Judeochristianity Jewish star Christian cross
 

The Real Presence of God

The Basic Theology of Judeochristianity

C. Gourgey, Ph.D.


Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.
Psalm 90:1


We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose.
Romans 8:28

The Paradox of Prayer

In my book Judeochristianity: The Discovery and Meaning of Faith I mention that when I worked in hospice I would often hear family members praying for their loved ones to be healed. None of these prayers ever received the answer hoped for or expected. I wondered, then, what they must have thought about God.

Prayer has always been an enigma. If we are religious, it feels natural that we ought to pray. Yet we all have had experiences of praying for things, even worthy things like healing or assistance to people in distress, and not getting what we pray for. If we are not religious, most likely we consider such prayer a form of superstition. The question is important, because how we see prayer indicates how we perceive and experience God.

Contemporary theologians have grappled with this dilemma. There seems to be a growing consensus that God does not intervene directly in human affairs. Harold Kushner is a popular example of this trend. In his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People he maintains that God’s power is limited, but seems unsure why. At first he says God can’t fix the world because it’s just too difficult, even for God. But later on he says God chooses not to intervene out of respect for human free will. Either way events in our lives just seem to run their course, directed by chance or by human will but not by God.

So we have two current and very different ideas about God. The first God, to whom people pray for things, is a powerful authority who we hope will give us what we need when we ask. This idea gets into trouble when we confront a reality that often denies us what we ask for, even including our own health and well being and that of others. The second God is just the opposite: a great but limited spiritual being who would like to help but lacks the ability. This idea seems to make a hash of the Bible, which throughout emphasizes that God does answer prayer and does affect the course of events in our lives.

There is a third alternative, which Judeochristianity proposes. It is based on reworking our understanding of God, love, and faith. The result is a God who does affect the course of our lives, though not always in the ways we expect. The basic text is the book Judeochristianity cited above. This article is a concise summary of its underlying theology.

In the absence of faith, the condition in which we live is fear. This is the situation of many of us, and of all of us to some degree. Perfect faith is not possible in this lifetime, no more than perfect love, although we can grow closer to it. I will in a moment be more specific about exactly what faith means. But “perfect faith,” which does not exist in human life, is often confused with unchanging belief, which does exist but is not the same. Belief is a poor approximation of actual faith.

The Meaning of Covenant

To arrive at a better understanding of faith, let’s consider the Bible’s core message. It is based on the notion of “covenant.” The word “testament,” as used in “Old Testament” and “New Testament,” is actually better rendered, from both Hebrew (berit) and Greek (diatheke), as “covenant.”

A covenant is an agreement between two parties, in which each has a responsibility towards the other. In the Bible, covenant refers to a relationship between God and humanity. The Hebrew scriptures describe this relationship as it evolved in the search for God by the Hebrew (later Jewish) people, as they grew slowly towards different and better understandings of God. The Greek scriptures extend this relationship to all of humanity. An acceptable term for the Hebrew scriptures is “Hebrew Bible,” and for the Greek scriptures “New Testament.” The use of “Old Testament” is unfortunate, because it suggests that the Hebrew Covenant is a different, older, and perhaps obsolete one, replaced by the “New” Covenant. There is only one Covenant, revealed first through the Jews and later extended, through Jesus, to everyone. It might therefore be more accurate to call the two parts of scripture, respectively, “Original Covenant” and “Extended Covenant.”

The Hebrew scriptures envision the covenantal relationship between God and Israel. Here is one good expression:

My servant David [that is, the Messiah] shall be king over them; and they shall all have one shepherd. They shall follow my ordinances and be careful to observe my statutes.... I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them; and I will bless them and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary among them forevermore. My dwelling place shall be with them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Ezekiel 37:24, 26-27)

So here we have it: if the people do God’s will, God will dwell with them, be present with them, make their lives different. In the Hebrew Bible God’s will is expressed in the form of what is commonly called the “law,” but that is a very limiting and even misleading translation of the word torah. The word comes from a root meaning “to shoot an arrow.” It is thus the literal opposite of “sin,” which in both Hebrew (het) and Greek (‘amartia) come from roots meaning “to miss the mark.” Torah is literally what keeps us “on target”; more often translated as “teaching,” its purpose is to conform us to God’s will.

So what is God’s will? With the work of the Hebrew Bible already behind him, Jesus was able to simplify and clarify the meaning of God’s will:

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ - this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” (Mark 12:28-34)

If we love God, and also our neighbor, we are doing God’s will. That is what all the specific commandments, with their emphasis on self-discipline, justice, and social responsibility are aiming for. Those other commandments are the embellishments; this is the essence. This is what Christ taught and what Christ lived. Therefore Paul could write:

For Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes. (Romans 10:4)

Christ (or what he lived and taught, which is love itself) is the “end” (or purpose, telos) of the “law,” so that all who follow God’s will (as Christ distilled it, in the commandment to love God and humanity) may be made righteous.

We are clearly talking here about something more than simply “belief.” The Greek pistis is much richer than the English “belief,” and as we will see, faith is of central importance here. I think the following translation of this verse helps bring out its meaning: “For Christlike love is the purpose of the teaching, so that there may be righteousness for everyone who is in faith.”

