We need to know without a shadow of a doubt that we are immersed in God and that he is actively present in our lives. We also need to know without a shadow of a doubt is that God is also actively engaged in the lives of everyone around us. Coming to know this deep within is often a personal journey and we arrive at different understandings. This post is a description of how I came to understand this in my journey with God and his Word.
Coming to understand how God was active in our world was a difficult journey for me. In all my years as a follower of Jesus I have never struggled with the idea that God exists. The assurance about God existence has been hard wired into my consciousness from birth. I also never had a problem with assurance of salvation after I turned to Jesus. From the moment I decided to follow Jesus I have known that God was with me and that I was his child. What I could not figure out was if and how God was involved in the lives of the people around me.
Part of the reason why it took me so long to figure out how God was involved was that I did not understand how prayer worked. I knew that prayer was not equivalent to magic. God is not our personal genie existing to satisfy our every whim. Yet, I did not want big TVs and expensive cars. If there was anything that I wanted, it was to see other people turn to Jesus. I had found the most precious gift in the world, and I wanted others to discover it as well. What discouraged me was that many of my family and friends did not find my newfound faith all that appealing. They had their own ideas about God and about faith, and turning to Jesus did not seem to interest them in any way.
So, I prayed earnestly for their salvation. A few of my friends decided to follow Christ; yet most of my friends and family remained the same.
I heard sermons about being persistent in prayer. One of the most repeated statements that I heard about prayer was: “God does nothing except in answer to prayer.”
Being persistent in prayer was not easy. I simply could not pray enough for the people that I knew. So, I felt like a failure. I became deeply discouraged with myself.
Over time I began to realize that something was wrong in my thinking about prayer and about God. One day I was finally fed up with my feeling of failure. I decided to get radical. I turned away from all my books about prayer, which was kind of disappointing because I had just bought two of the classic books on prayer by E. M. Bounds. I told the Lord of my frustration and I asked him to teach me about prayer.
God gradually reshaped my perspective. Over the course of a year and a half I gradually realized that God was not the limited, “hamstrung-until-I-prayed” deity that I had been taught he was. God showed me that he was actively at work in the lives of everyone around me. His mission was to reconcile the world to himself (2 Cor. 5:18-21). Due to this he was actively involved in his world, revealing himself to everyone through the things that he had made. I also realized that God was touching the hearts and minds of people by means of the quiet, invisible, yet ever-present Holy Spirit, creating a desire within people for justice and righteousness. The means the Spirit was using to accomplish this was their consciences and globalization. The Spirit was showing people through globalization how their governments and the power structures within their communities held them back from progress. Corruption in these power structures created hindrances for their personal growth and the advancement of their communities. I also saw how the Holy Spirit was using the lives of God’s people as salt and light, softening people’s hearts to the Gospel.
God Revealing Himself through Creation
My new perspective was nothing new. King David shared a similar perspective. David was convinced that God communicated truths about himself through what he had made. He described this in Psalm 19:1-4.
The heavens keep telling the wonders of God,
and the skies declare what he has done.
Each day informs the following day;
each night announces to the next.
They don’t speak a word, and there is never the sound of a voice.
Yet their message reaches all the earth,
and it travels around the world (CEV).
David makes it appear as if the heavens are communicating the message. Nonetheless, he is absolutely certain that everyone on the earth “hears” the voiceless message even though it simply emanates out of the greatness of the heavens. He fleshes out his assurance with his metaphorical description of the sun in 19:4-6.
In the heavens a tent is set up for the sun.
It rises like a bridegroom
and gets ready like a hero eager to run a race.
It travels all the way across the sky.
Nothing hides from its heat (CEV).
Nothing escapes from the heat of the sun, and no one escapes from hearing the heaven’s message about the wonders of God.
Paul shared David’s conviction. However, Paul was not a poet so he was not content to suggest that the creation spoke for God. He stressed that the message that creation gives is actually God dynamically revealing himself through what he has made. Paul wrote:
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made (NRSV).
