Is Belief In A Personal God Possible?

“Pray like this: Our Father who is in heaven.”
Matthew 6:9 (Common English Bible)
     For many, the most challenging part of faith is belief in a personal God. Membership in a local church usually requires “a profession of faith.” Often, this is little more than mental consent that there is a God. That same consent to God’s existence usually assumes that the individual intends to place themselves under God’s authority. Yet, what is often present in that “profession” is a sincere desire to know God personally, to experience a relationship with God in such a manner that in those hours of deepest need, we may personally address God and feel that we are heard and cared for. Harry Emerson Fosdick is helpful here, “No one achieves a vital, personal, Christian experience without a profound sense of need.”[i]But the question presses, is belief in a personal God possible?
     One difficulty for experiencing a personal God today is the tendency of impersonal thinking and living. Anything sensory is found to be inferior to reason and intelligence. During my ministry in Texas a number of years ago, one individual criticized my preaching as too personal, too emotional. He was a medical doctor and sought sermons that would stretch his thinking, not move his heart. He was suspicious of preaching that stirred the emotions. To think of God in personal terms, he argued, was unsophisticated. I suspect that the Sunday morning pews are filled with people who are in agreement.
     But look at what Jesus does here for his disciples: Jesus takes the qualities of human parenting as a clue to understanding God; asks that we address God as father. God is not an impersonal force that moves through the universe. God is a living being that knows us, loves us and has a divine desire for our lives. Jesus draws from what is the best in our hearts to show us its higher ideal in God. Certainly, it is true that God has given us minds and expects that we should be growing in knowledge. But we cannot pursue God and fully know God without the heart. One of the basic convictions of our Christian faith is that the universe is directed by a loving purpose.
     Moments confront each of us that demand more than a mere belief in the existence of God. They are moments of such great personal need that more study – more knowledge about God – fails to satisfy. A calm strength in the midst of life’s storms is possible only as God is known personally. The Christian lives not by a higher knowledge of God. The Christian lives by faith, by prayer, by love and communion with God. When the soul cries out for a personal God, Jesus shows us the way. It is so simple we doubt its power. Get down on your knees, patiently silence all the voices in your mind, and then say, “Our Father, who is in Heaven.”

[i] Harry Emerson Fosdick, Riverside Sermons (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958), 168.

The Responsible Exercise of Faith

“Then Jesus went into the temple and threw out all those who were selling and 
buying there. He pushed over the tables used for currency exchange and the
chairs of those who sold doves. He said to them, ‘It’s written, My house will be called
a house of prayer. But you’ve made it a hideout for crooks.’”
Matthew 21:12-13 (Common English Bible)
            Recently, a presidential candidate was critical of the pope’s comments on climate change. The candidate asserts that science should be left in the hands of scientists and that the pope should focus on theology and morality. What is comical about his remarks is that, as a Roman Catholic himself, he fails to grasp that caring for creation and climate change is within the realm of theology and morality. The Christian tradition is built upon God’s first vocation for us to be gardeners that protect, care for and sustain God’s good creation.
            Certainly, there isn’t consensus on the topic of climate change nor do I pretend to resolve that issue here. What is clear from this scripture from Matthew’s Gospel is that nothing is outside of the realm of God’s concern – climate change, business and economics, and personal morality – and that the church is called to speak on every issue that impacts God’s creation and how we treat one another. It simply cannot be ignored that in this passage, Jesus “concerns himself” with business and commerce.
            There is no getting away with the fact that much of what harms our earth and creates economic disparity among people is permitted because God’s people have never placed the inequity of it all on their conscience. It is fashionable to be tolerant, some may say. While many would agree that tolerance is a virtue it should never be confused with apathy or indifference, which is vice. There are evils in this world that demand for God’s people to speak, “These things should not be!”
            The responsible exercise of the Christian faith calls for men and women to make it their business to care for God’s earth and to create a community where people experience a political and economic climate that is humane and just, sound and wholesome. Because people differ on how that might be done – thus different political parties – our behavior toward one another must be exercised with civility and humility. Nonetheless, the world that God intends requires people who are sensitive in conscience, discerning of God’s movement and militant in action.

Isn\’t It Enough To Be Decent?

