God is a What?!

So many people think they know exactly who and what God is. Most of what they base their certainty on is a combination of logic and a small collection of sources. Very little of what I see is based on interviews with either God or a wide cross section of those who have had recent contact with God. I’ve already written about what metaphor fits the Church, now I’m going to write about God.

The first thing that surprises people is that there is a large body of medical literature that deals with the difference between spirituality and religious behavior. There is also a significant body of research about the impact of God.

I’m not talking about the silly stuff that is often in the news, but about day-to-day, cover it in nursing school, see it regularly in action sort of material. Most of it focuses on two groups in society that have a very wide cross section of members: grieving persons and persons in twelve step groups.

Those in significant grief, especially parents who have buried children, interact a fair amount with medical professionals. It is well known that prayer makes a significant difference in recovery and quality of recovery. In addition, it is routinely discussed and observed how while religious devotion is pretty much worthless, spirituality makes a significant contribution (noting that sometimes the two go hand-in-hand, sometimes they do not).

Believing, sincere prayer makes a difference. The observable data is that God pretty much hears the prayers of Jews, in case anyone was wondering. He also hears the prayers of Hindi, Mormon, Catholic, Orthodox, and others who pray. One of the saddest things I remember about prayer was a researcher who was being interviewed after he had lost a child. He was lamenting the fact that he lacked belief enough to pray, because he knew it would help, yet that was out of reach for him.

From the study of hundreds of grieving parents the literature is clear that God is someone who hears, who hears and who kindly comforts, over time and without particular prickliness about how we envision or conceptualize God.

Twelve-step groups are even more interesting. A short summary of what they teach is as follows:

  • admitting that one cannot control one’s life;
  • recognizing a greater power that can give strength;
  • examining and confessing past errors;
  • making amends for these errors;
  • learning to live an honest life;
  • helping others.

(borrowed from several on-line sources such as the wiki and 12steporg.

One of the key elements to twelve step programs is that they teach people that they must pray to God for help — and these are generally people who have been praying to God for help (that they don’t think they have gotten) for years or who do not believe in God at all. What many of them know about God reminds me of the sons of Mosiah and those they taught to pray to God who had only the vaguest idea of what God was — yet God answered.

I find twelve step groups fascinating given my history of multiple, repeating, miraculous personal disasters (the deaths of my three daughters over a five year period were negative miracles), because there is a substantial literature of people learning to pray to God in spite of the fact that they’ve been praying for help with their addictions for years and not getting the results they sought. The essence of a twelve step program is to come along and tells them, right up front, ok, you have to rely on God, including all of you who don’t believe in God at all. This time God will help you. As one person notes:

At one time or other, most of us were angry at God as we first understood Him. We had come to believe that God had either allowed or caused us to have our addictions, afflictions, codependencies, or other personal losses. We wondered why God had failed us and brought abusive people into our lives. Why had God allowed us to suffer day by day instead of answering our prayers?

BTW, they don’t answer the question of evil, nor do they tell you what God is, other than the fact that God is the one who will answer your prayers, relieve you of bondage and guide you. The amazing thing is that twelve step programs work (for alcoholism, narcotics, sexual addictions, and a number of other problems. They are not successful in solving sexual identity issues, which I find interesting in its implications).

There is also a huge body of literature as to people who have relied on God to free them from bondage.

Those who have succeeded report that God loves them, and that as they were honest and willing to accept help he helped them, and that he wasn’t terribly prickly about how they identified him.

Sounds similar to the king who was willing to give away all his sins to know a God that he had the vaguest understandings of.

Do you and I really know that much more?

Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that when He shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as He is. And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as He is pure.

Of course that is merely what John said, who had been tutored by Christ for forty days after the resurrection, been one of the original Apostles and spoken with God. There are those who think that they really know more, yet they generally do not have much better credentials.

So, what is God?

God is our father. He is the Holy One. He exists. God, the Holy One, is real. He is powerful enough to help us. God loves us. He doesn’t require that much faith (at least to begin with) and is amazingly patient. And God is something we do not have a good metaphor to describe. But if we give him space, he will love us and bring us safely home.

That is what God is, beyond words or metaphor.

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Comments

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26 comments for “God is a What?!

  1. February 14, 2008 at 3:12 pm

    Believing, sincere prayer makes a difference. The observable data is that God pretty much hears the prayers of Jews, in case anyone was wondering.

