I think I forgot to post this article when I wrote it for Christian Today – it’s done pretty well on the internet and I’m not surprised – it’s a common question, and it’s an important one! Knowing the presence and peace of God is one of the most wonderful aspects of Christian faith. We may not always have it, but seeking it is always worth it.
I was chatting to an atheist on twitter, and we were discussing how we can know what is right and what is wrong – and how we can be sure we’re not being deceived. My answer is, ‘The Bible and the living Christ’. He said he didn’t understand the latter, so I thought I’d write a blog post to explain.
Christians debate about what extent their own experience of God – which could also be called the presence of God, mystical experiences, being filled with the Holy Spirit, the indwelling Christ – should play a role in the Christian life. Usually if they are concerned or sceptical, then they say it should just be the Bible. After all, we could be deceived as to what we’re feeling. And, presumably, most atheists would think that we are deceived.
Yet – a secular morality has to come from conscience and/or rational thinking. But how do you know whether your conscience, or reasoning, is correct? Both of those things can be entirely subjective. Even groups of people can come to very wrong moral decisions together through their own thinking and feeling. So the atheist has the same issues as a Christian does – how can we know what is right?
That’s why the Bible as a foundation is so important to me – and why the living Christ is just as important. The Bible is an objective measure of standards, particularly if we are focused on the simple and beautiful teachings of Jesus, as I think anyone who follows Christ should be. If I am tempted to have an affair, and ‘feel’ that it might be right, or even think that God is telling me to do this – I can look to the words of Jesus that tells me adultery is wrong. (I can also see his words of mercy for things I’ve done wrong in the past – but I would be clear that he does not want them to do this in the future).
Of course, many people have twisted what the Bible says to suit their own ends, sometimes for evil and murder. This is harder to do though, when you focus on Jesus, what he did and said, as a whole. How can you be deluded into thinking that Jesus wants you to kill, or even hate someone, when Jesus said ‘love your enemies… do unto others… pray for those who persecute you… he who lives by the sword dies by the sword?”
But, coming back to the living Christ. Why is this important? Why not just the words written down? Well, one danger is to just think that Jesus was a good teacher who lived a long time ago, which can mean we don’t pay much attention to him. But as a Christian, I believe that he lives today, that he is the visible image of the invisible God. That his presence can be felt in the here and now, as a very clear reality. That we can talk to him and know his love – in the here and now. I do feel this, though there are ups and downs in this journey and I am not always in this state of bliss!
The Bible says that when we are filled with the Holy Spirit – the Spirit of Christ, that we will feel and demonstrate: “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.”
In this state of feeling or knowing the goodness of God inside of us, the written words of Jesus written down are also given more insight, beauty and clarity. Because as we KNOW Christ in the here and now, by experience in our hearts, we can also read his clear, objective words in the Gospels, and clearly hear His voice. They become alive, and have more power and meaning.
Many times as I’ve struggled with something, particularly if I’m annoyed with someone, or hurt, or in some way battling with anger and negative feelings – if I repent and focus on Christ’s presence, and His words in the gospels, then there is a breakthrough and I feel love once more.
So this is how the living Christ influences what I do and think in the present. By knowing Him in my heart, and also knowing him through his Word. This can be kind of a simple morality – about what I need to do with myself in my life in the here and now, rather than philosophical debates. But without doubt it has led to more love in my life (though there is still plenty of room for improvement, and more of that love).
This was the experience of the early Christians, as St Paul wrote as a prayer to other believers, that God would: “empower you with inner strength through his Spirit. Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God.”
This is obviously difficult to understand for someone who has never experienced it. I am no better than anyone else for having had these experiences – and I need much more of his indwelling presence in my life, as I have only made limited room for it so far. But Jesus makes my life richer and more beautiful, and has brought much more love to my life. I still make wrong judgements and I’m sure I could be led astray with wrong thinking or emotions. But I know it’s only the living Christ who could bring me back to a place of love, and its his presence and his words that I rely on.
I hope that makes sense to you, please feel free to ask questions.
I’ve just finished reading the medieval Christian book “The Cloud of Unknowing”, which is a classic of Christian mysticism. I always take such books with a pinch of salt, because I think you’ve got to approach mysticism carefully and use the Bible as your boundary. But I did find a lot of great wisdom in this little book. Here are some examples, with quotes:
1) Seek God for God alone, and not what He can give you
Peace, love and the Spirit are wonderful benefits of contemplative prayer – but not always. And one of the blocks to knowing God that I’ve found is if I’m only doing the prayer to feel good. Instead, it’s important to just seek God and God alone – love requires that we are not seeking for only what we can get.
Lift up your heart to God with humble love: and mean God himself, and not what you get out of him… Try to forget all created things that he ever made, and the purpose behind them, so that your thought and longing do not turn or reach out to them either in general or in particular.
There’s encouragement to wait in prayer, even when it seems difficult:
When you first begin, you find only darkness, and as it were a cloud of unknowing. You don’t know what this means except that in your will you feel a simple steadfast intention reaching out towards God. Do what you will, and this darkness and this cloud remain between you and God… Reconcile yourself to wait in this darkness as long as is necessary, but still go on longing after him whom you love.
2) Christian meditation / contemplative prayer is very different to Eastern, Buddhist styles of meditation
It’s not a game of trying to seek knowledge, and pride is a danger.
Whoever hears or reads about all this, and thinks that it is fundamentally an activity of the mind, and proceeds then to work it all out along these lines, is on quite the wrong track. He manufactures an experience that is neither spiritual or physical. He is dangerously missed and in real peril.
Indeed he points out that you need a foundation of knowing your own sinfulness, meditating on the Cross and the kindness of God.
See to it that there is nothing at work in your mind or will but only God. Try to suppress all knowledge and feeling of anything less than God, and trample it down deep under the cloud of forgetting.
Although the Christian meditator is seeking to lose ‘self’ it is ONLY to give it to God in love – to surrender all we have to our Creator.
3) As you reach towards God, run away from all that is bad
By its very definition, if you are seeking God you must turn away from all wrongdoing – all sin.
In itself prayer is nothing else than a devout setting of our will in the direction of God in order to get good, and remove evil… all evil is summed up in sin… if we pray with intention for the acquiring of goodness, let us pray, in word or thought or desire, no other word than ‘God’. For in God is all good, for he is its beginning and its being.
Being aware of this great separation can be a help if we’re struggling with sin, or with hiding from God:
Feel sin in its totality – as a lump – without specifying any particular part, and that all of it is you. And then cry ceaselessly in your spirit this one thing: ‘Sin! Sin! Sin! Help! Help! Help!
4) The fruit of contemplative prayer is love, and intimacy with Christ
This kind of prayer is done to know God more, and to love him more.
The nature of love is that it shares everything. Love Jesus, and everything he has is yours.
…He may, perhaps, send out a shaft of spiritual light, which pierces this cloud of unknowing beteween you, and show you some of his secrets… then will you feel your affection flame with the fire of his love, far more than I can possibly say now…