Jay: The Babelonian community wanted to establish a closer relationship with God and align more closely with His will. Does a community stand a better chance than the individual in this respect? God seemed to question the Babelonian motives, however, and worried that if they were to succeed their will would be as powerful as God’s:
“…nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them” (Genesis 11:6)
Job told his friends that he was looking to debate God to figure out why he was suffering. This, he said (strangely), would be his salvation:
“Be silent before me so that I may speak;
Then let come on me what may.
“Why should I take my flesh in my teeth
And put my life in my hands?
“Though He slay me,
I will hope in Him.
Nevertheless I will argue my ways before Him.
“This also will be my salvation,
For a godless man may not come before His presence.
“Listen carefully to my speech,
And let my declaration fill your ears.
“Behold now, I have prepared my case;
I know that I will be vindicated. (Job 13-18)
We have been discussing whether God is a God of questions as opposed to answers. We ended the discussion last week with two questions:
- Is there a human need that drives us to search for God—to ask questions of Him, to debate Him?
- Is it necessary to search for God for salvation?
We tend to think of a relationship with God as a matter of faith and obedience to what God has ordained. We are to “Do as we are told,” but the teller is a loving Father, not a dictatorial despot. Argument, in that context, seems wrong. Is there a right and a wrong way to approach our relationship with God?
Chris: When all the answers are given to you, how invested are you in them? If you have to seek the answers yourself—to participate, to expend effort—are you then more invested in the answers? As a father I do not invariably answer my children’s questions. Sometimes, I ask them questions in return, to encourage them to seek answers and be more invested in the topic of discussion. The investment of effort is more valid for an independent individual than for a member of a group. In a group setting, we look to the group for answers that help us conform with the norms of the group. The relationship with God becomes stronger through individual effort.
Jay: In the earthly realm, questions have finite and complete answers. 2+2=4, period. But in the spiritual realm—the realm of God—questions have infinite answers and can never be complete. How can we cope with this?
Donald: Learning only rote answers is not good learning. It does not guarantee that the student understands the answers, even though they may produce them on demand. Questions outside the scope of the answers taught are outside the ability of the student to answer. A good education is a continuum that may begin with rote learning but then proceeds to stimulate and encourage “Why?” questions.
We talk about our relationship with God as though it were a relationship among ourselves. We meet in this class and build a relationship with one another over time. We even begin to understand or expect how one of us will respond to a question. But a relationship with God is a one-way conversation. He may speak to us through the Bible, but that is not a normal relationship. A great deal of faith is involved.
Jay: In other words, we cannot communicate with God in the same concrete way we communicate with others to build relationships. We cannot watch to see how God communicates and interacts with others, and learn from that how to draw closer to Him. The approach has to be very different. When the rote-taught student moves along the continuum and starts to ask “Why?”, the student–teacher relationship changes. Questions predominate. Is this the model we could or should adopt with respect to our relationship with God? How can it strengthen a relationship with a Being who does not respond directly?
KB: God already knows us. The Bible tells us that He knew us before we were born. He asks us questions to stimulate our interest in Him, to help us get to know Him, and to establish a relationship with Him through our attempts to answer them. But we want to ask the questions, and get frustrated when we don’t get straight answers. If we humble ourselves and wait patiently, they will come. He designed it this way. The onus is on us to get to know Him.
David: I would like to propose that there are two kinds of people: Type 1 people, who seek God; and type 2 people, who don’t. There are two sub-types of people who seek God: Type 1a people seek a relationship with God by themselves; Type 1b people seek Him through organized religion and its doctrines. I further propose that Job, Jacob, and Jesus are all type 1a rugged individuals, while Job’s friends were type 1b people of the doctrinal school. But both type 1a and type 1b people may be said to have faith. How necessary is faith for salvation? Not a bit, when grace is promised even for type 2 people.
As for “Why?”: I would note that nearly all the time we look externally for answers to questions. But when we realize that the answers are not to be got from the friend or the teacher or the science experiment or anywhere else in the world around us, then there is only one place left to turn to, the one place where we have not looked: Inside ourselves.
A conversation, a struggle, a debate with God are a conversation, a struggle, and a debate within ourselves. Such inner spiritual communications do not transcribe or translate well to the external world, if at all. The record—the Scripture—concerning the struggles of Job and Jacob and even of Jesus make it sound as though Job is sitting on one side of a table and God on the other; Jacob is in the blue corner of the ring, and God is in the red corner; Jesus is on the cross and God is in heaven.
