Christian Spirituality: Ways of Experiencing God (Part 4)

Reflection: Psalm 139: 1 – 18; Romans 8: 31 – 39

It is interesting to note that John Calvin in his Institutes of the Christian Religion began his tome with the thought that knowing God and knowing self are inextricably linked, and that it would be impossible to know God without knowledge of self and vice versa. Knowing the self in Christian spirituality (and I am not referring here to an unhealthy inward pathological preoccupation with the self) is one of the most neglected aspects of our spiritual journey, and I shall muse on the issue this week and the next.

King Saul’s obsession to eliminate David is illustrative of the appalling consequences when a person thinks that he can know God apart from any perceptive knowing of himself. Despite Ahimelech’s (the high priest) and Jonathan’s assurances of David’s faithfulness to his king, Saul’s denials (an unconscious selective blindness from facing intolerable deeds or situations initiated by the self) and projections (attributing to others what is actually true of the self, often used to justify prejudice or evade responsibility), evidence of his increasing aberrant behaviour, is indicative of a contrasting piety as God’s chosen king over Israel, between inner reality and outer appearances. There is a systemic correlation between spiritual and psychological wholeness, and over time, it is well nigh impossible for Saul to hide his persona from everyone. The harm perpetrated by such a one in leadership is usually catastrophic, and we observe his own undoing as history informs us. Jesus is the epitome of someone whose inner reality is congruent with His outer appearances (John 14:6-7), and this is most evident in His gentle yet principled and respectful interactions with several people, many times despite opposition (eg. the rich young ruler in Matt 19, and the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4).

A person’s reticence at looking intensely at himself, will invariably lead to his reticence at looking intensely and personally at God, and such a person would often be more comfortable addressing concepts and thoughts about God than having a direct experiential relationship with Him. Calvin is spot-on when he asserted that the limits on one’s experiential knowledge of God are constrained by one’s self-knowledge. However, knowing the Almighty is always at His behest.

How then do we know ourselves? Jesus’ modeling holds the key, for self is definitively comprehensible only in relationship to God (Col 1:18) and people, specifically the Christian community (1 Cor 12:14-20). Jesus would not be Jesus if His incarnation never took place, as our experience of Him defines who He already is before God. Hence, it is vital that if we desire to know ourselves, we need to know how God views us, as this would form the basis of our relationship with Him. An irreversible fact is that God is unambiguously for us and loves us deeply (Ps 139; Matt 10:29-31; Rom 8). The flip side is the reality of sin and our capacity for sin (Rom 7:14-25). The Apostle Paul totally understood that we are not unlike our first parents in our proclivity to live an independent life free from a total surrender to God’s will. In so doing, we are actually seeking to be our own god by exercising our faith in ourselves, thereby wounding our faith relationship with the living God from time-to-time. For we were formerly darkness, but now we are Light in the Lord, is Paul’s encouragement to the Ephesians, to learn what is pleasing to the Lord (Eph 5:8-10).