How To Know God (in exactly 1000 words)

We live under the illusion that we are separate from God. If we believe in God at all, we think we are “here” and God is “over there.” The truth is that we are part of God, and God is part of us. This is not to be confused with Hindu pantheism, which states that God literally IS the rocks, and the trees, and the animals. Christianity accepts that God is present IN all of these things, that he is one with them, but unlike pantheism, Christianity teaches that God has a personality — that God is, in some important sense, a personal being. We believe both in transcendence (God out there, beyond time and space) and in imminence (God inside, at the deepest levels and places). In other words, we believe that reality as we know it exists inside of God, but that God also moves out infinitely beyond it. This view is called panentheism.

People have different spiritual journeys, to be sure, but knowing God usually happens from one of two directions. First, a person can come to see, hear, and understand God in themselves. They can come to understand that God is not present only in their perfect places, but also in their broken places, to realize that God, in the words of Israel’s ancient shema, “Is One.”  As they increasingly sense and know the presence of God in these deep and formerly off-limits places in themselves, they will naturally begin to see God in parts of the world they never imagined God in — other cultures, races, sexual orientations, religions, governments, economies — and in other people and places they formerly despised.

[Not incidentally, this is the only basis from which it is even possible to obey Christ’s command to love our enemies.  Love actually has no enemies.  As long as you are conscious of yourself as loving someone you perceive as an “enemy,” this is not what Jesus intended, and your attempts, well-intentioned as they may be, will lead to continual frustration and failure.  Witness Jesus carrying his cross, and breathing prayers for the forgiveness of his murderers.  Jesus was only able to love them because although he might have been their enemy, they were not his enemies. That is what the command means, and the only thing it could mean. However, at some point you must begin, and so you begin by trying to love people you perceive as enemies (yes, with all the attendant frustration that produces, until you learn to let go). As you progress on the spiritual journey, your love will grow to where it includes those you formerly included as enemies. At this point you will no longer have any enemies (from your perspective), and you will be in full obedience.]

The other way a person can come to know God is to begin on the outside.  We can begin by looking long enough at the world around us that at last we can see God there.  When at last the picture begins to emerge, and we come to understand that God really is everywhere out there, then we can also come to believe that God truly is in all of the places inside of us — all those places we had previously kept closed to God, that we had incorrectly assumed were separating us from God.

As long as I believe that there are people and places and situations where God is not present in the outside world, I will also believe this is true about what is inside of me.  As long as I believe that there are places inside of me that God cannot or does not care to reach, I will think of other people (which other people? — always those who are different from me) as being beyond God, or as being people in whom God could not possibly be interested.  Usually we admit on some level that God loves everybody, but we assume that God’s love depends (partly or wholly) on fixing or getting rid of this or that bad quality, habit, or characteristic.

Let us put the matter to rest.  We do not need to change in order for God to love us.  Rather, God’s love is the thing that makes change possible.  If we attempt to change because we must, ought to, have to, or feel guilty about not changing, our attempts to change will be half-hearted at best, and we will find ourselves in the pattern most of us are in fact stuck in now.  Try then give up.  Try then give up.  Try then give up.  An endless cycle of attempts to be “better,” followed by eventual failures.  This leads to increasing exhaustion, frustration, burnout, brokenness, regret, and self-loathing.  It is a game we cannot win, and therefore would do well to stop playing immediately.  It is what the Apostle Paul referred to when he frequently wrote that we cannot ever find ourselves made right by following rules.  Rules are and will always be part of the problem, as rules are always imposed on us from something outside of ourselves and thus, even when we try to obey them, we can never fully embrace them.  We will either sense that rules are pressing us under their thumb and struggle to obey them, feeling miserable in our failures, or else — perhaps worse — we will succeed in obeying many of them.  The only result possible there is arrogance, pride in ourselves, and a sense of frustration and anger that other people are not doing as well as we are. Notice that in the first case, the frustration and anger is self-directed (inner), and in the second, it is others-directed (outer).

Which brings us nicely back to how we can come to know God either through seeing God as truly and deeply in the world around us, or through learning to see God truly and deeply in ourselves.  A breakthrough in one area will naturally produce a breakthrough in the other.

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  • Chuck Hubbert

    You always make me think, thank you! And before I ask my question or make my comment, my confession is that I am an overthinker…

    Help me understand who “We” are, as in “We live under the illusion that we are separate from God”, please? I got stuck for a short while on that first sentence, because of my understanding that sin causes separation from God. Maybe if I understand who “we” is, I mean, are…

    • “We” in this sense, I believe, is nearly everyone. Christians, non-Christians, everybody. Christians and non-Christians are more alike than they are different, because people in both camps believe they are separate from God. But neither actually is. Look at Colossians 1:21 in both NIV and The Message. The place where the enmity is happening is in our minds. This doesn’t mean that it’s not real. Stuff happening in your mind is determinative. If you think you’re a dog, you will bark and eat Alpo and fetch my slippers. The reality that you are not in fact a dog is only helpful if somehow it gets into your awareness. If it does not, then in Jesus’ words, “the light within you is darkness” and “how great is that darkness.”

      In the Genesis account of when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, what happened? They realized they were naked, they were ashamed, and they hid from God. God, on the other hand, continued to look for them. Their sin separated them from God, not because God abandoned them, withdrew his presence from them, or rejected them, but because it produced a painful self-consciousness in THEM.

      If your child does not know you love her, experiences herself as estranged from you, then she in fact lives as if you do not love her. Her thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and actions all support this false conclusion. You and she are alienated and separated in her mind, but that produces very real separation. As far as you’re concerned there is no separation and you wait like the father of the prodigal son for her to be united to you. But for a period of time she is separated, and that produces the same pain as if this separation were mutual.

      So “we” is nearly everybody. I believe only a very small portion of people understand that God is, first and foremost, WITH US. I also believe that this understanding, when it becomes real, is in itself life-changing. It is not secret knowledge. It is available to all, and most people miss it because of our own guilt, the extent to which separation between us and God is rooted in our fear, our guilt, our perfectionism, etc. I hope that helps.

      Incidentally, this understanding that God is with us and loves us is what Brennan Manning has devoted his life to helping us come to see. Most of his books are developing this singular idea.