Monthly Archives: July 2017

“How Can I Experience God As Real?” (The Highfield Letters #1)

Over the years I’ve received many letters asking my opinion on various issues or requesting my help with a troublesome concern. I take these inquiries as occasions not only to do something good for others but also to think about an issue of interest. I received a letter a few years back in which the correspondent asked this compound question: “Why does God seem so distant to me, and how can I experience God as real?” Perhaps you’ve also felt this absence and asked this question. I know I have. I was so happy to receive this note, because it gave me an occasion to think about my own experience. Here is the essence of what I wrote in response:

Dear God-Seeker:

God is not a physical object we can experience through the five senses. God is not merely a concept we can think in a clear and simple way. Nor is God an idea or image we can picture in our imaginations. How then can we experience God, if God is not like anything else we experience? Let’s not give up hope. God can be real and active without being real and active in the same way that other things are. I know you believe that God exists, creates, and takes care of us and our world. And because of Jesus, you believe that God loves the whole world and you. Hence you know that God is everywhere active and loving. But we don’t experience God’s omnipresent action in the way we experience the local acts of people and animals and the forces of nature. Why? Local acts stand out from their backgrounds and call attention to themselves, but God’s action—except in the case of miracles, which we are not discussing—touches everything at once. As the most universal agent, God’s actions are undetectable in the ways we notice other actions. So, we should not be surprised that we feel God’s absence from the array of our ordinary experiences. But we are not satisfied with this. Is there another way to experience God as really real?

We crave experience because experiencing gives us immediate certainty, which beliefs, thoughts, and ideas do not. To experience something is to be changed by that thing so as to become in some way like it. In our awareness of ourselves—in what we call our feelings—we also experience the other thing. I know you believe that God is active and loving. The idea of God is clear in your mind. What you want now is experience. Here is my opinion on how to attain what you seek: In this life, we can experience God best by becoming like God in his activity. God is present in our world in his loving, self-giving action. Hence when we join with God in loving what God loves in the way God loves it, we will experience God in action in us. We will experience ourselves as changed and formed by God’s loving action on us and through us. As in all experience, we receive an immediate certainty of the presence of the thing we are experiencing; we know that the changes in us don’t come from us alone.

And perhaps you have guessed already that I am speaking here of the action of the Holy Spirit, which is the cause of all human experience of God. As Paul promises, “And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5). Notice also how John connects our confidence, our immediate certainty, with the action of the Spirit working in our actions of loving others in imitation of God’s love for us:

 We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other…This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters…Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him. And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us (1 John 3:14-24).

By the witness of creation and Word we come to believe that God is real and that he loves us. And by the action of the Spirit we are prompted and empowered to respond to God’s love with our love. God’s love frees us to love him in return and to love what God loves in the way he loves it. In our acts of love we experience a taste of God’s own feelings of love for us and the world. What joy and certainty can be ours if only we will heed the Spirit’s prompting, follow Jesus’ example, and dive into the flow of God’s love.

I hope these thoughts help.

In Jesus,

Ron

 

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“Jesus is Lord” or “Caesar is Lord” – A Decision for All Times

In the previous post, I addressed the subject of truth and power and lamented the ascendency of the post-modern philosophy that asserts “politics is everything.” Today I want to address the subject of politics and religious truth. We should not be surprised that for states, with their kings, emperors, senators, and governors, “politics is everything.” States view religion and every other aspect of social life as subordinate to their ends of survival, wealth, unity, power, and stability. There has never been and their never will be a state that is wholly subordinate to a religion and its end. But there have been many religions whose purpose is to serve the ends of the state. All warrior, ethnic, and state religions either deify the state or make the king the voice of god on earth. Worship of the state gods looks to one end, the welfare of the state as understood by the state. From the state’s perspective, religious truth must be subordinated to political power.

Jesus Christ demanded that people direct their highest loyalty to God and subordinate all other ends to that end. He proclaimed God’s judgment on the powers and authorities that claimed divine status or in any way refused to submit themselves to God. And the “powers” and “rulers of this world” killed him for preaching such political heresy. Some theologians have argued that Jesus was a political revolutionary. This thesis is largely false because Jesus was not attempting to establish a worldly rival to Rome, but it contains an element of truth, that is, that Jesus challenged the religious foundation of any state’s claim to possess divine authority. Hence Christianity was born not as a warrior, ethnic, or state religion, and it is ill suited to serve these purposes. It refuses to serve the interests of any power other than God. It proclaims the same “truth” to any and all, no matter where or under what conditions. A “Christianity” that on principle or merely in fact serves the ends of state is a heresy.

Modern western states differ in many respects from ancient tribal and ethnic states and empires. Because of 2000 years of Christian influence they allow more individual freedom and are more humane in punishment for crimes than ancient nations were. But modern western states, the United States of American included, pursue ends that states have always pursued: survival, wealth, unity, power, and stability. And Christianity can no more allow itself to be subservient to the ends of modern western states that it could to the ends of the Roman Empire. And modern western states are no more at peace with a defiant Christianity than ancient Rome was. Today I see two areas where the interests of the modern western state and the interests of true Christianity are at odds: (1) Christianity’s moral teachings, and (2) Christianity’s claims that Jesus Christ is the only Savior (Acts 4:12) and that he is the “true God and eternal life” (1 John 5:20).