    Studies attempting to gauge the impact of prayer on the recovery of patients demonstrate nothing at all about whether deity hears anyone’s prayers. In fact, whether deity hears prayers is not, under any scientific means, “observable.” The only individuals who have claimed to “observe” deity “hearing prayers” would be visionaries, who of course cannot be evaluated scientifically. You can observe that a patient who is being prayed for appears to recover better than a patient who is not being prayed for, but you have the studies properly excluded other factors, such as the placebo effect?

  2. February 14, 2008 at 3:17 pm

    Great thoughts, Steve, and I concur wholeheartedly. I feel that, like Nephi said, there are many things I do not know, but I feel I do know that God exists and loves us. And I also believe He will answer the prayers of people who sincerely seek him regardless of what they call or believe about Him, and regardless of whether they are inside or outside the Church. Reminds me of a great quote from Elder Boyd K. Packer, who is often erroneously slandered in the Bloggernacle as being particularly closed-minded:

    “The line of priesthood authority was broken. But mankind was not left in total darkness or completely without revelation or inspiration. The idea that with the Crucifixion of Christ the heavens were closed and that they opened in the First Vision is not true. The Light of Christ would be everywhere present to attend the children of God; the Holy Ghost would visit seeking souls. The prayers of the righteous would not go unanswered.” (Boyd K. Packer, “The Light of Christ,” Ensign, Apr. 2005, 11.)

  3. February 14, 2008 at 3:23 pm

    The amazing thing is that twelve step programs work (for alcoholism, narcotics, sexual addictions, and a number of other problems. They are not successful in solving sexual identity issues, which I find interesting in its implications).

    You refer to “sexual identity issues.” “Sexual identity” would refer to whether a person was biologically male or female, so I can only assume “sexual identity issues” must involve those who are born with ambiguous genetalia. I don’t imagine 12-step programs would do much to resolve such issues. A standard DNA test would be more effective.

    Perhaps you meant “gender identity issues,” which are experienced by those who believe themselves to be transgendered, or born with a body who’s biological sex does not match the gender of their “spirit” (for lack of a better term).

    Then again, perhaps you really meant “sexual orientation,” which refers to which biological sex a is physically and emotionally oriented toward.

    Of course, I suspect you really mean sexual orientation. My suggestion is that you call it what it is, rather than using confusing language that implies that homosexuals are confused about their biological sex. I understand, of course, that certain religious leaders have displayed a bad habit of using equally ridiculous terms, such as “gender identity” or “gender confusion” to describe homosexuality, notwithstanding the educated world’s terminology.

  4. February 14, 2008 at 4:04 pm

    Nick

    I by no means wish to imply that homosexuals are confused about their biological sex. Further, ambiguous genitelia are a completely different area, btw, one with a complex literature and some real surprises for the nurture over nature bunch. A standard DNA test is pretty much useless to an XXY or an XYY or someone with multiple sets of genitals.

    The failure of surgery and training for those with ambiguous genitals is a completely different topic, and one with some interesting implications, but not what I was getting at.

    Sexual orientation is often used to include sexual addiction, whereas sexual identity is not. I wanted to distinguish between the two in passing. In addition, sexual orientation includes pedophilia, sexual identity is generally used to exclude that.

    I thought you were better informed in that entire area.

    “You can observe that a patient who is” — you missed the complete point, I can observe the progress of a person who is praying and their recovery and compare that against one who is not. I’m not talking about people who are being prayed for (though the blind trials involving praying for people who have already died were interesting), but people who are praying.

    Andrew

    would not go unanswered. — very well said. That is a good definition for God btw, the One who does not let prayers go unanswered.

  5. February 14, 2008 at 4:10 pm

    The most cherished and sacred moments of our lives are those filled with the spirit of love. The greater the measure of our love, the greater is our joy. In the end, the development of such love is the true measure of success in life.

    Joseph B. Wirthlin. “The Great Commandment.” Ensign, November 2007, 28-31.

    I think that is a great comment on what God is.

  6. February 14, 2008 at 4:41 pm

    Stephen, the only people associating sexual orientation with “sexual addiction” are homophobic religionists, who make huge amounts of money by preaching that homosexuals will turn straight if they just pray enough.