The key clause in these verses is “God has shown it to them.” God just does not simply rely upon the things he has made to communicate for him and for humans to reflect upon them. The situation with humanity is too complex for God to allow nature to do his work for him. Paul makes it clear that humanity is somewhat predisposed to resist and reject God. This was his point in verse 18 (“who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth”). In this context of rejection and suppression God subtly yet actively reveals truth about his existence, his power, and his character to people through what he has made.
Why was Paul so confident that God was actively communicating to everyone this message? His confidence was based in who God is. His knowledge was based in part from the first 12 chapters of Genesis.
Our Merciful and Compassionate God
In the first two chapters of Genesis we read about God’s active involvement in the creation of this world. We also read about the creation of humanity, and how incredibly good everything was. Then we begin a journey away, away from God, from Eden, and from this goodness. In Genesis 3 the first couple rebelled against God and had to move out of Eden. In Genesis 4 Cain killed his brother and moved further away from Eden and settled in Nod (4:16).
By Genesis 6 God decided that he could not struggle with human rebellion forever, so it appears that he decided to limit the life span of humans to 120 years (6:3). Yet, in line with God’s character as revealed so far in Genesis, God appears reluctant to carry out the punitive measure of death. The writer of Hebrews gives us an indication why God was so reluctant. The writer states that “it is destined for people to die once, and after that to face judgment” (9:27 TNIV). Death apparently brings a tragic end to the possibility of repentance and restoration.
This makes sense as to why God did not have Adam and Eve immediately die when they sinned, but simply inaugurated a process for their eventual death. We see this reluctance surface again when God protected Cain’s life and did not make Cain restlessly wander the earth, allowing him to build a city. In this same way, God appears reluctant to implement his decision to limit the life span of humans in Genesis 6. Nonetheless, in spite of this repeated kindness of God (see Romans 2:4) people continued to rebel against God. They became so completely evil that God decided to shut down Project Earth (6:5-7). Noah turned out to be different and he gained the Lord’s favor. In his great love, God decided to spare Noah and his family and do a reboot of Project Earth (Genesis 6-9).
Yet, even with this second opportunity humankind collectively rebelled against God. Genesis 11 describes how the human race again rejected God. Rather than be identified by his name, they decided make a name for themselves. In response to this second rebellion, God dispersed humankind all over the earth. It appears that the reason God does this is to limit them in what they could do (11:6). However, in Genesis 12 we discover that the primary reason was rooted in God’s mercy – to make a way so that humans could be rescued from their self-destructive path of rebellion against God and be reconciled with God.
If we had devised the plan to rescue all the people on the planet, we would likely have chosen a young band of strong and determined men and women. (We do have movies with this theme.) In stark contrast, God chose a 70 year-old man and his barren wife to inaugurate his long-term plan to rescue and bless all the peoples of the earth (Genesis 12:3).
Why did God want to bless all the peoples of the earth? Genesis provides no elaborate explanation. As we walk through the pages of the Bible we discover that it is because God is love (1 John 4:8; cf. Ex. 34:6). God, being love, showers his love upon all that he has made.
Genesis 1 and 2 lays the groundwork for why God is so persistent in his love. The first indication we get in these chapters about this is that God made humankind in his image and likeness. He made us this way so that we could meaningfully relate to him, who in his essence is completely other than we are. However, since we are social and moral beings as he is, we have been made inherently with the ability to know, love, and experience him.
The second indication is in the language used to describe our being created. In Genesis 2:7 the word “formed” is used to describe the creation of the man (“then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground”) and the word “made/built” is used in 2:22 when describing the creation of the woman (And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman”). These two words intentionally portray God as being intimately involved in the creation process. God did not just speak the first humans into existence; he formed and made them.
These words are used to portray God as loving, caring, and deeply involved. Peter, shaped in his understanding of God by Genesis and by his time with Jesus, understood this undying, unending love of God. This is why he said in 2 Peter 3:9-10:
The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance (ESV).
John also understood this foundational characteristic of God. He wrote that God loved us all so much that he sent his only Son to earth (John 3:16).
