You may be taking your first steps into a relationship with God. Unless you had a God-interventional experience, you may still have doubts about His existence, whether He really cares about you, or whether the spiritual life is what you want. Even those who have experienced a dramatic Holy Spirit event often have questions or reversals due to crisis. So how can we move forward along the path?
In his book, Reaching for the Invisible God, Phil Yancey clearly identifies and extracts from the Bible an approach that is fruitful not only in building your connection with God, but with other people as well. The following is an excerpt:
“My teaching is not my own, “ Jesus said. “It comes from him who sent me. If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own.” Note the sequence: choose to do God’s will, and the confidence will later follow. Jesus presents the journey of faith as a personal pilgrimage begun in uncertainty and fragile trust.
Some psychologists practice a school of behavioral therapy that encourages the client to “act as if” a certain state is true, no matter how unreasonable it seems. We change behavior, says this school, not by delving into the past or by trying to align motives with actions but rather by “acting as if” the change should happen. It’s much easier to act your way into feelings than to feel your way into actions.
If you want to preserve your marriage but are not sure you really love your wife, start acting as if you love her: surprise her, show affection, give gifts, be attentive. You may find that feelings of love materialize as you act out the behavior. If you want to forgive your father but find yourself unable, act as if he is forgiven. Say the words, “I forgive you,” or “I love you,” even though you are not entirely convinced you mean them. Often and the change in behavior in the one party brings about a remarkable change in the other.
Something similar works in my relationship with God. I wish all obedience sprang from an instinctive desire to please God—alas, it does not. For me, the life of faith sometimes consists of acting as if the whole thing is true. I assume that God loves me infinitely, that goodwill conquers evil, that any adversity can be redeemed, though I have no sure confirmation and only rare epiphanies to spur me along the way. I act as if God is a loving father, I treat my neighbors as if they truly bear God’s image; I forgive those who wrong me as if God had forgiven me first.
I must rely on this technique because of the inherent difference between relating to another human being and relating to God. I go to the grocery store and run into a neighbor I have not seen for months. Judy just went through a divorce, I say to myself, remembering we have not heard from her lately. Seeing Judy prods me to act, I ask about her life, check on her children, maybe invite her to church. “We must get together with Judy and the kids,” I tell my wife later that day, recalling the grocery store encounter.
With God the sequence reverses. I never “see” God. I seldom run into visual clues that remind me of God unless I am looking. The act of looking, the pursuit itself, makes possible the encounter. For this reason, Christianity has always insisted that trust and obedience comes first, and knowledge follows.
Because of that difference, I persevere at spiritual disciplines no matter how I feel. I do this for one main goal, the goal of all spiritual disciplines: I want to know God. And in pursuing a relationship with God, we must come on God’s terms, not our own. The famed spiritual director, Fenelon, advised his students that in difficult times, “prayer may be less easy, the presence of God less evident and less comforting, outward duties may be harder and less acceptable, but the faithfulness which accompanies them is greater, and that is enough for God.” We obey first and then find the source of Jesus teaching.
Old Testament prophets are quite blunt as they set out the preconditions for knowing God, as in this verse from Micah. “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Along the same line, the New Testament epistles repeatedly tell us that love for God, which means acting in loving ways towards God, nurtures the relationship and leads towards growth. I do not get to know God, then do his will; I get to know God by doing his will. I enter into an active relationship, which means spending time with God, caring about the people He cares about, and following his commands — whether I spontaneously feel like it or not.
“How shall we begin to know who You are if we do not begin ourselves to be something of what You are?” asked Thomas Merton. God is holy Other. As our spiritual growth increases so does our common ground with God. Murton ads:
We receive enlightenment only in proportion as we give ourselves more and more completely to God by humble submission and love. We do not first see, then act: we act, then see… And that is why the man who waits to see clearly, before he will believe, never starts on the journey.
How can we obey without certainty, when plagued by doubts? I have concluded that faith requires obedience without full knowledge. Like Job, like Abraham, I accept that much lies beyond my finite grasp and yet I choose to trust God anyhow, humbly accepting my position as a creature whose worth and very life depends upon God’s mercy.
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Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. (Hebrews 11:1)
You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. (James 2:22)