What does it mean to believe in God?
This week I was approached by someone who asked me what it means to believe in God. Here is my, somewhat, rambling reply.
I find it difficult to compartmentalise God, for God is not contained in any one aspect of my life. God does not take up a percentage of my day or my week. I do not consume God as I might watch a television programme or devour a meal, for God is a thread that runs through every part of my life – whether awake or asleep, aware or unaware, busy or slothful. God underpins my existence and holds the very fabric of my being together.
I am able to become aware of the presence of God and choose to draw near to that presence – allowing God to speak to me, shape me and influence me. Alternatively, I can wilfully deny the influence of God, for God does not impose Him or Herself upon me, overrule my will, spurn my intellect, or suppress my emotions.
I do not choose God in the way I might choose a new car or a meal from a restaurant menu, for spirituality is an integral dimension of my humanity. When I am quiet and still – when I choose to tune in – I become aware of a God that is not internal but external, where the source of God is wholly other, but wholly integrated with me.
Some people assert that belief in God is a choice, yet I cannot choose not to believe in God because my belief is not a set of ideas I choose to accept or deny. I cannot choose belief in God any more than I can choose to believe in any other dimension of my humanity. You might as well ask me whether I choose to believe in my emotions, my body, my conscience, or my feelings. They just are. They exist.
I wonder if today's modern world has hijacked the word “belief”? I wonder if we have allowed our modern world to strip it of its meaning, where belief in God is measured by whether or not we accept a list of facts about God? Belief is something a whole lot more.
Early on in my spiritual journey, I became increasingly aware of God as integral to my life, I became interested in how God had revealed Himself or Herself to humanity. During this search I encountered the person of Jesus Christ as revealed by the Jewish scriptures – what we call the Bible.
I recognised, in my spirit, that this person was the God with whom I was already inextricably enmeshed and entangled. Here was God, somehow being disclosed through the pages of the gospel writers and I recognised Him. Without a shadow of a doubt I knew it to be Him.
How excited I was! And I savoured every word that Jesus spoke and every encounter that he had. I was not being indoctrinated by a church but being captivated by a man who was more than just a man – someone who embodied the great Spirit of God who was already present with me and within me. I felt a kinship, a longing and an affinity with Jesus and I knew – in a very real and rational sense – that Jesus was with me as he had been all along.
Therefore, when I read the pages of the Bible, it was not as a disconnected objective bystander, but recognising the connection being made in my present that spanned 2,000 years of time into another place and culture. The same Spirit that motivated the different writers of the narratives, history, poetry, and letters that made up the Bible, was the same Spirit who was the great thread that underpinned my own life.
My life is lived with, through, and in God, and though it is not devoid of pain, struggle, or barrenness, it is a life filled with inner peace and joy. The existence of peace in pain and joy in struggle, is the manifestation of the presence of a spiritual life – even one such as mine, which I confess is not an ultra-devout or particularly religious life.
The manifestations of the Spirit do not depend on any special work on my behalf, apart from a recognition or awareness of the presence of God and a submission to God’s influence on me. Perhaps this is what it means to truly believe?
Belief becomes a shadow when stripped of this deeper meaning and sadly some Christians, holding firm to a shallower definition, qualify each other based upon it. The uncontainable Spirit of Christianity gets hacked into a list of allegiances to set doctrines, and the unsuspecting believer is measured against the list: is she in or is she out?
Legalism is not a new concept, but, like a rancid oil, it rises to the top of the religious pool, using whatever means it has available. Legalism is not the same as belief!
Belief is a wonderful gift – a miracle. It is mysterious, yet life-giving. It cannot be contained and it cannot be quantified. And so, to answer the initial question, my belief in God is not in a set of doctrines or facts about God.
I believe in my Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, who knows me and loves me, and with whom my life is inextricably and eternally connected. I believe in Jesus.
• The Reverend Gavin Tyte is the pastor at St Mark’s Anglican Church. Visit stmarks.bm