We still need to understand more clearly just what it means to love both God and other human beings. But first, let us say that one who agrees to strive to do so is “in Covenant.” To be “in Covenant” means to accept the terms of the agreement, to commit both to loving God and loving others to the best of one’s ability, which is what God asks of us. When one is truly “in Covenant” (and not just using it for personal gain), one can expect the fulfillment of the other half, which is the promise of God’s presence in such a way that one’s life is forever transformed.

We have clarified the meaning of the term “covenant.” To understand how covenant transforms, we now need to clarify “God,” “love,” and “faith.”

A Different Understanding of God

Thinking of God in traditional terms, as a disembodied, all-powerful personal being, gets us into trouble. We end up with a supreme “being” who either often refuses to give us what we need, or is simply unable. If God is unable, then there is something in the universe stronger than God, so can this God really be God? But if God is unwilling to fulfill our needs, then how can we praise God? How is it rational to praise God when we receive what we need, but not blame God when we don’t? Isn’t God responsible for all of it? Or perhaps one believes in a devil strong enough to impose his will over God’s, in which case we are beginning to veer away from monotheism.

How else can we think of God? We have to realize at the outset that we cannot grasp the entirety of God. We cannot picture God or say exactly what God is. It is almost impossible to resist the human temptation to think of God as a personal consciousness, like ours. Some find this very meaningful, and I have no argument with them. But many others, including myself, have difficulty with such ways of thinking. A personal sort of “being,” even with infinite power, is a little too much like us, a creation, a willful agent who often seems to act arbitrarily. This kind of God elicits the atheist’s skeptical question, “If God created everything else, then who created God?” I have yet to hear a convincing response. So just how else can we think of God?

Chapter 1 of Judeochristianity considers this question in detail. God is Goodness Itself. Goodness is still good regardless of what any personal agent we may call God does or thinks. In that sense, true goodness is above the ordinary God and is thus the real God. Now it is true that some goods are relative, but God is Absolute Good (this issue is worked out in Judeochristianity, chapter 18). Absolute Goodness, being above everything else, has power, including the power of creation. But this is not the power of a personal agent deciding what to create. Rather, it is the power of necessity; that in order for goodness to be realized love must be possible, and that in order for love to exist there must be a created world. These statements are symbolic; they are not scientific. They may help us grasp just a little of the nature of God’s relationship to the universe, but in explaining existence itself, beyond this we cannot go.

The Meaning of Love

We now come to love. Jesus tells us that God’s will can be expressed in two “commandments”: love God, and love one’s fellow human being. We can now understand what it means to love God. Loving God does not mean loving an unpredictable provider, hoping such provider will give us what we need. Loving God means loving what is good, valuing goodness, striving to be good ourselves. The best way to go about this is to commit ourselves to following and practicing the one unconditional human good, which is non-self-interested love. As defined in Judeochristianity: The Meaning and Discovery of Faith, non-self-interested love is the awareness of the individuality of others. This deep level of awareness brings forth a desire for others’ well being with no interest in a personal return.

We cannot be perfectionists - the created world is imperfect by nature - and nobody practices non-self-interested love perfectly. We all fall short (Romans 3:10,23) and we all require forgiveness. To be “in Covenant,” all that is required is a sincere effort and unflagging commitment. “But strive first for the kingdom of God” (Matthew 6:33): that is all we are called upon to do, to put God's Kingdom and its values above everything else. And God will meet us the rest of the way.

Now one might think this is easy: What could be simpler than to love, especially if this is all there is to it? Well, it might be simple, but it is not easy. There is a great obstacle to love that we must struggle with, and that is fear. It is hard to love, especially the stranger, when we are afraid. How do we free ourselves from fear? Here is the Bible’s answer, in what is perhaps its most paradoxical and difficult verse:

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. (1 John 4:18)

How love can overcome fear is not immediately apparent. We need a little more background.

Philosophers make a distinction between “essence” and “existence.” This gets very complicated, often needlessly so, but we can simplify it. A being’s essence is its true nature, in all its fullness. A human being’s essence is eternal; it is timeless and intact, as God created it, an individualized expression of goodness. A person’s essence, to the extent that other people can perceive it and mixed with one’s human imperfections, is called his or her individuality. Non-self-interested love is the deep awareness of another’s individuality, that which makes this person unique and different from all others, the specific goodness with which this particular person is endowed.

A person’s existence, on the other hand, is his or her presence in this broken world of time and space. It includes all the frailties and flaws to which flesh, blood, and finite mind are susceptible. Ultimately, it is overcome by the power of death. But death does not touch a person’s essence.

Essence and existence are not entirely separate. One’s essence is visible in one’s existence - to a point. Actually, in all of us it is obscured to some degree, not only from others but from ourselves as well. It is sometimes hard to detect a person’s essence through illness, mental conflict, fear, selfishness, and all the other things that can hide that essence. But love can detect it. Love is a mode of perception; it is a way of seeing.

In none of us is our essence completely visible. The one possible exception was Jesus Christ. Only in Jesus as the Christ do human essence and existence coincide completely. He fully embodied the love that he taught, even to the point where the two statements “I am the way” and “Love is the way” became identical. For the rest of us, this lifetime is a journey in which we struggle to find our essence, to see it, fulfill it, love it, as well as the essences of others. And the more we are “in Covenant,” committed to the path of love, the more our essence actually becomes visible in our existence.