Even though God is love and wants to be actively involved in our lives, two aspects of his character govern how he responds to us. First, God is not a control freak. Second, he is completely humble and unpretentious.
1. Sovereignty in Perspective
The Bible appears to portray God as the Sovereign who effectively manages the universe, not as one who “controls” everything, that is, exercising meticulous providence over all we do. Even though God is sovereign, the Bible portrays God’s will as not being done, his good intentions hampered by disobedience. This is one of the reasons why Jesus encourages us to pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven (Matt. 6:10).
God’s sovereignty and human freedom have been truths the Church has consistently affirmed through history, albeit with a level of tension. The Scriptures indicate that God made us in a very finite way like himself with an inherent (yet, limited) freedom of movement. This freedom of movement appears in the creation narrative in Genesis 3. In Genesis 2 we see God actively involved in the story. Then after God presents the woman to the man (2:22), God quietly disappears from view. In Genesis 3:1-7 God is remarkably absent from the narrative, absent when his presence could have kept the couple from making the wrong decision. God’s absence appears to highlight the woman and the man’s freedom of choice. If God had been visibly present, his visible presence would have limited the man and woman’s freedom of movement. We conclude this because once God reappears in the narrative (in Genesis 3:8) the first couple hides from him in fear or shame (3:10).
I failed to understand the impact of our limited autonomy for many years. Paul addresses the impact of this in Romans. As Paul gives a brief history of humankind he writes three times that since humans wanted to resist God, God let humans go their own way.
So God let these people go their own way. They did what they wanted to do (1:24).
God let them follow their own evil desires (1:26).
Since these people refused even to think about God, he let their useless minds rule over them (1:28 CEV).
Why did God let humans go their own way? It is because love has to be freely given; it cannot be compelled. If we do not want to love God, he lets us go our own way. Isaiah 53:6 points out that this was our choice: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned – every one – to his own way.” The Scripture appears to indicate that love for another has to be freely given. We intuitively know this; but sometimes we miss its significance.
Isaiah immediately describes God’s response to our rejection of him and to our going our own way: “and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Is. 53:6 ESV). Though God let us go our own way, he remained stubbornly persistent in his love and provided Jesus as the means to remove our iniquity and be reconciled back to him. God’s love is unfailing and unending. Fortunately for us, God does not treat us as our sins deserve (Psalm 103:10).
God is active in the world, striving to turn us back to himself. Jesus poignantly depicts this struggle of God- his unchanging passionate love and humankind’s resistance to him- in the particularity of his lament over Jerusalem in Luke 13:34.
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.
Since love has to be freely given, it appears that God is reluctant to show up in all his glory. If God were to show up in all his glory, his majesty may overpower us and restrict our decision-making abilities.
2. The Humility of God
Second, it appears that God is reluctant to reveal himself in all his glory because he is completely humble and unpretentious.
We do not usually think of God in these terms. However, Jesus as God in the flesh, described himself this way:
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls (Matt. 11:28-29 NIV).
The Prophet Isaiah subtly indicates that even though God is majestic and glorious, he is also humble. Isaiah wrote:
For thus says the high and lofty one
who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
I dwell in the high and holy place,
and also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit,
to revive the spirit of the humble,
and to revive the heart of the contrite (57:15 NRSV).
Why would God promise to dwell with those who are humble even though his is so immensely greater in every way than we are? It is because he is humble.
We are not accustomed to thinking about God as humble. Our thoughts about God tend to be dominated by his greatness. These thoughts are deeply entrenched in western religious cultures and narratives. In the Middle Ages architects designed huge cathedrals to highlight God’s majesty, greatness, and distance from us sinful human beings. There was a lot of talk about God’s wrath toward sin. It is undeniable that the biblical story describes God as being great, majestic, and angry about unlicensed greed, sexual exploitation, cruelty, injustice, and the complete disregard for the poor and the marginalized by those with social and political power. God is identified in the biblical story as being completely separate from and opposed to these evils. God is also portrayed as one who constantly appeals to people to turn from these evils and live lives of humility, peace, and justice. The stories of the flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, the Assyrian and Babylonian invasions show that God’s tolerance for human wickedness has its limits. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews warned us that God is a consuming fire (12:29).
