the redemption of humanity may be found among those Mahayana Buddhists  who see Buddha as benevolent, helping those who pray to him and inspiring enlightened Buddhists, called, Bodhisattvas. Refusing to enter Nirvana, Bodhisattvas choose to return to human incarnation to serve humanity until all reach enlightenment.

The Communist government has been officially atheistic since 1949, and during the Cultural Revolution (1965-67, especially), the Red Guard attempted to sweep away belief in the gods, including the traditional religious beliefs held by the masses. Religion was even outlawed for awhile. Today many young people consider themselves atheists, but practically, syncretistic forms of religion (a mixing of religious beliefs and practices from various traditions) exist in many places. In the past ten years, the number of Chinese people saying they are religious has tripled, and now represents over 30% of the population.

These shifts are very promising for the future of China, in my opinion. Largely stripped of the cultural dependence on superstition and ancient religious practices, a spiritual vacuum has been created.

But who and what is going to fill this spiritual vacuum? Where will they turn for spiritual wisdom and guidance?

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