The distinction between essence and existence is reflected in many places in the Bible. Paul refers to them, respectively, as “spirit” and “flesh.” But our first encounter with the difference occurs literally at the very beginning. Much has been made, and rightly so, of the so-called “two accounts of creation” (Genesis 1 and Genesis 2). Scholars point out how these two accounts appear to contradict each other, how they are stylistically different, even using different names for God. What this signifies, they say, is that the Bible is not of one piece; it was constructed from fragments originating in different times and places. This is probably true, but we need to go further. Some brilliant mind, who clearly could see the differences between the two accounts, nevertheless juxtaposed them. They each describe different aspects of reality. Genesis 1 tells of essence, the true creation under God’s goodness, in which God’s creatures are in complete harmony and all is “very good.” Genesis 2 tells of existence, the broken world we now experience, in which we oppose God and allow the serpent (representing sin) to enter, and where we must sweat for our daily bread while fighting disease and surrendering to death. In Genesis 1 (essence) we are created in God’s image. In Genesis 2 (existence) we resist God’s will.

This harmonious world [Genesis 1] is not the world we experience. The world we live in now [Genesis 2] is grounded in conflict. Animals must attack other animals if they are to survive. (Judeochristianity, p. 29)

The Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, wants us to know that both essence and existence are part of our reality.

Now just as (using Paul Tillich’s phrase) “we live in two orders” corresponding to essence (“eternity”) and existence (“time”), we also have two natures, one spiritual and one animal (See Judeochristianity chapter 3 for a full discussion). As Tillich points out in The Shaking of the Foundations, the two orders in which we live are not separate from each other. We simultaneously belong to both, and experience both. However, most of us are usually (if not always) conscious of our animal nature, while our spiritual one is obscured. In the words of Socrates, as recorded in Plato’s Phaedrus, our spiritual nature “aspires after the best”; it is “a follower of true glory” that “needs no touch of the whip.” Our animal nature, on the other hand, has “the natural desire of pleasure,” is ruled by egotism and resistant to instruction.

We might say that the purpose of our journey on earth is to find our way from existence back to essence. Or, not losing our animal nature, since it belongs to our bodily existence, discovering our spiritual nature and integrating it fully into our life. Or, even more simply, the purpose of our earthly journey is to learn what it means to love.

Paul has his own terms for our animal and spiritual natures. He calls them “old self” and “new self,” or “man of dust” and “man of heaven”:

Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. (1 Corinthians 15:49)

Paul is quite emphatic that we can make the transition from the “man of dust” to the “man of heaven.” (In fact, the first eight chapters of Romans, properly understood, are a description of precisely how this transition occurs.) And given the groundwork we have already laid, we are prepared to understand the possibility.

The man or woman “of dust” lives in a world of fear. Fear comes from the experience of helplessness in the face of apparent randomness. We see around us people suffering from every kind of tragedy imaginable, and we know that some day we could be there too. None of it seems to make sense. To the person “of dust,” life is full of dangers and our fate is arbitrary. We are “hostages to fortune,” targets of forces unseen and unseeing.

This is not how it has to be. There is a path to redemption. This path does not free us from suffering, at least not during this earthly life, but it changes our suffering, giving it meaning and eventually turning it into a blessing. “I will not let you go, until you bless me” said Jacob to the mysterious intruder who attacked him in the middle of the night (Genesis 32:26), and he emerged with both scars and a blessing.

Being “in Covenant” is precisely the path to redemption. We can express it this way:

The one sure way to enter the Covenant with God is to commit to the pursuit of the ideal of non-self-interested love. Those who make this commitment will know they have been included in this relationship and that God’s presence plays a special role in their lives. (Judeochristianity, p. xxii)

This we do for the sake of God, which means for the sake of Goodness Itself, with no hidden motive for personal gain. And then a transition takes place:

The core of goodness is love, and love is the root of faith. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). Perfect love - non-self-interested love - eventually overcomes fear and brings us to faith. It does so by conforming us to God’s image, which is Goodness Itself, and God always responds to what conforms to this image. (Judeochristianity, p. 48)

The commitment to non-self-interested love creates a decisive change in our lives. It is the actualization of our spiritual nature. And it opens us to the direct effect of the eternal on our human experience. When the Bible says that God created the human being in God’s own image (Genesis 1:27), this is what it means. That is from Genesis 1, the description of the human being’s essence. To the extent that we commit ourselves and conform to non-self-interested love, the highest good that we can know, then God’s image becomes visible in us. And the more we are like God, the more we will see God:

Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in God purify themselves, just as God is pure. (1 John 3:2-3)

And just one chapter later, we read:

So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. (1 John 4:16)

Love thus becomes more than an expression of our essential nature. It is our dwelling place. A place in which we can live with a sense of assurance, because it is God’s presence.

Earlier we said that “love is the root of faith.” Having clarified our understanding of God, love, and covenant, we are now ready to turn to faith.

The Meaning of Faith

Being “in Covenant,” committing to the realization of non-self-interested love, brings us God as a living presence and as a place where we can dwell. This makes us aware of a reality beyond the accidents of temporal existence. We live consciously not only in time, but also in eternity. This is how true faith is born. Judeochristianity defines faith as the awareness of the power of eternity. Faith, the awareness of a “new creation” that is born in our commitment to love, is witnessing the change in our lives that results from being “in Covenant.”

