But I hesitate. My claim might open fruitful theological discussion. More likely, my claim would barely pause the flow of obsessive name-dropping: “You’ve met God? Is God doing anything for the economy like my neighbor who is chairwoman of the Federal Reserve?” Maybe people might take my cue and chuckle at the foibles of our human craving for esteem. Nah. More likely, people would conclude that I’m a few bars short of a connection.
“I’ve Met God” Defended
When I moved here, friends from the Midwest often asked, “Have you met President Obama yet?” Adults were joking, but a few kids were earnest. Uncle Greg, you go by the White House any time you want. Why haven’t you seen the President?
Have I met the President? Reading presidential speeches and getting my photo taken at the White House fence are not what people mean. When people ask that question, they are thinking burgers with Barry.
Have I met God? My insights from reading Deuteronomy do not satisfy people. They expect--they demand--fire or fatherliness.
Consider also the point packed into the title of Ray Steadman’s excellent book on Jesus: What More Can God Say? Why should God tell us more when we haven't taken to heart what God has already said?
Against such defenses of divine silence, many other believers in God assert that unlike human celebrities, unlike human teachers, God remains universally able and willing to meet us.
You can look for the Lord your God, and you will find him if you look for him with your whole being. - Deuteronomy 4
The Lord says, ‘Whoever loves me, I will save. I will protect those who know me. They will call to me, and I will answer them.’ - Psalm 91
“When you search for me with all your heart, you will find me! I will let you find me,” says the Lord. - Jeremiah 29
Jesus said, ‘…So I tell you, ask, and God will give to you. Search, and you will find. Knock, and the door will open for you…. If your children ask for a fish, which of you would give them a snake instead? … Even though you are bad, you know how to give good things to your children. How much more your heavenly Father will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’ - Luke 11
At a Chinese church in Missouri I was startled when the preacher asked me to stand and read the last sentence of the Gospel of Matthew from a King James Version Bible. I accommodated: “And, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.” The preacher noted that he preferred the verse in this English translation, since his name was Lo.
When I don’t hear God, hearing a Jesus-is-my-boyfriend song does not help.
Our group’s musicians have done some of these songs, some old, some new. “In the Garden” lilts: “And he walks with me, and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own. And the joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever known.” Dolly Parton does this better than 'most anyone else. Nevertheless, I can't get into the Andy song. (Andy walks with me, Andy talks with me, ...)
More recently, Rush of Fools salaciously croons: “Come to Me, you who are weak. Let My strength be yours tonight. Come and rest, let My love be your bed. Let My heart be yours tonight.”
Yes, I know about the Song of Solomon. Wanting God is not a bad thing. But will you fault me if I suspect that in these Jesus-is-my-boyfriend songs there is more wishful longing for companionship than authentic meeting? By contrast, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and “As the Deer” speak for me and speak to me.
Personal relationship? What do the uninitiated think this means?
- They’re thinking of a phone call between friends. We’re thinking prayer and Bible study.
- They’re thinking of sharing a table at lunch. We’re thinking of eating Jesus’ body and drinking his blood.
The band Depeche Mode promoted their song “Personal Jesus” by placing ads in a newspaper, "Your own personal Jesus," with a phone number one could dial to hear the song. Who needs a ghostly lover when you can have a tangible one?
Your own personal Jesus / Someone to hear your prayers / Someone who cares
Your own personal Jesus / Someone to hear your prayers / Someone who's there
Feeling unknown / And you're all alone / Flesh and bone / By the telephone
Lift up the receiver / I'll make you a believer
Take second best / Put me to the test / Things on your chest / You need to confess
I will deliver / You know I’m a forgiver
- Lyrics by Martin Gore
Don't get me wrong. Relationships with tangible persons are part of knowing God. God has purposed friends, family, and strangers, including the odd lot called the church. These people show us God. People communicate God’s message if only by cautionary examples. People give us perspectives beyond our own experience. It's taken me a while to see, but I try not to neglect the messy hungry, thirsty, homeless, sick, penniless, jailed relationships God has set up, among others. “Then the King will answer, ‘I tell you the truth, anything you did for even the least of my people here, you also did for me.’"