    With regard to your suggested use of “sexual identity,” try googling the phrase. Some samples:

    From the Counselling Center at the University of Texas in Dallas:
    “Sexual identity is the degree to which we identify with the social and biological aspects of being a man or a woman.” They go on to suggest that sexual orientation is “an important part of sexual identity.”

    From Milton Diamond, PhD, University of Hawaii, John Burns School of Medicine, Department of Anatomny and Reproductive Biology (who, incidentally, agrees with your point that a DNA test is often unhelpful with regard to ambiguous genetalia):
    “‘Sexual identity’ speaks to the way one views him or her self as a male or female. This inner conviction of identification usually mirrors one’s outward physical appearance and the typically sex-linked role one develops and prefers or society attempts to impose. Gender identity is recognition of the perceived social gender attributed to a person. Typically a male is perceived as a boy or a man where boy and man are social terms with associated cultural expectations attached.”

    One journal article available online is entitled: “Sexual identity and sexual orientation in children with traumatized or ambiguous genitalia”, using the phrases distinctly.

    I’m not trying to be unkind here, Stephen. I simply find the use of proper terminology important in this regard. An examination of several LDS leaders’ statements over past years has heightened this sensitivity on my part, since they have gone so far as to refer to homosexuality as “gender confusion,” which frankly is insulting.

  7. February 14, 2008 at 4:58 pm

    ‘Sexual identity’ speaks to the way one views him or her self as a male or female

    With sexual identity generally extending to sexual preference, which seems pretty hard-coded, in the ROM if not in the hardware. Definitely not just a RAM sort of thing (using computer code for an analogy).

    preaching that homosexuals will turn straight if they just pray enough

    I wasn’t aware that was working as a general principle. What I’ve seen seems to indicate that the approach doesn’t work. Am I mistaken? I should have skipped the aside point that 12 step programs don’t seem to work in making gays into straights, or at least that is what people with a lot of experience with them have concluded.

    Early intervention doesn’t seem to make a difference with homosexual orientation, whereas early initial intervention is the one time you can actually have a high success rate with curing pedophiles. That makes them seem markedly different to me, though you seem to strongly disagree with what I’m concluding in my essay, so I don’t know where we agree and where we disagree.

  8. February 14, 2008 at 5:07 pm

    Steve, for what it’s worth, despite the nitpicking over language, the overall message of your post presents a view of a beautiful forest if we don’t allow ourselves to get fixated on the trees. I see no need to strain at gnats or zero in on motes here. Again, nice job.

  9. February 14, 2008 at 5:11 pm

    With sexual identity generally extending to sexual preference, which seems pretty hard-coded, in the ROM if not in the hardware. Definitely not just a RAM sort of thing (using computer code for an analogy).

    Nice analogy, Stephen, and yes, I did note that you don’t think one can “pray the gay away.” I was referring to those who classify sexual orientation as an addiction.

    The terminology is my point. My “sexual identity” is certainly male. My “sexual orientation” is certainly homosexual. The fact that I am physically and emotionally attracted to men doesn’t really have much of anything to do with whether I am male, let alone whether I “identify” as male.

    Now you’ve introduced “sexual preference,” as if it’s yet another synonym for sexual orientation. Forgive me for being so strident, but again, these aren’t the same. “Sexual preference” involves what one likes to do. “Sexual orientation” involves who you like to do it with.

  10. Bruce Nielson
    February 14, 2008 at 5:16 pm

    I was once talking with a Evangelical friend who, in passing, once said: “I have to wonder how many prayers there are out there that just bounce right back because the person has an incorrect understanding of God.”

    I was so floored I was speachless for a while. I finally said: “Remember when I said I believed in the same Jesus as you… I was wrong, I believe in a different Jesus.”

    Well, actually, I didn’t say that. But it would have been a good joke. 🙂

    Anyhow, we talked about how, I, as a Mormon, had been taught that God would respond to anyone that sincerely prayed no matter how bad or incorrect their concept of God was.

    He responded: “What if they think God is a rock they are sitting on.”

    I said, “if the level of spiritual maturity they are at only allows them to think of that rock as God, I believe God will still answer that prayer because he’s a loving father that wants to answer any sincere prayer.”

    We agreed to disagree.

  11. February 14, 2008 at 5:18 pm

    Andrew, thanks.