When we are “in Covenant” there is still suffering, but there are no random accidents, at least not of any significance. When we are “in Covenant,” God uses everything in our lives to bring us to our destiny. Every unfortunate incident we experience either contributes to our destiny or is not ultimately significant. Earlier we spoke of “fate.” The man and woman “of dust” are subjects of fate. Good things and bad things appear to happen without making any sense to them. Since so much seems governed by chance, fear is difficult to escape and can become very strong. But when we are “in Covenant,” fate is replaced by destiny.

Our destiny is the fulfillment of our individuality during our earthly life. It is like the flowering of a planted seed. The seed is the person; the flower is the destiny. In biblical terms, our destiny encompasses the resources given to each one of us as their steward; for each it is different and unique. Destiny is not a deterministic “plan.” It is not something that happens no matter what. It is rather the realization of the specific goodness given to each of us as a potentiality.

Jesus gives symbolic expression to this idea in the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30). The servant entrusted with just one talent failed to invest it, and so missed his destiny. Realizing it too late, he was thrown into deep grief. His error was to compare himself with others who had more “talent.” He thought he had too little, so played it safe and never developed it. Yet each one of us is given far more than we realize. The footnote in the NRSV tells us that “a talent was worth more than fifteen years’ wages of a laborer.” That is considerable. We may not all be born to become world-famous scientists or immortal artists; yet the contribution each one of us can make can be duplicated by nobody else.

Now if we are “in Covenant,” we are in conscious contact with the eternal. This enables the fulfillment of our destiny. When we meet God through our commitment to non-self-interested love, which is God’s essence, God meets us. We can detect this by sensing how all of the major events in our lives form a pattern; they have a direction. We may not - in fact, we usually do not - realize this right away. Often it becomes clear only in hindsight. But eventually, we see it. We may all have had experiences that at the time were painful and seemed senseless; yet later on we realize they have made us something we could never have been without them. The clearest illustration in the Bible is the story of Joseph.

Joseph had a difficult life full of painful and seemingly (at the time) senseless occurrences. His brothers hated him and even considered killing him. They threw him into a deep well, possibly to leave him there to die. While they were wondering what to do with him, some Midianite traders passed by. They found him in the well, lifted him out, and sold him to a caravan of Ishmaelites. The Ishmaelites then took Joseph to Egypt and sold him to Potiphar, an Egyptian military official.

Joseph began to prosper in Potiphar’s household, until interrupted by another unfortunate event. Potiphar’s lovely wife became attracted to him, and tried to seduce him. After Joseph refused her advances, she accused him of attempting to rape her. Outraged, Potiphar had Joseph thrown in jail.

Joseph spent quite a while in prison, innocent and unjustly accused. There he met the Pharaoh’s chief cupbearer, accused of some unspecified crime. He successfully interpreted the cupbearer’s dream, telling him that Pharaoh would free him and restore him to his service. In return Joseph asked only one thing of the grateful cupbearer: that when seeing Pharaoh again, he tell him of Joseph’s plight, an innocent man kept in jail on an indeterminate sentence. The cupbearer promised - and immediately forgot.

Sometime later Pharaoh had a nightmare, feared what it might mean, and asked for special help. At that moment the remorseful cupbearer remembered that he knew someone who could interpret dreams. Finally he told Pharaoh about Joseph. Pharaoh called Joseph up from prison, and once again Joseph correctly interpreted the dream, warning Pharaoh it meant he needed to plan for a great impending famine. So impressed with Joseph was Pharaoh that he hired him as his second in command, in charge of crisis management. And so effective was Joseph that he saved from starvation not only many in Egypt but also in the surrounding region. And when his brothers had to make the trip to Egypt for food, Joseph reconciled with them and forgave them. As he said to them, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good” (Genesis 50:20). This is the experience of those who are “in Covenant”: God uses everything, even the hurtful actions of others, to our ultinmate benefit, to bring us to our destiny.

This was the fulfillment of Joseph’s destiny. It did not come about through any spectacular intervention in the laws of nature, but rather through the fortunate timing and patterning of events that seemed to make no sense when they first occurred. And that is how destiny works. It would not have happened had Joseph not been thrown into the well, had he not been sold to the caravan, had he not been unjustly thrown in jail, and had he not remained in jail until the precise moment when he was needed. So many apparently disconnected and terrible things took place, but ultimately each one contributed something good and necessary for Joseph’s spiritual development. And so God was always present with Joseph, even if he did not know it.

This leads to an important spiritual principle: we can never judge another’s path from the outside. From the outside, Joseph might have looked like a poor unfortunate, always getting into trouble and being unfairly treated and victimized. One might even have been tempted to think, “If this man were truly with God, these things would not be happening to him.” But no one can really know or judge the path of another. The temptation has always existed to do exactly that, ever since the friends of Job. It is easy to think, “If this person were really saved and had a right relationship with God, then these bad things would not be happening.” But that is not the way it works. We can never know, from the outside, the meaning of events in a person’s life and what direction they will ultimately take. And usually even the person to whom these things are happening does not know right away.

So it is not God who makes us suffer, sends us disease and conflict and pain. God is All Goodness, and these things are not good; they are meant to be fought, struggled with, and hopefully overcome. If God sent us illness and poverty then we should love them and preserve them. Our sense of goodness, however, tells us that would be crazy. Rather, it is the structure of reality itself that necessitates our brokenness so that we can learn to love. When we commit ourselves to following this love, we find that God can transform that which is broken in us, to bring us to our destiny. Another way of stating it is that non-self-interested love brings us to our eternal essence, which then becomes visible even in our existence. It is eternity breaking into time. The theological term for this is grace.