Jesus met people in a garden, on a road, by the sea, and on a mountain. However, a brief visit to one man was not a stroll among the roses, but left that man blind.
Where is Jesus now? Seated “at the right hand of the powerful God”. This is confusing. How does this reconcile to, "Lo, I am with you always"?
The way we meet Jesus and God today is not relegated just to reading Bible stories, nor sitting by a river admiring the ripples, nor people, nor prayer. These contribute and can serve as a check against misunderstanding and misapplication. There remains, however, a major aspect of God's personal communication that many Christians don't want to talk about. This continuing connection we have with God tends to be gentle. But it is more alien, more complex, and more demanding than what people expect from a “personal relationship”. Jesus talks about this in John 13-17. Five chapters! Here’s just a bit.
I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper to be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it does not see him or know him. But you know him, because he lives with you and he will be in you. I will not leave you all alone like orphans; I will come back to you…. But the Helper will teach you everything and will cause you to remember all that I told you. This Helper is the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name…. If you loved me, you should be happy that I am going back to the Father….
Why don’t I brag about close encounters of the God kind?
There’s modesty. There’s the likelihood of being branded with a scarlet W for Whacko. There’s recognizing that words can hurt people more than help them. There's the likelihood that I've misunderstood or might miscommunicate. There's authentication: "There's more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!" Perhaps repeatability is asking too much, but I wish for sound evidence that will persuade reasonable people.
My epiphanies when most unbidden have carried mundane, entirely personal payloads: Greg, be encouraged in this. Greg, improve in that. The events have not been answers to questions I was asking, but more answers to questions I should have been asking. I confess that there was no spooky injection of knowledge, no look in that fish and you'll find a gold coin. Nor were their cryptic oracles, no multi-headed monsters. I did suddenly perceive new connections that were meaningful to me, verifiable to me, and valuable to me—but no one else! What am I supposed to say? "I met God. He told me I think too much about my own problems."
Despite desparately seeking it, I rarely perceive a custom-tailored insight concerning other people. No, instead I re-hem classic virtues and polite habits to fit the current need. For me, insight on social matters seems more often to arise from wisdom, not visions of pigs-in-a-blanket or go-over-to-Macedonia. Of course, God asks us to develop wisdom. Miraculous sign gifts exist, but the bulk of gifts and fruits of God's Spirit are virtues that philosophers have long recommended: Discernment. Love. Wisdom. Serving. Teaching. Encouraging. Hospitality. Faithfulness. Self-Control, .... These superpowers are given "for the common good": Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4. I am suspicious of someone who claims to have met God and yet who does little for other people.
Bragging by Deeds
So, yes, I've met God. The experience is humbling. Should I brag about that?
Proponents of humility have a marketing problem. It’s absurd to urge, “Be humble—like me!” So the time-honored way is to quietly, patiently let other virtues emerge in daily life. When you’re surrounded by prestige-seeking culture, humility is a lonely road until a few friends or family catch on. Humility is the most subtle form of non-violent resistance. Humility is mouthless marketing. As worship teams know, the trick is to bring people to God’s throne and then get out of the way.
As to name-dropping and bragging generally, we previously touched on a Bible passage that I urge people to make a way of life. It's in Jeremiah chapter 9.
Thus says the Lord:
'Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom,
let not the mighty man boast in his might,
let not the rich man boast in his riches,
but let him who boasts boast in this,
that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord
who practices steadfast love,
and righteousness in the earth.
For in these things I delight,' declares the Lord.
- I can boast of knowing God’s permanent love. How? Not so much by talking, but rather by patiently, persistently loving the weak and even those who kick me around and abuse me.
- I can boast about knowing God’s justice. How? By seeking justice for those who are most oppressed—and the most oppressed are rarely me.
- I can boast about understanding God’s righteousness. How? By doing the right thing.
When I practice love, justice, and righteousness, I am shouting “I know God!”
Doing love, doing justice, and doing righteousness requires risk and sacrifice. Such risk and sacrifice yell, "I trust God!"
The deed authenticates the claim. Top that.