It appears that our western cultures have overemphasized God’s transcendence, his anger toward sin, and these parts of the biblical story. Their dominant place in our thinking evokes within many of us a terrifying image of a wrathful God. Yet, is this image of God accurate? Is God really a terror-evoking, angry sovereign?
The Bible also tells another story, a story about a beautiful and influential angel who led a vast contingent of angels in a rebellion against God. If God was a person who created such fear in those who saw him, what gave these angels reason to believe they could actually rebel and defeat God? Theirs is not the only story of a rebellion. The first man and woman also had a vibrant, interactive relationship with this God and they rebelled as well.
Could it be that even though this God is truly all-powerful and glorious, he is also humble and unpretentious? Could it be that since God is caring, good, and unpretentious he actually appeared vulnerable to those who knew him, vulnerable to a point of weakness, a weakness that could be exploited?
If this portrait of a gracious, humble God is accurate, then it helps to explain why the angels and the first humans felt the liberty to rebel against him, and it helps to explain why some people are free to go throughout their day, and even throughout their lives, without ever wanting to encounter his loving presence.
Yet, being humble, comfortable to remain hidden from our eyes, and even willing to be grossly misunderstood does not mean that God is inactive. To the contrary, God is 100 percent engaged in our world. We simply have to figure out how God is engaged in our world.
God Working through His Spirit
As we have seen, God is active in revealing himself to the world through all that he has made. In addition, God is active in the world through the work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus said in John 16:7-11:
I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: 9 concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged (ESV).
The Spirit has come to convince everyone of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment.
The simple fact that people do not believe in Jesus shows just how wrong they are about sin. Most of us think that we are good, or at least, good enough. The fact is that almost everyone does good things. Most of us are not complete rogues. However, the Spirit’s concern is not about our being rogues. It is simply that we do what is wrong. Wrongdoing in whatever shape it takes mars our relationships and in our communities. In addition, most of us do not even notice the wrong that we do. If we do notice it, we are inclined to minimize its significance or impact.
So, we ask: “Since my actions are not really all that bad, why do I need a messiah?”
Our tendency to ask this question is one of the reasons why Jesus said that the kingdom of God is for those who are poor in spirit (Matthew 5:3), that is, it is for those who have come to realize that they are simply unable to be who they think they should or could be, and that they are consequently unable to develop and maintain the kinds of relationships with others that they wish they could have.
Convincing us that we are sinners is the job of the Spirit. Therefore, the Spirit is actively present in the world to make us all sensitive to the fact that the wrong we do is significant. The Spirit is here to show us this, and to also show us the way forward, the way to become all that God wants us to be- as individuals, as families, and as communities.
Showing us the way forward is why Jesus said the Spirit is here to convince the world of righteousness. The Spirit not only strives to convince people that they are sinners, he also strives to convince everyone that God has fulfilled his promise to save us from our sins. God sent Jesus, and Jesus died for us. God completely accepted the sacrifice of his life by raising him from the dead and bringing him to glory. We can receive the Spirit because of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ! It is in Jesus that we can move forward to become all that God intended us to be as human beings. We can treat one another well and create communities of faith that appropriately reflect God’s character.
Finally, this is also possible because of God’s judgment of Satan. So, the Spirit is here to convince everyone that in Christ Satan’s domineering influence in our world comes to an end (see Hebrews 2:14-15). In Christ we are freed from Satan’s lies and deception.
The question that naturally arises is how does the Spirit do this all this convincing?
The Spirit is not limited and used a variety of means. One of the means the Spirit uses is the law of God. Paul tells us in Romans 2 that the law of God is somehow woven into the heart of each and every person. He wrote:
For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts (2:14-15 ESV).