A New Understanding of Prayer

This story began with the families of my hospice patients, praying for their loved ones, their prayers seeming not to be answered. The perspective we are developing gives us a different understanding of both prayer and of answer to prayer.

And we need a new understanding, because thinking about prayer in the traditional way - petitioning God for what we need - often leads either to our feeling God has rejected us when we don’t get it, or that prayer is futile and a waste of time.

We can make symbolic statements about God - the only kind we can make, since God is not a “person” like us even though we describe God in personal terms. We can say that in answering our prayers, God does not change the things that happen to us. Rather, God uses what happens to us to bring us to our destiny. Our witnessing this is the answer to prayer.

We are by nature imperfect, in body, mind, and spirit. As long as we are here on earth, we remain imperfect. God does not make us perfect. Our bodies might heal, or they might not. We might overcome some of our human flaws and bad habits, but we will never be entirely free of them, at least not in this life. We remain imperfect, but through God’s activity our imperfection becomes our aide, our servant, rather than our enemy. The things that go wrong in our lives, either through our own flaws or through bad things that just seem to happen to us, do not disappear. What changes is their meaning. “All things work together for good” - and as the Joseph story illustrates, even our worst losses are transformed, not eliminated. Joseph lost his home and never returned. He died in Egypt. He even had to ask his people to take his bones back home with them, when the right time came (Genesis 50:25). Our losses may never be compensated, but they will be used; they will be made to serve God’s purpose and even our ultimate good.

This is resurrection. It is not the elimination of suffering or pain or tragedy, but overcoming it by making it serve a higher purpose. We cannot hope for perfection, or escape from pain - but we can pray that all be transformed towards a higher good and ultimately towards our fulfillment.

Prayer and Disability

So our prayers can be answered even if the pain persists. It will be used differently. Its meaning changes. Helen Keller remained deaf and blind her entire life, but nobody can say that her destiny was not fulfilled, or even that her disability was not part of it. If we feel sorry for her or even pity her, it has nothing to do with her but rather with our own fears of one day becoming disabled ourselves. But each person’s destiny is different. We do not need to take on another’s; we need only to walk our own path. We may have different gifts and different capabilities, but the principle of destiny still applies.

Some approaches to spirituality might believe that a human being can achieve enlightenment and perfection in this lifetime, given sufficient devotion and effort. Such ideas are foreign to the biblical tradition. We cannot become perfect, enlightened beings. We always retain the mark of our imperfections and afflictions. And so Jacob’s limp was permanent after he emerged from his own crisis and struggle. As the story is usually told, Jacob, in the terror of the night as he anticipated meeting his vengeful brother, “wrestled with an angel.” But the Bible does not say it was an angel. It calls him a “man,” and this man could have been an angel, or he could have been a demon. At times in our lives we might find ourselves wrestling with both. Yet Jacob told him: “I will not let you go until you bless me.” Even a demon’s attack can become a blessing, if we meet it with commitment and prayer.

For what is prayer? “Prayer is the endeavor to bring ourselves into the awareness of eternal life” (Judeochristianity, p. 108). This means approaching our experience not with demands that God must change it, but with an openness to receiving God’s will through it and in spite of it. It means being willing to live through a time of uncertainty until we can witness God transforming the meaning of our suffering, for rarely do we see it right away. God does not want us to suffer - love cannot want this - but God does want to bring us to our ultimate good. The prayer of being open, of suspending judgment and maintaining our commitment to love in spite of misfortune, is the way to faith. Faith is the awareness of God’s transforming power in the world of time. It is witnessing the goodness that may flow even out of our grief, and even if we continue to carry that grief. It is realizing how all that we have suffered has contributed to making us who we are, and who we could never have become without it. The ultimate answer to prayer is faith.

I think of my late spiritual director Julie Swanson. I have never known anyone more generous. An ordained Christian minister of American Indian descent, and also a quadriplegic, she faced much discrimination within her church. She never got the titles or prestige one would think that she deserved. Yet she worked tirelessly to help others in the most desperate circumstances, volunteering her services as chaplain in hospitals and with the dying. Service to others was more important to her than any material advancement.

As a result she was very poor, and for much of her life lived in a trailer, with her dog as companion. She had little money and no health insurance. So when she developed a tumor one day, she could not get the medical attention she needed. The tumor progressed, and by the time she did receive care it had already become terminal. During all of this her faith, optimism, and cheerful spirit never failed.

I remember once asking her how she could maintain her faith during the entire ordeal, and how anyone can have faith at all if such terrible things happen even to someone as close to God as she is. I felt like Peter being rightfully rebuked when he questioned Jesus’ own suffering. Julie responded that she was learning so much from her experience that she would not change a thing, and that now she knows she is never alone no matter what she might have to face in life. Going through the course of her disease was teaching her things about which I could only guess, but I knew that much of it had to do with finding ever deeper levels of God’s presence. Julie always used to pray, “Let all be according to the highest good, and according to God’s will.” The highest good, whatever it may involve and whatever it may ask of us, was enough for her. She trusted that even the worst life had in store for her would bless her, and it always did. She never lost her optimistic, confident spirit.

