Becoming God's Spiritual Person
Growing In My Ability To "See" As God "Sees"
How often have you said, “I simply do not understand that person!” Most, if not all, of us have either said or thought that statement. It would be a rare exception to find a person who even claimed to accurately understand the most personal thoughts and acts of all people. If you personally wish to verify that truth, just remember the last time you asked or were asked, “Why did he do that? Why did she say that?”
Few things as glaringly underscore the truth of this common misunderstanding of other people as being in a culture that is radically different from your culture. Suddenly your funniest joke is not funny, and “their” humor has no point. To you a gesture is merely a common act, but to your hosts it an act of vulgar disrespect. (I will not forget understanding that crossing my legs or feet showed disrespect in the African country I lived in.) To you a statement only expressed frustration, but in the “strange culture,” the statement declared contempt. (Never say in a culture that endures widespread hunger, “All you think about is your stomach.”) The clothing you wear can say volumes. (There are places where a woman wearing jeans declares, “Prostitute!”) Which hand one uses can be of great significance. (In some places, you never extend your left hand to another. Left hand acts are considered as declarations of insult.) The foods you eat, how you eat foods, and how you extend foods to others are significant. A standard of poverty in one culture can be a standard of wealth in another. What flowers you give on what occasion is significant. How you give a “bribe” is as significant as what you give to “bribe.” (There can be a different definition of what is considered a “bribe,” and a different motive for “bribing.”) Dating, engagements, and what constitutes the moment of marriage can be quite different. (Arranged marriages have a lower divorce rate than marriages produced by romantic acceptance.)
The problems one commonly encounters in “strange” cultures are far more than language problems. Acts have a different meaning, words have different definitions, and idioms are not simply understood. To interpret the words and acts of one culture by the meanings and definitions of another culture guarantees difficulties and misunderstandings. Commonly, humor, insults, respect, vulgarity, appropriate talk, expressions of concern, images of sexuality, etc. are unique to the culture. Without an understanding of the culture, a person can say and do extremely unwise things.
What About God?
Christianity is not an American product. It did not begin in America (the United States did not even exist when Christianity began.) The original language of the Bible was not English. (All English Bibles are translations of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. All translations face the same problems—should translations be literal without regard to meaning, should idioms be translated literally or by meaning, how should different verbs be approached, who should decide what is done, etc.) Though more people understand American English than any other language, there are people who understand no English.
Just to use a single example, what is God’s prayer language? Does He hear prayers in English, German, French, Italian, Latin, modern Hebrew, or modern Greek? Does He hear prayer offered to Him in any language—regardless of whether it is a primitive language, or only a spoken language, or a technical language of great variety? Does God hear what is meant or what is actually said? Does a prayer have to comply with a particular form to be heard? How did Cornelius, the Roman gentile soldier, pray in Acts 10? Did Paul pray in Hebrew, Latin, or koine Greek? Did Peter pray in Hebrew or Aramaic?
Those are questions only concerning prayer! To assume that answers to questions about Christianity are simple and obvious is a tragic mistake! Sometimes our approaches to expressing faith are more an expression of human arrogance than of glorification of God honoring His incredible ability! God is not some cute teddy bear! He is awesome and majestic beyond anything we know or have witnessed. Yet, He does not declare Himself to us to terrify us, but to express love for us. Incredible!
The views many people hold on this subject are more a matter of speculation than scripture. Some hold the biblical view that God is approachable through Jesus Christ (consider Ephesians 1:3-6) and that He loves all people (consider John 3:16-21). To honestly hold that view is an enormous conviction! It is the declaration that God can relate to anyone! Regardless of level of education or level of ignorance, regardless of level of sophisticated existence or level of primitive existence, regardless of level of exposure to technology, regardless of what society or culture the person is in, regardless of what background one comes from, and regardless of what lifestyles that the person has been exposed to or been a part of, regardless of whether the person is male or female, God can relate. No human context is a barrier to God!
Question one: “How is that possible even for God?” How can God relate to anyone anywhere in any circumstance? How can God do that without an “official” language, or “official” forms, or “official” rites? People might find God’s ability understandable—difficult but understandable—if there were an “official” language (like English) or an “official” form (like appropriate clothing) or “official” rites (like the acceptable way to pray). However, there are none! To relate to so many human circumstances requires a flexibility that is quite literally beyond human comprehension.
Question two: “How can people—who possess limited flexibility—come close to God who is infinitely flexible?” The best human simply cannot! Cannot what? The best human simply cannot relate to everyone, and many humans only relate to the people who share their values, standards, and outlooks. Humans typically do a poor job of relating to differing levels of education, differing levels of ignorance, differing levels of sophisticated thinking, differing levels of primitive thinking, differing exposures to technology, differing backgrounds, differing societies and cultures, and differing lifestyles. Most of us are challenged when circumstances demand we comprehend differences between male, female, and homosexual perspectives! So, how do religiously convicted people relate to the God who does what they find impossible to do?