  12. February 14, 2008 at 5:22 pm

    Bruce, because you previously were able to help me find a long lost quote I’d been looking for, maybe you can do it again. I recall a quote from an early prophet or apostle, I think maybe even Joseph Smith, exactly along the lines you set forth above. The statement was to the effect that Church members would be surprised to meet people in heaven who had worshiped rocks or trees in mortality, and that was because God will judge us based on how we acted on the light and knowledge we had, rather than that which we did not have.

    You have your mission. Now off you go!

  13. February 14, 2008 at 5:33 pm

    Bruce Nielson — that is an excellent line. The Jesus we worship is different because we believe that Jesus hears everyone who is sincere and loves us all.

    God will still answer that prayer because he’s a loving father that wants to answer any sincere prayer.

    That is the point I’m trying to make in my post, and one that I think is important to beginning to truly understand God.

  14. DavidH
    February 14, 2008 at 5:40 pm

    Stephen,

    I agree 100%. At the end of the day, it does not matter to me whether God in an exalted man or a spirit or is one in three or three in one or flesh and blood or flesh and bone. What matters to me is that God(as I understand God to be) is a power higher than me, who loves me (and all His children and creations), who can bless me and enable me to live a life of sanity and peace.

  15. February 14, 2008 at 5:45 pm

    DavidH, I couldn’t agree more. If being 100% correct about God’s physical (or non-physical) nature is so vital to our salvation, I cannot help wondering why God waited until the D&C to make that clear; that’s the first time the scriptures come out and plainly say that God has a physical body (as opposed to being a spirit who sometimes takes on man’s appearance). The fact that God allows so much ambiguity to exist about His metaphysical nature tends to make me conclude that a correct understanding of that particular detail about Him is really not essential to our salvation.

  16. February 14, 2008 at 8:32 pm

    Stephen,

    Nice article, but for these claims I really think quotes and statistics are very important. You seem to be taking a researchers approach yet provide no research.

    In contrast to your post do you remember the study done by researchers who took several sick patients and compared recovery rates with ones that prayed and ones that didn’t? They found that there was no difference, and if anything patients who prayed had a slower recovery rate.

    Now I have faith in prayer and took that study with a grain of salt but at least it presented statistics. I would suggest doing the same to enhance your credibility.

  17. February 14, 2008 at 9:12 pm

    Drew,

    I’m talking about grief recovery rather than the number of studies involving praying for others,* I’m talking about praying for yourself. I’m not up on statistical analysis of prayer vis a vis grief recovery (I don’t recall any heavy math analysis out of scores of sources I’ve read on the topic that addressed that specific sub-topic), but I’m rather well versed in, and have won awards for writing in the area of, grief recovery. So, if it is citation to an authority you want for that point, I’ll cite myself.

    If you want me to do research and post it as footnotes or something, I’ll do it the next time I get four or five hours free that I’m not otherwise busy with something more pressing. Or, you can get a good handle on it yourself by doing some google searches. If you would do that, come back and cite the r squareds, etc., I’d appreciate the supplementation to your comment.

    * There are a number, with variable results, stating with the analysis of the morbidity of Anglican ministers in England and working down the time stream from there. The most famous involved a double blind using people who had already died. They were sorted for the same diagnosis and volunteers were assigned to pray for half of them. Then the outcomes were reviewed to determine if prayer had benefited them or not. The most interesting analysis of the study took place at http://ozarque.livejournal.com/ though there was a lot of commentary on it. There have been a number of other studies.

    I wasn’t talking about those. I was directly referring to grief recovery. I’m afraid I no longer keep books on the topic at my fingertips and the amount of raw statistical analysis is slight.

    If you plan to go to a library, here are some books to get started on a foundation, the list includes books that are worthless (but part of the common milieu) and ones that are very good, a few that are clinical or research oriented:

    Dobson, James When God Doesn’t Make Sense, (Tyndale House Pub-
    lishers, Inc. 1993).

    Eadie, Bettie Embraced by the Light, (Gold Leaf Press 1992),
    everyone will give you a copy.

    Elgin, Suzette The Last Word on The Gentle Art of Verbal Self
    Defense, (Prentice Hall 1989)42

    Heavilin, Marilyn Roses in December, (Thomas Nelson, Inc. 1993),
    an excellent book for clients. Marilyn is available on line @
    Prodigy.com // Medical BBS // Grief/Death.

    James & Cherry The Grief Recovery Handbook, (Harper & Row 1988).