Julie’s quadriplegia never healed, and her cancer eventually killed her. At first I was struck by the injustice of it all, how she might have survived if our society showed more compassion and less inequality. But I now appreciate a greater mystery. No one who knew Julie could doubt she had fulfilled her destiny. What she learned through her disability and her illness about God and suffering and compassion must certainly have been a part of that. She would not have had it any other way. “Trust your journey,” she would always tell me. What is most important is not how much she suffered, but that her faith persevered. If anything, it grew deeper. Without the suffering she endured, which many of us might hardly be able to imagine, she might never have become the deeply loving and spiritual and wise individual that she was. That does not mean suffering is good, and certainly not that we should seek it out, but rather that through God’s goodness suffering can be made to serve the good. I can hardly imagine having to face a destiny like hers, but it was hers, and mine is different, with its own unique difficulties. And who knows, if the time ever comes that I must face something similar, I still have hope that like Julie, it will teach me more about faith. We never really know what we can endure and what we can overcome, until we actually pass through it.

This perspective on God, prayer, and faith gives us a new way of looking at disability, as Julie’s experience illustrates. Traditional theology has often made people with disabilities feel rejected by God. Many have wondered: “If Jesus healed those who had faith, then why am I still not healed? Am I not good enough? Is my faith deficient?” But now we know that faith is more than belief. It is a transformation of the spirit that leads to beholding God’s active presence in one’s life. And no one is excluded from this possibility, regardless of the body’s outward condition.

It is not only our bodies. No individual is perfect, no one’s body is perfect, and no creation taking form in time and space is perfect. This will come as a surprise to some, but even the Bible is not perfect. It cannot be perfect, since it reflects many different understandings of God throughout its many pages, some not resting too comfortably with others. The God who orders the death penalty for someone who gathers wood on the sabbath (Numbers 15) can hardly be harmonized with the God who values justice and compassion over rituals and observances (Isaiah 58). The Bible is a record of the often flawed search for God in human experience. Clearer and better understandings evolved very gradually, closer to a genuine sense of goodness.

This applies also to the Bible’s standards of perfection, what God finds acceptable and desirable. In the early books the standards are strict and literal, reflecting the people’s wish to please God. Every sacrifice had to be perfect:

You shall not offer anything that has a blemish, for it will not be acceptable in your behalf. When anyone offers a sacrifice of well-being to the Lord, in fulfillment of a vow or as a freewill offering, from the herd or from the flock, to be acceptable it must be perfect; there shall be no blemish in it. (Leviticus 22:20-21)

If only physical perfection is acceptable to God, then where does that leave people with disabilities? But this understanding of God is not static. Much later on we read:

For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Psalm 51:16-17)

In the New Testament Jesus goes even farther. People with physical disabilities are not only accepted, they become his special guests:

Then Jesus said to him, “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for everything is ready now.’ But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my regrets.’ Another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my regrets.’ Another said, ‘I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.’ So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, ‘Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’” (Luke 14:16-21)

No imperfection, physical disability, or illness can separate us from God or prevent us from witnessing God’s work in our lives. People of faith whom I have known, and some of the best examples were hospice patients, seem to have had this sense about their suffering. It was not random; it was part of their journey, and in spite of all the hardship, in some way it changed them for the better. You and I may not have to face what they faced. We will have our own crosses to carry. But whatever form that cross may take, faith - as the awareness of the presence and power of the eternal, born through our commitment to love - has the power to sustain us. This is the promise of the Covenant.

Love in Action

The other day I was discussing these ideas with a friend, who asked me a question that has also haunted me for years: “But what about those whose life circumstances are so extreme that they never even have a chance for fulfillment? How does God’s love, the Covenant, all of that, apply to them? Aren’t there people so overwhelmed by what happens to them that all this is really irrelevant?”

It all depends on how we measure fulfillment. True spiritual fulfillment is not synonymous with material success (in spite of what purveyors of the “Prosperity Gospel” would have us believe). Jesus himself pointed this out clearly: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25). This does not mean that God doesn’t love rich people, as the story of Zacchaeus proves (see Judeochristianity chapter 5). It does mean that compassion - which is the key to the Kingdom - comes easiest to those whose life circumstances are not too comfortable. Those who have what they need will have more difficulty empathizing with those who do not. Those who have much more than they need are even worse off, facing a practically irresistible temptation to cut themselves off from those who have less.

I had been working in the AIDS ward of a nursing home housing the poorest in the city. On that ward was a very soft-spoken and depressed young black woman, whose complications from the disease led to a bacterial infection causing a stroke that left her two legs and one arm paralyzed. She could only move her left hand to operate her power chair. The muscles in her legs were badly atrophied.

I looked at her feet. They were bruised and discolored, with a lot of dead skin and fungal infection. The medical staff refused to clean the debris, claiming the dead skin was like a scab and if removed it would cause soreness and bleeding.

So there she sat with her atrophied and infected feet, and nobody would do anything for her. I spoke to her doctor and even he refused to help.

Another resident who befriended her also did not believe what the doctor said. This man too suffered from the complications of AIDS, but at least he could walk and use his hands. He spent six hours over two days cleaning that young woman’s feet, using a plastic knife from the kitchen to scrape off the scales and dead skin. He ran water over her feet and soaked them in liquid soap. He applied an ointment with vitamin A and D and a pain-relieving rub. He scraped her feet a second time, dislodging huge scabs of dead skin and fungus, some pieces as long as two inches. Then he washed and rinsed her feet four or five times. He showed me a whole big towel full of the scrapings from her feet.

