We cannot control our feelings about the person standing on the threshold, but when we open the door, we grant permission to come inside. We do control whether or not to open the door.
We cannot control our emotions. What would that even mean? My fear is not something separate from me, that “I” can master. We affect our emotions the same way we do our muscles, by voluntary exercise. We lift weights and our muscles grow. We climb rocks and gradually our fear of heights diminishes.
This is true of the interior life in general, up to and including love, that mysterious thing. It is through what we do and neglect to do that our love receives its shape and health – for better or worse.
Christianity asks of us only that we do the things we can do. We cannot dictate our own thoughts or emotions. But we can take time to pray and meditate, to read the Bible, to attend church, to assist our neighbor.
Doing these things is, in effect, granting God permission to come inside.
An ancient oak tree cannot be more stately than it is; it is perfect. The katydid’s luminescent green is beautiful beyond improvement.
God meets us where we are and offers to reveal our own perfection, and aid in its accomplishment.
In dreams and books and company, God speaks to you in the language of your particular life. The instruction offered is tailored to your true self.
Since our language is a human creation, devised to reflect human concerns and to respond to human needs, we are very limited in what we can communicate regarding God. But it follows that, through language, very little regarding God can have been communicated to us. We may hear that God is omnipresent, for example, that God is everywhere; but hearing that doesn’t familiarize us with God. What does it do? It increases our ability to participate in a way of speaking called theology.
What would it even mean to familiarize yourself with omnipresence?
A blind person could theoretically become a skilled optician, could even teach university courses on optics. She might lecture effectively on rainbows, without ever having experienced one. In theory, she might even be productively lecturing to a classroom full of blind students, and they might go on to become lecturers themselves.
The analogy isn’t perfect, because the blind optician might possibly regain her sight, and then be able to experience a rainbow, to familiarize herself with a rainbow, while there is nothing that might happen to the theologian such that he could now experience or familiarize himself with omnipresence. Or omniscience. Or omnipotence. Or spirit. Or perfection. Or eternity.
If we insist on learning about God, what we are in fact insisting is that we be taught a language, the language of theology, so that we may participate in the sociology of theologians. This is what Wittgenstein used to refer to as a language game.
But we want something more, don’t we? We want something like the optician finally seeing her rainbow.
God’s love – the Son – is like the earth, the sea, the sky. The earth extends itself to the sweet summer corn and the poisonous ivy. The ocean buoys and enables the shark as well as the dolphin. The sun and the rain bathe lizards and gazelles, the dove and the vulture, the lovable old dog and the wicked asp.
We insist on God being just, being discriminatory. But that is to create God after our own image.
We cannot imagine God before creation; it is a darkness beyond thought. We try to cast the light of human intelligence into that darkness, but there is neither depth for that light to plumb nor even surface for it to penetrate. The very words of our images – depth, surface, light,darkness – have no meaning is the before-creation.
There is however, within language and therefore within thought, something to say in truth of God before creation: God is one. That is to say, God is alone.
But from that – since we exist – we can also say that God, before creation, was not content. Contentedness is static, unmoving.
And that discontent within God’s oneness that generated creation, what can we call it?
We may call it love. Or we may call it the Son.
Everything Jesus experienced was new to God. When Jesus opened his eyes, God first experienced sight. When Jesus suckled, God first experienced food. When Jesus clung to Mary, God first experienced companionship. And the first thing God ever said was almost undoubtedly imma, Aramaic for mother.
A broom-maker gathers straw and and trims it and binds it together, then finds a long stick and fastens the straw to one end of the stick. What results is something that never existed before, that has no history. Being incorporated into a broom remains part of the history of the straw, and similarly for the stick. But the history of the broom begins when the broom-maker fastens the final knot. It is a new creation.
When people become acquainted, an acquaintanceship is born. Although not a material thing like a broom, it will also have its own history, distinct from the histories of the two people involved. So also marriages and partnerships and joint ventures of all kinds.
In a sense, everything we do is a new creation, with its own history. When I drive to the store or deliver a sermon or smoke a pipe, what is done reverberates through creation from that time forward in its own historical arc. But the infinity of these new creations are, so to say, sloughings from me, expanding out from me they way the water wake does from a boat, or the vapor trail from a plane. They are not separate elements brought together into something new, with its own identity.
When someone accepts Christ as Savior and Lord, a new relationship is born. That is the new creation of which Paul speaks. It is not the person undone or wiped out, and then re-created. The straw does not cease being straw nor the stick stick when, together, they form a broom. Instead, together, they form a new identity, which then begins upon its own life history.
The voice of God is at odds with the world’s voice in many ways.
Jesus illustrates one of them in several images: fasting, praying, performing acts of charity. When he advises secrecy in such activities, it’s not to encourage modesty or humility. It’s to encourage us to attend to the voice of God.
That singular voice – which is the figure for God’s presence, in its perfect attentiveness and unqualified concern – is the true nourishment our spirit requires for vitality in the Kingdom, but we cannot receive it while seeking sustenance elsewhere.
When Jesus advises anonymity from the world, he’s speaking as a physician, not as a moralist.
Once we become attentive to it, the same voice can be heard in the privacy of suffering (and all suffering is essentially private.) Its comforting tone there – or rather, our familiarity with it there – will serve us in good stead as we enter the final journey, where the voices of the world are withdrawn, the spotlight fades, and the audience stands and exits the theater of our lives.
God’s abiding presence to each of us is an eternal given, but it’s never simply administered: it must be appropriated. It’s like a telephone ringing softly, softly. Or like the astounding beauty waiting in every leaf and blade of glass. Or like the music of the spheres that we cannot hear, because we are always hearing it, from the moment we are born until the moment we die.
Whether musicians realize it or not, they are appropriating a gift from God.
Watch trained musicians playing together and you are witnessing the realization of a joy that non-musicians will never experience. And this is true whether the setting is a symphony orchestra or a jazz trio or a high school marching band.
It’s a complex and nebulous joy, comprised of many parts and having many degrees. There is mutual dependence and respect, there is the satisfaction of being a contributing member to a community of the like-minded and like-skilled, there is shared aspiration and shared satisfaction, there is a sense of generosity and aesthetic accomplishment, of being part of something unique and therefore timeless. And much else besides.
This special joy is available to anyone who is willing to acquire the skill of playing an instrument. You can say it is a reward, but that’s a loose and misleading way of speaking. To speak of rewards is to assume a rewarder. When you reach the top of a mountain and enjoy the view from there, the view is not the reward, as if it’s something that might have been withheld. The view is the discovery of what was there all along, waiting for you to climb the mountain and appropriate it.
Christianity is often spoken of as a religion of rewards, and that is equally loose and misleading. The thought is that, if you do such-and-such or lead a life that is so-and-so, God will then benefit you with something. But that’s like saying the dramatic view is like a pat on the head for the effort of climbing the mountain; or the special joy of playing in a jazz trio is like the payment from the owner of the club.
Christ does not teach how to earn rewards. He teaches how to appropriate the joy of being in harmony with God.
God’s sacrifice did not consist in the murder of Jesus on a cross, nor in allowing that murder. God’s sacrifice consisted in becoming human, and therefore helpless to the degree humans are helpless.
The Old Testament understanding is of God being in control, even of the terrible things that happen; the New Testament understanding is of love relinquishing control, in faith.
To theorize about God’s permissive will is to shrink from this terrible revelation.