    Johnson, Barbara Pain is Inevitable but Misery is Optional, (Ward
    Publishing 1990).

    Johnson, Sherry After a Child Dies: Counseling Bereaved Fa-
    milies, (Springer Publishing Company 1987).

    Maxwell, Neal All These Things, (Deseret Book 1979).

    Maxwell, Neal Not My Will, But Thine, (Bookcraft 1988).

    Nibley, Hugh If There Must Needs Be Offense, (FARMS 1971).

    O’Connor, Nancy Letting Go With Love: The Grieving Process, (La
    Mariposa Press 1984).

    Rando, Therese [editor] Parental Loss of a Child, (Research Press
    Company 1986), Clinical essays.

    Sanford, Doris It Must Hurt A Lot, (Multnomah Press 1986), a
    children’s book good enough I bought a copy for my child.

    Schillf, Harriett The Bereaved Parent, (Crown Publishers 1977).

    Taylor, Connie Before Birth, Beyond Death, (Horizon Publishers
    1987), children’s book.

    Tittensor, John Year One, A Record, (Penguin 1984), A typical
    journal type book.43

    Westberg, Granger Good Grief (Fortress Press 1971), Elegant, in
    64 pages.

  18. February 14, 2008 at 9:22 pm

    BTW, the easiest accessed statistics at

    http://www.compassionatefriends.org/survey.shtml

    and

    http://www.compassionatefriends.org/When%20a%20Child%20Dies-Final.pdf

    don’t discuss prayer.

    On general prayer statistics (sources are completely unverified, can’t say if they are good or not)

    http://www.godandscience.org/apologetics/prayer.html

    http://answers.google.com/answers/threadview?id=443338

    http://books.google.com/books?id=ePnf1WP0JokC&pg=PA126&lpg=PA126&dq=prayer+statistics+death+grief&source=web&ots=dMYowNydfy&sig=RPqEfHyu3EmoUpucca6n437R8pg

    http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0310219922

    I’ve got to go to bed. I know, I’ve already slept twelve hours today and ten last night, but I’m done for.

  19. February 14, 2008 at 10:10 pm

    Prayer is great. Receiving an answer to prayer is the most sublime experience a mortal can experience. I’m not talking about an “answer”, we think was an answer, but I am talking about an answer that is totally and completely undeniable.

    By the way, I’ll also take those answers that we think are answers, but are not 100% sure. Most of these are answers as well.

  20. February 14, 2008 at 10:29 pm

    Thanks for the information Stephen. I hope I didn’t offend you.

  21. February 15, 2008 at 6:45 am

    Drew, sorry I was sick and cranky. I really regret being sick 😉 and know I’ll regret the crankiness by the weekend when I’m feeling better.

  22. February 15, 2008 at 10:09 am

    “I was once talking with a Evangelical friend who, in passing, once said: “I have to wonder how many prayers there are out there that just bounce right back because the person has an incorrect understanding of God.””

    You are right Bruce (assuming you meant this), that is a lame god. I might say some thing like this: I have to wonder how many prayers out there just bounce right back because they are asking God to liberate them from responsibility or growth or learning.

    Sort of a “help me do” vs. a “do for me” approach to prayer.

  23. February 15, 2008 at 3:14 pm

    I might say some thing like this: I have to wonder how many prayers out there just bounce right back because they are asking God to liberate them from responsibility or growth or learning.

    Why had God allowed us to suffer day by day instead of answering our prayers? “

    Ahh, that comes up as a “next” topic 😉

  24. February 15, 2008 at 11:55 pm

    Awesome post and awesome discussion!

    I agree with you on your conversation with your conversations with your Evangelical friend. I can’t fathom a God who is all knowing and loving and limits it to a select group of people. When I have conversations with my Evangelical friends and they say I don’t worship the same Jesus and that I’m not a Christian I’m glad and if it so be that they call me a heretic and non-Christian I’m fine with that because my God is all-knowing, all-loving to all of us and we are all seen the same in His eyes.

    I appreciate the post and the comments and look forward to more in the future.

  25. February 16, 2008 at 2:34 pm

    When I get around to it, I need to do a post “And God wants What?!”

  26. February 17, 2008 at 12:02 am

    Stephen,

    No apologies needed. I have a bad habit of sounding like jerk in my comments.

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