How to Seek God—Musings on Hebrews 11:6

How to Seek God—Musings on Hebrews 11:6

Musings on Hebrews 11:6

 And without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would approach him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.  —Hebrews 11:6

 

The writer of Hebrews has not pronounced a spiritual Rule to which you must conform before God will relate to you. It’s a description of how things are.

Consider lost Spanish gold at the bottom of the Caribbean: You’re not going to go to the tremendous expense and effort of seeking for it unless (1) you believe that it’s really there, and (2) you believe the eventual reward will be worth the effort and danger and expense.

Likewise, you’re not going to seek God unless you believe he’s there, and unless you believe the reward in the end will be worth the effort and the cost. It’s a straightforward observation, not a profound Spiritual Law.

The great thing about seeking God is that there’s no uncertainty. It’s not as if you’re seeking something inert (like gold) that may or may not be there, that you may or may not be able to find no matter how hard you look. God is eager to be found: If we seek him we will find him. Our seeking will not be in vain. “Seek and you will find (Matthew 7:7),” etc. “All who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved (Acts 2:21),” etc. Such a deal!

And the reward is there—there is no doubt. Yet, we may ask: (1) Is it really worth it to follow Jesus? What is the reward, and what is the cost? And (2) what is involved in “seeking God”?

The reward

The reward is primarily that of knowing God, having a relationship with him. We are made in God’s image. We are made so that we can freely delight in being loved by him, and can love him in return. Our nature is such that we can never be truly satisfied except through an intimate relationship with the living God. No matter how attractive anything else appears, it’s not as good as that. I can testify to the fact that knowing God is better than anything else, as can anyone who has followed God and begun to taste the reality of the coming age.

Most of us tend to seek God (a) out of desperation, or (b) out of blind faith, although it’s usually a mixture of the two.

Imagine being privileged to eat and drink the most delicious, the fanciest, the most special delicacies in the world (without having to worry about health or weight problems). Your pleasure is beyond comparison with what most people experience. Now imagine that you meet some people who are nearly starving. They are malnourished, they don’t have sufficient food to feed their children, and what they do have to eat is almost offensive in its taste and cleanliness. If you were permitted to ask these people to join you, for free, in this unrelenting feast, how difficult do you think it would be to convince them?

Now imagine another group of people who grow enough corn and beans to satisfy their requirements for protein and calories. And they grow enough simple green vegetables to supply their vitamins and minerals. Their food is uninspiring, but they like it and they are never hungry. How difficult would it be to convince them to join you?

This is analogous to how people respond to the gospel: (a) People who are desperately hungry for truth, for spiritual life, etc., tend to respond to the gospel by throwing their whole lives, without reserve, into seeking and following God; (b) those who have it halfway OK in this life tend not to do so, because they’re relatively satisfied with what they have.

But consider this: Some people in the second group will choose to seek this new source of comestibles on the basis of faith. They say to themselves, “I have no great desire for this new stuff, and I don’t feel a deep need for it; I’m happy with my current diet. But the people who told me about it are quite trustworthy, and I have no reason not to believe them. I can’t imagine it, but they assure me that I have no concept of the joy and pleasure I’ll experience if I start eating at their table. So I’m just going to take their word for itI’m going after this new possibility with all of my strength.”

In middle-class America, we’re largely satisfied with our lives. We have a lot of good things, we have friends, we have satisfying social relationships, we have various sources of pleasure, whether social, psychological, or physical. Because we’re basically content, it’s hard for us to get excited about “seeking God with all our hearts.” So for many of us the best option is simply to do it on sheer faith. We’re not desperately hungry for God. But because reputable witnesses have told us that there is something immeasurably better than what we’re now experiencing, we make up our minds to seek that kingdom of God with all our hearts. It’s a choice we can make. It’s a choice you can make.

In part, it’s a question of my being willing to be made to want different things from what I want now!

Seeking God

Let’s assume that you have made the decision to pursue a relationship with God, if for no other reason than because trusted witnesses have convinced you it’s absolutely worth the effort. Now let’s deal with the question of seeking God.

“How,” you may ask, “do I do that?”

Everyone is different, of course, but I think I can provide a few tips that will significantly boost the efficiency of your seeking.