Somehow by a work of God’s grace, each and every person is intuitively aware of the law of God. People across the world and across cultures can affirm what is right when they hear it. The existence of this within us is why the UN could develop a universal declaration of human rights. Though people may disagree in part with what is written in that declaration, there is a significant amount of agreement on what constitutes right and wrong. For example, even though cultures may have differing ways of defining what constitutes a actual lie, most people all over the world seem to know that being deceptive and manipulative to get oneself ahead is wrong. We all seem to know that the end does not always justify the means. This agreement is due to the law of God being woven into our very being.
The Spirit uses this law of God to speak to our consciences.
Now, conscience is an amazing internal mechanism. We cannot control it. At times we would like to disconnect it because it makes us feel bad; but it runs on its own power.
Conscience is also an imperfect mechanism. Being impacted by culture it is not an accurate guide of what is right or wrong. Yet, even though our consciences function imperfectly, we are somehow able to affirm much of what is right when we hear it.
Therefore, conscience and the law of God are tools that the Spirit uses to convince us of sin, righteousness, and judgment. And since the Spirit is ever present, he is ever working to do his convincing.
How then does the Spirit use these tools to do this convincing?
It appears that in our current world, one of the ways the Spirit uses the law and conscience is through globalization. Though the impact of globalization is somewhat negative, it is also somewhat positive. What globalization does is show communities how the conditions of their lives compare with the conditions of others. For example, with a built-in sense of justice, the Spirit uses an awareness of other parts of the world to show people how the corruption in their governments and in their communities is holding them back. The Spirit uses this knowledge to raise the level of tension within these communities. People become dissatisfied with the status quo and they want conditions to improve. No longer content with the status quo, they begin to search for answers as to how to move forward in life.
I saw this level of tension rise while I lived in Pakistan. Though the dominant narrative in the country may have been that non-Muslims were immoral, people were able to see other countries on television and through their travels out of the country. They saw that though there are problems in non-Muslim countries, people’s lives in those countries (especially in Korea and in the West) progressed due to the justice and peace that these countries enjoyed. Progress in families and in communities in Pakistan has been significantly hindered by corruption and injustice. Globalization has been used by the Spirit to ignite within people’s hearts the conviction that injustice and corruption are wrong and that their lives can be different. As people seek for ways to eliminate corruption in their midst, the Spirit directs people to the gospel.
Globalization is just one example of what the Spirit uses to convince others of sin, righteousness and judgment. One historic and primary tool that the Spirit uses is the transformed lives of God’s people. Through our lives the Spirit demonstrates to others that God has kept his promises. He promised to send the Messiah, and the Messiah has come. Jesus has died, he has been raised, and Jesus is the one who makes the difference in our lives. Jesus empowers us through his Spirit to be selfless, to treat one another right, to be thoughtful, honest, and trustworthy. We are able to lead relationally healthy and constructive lives- not because we are inherently good- but because we have been born from above. Due to the presence of the Spirit in our lives we are a “transformed” and “a being transformed” people. Dr. Dudley Woodberry (Fuller Seminary) conducted a study as to why Muslims came to faith in Jesus. He found that the number one reason why Muslims came to faith was the transformed lives of Christians. Followers of Christ lived lives of love and grace, and the Spirit used these lives to convince these Muslims that the promises of God were true.
Jesus referred to this role we play in the Spirit’s work in the world in Matthew 5:14-16:
You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven (NRSV).
People see our good works, and they are directed by the Spirit to give glory to God.
In conclusion, God is not a deity who is unable to work in this world unless we pray. He is always actively involved, working through his Spirit to convince each and every one of us of his presence in the world, of his goodness, of his undying love, and of all that he has done for us in Christ. God wants us to absolutely certain of his active involvement.
In addition, God in his divine love and mercy has incorporated us in his divine plan to save the world. He uses our lives as he works to convince people of sin, righteousness, and judgment. We are his living letters, providing tangible evidence that the gospel is real. The people around us see the difference Christ and his Spirit makes in our lives.
The significance of our active role in what God is doing in the world is the subject of the next posts.