“God’s goal is for us to become mature adults – to be fully grown,
measured by the standard of the fullness of Christ.”
Ephesians 4:13b (Common English Bible)
     My daughter, Rachael has recently received a promotion from Holland America Cruise Lines. After eight weeks as a ship photographer, Rachael was selected to receive special training by world-renown portrait photographer, Joe Craig, for Black Label Studio work. No longer will Rachael walk the common spaces of the ship, photographing the guests of the cruise line. She will now occupy a studio aboard the ship and accept appointments. More importantly, the standard of excellence for her photography has been significantly raised. Her work will be measured by the standard of Joe Craig who has spent a career building his product image.
     The cost of her work has also risen – as much as four times the cost of the product she originally created for Holland America guests. A quick glance at passengers’ reviews online, shows wide dissatisfaction with the increased price structure. Yet, for every critical review – every single one at my review of posted comments – surprise and delight is expressed at the unusually high quality of the product. “Outstanding,” “We were smitten” and “Far and away better than anything I have seen before” are customary comments.
     In matters of faith, many today are asking the question, ”Isn’t it enough to be decent?” Increasingly, people have little interest in the Bible, the church or worship. They declare that “right” behavior is what really matters. One difficulty with this argument is that the standard for this “right” behavior isn’t identified. More, few are prepared to acknowledge that their vague sense of what is “right” draws heavily upon inherited spiritual capital. They never wrestle with the question, “How long will decency last if the Christian faith continues to decline?”
     The larger question is, “What pulls us forward in this life?” Do we settle for the common photograph available for a modest price or will our standard be higher? We all strive for something. Here, in Ephesians, we learn that God’s desire is that our standard for moral behavior and values be nothing less than the standard of Christ. In photography parlance, God invites us to nothing less than a Black Label Studio portrait for our life. Isn’t it enough to be decent? No, it is not enough. And the practice of our faith is what will take us into God’s studio. The result will be a life “far and away better than anyone could have imagined.”

Experiencing A Real and Vivid Faith

“Taste and see how good the Lord is! The one who takes refuge in him is truly happy!”

Psalm 34:8 (Common English Bible)

     There are large numbers of people who have never experienced faith as a matter of the heart – a stirring of the emotions. They have a good mind, a strong character, and possess a genuine love for God.  Yet, their faith is lived as a mental consent to the teachings of the Bible, the Church, and others who are respected and admired. What they lack – and may long for – is a genuine, personal encounter with the living God, a personal engagement with the holy.

     Some time ago, I was sharing breakfast with a friend and we were discussing the story from Genesis where Jacob wrestled with God throughout the night. “When the man (God) saw that he couldn’t defeat Jacob, he grabbed Jacob’s thigh and tore a muscle in Jacob’s thigh as he wrestled with him. (Genesis 32:25)” My friend uttered impulsively – and sincerely – “I would be happy to walk with a limp to have had that kind of experience with God!”

     A rare opportunity presented itself years ago for my wife and I to be present in the studio during the taping of Good Morning America. Emeril Lagasse was a guest of the show that particular morning. Sam Champion asked me to accompany him as Emeril demonstrated the preparation of a holiday dessert. At the conclusion of the demonstration, Emeril invited Champion to “taste” what they had created together. Sam Champion did and the look on Champion’s face pleased Emeril. What happened next was unexpected. Champion grabbed another fork, cut another “taste” from the dessert and held it to my mouth: “Doug, you have got to taste this!” I had two choices – the studio camera now on me as a national audience watched. I could demand that Champion prove to me it was as good as he seemed to think before I opened my mouth or I could simply “taste” and see for myself. Naturally, I did the latter. My conclusion concurred with Champion’s. It was perhaps the best dessert I had ever tasted.

     Robert J. McCracken has observed that the experience of faith occurs in a similar manner, “It begins as an experiment and ends as an experience.”1 McCracken says that too often faith is not lived authentically – an earnest effort each day to have our lives shaped by the teachings of Jesus. What remains is a faith that receives intellectual consent and lives in argument of what the Bible really teaches. A substitution is required. Substitute the practice of faith for argument and, in time, both a religious experience and conviction will be yours. Christ has pledged that it will be so.

1 Robert J. McCracken, Questions People Ask: Sermons Preached in Riverside Church, New York City (Harper & brother