Just a couple weeks after I became a pastor, my family and I were invited over to dinner by a family in our new church. Things seemed to be going well until I was asked a question that began with the words, “It doesn’t matter what you say, but I was wondering ….”
Uh-oh, I thought, I’m about to be asked The Question. Everyone has a litmus test question and I was about to hear hers. It went like this:
“Do you think there’s a heaven for Christians, a heaven for Muslims, a heaven for Buddhists, a heaven for atheists? Everyone getting their own heaven?”
Yikes! What a stupid question, I thought. This is your The Question? But I calmed down and answered it as logically as I could.
“That sounds like a really nice idea,” I said. “But we can’t start with our nice ideas. We need to start with reality, because reality is more important than our nice ideas. If there are lots of different heavens for lots of different faiths, then great! But that’s not what the Bible says. And I’m guessing that’s not what other faiths suggest. So, as much as I like the idea, I don’t think there’s more than one heaven.”
The family left the church almost immediately afterward.
If there’s a heaven, let’s not pretend it’s something it’s not. We don’t get to invent reality. And the same thing goes with God.
God is not an idea. Not a pleasant concept. If there is a God at all, he is not what I imagine him to be. He is who he is, which interestingly is pretty much the name that God gives himself in the Bible. The name Yahweh is based on the verb “to be” and means something like “I am who I am,” as opposed to all of the other “I am who you want me to be” gods who were invented and built as idols by people.
But even though we no longer bow down to idols and have reduced ourselves our god choices down to one in our monotheistic orientation, we still like to reduce God himself down to our ideas about him. In fact, I’d say that most of us prefer our ideas about God to who God actually is.
When someone starts by saying, “The God I believe in …” get ready to hear his or her idol be described. What you’re about to hear is an idea, not the living God.
We don’t get to invent God. God reveals himself. This is why one of our primary words to describe the Bible is “revelation.” The scriptures are the revealing of who God is. Without the Bible, we’d be left with our guesses. But in his kindness and wisdom, God has given us the Bible so that we have much more than our guesses. We can actually know our God.
Because of that, God is no longer an idea, but a being for us to be in relationship with — once you know who someone is, you can be a relationship with that person. There are two kinds of knowing involved here. We can know God with our minds through the revelation of the scriptures. And we can know God through our experiences with him, now that he has been revealed to us.
If I were to catch a flight to another city and be picked up there by a person who had never met me before, I’d probably send him a brief description of myself (though a photo would be better). I’d say, “Look for a 6-foot, white male with a shaved head, glasses, and brutally handsome features.” OK. Maybe I wouldn’t mention the glasses.
But what if the person picking me up only knew me from reading this blog and had come up with his own ideas of what I look like. And what if this person were convinced that I am a short, 20-year-old Japanese man with jet black hair. That’d be fine as long as he adjusted his expectation to my revelation of myself in the description I sent. But if he didn’t make that adjustment, not only would I be out of a ride, but we’d both be out of a relationship. We’d miss each other.
Having a concept of God is not the same as having a relationship with God. My idea-God can’t hear me because he doesn’t exist. My idea-God can’t save me because he doesn’t exist.
Does that mean that the one, true God can’t hear and save me? By all means, no. He can and he does, just like I can see and approach the person at the airport holding up a sign with my name on it, even though he’s waiting for an idea-Pete who doesn’t exist. But unless we shift our concepts to meet the Reality revealed to us, we circumvent God’s efforts to connect with us.
Sincerity on my part doesn’t change reality. There are lots of people who are sincerely wrong about lots of things, including those who sincerely believe that the earth is flat.
Back in 1989, Jon Gibson sang a song called “In the Name of the Lord” which begins like this: “There’s a god for everyone. For some it’s the earth and some it’s the sun. … Some people pray and don’t know why. Do you know? Do you know your God? Can you feel him? Can you feel your God? Can you see him doing things in your life? Well, if you don’t, you’ve got the wrong one, baby!”
While noting our tendency to invent our own idea-gods, Gibson skips over the revealing of God in scripture and goes straight to the confirmation of experience. As I mentioned above, there are two kinds of knowing of God — intellectual and experiential. Both are necessary for real relationship to take place. Without a conceptual knowledge of the Reality that is God, we may be experiencing all kinds of things other than him. Without a personal knowledge through experience with God that Gibson highlights, we’re left with a true idea but no relationship.
Bring these two together and you’ve got what Jesus came to earth to open up for us. Real relationship.