I looked at those feet and they were now immaculate. The discoloration was completely gone. The skin looked healthy and smooth, almost shiny. The girl said she felt no pain at all. I showed this to the nursing staff and told them that obviously this young woman needed her feet cleaned, and she now needs them to be maintained so this does not happen again. I got them to agree to wash her feet every day, to prevent a recurrence of her former condition. I kept checking to make sure they did it.

The scene of that man tending to his friend’s feet could have come from the life of Christ. It didn’t happen in a house of privilege, but in a home for the rejected. The people who live there have nothing; many of those who are eligible can’t even find housing on the outside. The institution is slated to close in a couple of years, since there is much money to be made from the sale of the property. The best this young woman can hope for is a transfer to an SRO hotel, where she may very well live a life of isolation. The friend who helped her, and who is not as disabled, has been waiting years for his own housing application to be processed. Everything these people own fits inside a few closet drawers.

And yet it would be hard to find a more touching expression of non-self-interested love, and certainly much harder in a wealthy environment. Many would be more likely to judge than try to help, saying these people are black and underclass and who knows what they did to get AIDS in the first place, and we certainly can’t help all of them. How easy it is to miss the presence of Christ even when it is standing right in front of us.

Ego and Spirit

“No one can serve two masters.... You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matthew 6:24).

This saying is hard to hear in a society where money is so closely linked with power. Yet its meaning is especially rich when we consider its implications for the spiritual journey.

Note that Jesus does not say wealth is bad. Being rich does not make one a devil, nor does poverty necessarily produce a saint. It is what we serve. What determines the direction of our attention and effort? We can choose to be servants either of wealth or of God. In more general terms, we are servants either of self or of love.

Being love’s servant does not mean we neglect or abandon the self. It does mean that self is no longer our highest or even our only priority. Only then is love possible. But the capacity for real love requires a transition. When we are born our capacity for love is not yet realized. We have a desire for attachment, but it is not the same thing.

When we are born we are totally self-oriented. All our strivings are centered in the “ego,” or “I.” It must be this way for survival in a material world. So an infant cries when it does not get what it needs. But needs spill over into wants, and so our first goal is getting what we want. And what we want usually in some way inflates the self, the “ego,” or the “I.” The “rich person” of whom Jesus spoke devoted his efforts to increasing his own wealth and stature, and he was good and successful at it. In fact so successful that he judges the poor for being poor, calling them lazy and accusing them of always wanting a handout. Yet many who are poor are indeed very hardworking. They just do not possess the strong motivation and special talents that it takes to amass vast amounts of money.

Of course a rich person can enter through the narrow gate of love, but it requires the development of a sensitivity that may be much harder to come by if one is comfortable. But rich or poor or in between, there is a transition we all must make, from self to love, from ego to spirit, if we are to realize our destiny. We are all born immersed in ego, but with the development of awareness we encounter a choice. Do we remain on the ego track, invested primarily in the enhancement of our wealth and stature, or do we begin moving beyond ourselves towards the awareness of the other, becoming “servants” as Jesus taught?

Julie Swanson, my spiritual director, used to tell me repeatedly, “Trust your journey.” It took me a long time to understand what that meant. How can one trust one’s journey, when it seems that anything can happen at any time to disrupt it? How can we trust where we’re going, if ultimately we have no control over it and life can strike us hard at any moment?

Paul gave the answer in this little phrase: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to [God’s] purpose” (Romans 8:28). Recently I heard a pastor publicly express embarrassment over this verse when asked about it, as if she did not really believe it but somehow reluctantly had to defend it because it was in the Bible. It does seem a rather astonishing claim. Yet it does make sense if we understand it properly.

What does it mean to “love God”? It can only mean to cherish the love that is God’s essence, to abide in the love that is God’s nature. And that love is non-self-interested love. Such a commitment means growing out of ego and moving beyond the limits of the self. This is not easy, since we are constantly confronted by choices between self and service - this is the meaning of the devil’s temptations of Jesus. It took Jesus forty days to overcome those temptations - how long will it take us! Thankfully we are not asked to realize this love perfectly, but only to commit ourselves to it and pursue it as honestly as we are able. Therefore we cannot judge anyone’s spirituality from that person's life circumstances or from outward appearances. We cannot know the depth of commitment in other people’s hearts, nor can we know the good to which they are being led even through the most tragic experiences.

And then this happens: we are in Covenant. This means that God uses everything that happens to us, good or bad, to realize our destiny. This cannot be proven; it can only be lived. But it does become gradually apparent if we commit ourselves to this path. When that happens we will find ourselves witnessing good coming even from the bad things that happen to us.

Of course this does not mean we do not suffer, or that there won’t be times we wished we had chosen another way. At those times faith becomes especially important. If we persevere through those darker moments and maintain the commitment, we will eventually see even our suffering used for good. That is the fulfillment of faith and the true meaning of Easter.

There Is No Fear in Love

Being “in Covenant” makes all the difference in whether we see our lives as a series of random accidents and tragedies, or as a chain of events guiding us to greater awareness and realization of our full individuality. Another way of putting it would be seeing the presence of the eternal even within the temporal. Without the commitment that leads to faith we know only temporal existence, and events seem haphazard and often senseless. When we are in Covenant we live in both the temporal and eternal planes of existence. The events in our lives acquire a sense of order and point towards our destiny.

