In a recent post, I noted that many Christians have never moved beyond a surface relationship with God, that many are desperately hungry for God, and that moving below the surface is not a skill that is widely understood, never mind practiced. Based on my experience, very, very few of my evangelical friends would be able to provide good, practical advice on the question of how to seek God, where “good” means “no clichés, no platitudes; I need something that works.” If we are truly serious, we might consider asking how Jesus answered the question, “How do I find God?”
Despite the fact that Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology text is more than 2” thick and St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica comprises almost 5000 pages (and he died before it was finished!), Jesus’ message was not complicated. In fact, it was very simple; it had to be simple, because it was targeted at the simple, the foolish, the unschooled. PhD not required! Now, we must recognize that Jesus’ message, though uncomplicated, was also not a cookbook solution. He did not disseminate a 12-step program. His thinking on the subject did not fit into a 6-page tract and could not be represented by four spiritual laws. He advised the rich, young ruler to sell everything he owned. He told Nicodemus, who, no doubt, was also a man of some means, that he needed to be born again. Martha was assured that only one thing was necessary and that her sister had chosen that part. There are no recipes, no formulas. With that in mind, here is the path that I have taken.
First, Jesus told his disciples what to do with those in religious authority: “Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if a blind man guides a blind man, both will fall into a pit.” On that note, and without throwing the baby out with the bathwater, I rejected or held in suspicion everything I had previously learned about prayer. What information I had gathered about prayer over a period of 35 years has proven to be nearly useless and focused on exactly the wrong person: me. There came a day when I knew that I had to start over.
Second, Jesus said, “But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.” What Jesus says here is as crucial as it is remarkable: God lives inside of us, in a room to which we have access. What is so astonishing is that, as difficult as it might be to reconcile with the rest of reality, all of the infinite God lives in us. We do not have just a part of Him, as if He is too expansive to fit inside any one of us. We have all of Him. And, each one of us has all of God. This is no miracle. It is a consequence of the fact that God is spiritual in nature. He is immaterial, does not take up space, and is everywhere all the time.
The room of which Jesus spoke is not a physical room, but the room inside of me, where God lives. I close my eyes and imagine in my mind that room. God is there. He is really, in reality, there. I am not imagining this, as in “making it up.” Using our imaginations in this way during prayer is not an odd, heretical notion. Note the title of Eugene Peterson’s book: Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination. The great saints such as St. Teresa and Lady Julian prayed with their imaginations, a practice that, though seemingly lost in our day and age, was practiced for thousands of years by God’s people.1 Note Psalm 1, “…and in his law he meditates day and night,” where “meditate” means “to ponder or imagine.”
Then, I imagine this: “I was caught up at once in deep worship and, oh! — a Throne set in Heaven with One Seated on the Throne, suffused in gem hues of amber and flame with a nimbus of emerald.” (Rev 4:2, The Message) If heaven is where God is, then logically speaking there must be a bit of heaven inside of me. I memorized this verse and repeat it every time I go to prayer. The apostle John did his level best to describe what he saw in heaven and I use his representation of heaven as a starting point. There are certainly many other possible verses that I could use, but I like this one.
The fact that I use such a “trick” is evidence that I am a novice at prayer. Trying to imagine God, or even heaven, is ultimately futile, because whatever it is that we imagine, it will not be God and will always be something that is far less than God. A whole mountain made of gold in our imaginations is not worth even a small gold coin in the palm of the hand. Sooner or later, I will have to progress beyond Rev 4:2 or else I will have to be satisfied with the imaginary, when I could have the gold itself. As St. John of the Cross wrote, “Great, therefore, is the error of many spiritual persons who have practiced approaching God by means of images and forms and meditations, as befits beginners.” (St. John of the Cross, Ascent of Mt. Carmel; my emphasis)
Now, I am in God’s presence, where I can talk to Him. And, more importantly, He can talk to me. Hearing from God does not simply satisfy a need; it is required for my survival. Jesus says, “It takes more than bread to stay alive. It takes a steady stream of words from God’s mouth.” Then I read a Scripture passage. I do not read for information. This is prayer, not bible study. I read slowly, word by word, letting His words sink deep into my soul. I use my imagination; the approach depends on the passage. For Isaiah 43:1-4, I may substitute my name for Israel and imagine God is speaking those words directly to me. For Luke 2:21, I may imagine that I am Joseph, taking my first-born son, the Hope of Israel, to be circumcised. (The imagination is an extraordinarily powerful faculty, useful for both good and evil. Use of the imagination in the way I have described is “safe” because I am being corralled by the Scriptures.)
Then, I ask Him for what I yearn for: I yearn to know Him, to know Jesus as a Friend, a Friend who loves me without hesitation. I want to love him more and follow him more closely, following the pattern of his life. I ask Him for that. This is a prayer that God will answer, because, more than anything else, He yearns for the same thing: me. (Evangelicals would say, “This is God’s will.”) What He will do in the world around me, I cannot say, but, if I “fix [my] attention on God” (Rom 12:2, The Message) by spending a few minutes in prayer in that room, with Him, I will find what I have always been looking for, regardless of what may be going on around me.
What I find in my prayers is God, Himself. I have forsaken the notion that I will find all the fixes for all my problems. In fact, God is clearly using those problems to good (eternal) effect in my life, and asking Him to remove them would be foolish. If He answered my prayers, on my schedule, to resolve the turmoil and the problems that I face, He would be doing me irreparable harm, and He loves me too much to allow that to happen. So, at this point in my life, I tend to leave my problems with Him, which is the best place for them anyway and I focus, instead, on God Himself. That seems like a reasonable place for a beginner to start.2
1 It may be a surprising claim that we “moderns,” living in the information age with a better understanding of history than any previous generation, may be missing something crucial from the past. Eugene Peterson wrote of Richard Foster’s book, Celebration of Discipline, “Like a child exploring the attic of an old house on a rainy day, discovering a trunk full of treasure and then calling all his brothers and sisters to share the find, Richard Foster has ‘found’ the spiritual disciplines that the modern world stored away and forgot… the instruments of joy, the way into mature Christian spirituality and abundant life.”
2 A beginner? after having been a Christian for over 35 years? Thomas Merton’s advice is worth hearing: “We do not want to be beginners. But let us be convinced of the fact that we will never be anything else but beginners.”