“Have a face” with God

Probably the most important item is to “have a face” with God. By that term, borrowed from C. S. Lewis, I mean being completely honest with God as well as with yourself (and preferably with other people). When you’re dealing with God, you can’t game the system and you can’t fool anyone. It is vitally important that you understand he is for you. He loves you so much that Jesus has borne within himself all the pains, the sicknesses, the heartaches you have ever experienced or will experience in the future, whether or not you decide to follow him. That’s how much he loves you.

If a large part of you doesn’t want to seek God because you’re engaged in behaviors or relationships that you think he will frown on (this is painfully common), and you’re frankly not willing to throw yourself into a relationship with God if you have to give up those behaviors or those relationships, tell him that! To his face! It’s not as if he isn’t already aware of how you feel. And keep telling him that.

Or (this is also very common) if you have been through a devastating trauma or loss, and deep down you’re angry at God, it accomplishes nothing for you to continue living a God-less life and experiencing all the pain that such a life entails. Rather, tell him that you’re angry with him, or even that you hate him if that happens to be true! Or admit to him that you hate So-and-So whom you know you’re supposed to love but you can’t because you feel you can never forgive her.

Consider an even more illogical, but eminently practical possibility: If you don’t believe God exists, tell him that! Say something like, “God, I don’t believe you exist. But if you do happen to be out there, I want you to show yourself to me.” You might be surprised at the outcome, as long as you make that statement in deep honesty.

God can’t force you to trust him, or even to like him. In fact, he won’t force you to do anything. And you can’t trust him or like him or whatever just by choosing to do so—not if part of you feels, for example, that you hate him or you don’t trust him! But the one thing you can freely choose to do is stand before God (figuratively, of course), look him in the eye, and tell him that you don’t want to go with him because you don’t want to give up such-and-such a relationship; or that you feel intense anger toward him; or that you’re afraid (of something in your life, or even of God himself); or that you don’t trust him because. . . ; or that you hate him because. . .

That’s the only thing God really asks you to do—to “have a face” with him, to use Lewis’s term. He can deal with you when you do that. He can take anything you throw at him. He loves you. But if you’re not willing to approach him honestly, there’s not a lot he can do with you. That is one of the primary points of the story of Job in the Old Testament. The dialog between Job and his friends goes on boringly forever, discussing the theological implications of the incomparable disasters that have befallen Job; nothing really significant happens, however, until Job finally gets around to addressing God, to “having a face” with God. Only then is God able to deal directly with Job (bringing about a happy ending).

Forgive

Nothing can block our intimacy with God more easily than failure to forgive someone. This is a major theme in the gospels as well as in the letters of the New Testament. In fact, holding resentment in our hearts is the only act that Jesus said explicitly can block God’s ability to cover us with his grace in this life (cf. Matthew 6:12-15, Matthew 7:2, and the warning in John 20:23 about how our failure to forgive others can injure them). Make the choice to forgive those who have wronged you, no matter how much they don’t deserve it. That’s what God has done for you. That decision will release fountains of spiritual goodies in your life.

Don’t hold tightly to social relationships that kill

The most dangerous human relationships are those that enslave us because we value them above all else. Nearly everyone either is part of or longs to be part of an “inner circle” of cool people, entrance to which requires that you espouse certain beliefs or practice certain behaviors that exclude the “less enlightened” or the “less intelligent” or the “not-so-cool” people. Over the years I have sadly watched a fairly large number of dear friends, who had a close relationship with God or who at least were beginning to develop such a relationship, be seduced into choices that led them to throw overboard their nascent experiences of Life because they wanted to be part of a more sophisticated crowd. Because of the academic circles in which I circulated for many years, almost all of my lost friends gave into idols of intellectualism and sophistication and academic condescension. But the same kinds of decisions can lead people into “inner circles” of virtually any kind of culture: drugs, NASCAR, football, beer-drinking, medieval reenactments, fantasy gaming, exercising, doing yoga, following special diets. None of these things is inherently evil. The academic pursuits my friends followed certainly are not evil in themselves. But anything can define an idolatrous, God-replacing, life-destroying inner circle if you must abandon your childlike pursuit of God in order to be part of that particular group of people. (For the best presentation of this idea, see C. S. Lewis’s essay, “The Inner Ring.”)

Pray

Praying is just directing your attention toward God. If you want a relationship with him, do something about it! It’s not that he has a Rule that says you must spend certain amounts of time in prayer before you can connect up with him. It’s just the nature of relationships. If you want to get to know someone intimately, how successful will you be if you never bother to call that person, or email her, or spend time with her? You cannot get to know someone, including God, unless you put into the relationship what any halfway intelligent person knows must be put into a relationship in order to cultivate it.