You might want to make your own “destiny chart”: plot the major events in your life, especially the worst catastrophes, and see if you can discern a direction or pattern. See if you would have become the same person without them. Never mind whether or not you think it was worth it. You very well might not. But in spite of that, did those difficulties still change you for the better? Did they add to your character something you could never have achieved without them?

The more you strengthen your commitment to non-self-interested love, the more you will find this direction emerging, every event in your life proving not only meaningful but necessary to bring you to your God-given destiny. It is quite true that we might not have chosen and still might not choose those tragic experiences, even knowing how they made us better people. But that choice is not ours. Our given circumstances are what they are. Whether they ultimately lead us to redemption depends on our commitment to God’s promise.

We now understand more clearly how perfect love casts out fear. Perfect love - non-self-interested love - brings us God’s presence, because it is God’s essence. And God’s presence orders our experiences to direct them towards our destiny. As we conform more closely to the image of God, we realize our true nature. This brings fulfillment and a sense of assurance. At first we do not know this, and spend much time suffering in darkness. In time, however, we can remember how we were directed in the past and consider that any present upheaval will also contribute to our destiny in ways we cannot yet see. This is not a final explanation of our suffering - no such explanation can be given in this life - but rather just enough of a clue to indicate that God is still working in our lives.

This is a great source of hope. Even in the midst of our suffering we do not have to settle for the powerless God of the popular theologians. God may not act in the ways we want or expect, but if we are “in Covenant” we can hope to see changes from our misfortunes that are not only positive but necessary.

For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Romans 8:24-25)

The result of this approach to faith is hope, but it is hope coupled with patience. It may take a while to discern the order that God’s activity works in our experience. The Bible uses several metaphors for this time of waiting: wandering in the desert, exile and return, Holy Saturday. This waiting always produces uncertainty, but we can live through it with faith. If we have ever observed God’s work in our lives, if we have ever experienced spiritual growth and betterment from any past catastrophe, we can hope to see it again. If we have observed it in someone else’s life - and there are examples we can find - we can hope to see it in our own. The course it will take for us is different from that of anyone else. Each person’s path is unique. Still, what gives us the ability to live with uncertainty is the hope that we will find - and indeed can count on - God’s ordering presence in our own lives too.

If we are “in Covenant,” then every significant event in our lives has a purpose we are capable of discerning. Irrational fear is reaction to an event without memory or awareness of this connection. Mark Twain said, “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” That is because, if we are on this path, most of those things were not necessary for our destiny. If we are “in Covenant,” then only that which is necessary for our destiny becomes actualized in our experience.

When we are overcome by fear - and it will happen, even if we are on this path - we can engage in this exercise: Remember God, love God, accept the seeing.

Remember God. Recall that God is All Goodness. The highest goodness is love. We are called to love as God loves.

Love God. To love goodness is to love God. Value this love. Practice it. Commit yourself to it.

Accept the seeing. In this special kind of love you will see God’s presence. Accept what you see. Do not resist it. Let it come to you. Expect to see it, and you will. A heart in which love is present can see heaven, can see the Kingdom, can see the eternal. It will become your dwelling place.

In Summary

Our final point of arrival is in the middle of two extreme theological positions:

  1. We need only pray the right way, “have faith,” and our faith can move mountains. God will give us what we pray for and what we are convinced we need.

  2. If that doesn’t happen, then there is no God.

Many have had their faith ruined by the conflict between this overly simplified faith and harsh reality. But we do not need to choose between simplistic faith and no faith. Rather, we can assert the following principles of faith:

  1. If we commit ourselves and our lives to the path of non-self-interested love, then we are “in Covenant.”

  2. And because we consciously participate in God’s nature, God responds to us.

  3. We may not receive what we pray for, but we do receive God’s presence, even if we become aware of it only much later.

  4. This presence is not a “reward” for our “righteousness.” We may be totally committed to non-self-interested love, yet still struggle with inner demons that lead us to unloving behavior. Or we may do loving acts without the spirit of love; for example, endowing a children’s hospital so we can see our name on the building. Who among these is truly “in Covenant?” We can never judge a person’s relationship to God through outward appearances.

  5. We can become progressively aware of the supportive presence of God that we receive when we are “in Covenant.” The strongest evidence is seeing how every tragedy we experience contributes to our destiny. It may take time to see this, but the clearer it becomes, the stronger our resistance to fear.

These are principles of real faith condensed into the simplest terms possible. It is a faith that need not be “taken on faith” but that can be practiced and tested. Make the commitment that the Covenant requires of you, make it the center of your life, and see if your life does not change as a result.

While on earth we live within a split between essence and existence; we inhabit a world of pain, because without it we could not realize love. Compassion means “suffering with”; it is love learned through identifying with the pain of others, because we have experienced pain ourselves. This is actually hopeful. We can only really know what love is by first being estranged from it. And we all begin with that estrangement, in the egotism in which we are born. But we are not meant to stay there. God wants us all to come home. That, really, is what our existence is all about. And when we do finally arrive, we will understand, we will see “face to face,” and even fear will have proven to be love’s servant. It was never really more than that.

September 2011