We all want something. Our lives are full of pursuits. We spend our time, calories and dollars either running from something or toward something. Our hopes are constantly being pinned to our temporal environment. We look to our relationships, family, work, possessions or pastimes to make us happy, keep us happy, or at least make us look like we are happy.
In America, roughly 75% of people say they believe in God, which is down from 82% in 2009. Less than 3% define themselves as atheists, so that means over 20% of Americans are unsure, or don’t really know (agnostic). The trajectory is from belief (theistic certainty) to uncertainty and in some cases back to certainty (atheistic certainty). These statistics paint us with very broad strokes. In my work I get to enjoy countless discussions with all perspectives and I think there is another story beneath these data.
I’ve found that people really do want to talk about their ideas and understanding of God, but not usually with super religious people. This is because, the more fundamental a person is about their beliefs, the more likely he or she will be to debate or argue rather than listen and discern. As I’ve learned to amputate my “contender” disposition, I’ve gained the ability to echolocate a persons spiritual coordinates by using the ears of the Spirit:
“He who has ears, let him hear.” (Matthew 13:9)
What I’ve learned is that everyone is endowed with quite a bit of spiritual capacity. Everyone is spiritual. I had an extensive email dialogue with a very interesting man from another country who defined himself as a “Spiritual Atheist.” He was anything but an atheist, but the pain in his life ruined the common terms for understanding faith such as God, Church, Religion, Belief, etc… He is not alone. Most people are struggling to find and use other terms to access or express their connection to Transcendent Experience or Ultimate Reality. Like how I did that? This is why I use so many different ways of saying the same thing.
So what is behind all this? If a person is free to use their terms to describe their experience, I’ve always found, just like the Apostle Paul did when he visited Athens, that we all “get at it” in our own way.
“And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for “‘In him we live and move and have our being’”. (Acts 17:26-28)
Paul is quoting a Cretan philosopher and poet (Epimenides) who was referring to Greek God Zeus, yet since the words are in the Bible, most Christians don’t realize this and have no problem ascribing this to Christ. In fact, that’s exactly what Paul was doing. He was showing that whether you were Greek and worship Zeus or your alter is to an “unknown God” (v.23), that we are all getting at this bigger “mystery” which is known as Christ (not to be confused with the modern Christian religion).
“When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” (Ephesians 3:4-6)
When we become competitive with our religions we’ve already lost this mystery. The message of Jesus was not conversion to a religion or a particular theological attestation, it was thirst for God and even the heathen (éthen-Gentiles) have it. In fact, the religious of Jesus day were the most resistant to his message because they were locked into their container and missed the contents. As I engage with modern people, I see this thirst for God, but people are trying to access it without being sucked into a religion. Biblical Christ following allows for this, evangelical christianity doesn’t. Which do you suppose Jesus inaugurated when he said “Follow me.”?
Let me get at this another way.
Our family is a fan of the rock band “Tool.” I asked my son if it were possible, using only words, to convey their song “Descending” to someone who has never heard their music. Could you describe it in such a way that they could know the song in the same way as you do? He answered, “There’s no way. Even the best description is not the same as the experience of hearing it.”
Music helps us get beyond religion into an experience with God (thirst). This is why so many religious ceremonies incorporate song, chanting, music as part of worship. It taps into our experiential knowing, which is different than “knowing about” something. In all things there is what is taught and what is caught. We desperately need both. If we error on the “taught” part, we become theologically and biblically astute contenders and fault finders, and if we error on the caught, we have no rational connection to our inner experience and that makes it challenging for us to relate to one another. Following a “feeling” is not a reliable source of truth. The feeling must converge with the understanding and that creates genuine thirst.
When we all use the same terms and frameworks we share community and it deepens the experience. This is how religions become so polarized. However, we can also get it the other way which threatens our orthodoxy, namely, that we can begin with experience and reverse engineer back to the terms. This is precisely the work of Paul and his grasp of the gospel. The mystery that he sees is that the trajectory of all things will eventually lead us to a common single term, that of Christ. He would never drop a leaflet that says: “Do you know where you will go when you die?”
“…making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” (Ephesians 1:9-10)
I think there really is a deep thirst for God in the world but modern people displace it because they fear it will be backfilled with religion. But then they backfill it with something worse, like work, status, or hobbies. People fear that if they explore ways to deepen their faith, they will have to convert to a religion, or something worse. As a result, people suppress the truth and the experiences they have rather than follow that inner voice where it leads them. No matter your religion or framework for belief, I believe, it will always lead us to comic work of Christ (though we may define it in other terms) and that is not the same as converting to the Christian religion.
A road that leads to a religion, or a religious practice, or to a distracted life is a dead end. What we ultimately seek, is a road that leads to a person, to Life, to divine unity. It’s so subtle you may almost miss it. It’s a moment of longing for escape, quite, solitude, nature, beauty, freedom. The Psalmist put it like this:
“As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God? My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all the day long, “Where is your God?”” (Psalm 42:1-3)
That impulse. That deep sense of melancholy. That’s Christ.
If we woke up tomorrow with no thirst for water and no hunger for food, how long would we stay healthy? If I suppressed my thirst, how long could I live? It’s the same spiritually. I beg you, don’t suppress your thirst for God. Don’t feel like you must embrace one set of terms, especially if those terms were used to harm or hurt you. If a religious system oppressed you, imprisoned you and manipulated you, please know that is not the experience of God. If someone misused the Bible to threaten you or harm you, may I encourage you to not reject the voice of God within scripture. Instead, rediscover it for yourself. Click HERE for help. Follow that impulse, no matter how subtle. If it is for only 30 seconds, go with it.
Do not try and satisfy your thirst for God with the temporal. We all try it and it never lasts. That’s only a distraction which gives us an exoskeleton or Fake ID. Our world is desperately thirsty and in need of hydration. Political solutions cannot change a dehydrated soul. I know we are all busy, I know we are worried, perhaps even dreading. Even a drop, a moment, can bring a bit of relief if we would just be open. One connections leads to another, and to another, and unto the healing of our world. May we all regain and maintain our thirst for God.
“If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” (John 7:37-38)