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.
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.