Question three: “Is it possible to narrow that gap, produced by human inability, to relate to God’s flexibility?” If we humans cannot relate to God’s common ability to understand diverse people, how can we possibly relate to and adopt God’s values? How can a person relate to God’s thoughts and values if he (she) genuinely wishes to do so? Is it really possible for a person to draw closer to God?
The Biblical Solution
Consider an example Paul used in 1 Corinthians 2:10-16 (NASV).
For to us God revealed them through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God. For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man, which is in him? Even so the thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things freely given to us by God, which things we also speak, not by words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught in the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words. But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no man. For WHO HAS KNOWN THE MIND OF GOD, THAT WE SHOULD INSTRUCT HIM? But we have the mind of Christ.
Paul’s example affirms several things. (a) The divine [expressed in the Spirit of God] is at work in the person who places his (her) confidence in God’s work through Jesus Christ. (b) Even in people, it is the spirit of the human that makes a person understood by other humans. (c) It is the person who has God’s Spirit who can grasp God’s thoughts. (d) What God’s Spirit makes understandable to believing people is beyond human wisdom because human wisdom is confined to the physical. (e) Those who do not have God’s Spirit regard the understandings of those who have God’s Spirit as foolish. (f) Spiritual evaluations are made only by spiritual people. Unless the person pursues Jesus’ thinking, the person will not understand God’s thinking. God’s thoughts become understandable to people when they grasp Jesus’ thinking.
Following is the basis of my understanding of Paul’s illustration. People can understand each other because they share a common spirit. Even when people do not understand each other initially, living in a close proximity for an extended period brings understanding because they share a common spirit. Language barriers, cultural barriers, social barriers, and barriers erected by traditional ways of looking at situations melt away when people live caringly together. Insights develop. Communication develops. Sharing occurs. All three work together to produce an understanding that declares, “We are not that different!”
The ability to focus on persons in a specific situation allows you to understand the persons. May I share two illustrations? I lived with my family in an African country for a few years. I also spent a few years associating with and working with people who were recovering from various addictions. At first, in both situations, I understood virtually nothing. I said words, but I did not meaningfully communicate. The differences in my life, my lifestyle, and my background were major barriers that existed between me and “those people.”
As I learned the languages of each group, as I gained insight into each group, as I identified with the struggles of the people in each group, my respect grew. As I grew in respect of the persons as individuals in their situations, bonding occurred, mutual understanding increased, and barriers diminished to the point that the barriers no longer produced obstacles.
Analyze both situations. That understanding did not develop because I became African. No matter what I understood, I was always American. In that African nation, the people used to tease me by saying, “You are totally an African man, except in what you eat. In your food you are not an African man!”
The understandings between the people in the recovery group and me did not develop because I became a person recovering from an addiction. I did not “use,” or feel a deep sense of depression, or feel a deep sense of rejection. No matter what I grasped, the recovery group knew I had not “been there and done that.”
Then why was I often able to understand? Why was I accepted in both situations as someone who understood and cared? I was able to understand because all of us shared a common spirit. When my human spirit connected with their human spirit, and vice versa, the result was insights. A common spirit enabled me to grasp situations that did not characterize my life. That common spirit did not focus on my lack of experience.
In Paul’s illustration, the same reality is true in a person’s association with God. Will any human become God? No—he or she constantly will be human. Will we humans share His experiences? No! Will we humans be in His situation? No! Will we humans share His choices? No! In no way while we are earthly beings will we become divine in the sense He is divine!
If it is impossible for the earthly human to be divine in the sense God is divine, how can we come to Him and grasp His thoughts and values? That occurs because two things are true. First, God makes it possible by allowing His Spirit to live in us (consider Romans 8:26, 27). Second, God’s spirit is in us means (a) that we always are understood by God. Plus, (b) we are granted the ability to grasp God’s way of thinking and His values.
However, clearly understand that this does not happen in opposition to the choice of the person. The person approaches God because he (she) wishes to be close to God. The person’s desire to be close to God is essential!
Do those people who do not share God’s Spirit see those who are led by God’s Spirit as being wise people? No. They see those who accept God’s values, God’s thoughts, and God’s ways as being foolish people who accept ridiculous insights and hold to foolish values. It is not uncommon for those who oppose God’s Spirit to despise those who are led by God’s Spirit.
How do I come close to God? (a) That begins by placing confidence in God’s achievements in Jesus Christ. (b) It continues by learning the teachings of Jesus Christ. (c) It is accepted as being a continuing process, not an instantaneous happening. Surely, that process has a beginning point, but the beginning point is not the completion point.
(d) It focuses on learning God’s values as we seek spiritual maturity through renewing our minds. (e) It refuses to oppose God’s influence within self. (f) It refuses to allow the material to determine who the person is, what the person sees as the purpose of existence, or the values by which the person lives.
The person is intentionally spiritual. He (she) is delighted for God’s Spirit to be in his (her) life. He (she) lives by a wisdom that surpasses the wisdom produced by a material focus. He (she) defines everything by a focus fixed on God.