People have occasionally asked me, “How much time do I need to pray every day in order to draw a lot closer to God?” My answer is simple: as long as it takes. Imagine that you’ve recently met the World’s Coolest Person, and you want to become close friends with this person. This person, moreover, has told you that he is available to spend time with you anytime you want, day or night, seven days a week. How would you proceed? Would you spend a paltry ten minutes every morning chatting with this person, in between getting up and starting to eat breakfast? Or would you spend five minutes reading some of this person’s writings during lunch every day, and then try to squeeze in a couple of twenty-minute conversations on Monday and Wednesday afternoons? That’s the kind of approach that people often take when they supposedly are trying to draw near to The Coolest Person in the Universe. I have no clue how you should proceed, but I suspect you do. Think how you would attempt to get to know a vitally interesting new human/mortal friend, and then consider how you might approach getting to know Someone who is infinitely more cool than that!

Your efforts, of course, will be richly rewarded. A few statements from scripture:

. . . You will find him if you search after him with all your heart and soul. —Deuteronomy 4:29

 

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me, if you seek me with all your heart. —Jeremiah 29:11-13 (This and the Deuteronomy quotation are taken somewhat out of context; but the basic principle, I think, still applies.)

 

Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, “Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.”

And he answers from within, “Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.”

I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him! —Luke 11:5-13

 

Turn off the TV, the iPod, the Play Station, the radio, etc.

There’s nothing wrong with these things. But if you want to grow your relationship with God, or with anyone else, for that matter, how can you do it if your mind is constantly engaged with other stuff? If you met the World’s Coolest Person and wanted desperately to develop an intimate friendship with that person, would you go on a walk with that person with your iPod earbuds stuck in your ears? When that person is at your apartment, would you have the TV on and keep watching it all the time he was there? If you were doing chores in the kitchen or in the yard, or working on your car, and he was with you, would you listen to the radio the entire time? If that person were in the car with you, would you keep the radio on or would you engage the person in conversation?

Fill your mind with the right stuff

If I want to develop my sense of smell and taste so that I can appreciate the bouquets of fine wines, how successful do you think I will be if I spend much of my spare time sniffing glue? Or if I am trying to become a composer, with the hope that I can constantly be developing musical phrases and counterpoints in my head, how successful will I be if I move to an apartment next to a very busy firehouse, where bells and sirens sound every few minutes? Or if I want to write good poetry, would it be helpful if I listen to gangsta rap all day long?

If I want to seek a relationship with God, I will do well to fill my mind with things that are from him, with things that will endure even when this world is gone and the new creation is ours to enjoy. It’s not easy—we’re addicted to these less-than-godly things! It can be difficult to make decisions to remove certain experiences either out of our lives entirely or at least to the periphery of our attention. But the effort will be highly rewarding.

I don’t want to espouse legalisms here, but will rather ask questions that you must decide for yourself: If you want to train your mind and heart to be sensitive to the presence of our Creator and Redeemer, to what extent do you believe it is appropriate for you to constantly fill your mind with violent hip-hop lyrics? With the gore of horror movies? With pornography? With gossip? Here is the apostle Paul’s excellent advice:

Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.       —Philippians 4:8

 


Not Rules—Just What Works

Something is called a “sin” because it’s destructive. Something is called “good” because it is life-giving. There is no arbitrary list of things that God decided were sins, and another list that God decided were good actions. In scripture he simply tells us the things that lead to death, and which things lead to life. In Philippians 4:8, Paul describes the kinds of things we will do well to fill our minds with—not because it’s some sort of Rule that God has established, but because it’s a fundamental fact that filling our minds with things of this broken world leads to death, and filling our minds with the kinds of things Paul describes leads to life.

Consider this analogy: You will be wise to fill your stomach with fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and to avoid overindulging in fats and sweets. This is not an arbitrary Rule that God set down to provide one more way by which we can transgress. It is a description of reality. Eat certain foods and you will be healthy, feel good, have energy, sleep well, and avoid all sorts of diseases such as diabetes, heart problems, strokes, and cancer. Eat the other foods and you WILL tend toward those kinds of diseases. Your choice.

Almost all the “rules” or “laws” we read in scripture are like that. God knows what works. It’s a good idea to trust him since, after all, he is a good deal smarter than we are.