I have addressed many times on this blog society’s (and increasingly the state’s) demand that the church tone down and compromise its strict moral teachings. The state has concluded that it must tolerate—and even celebrate—behaviors that it once suppressed. Society, so the reasoning goes, has come to a consensus that attempting to suppress these behaviors would cause more social unrest than allowing them to be practiced. Hence when Christians continue to preach against these now accepted behaviors, they are viewed by society and the state as disturbers of the peace and sowers of division. The state wants a compliant religion to cooperate with its goals of unity, peace, and stability. And some denominations have changed their moral teachings so that they fall into line with the state’s ends. But we must ask them a hard question: Are you not as faithless as a church in the Roman Empire would have been had it replaced the Christian confession “Jesus is Lord” with political creed “Caesar is Lord”?

A second way the state wants Christianity to conform to its ends concerns the need to maintain peace among different religious communities. States have always viewed religion as a powerful force that is potentially subversive, and that force has to be dealt with by cooptation, suppression, or neutralization.  Modern western societies find themselves in an increasingly global community in which nation states have become highly interdependent. In relating to states with majority Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, and other religious populations, the historically majority Christian states of the west wish to play down religious differences. Hence they have developed a diplomatic language designed to highlight only common interests and values. Sometimes western diplomatic talk implies or explicitly states that all religions have at their core the same truth, that is, such humanistic values as peace, respect for human dignity, reverence for life, and freedom. By whatever name(s) they call God(s) and however they understand God(s) otherwise, God’s only relevant function is to support politically useful humanistic values. States don’t seek the truth about God or God’s will. They never have. They never will. All rhetoric about the wholly positive nature of the religions of other nations is crafted solely to serve the national interests of the state as it relates to those nations.

But pluralism is not merely a global phenomenon. Modern western states, mainly through immigration policies designed to promote their economic interests or foreign policy goals, have allowed themselves to become religiously diverse within their nations. These nations want these different religious communities within their borders to get along, not for religious reasons but for political ones. And they employ the same rhetoric at home that they use in international relations, that is, that all religions worship the same God and share the same humanistic values. Proselyting and debating adherents of other religions is discouraged and often condemned as hateful. The underlying assumption of calls to conversion and debate is that one religion might be true and others false, one good and the others bad, one a way to salvation and the others not. This assumption is criticized not so much for being false as for its “arrogance.” Christianity, as the traditional and majority religion in the United States and other western countries, has been for many decades under great pressure to withdraw, or at least suppress, its exclusivist claims. And the same denominations that changed their moral teachings to fall in line with the state’s goals also changed their confessional statements so that they renounce proselytism and the exclusive claims about Jesus Christ found in Scripture. In doing this, have they not allowed themselves to be coopted to serve the state rather than Jesus Christ? The church has always been and always will be faced with a choice between two confessions: “Jesus is Lord” or “Caesar is Lord.”

Ron Highfield

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The First Casualty of War

Truth often eludes even those who seek diligently it. But we live in a society that no longer seeks truth, that can think of no reason to seek it, and that mocks those rare individuals who do seek it. What do people value more than truth? What is truth’s replacement? The opposite of truth is falsehood, but people don’t love falsehood—at least not directly. Perhaps, some people wish something to be true so much that they deceive themselves or allow themselves to be deceived to enjoy the illusion for a time. But no one likes to be deceived against their will, because being deceived puts you at a disadvantage. It takes away power and freedom from you and gives them to the deceiver. I conclude that people love not falsehood but power, power over themselves and others. And of course power is useful in retaining the goods one has and in acquiring the goods one wants.

The first casualty in war is truth. In a state of all-out war, power is everything, and truth and falsehood are useful only as means to gain power and defeat the enemy. But not all wars are “all-out” contests where any and every means is used to win and winning means the total domination of the enemy. War is any encounter where gaining power over another person is the chief end. Many sectors of contemporary society have become in effect battlefields where different factions seek power over others. And words and pictures are the weapons of choice. The words and pictures are chosen, not because they are true but because they are effective in disempowering the enemy and gaining power for the speaker. Love for truth plays no part. Desire for power is everything.

Prominent among these sectors are politics, education, the press, jurisprudence, social media, and religion. To be more precise and use a postmodern slogan, “Politics is everything.” The power struggles of the political sphere have invaded these other sectors and the political end of domination has replaced the original ends of these other activities. In the minds of its originators this expression (“Politics is everything.”) meant that every encounter, even superficially innocent ones, is really about the power one person or group attempts to gain over another. All truth claims are really masks for power moves. What seems to be different today, as opposed to the 1980s when the slogan “Politics is everything” came into vogue, is that no one tries very hard to mask their desire for power and their disdain for truth. They know “their side” is lying, but they love what they hear anyway. Whether the “other side” lies or tells the truth, they hate what is said because it tends to empower the enemy.

Clearly, God is the missing factor in these war games. Anyone who loves God will love truth. If you don’t love truth, you can’t love God. If you don’t seek truth, you can’t really be seeking God. God is the origin of truth, because God is the origin of everything real. And truth concerns reality. Jesus explained to Pilate that “the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” But Pilate replied, “What is truth?” (John 18:37-38). “What is truth?” is the cynical question asked by everyone for whom power is the chief value and winning is the exclusive goal. Later on in Jesus’ trial, the governor explained that he had power to have Jesus executed or released. But Jesus replied “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above” (John 19:10-11). To all appearances in the moment Jesus, the lover of truth, lost and Pilate, the lover of power, won. But appearance is not the same as reality and the voice of power is never the word of truth.

We live in a society that sees the world through Pilate’s eyes. It doesn’t love the truth. It loves the appearance of winning for the momentary thrill of victory. In the end, however, truth wins and reality stands, because in the end God wins. But do we have the courage to wait until the end?