It makes it seem as though Job and Jacob and Jesus looked to a God outside, but I believe this is just a function of our inability to transcribe spiritual experience in worldly terms. Spiritual communication is not expressed in human vocabulary wrapped in proper grammar and mediated by syntax. In short: Conversations with God are not and cannot be conducted in words. It is only when we have exhausted our worldly vocabulary—when we have run out of words and admit it—that we turn to the God inside all of us. Job, Jacob, and Jesus received enlightenment without receiving a single answer to their questions! Can we see what they saw? Scripture does not tell us, in words, the details of the answers that so enlightened them.
Donald: So the relationship is not one-sided: There are two sides, but they are internal.
David: That’s what I think. In a sense, it is a relationship with a part of one’s very self that we tend to suppress and deny. The inner voice that speaks when we are at the end of our tether and have run out of English, Chinese, Zulu, and other words to express even our questions, is the voice of God. The key is that we have reached a point where we are willing to listen—we surrender.
Donald: We have grown to expect delayed answers depending on the medium: Texted questions are answered quicker than emailed questions, and face-to-face questions are answered quickest of all. In this weekly class, we have an opportunity to see instantly how others respond to the questions Don or Jay poses every week.
David: We here are all people of faith. Yet we come to the class because we still have questions. It may be an important distinction that our questions arise out of faith, not out of doubt. So what are our questions for, if not to reassure us in faith? To me, they are for Enlightenment, but whether or not I receive it during life (as Job and Jacob did) does not affect my faith. Eastern philosophies and religions are premised on questions that lead to Enlightenment, not to God. God is a given; He is simply the Way.
Jay: Is Enlightenment universal—the same for everyone—or is it tailored to the individual? Even though we all have faith in God, and believe in grace and so on, yet we still have a strong desire to seek to understand more. What drives that desire? What drives us to form faith groups, religions, this class? Is there value in them?
Mikiko: Regular prayer is a way to strengthen our relationship with God.
Draw close to God, and he will draw close to you. (James 4:8, New World Translation)
May you be blessed by Jehovah,+The Maker of heaven and earth. (Psalms 115:15, New World Translation)
Jehovah is near to all those calling on him, To all who call on him in truth. He satisfies the desire of those who fear him; He hears their cry for help, and he rescues them. (Psalms 145:18-19, New World Translation)
So it doesn’t matter whether we pray in a group or by ourselves. He can hear us wherever we are, and He can hear all kinds of prayer. Job prayed regularly to God and already had a strong relationship with God.
Jay: So prayer is a part of the dialog.
Robin: Job was in so much pain and misery, it makes sense that he would want a dialog. Even so, he said he would trust God even “though He slay me”. He asked God:
“Only two things do not do to me,
Then I will not hide from Your face:
Remove Your hand from me,
And let not the dread of You terrify me.” (Job 13:20-21)
He is saying “Here’s how I feel, I want to be honest with you.” In our human relationships, we want to be able to talk out our issues with one another. This is the relationship Job had with God. He was confused because in the society he lived in, righteousness and faith and goodness brought blessing, not curse. So since he was suffering, he assumed he must have done something wrong, but he could not think what.
KB: How will I then know what is the best relationship for me with God? How will I know when I am at a point when, like Job, I need to level with God? The more I think I know God, the more I realize I know nothing!
Donald: To “ponder” is a less definitive way of asking questions. It seems to apply in the case of an internal dialog with God. Questions are for the external doctrines we call “truth”. Both may have their place, but can one of them weaken or even destroy the other?
David: In the Eastern tradition to ponder is to meditate. It is a mystical contemplation.
Donald: We don’t meditate on doctrine.
David: Meditation requires an empty vocabulary and grammar. We can only meditate with an empty mind. We think at our deepest when we do not think at all. An empty mind is open to Enlightenment, which will rush to fill the vacuum.
Jay: But what is Enlightenment? Christianity encourages meditation concerning what is good and right, to re-affirm them. How do doctrines and meditation fit a world that is becoming a common global community?
Donald: If meditation is pondering without edges in an open mind, what then is doctrine?
David: Doctrine is closed-minded and has edges sharp enough to draw blood.
Jay: Can we have a faith community without doctrinal definition? Should they be different from what they are today? This is a big but important question, with implications for institutional and personal salvation.