The Presence of God
For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring.
I cannot live without God. Just as I need to breathe the air of this beautiful planet we live on, so my soul needs to breathe the air of the divine. This is not at all a thing of reason and logic. This does not mean that I need to spend a lot of time thinking and reading about theology. In fact, it seems to me that sometimes the more I read and think about theology, the less I have of the presence of God. What I need is to feel God on every level of my being—emotionally, mentally, spiritually.
If a period of time goes by, say a week or a couple of weeks, when I lose this feeling of God’s presence, then I begin to feel that something is wrong with me. Again, this is not something I reason out, but it sort of creeps up on me that things are not right, and it effects my whole being--emotionally, spiritually, physically. I feel down. I feel like a pressure is building in my chest. Something needs to be done. From long experience, I know what I need. I need to reconnect with God. I need a real sense of the presence of God. And again this is not just saying I believe in God. It is not just words. It is a realization of the presence of God with my whole being. It is living and moving in the presence of God. That for me is the only way I can live.
Now I realize that if I went out on the street, in a worldly setting and told many people what I have just told you, they would think that I was some kind of weird mystical type of person. Many people do not feel any need for God at all. I know that. Many people, perhaps most, live their lives with little or no contact with God.
In fact, it seems to me that there are two types of people in the world. There is one type that is pretty well satisfied with the world and themselves and they look no further than that. They are content with what we might call physical existence. They are concerned almost entirely with what we drink, what we eat, what we wear, what we drive around. They are concerned about what people say and do and think. Thus, they may belong to a church because that is what people do. They may say they believe in God because most people say that, but they don’t really care about the things of God--and this type of person represents the large majority of humankind.
Then there is the other type of person, the spiritual type. This person is also somewhat concerned with what we eat and wear and drive around, and also somewhat concerned about what people are saying and doing, but all that, all that worldly stuff, is just not enough, and it is not really what gives us life. Our real life is in God from God through God. We must have God, and the operative word is “must.” There is no other option.
Recently, I was reading Richard Dawkins book, The God Delusion, and I came across a survey of American scientists that the survey showed that most American scientists do not believe in God. The large majority of Americans, 90%, believe in God, but most American scientists do not. I mentioned this survey in an email in my brother-in-law in NC. He sent back an email asking, “So, are you going to stop believing now?” My reply was that believing is not like a light switch that you can flip on or off. It is not really an intellectual decision. It is a way of life, and for me it is not an optional way of life. I have to believe. I cannot live without God.
Now, I can say what I have just said in traditional Presbyterian terms. God calls some people and gives them the HS. Those who have the HS seek the things of God. That is how we know we have the HS. Our main interest our primary focus is on God. All else is secondary.
The other type, the unspiritual person, is not called of God, does not have the HS. Consequently, they do not really care about God. They may say some words, they may recite a creed, they may eat the crackers and drink the grape juice, but they don’t really live in and for God.
Now we need to understand that the Bible is not really addressed to nonspiritual people at all, because they are not going to get it. They do not have the HS. They do not have the right attitudes or motivations. It is never going to make much sense to them. But to God’s people, who have the HS as the interpreter, the Bible comes alive as the word of God. It is not the word without the Spirit. Without the spirit, the Bible is just another book, and that is how most people regard it.
In the book of Acts, in chapter 17, the apostle Paul has come to Athens as a missionary to preach the gospel to the Athenians. He begins with basics, with what Christians and pagans have in common. He says in v22, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.” He notes that in his walking through the city, he has found an “altar with the inscription,” which reads, “To an unknown god.” Paul says I am going to proclaim that God. In a sense, God is always unknown. God is a mystery and every time we try to explain that mystery we get tangled up in paradox and contradiction. We cannot explain God; we cannot prove God. Paul knows that but he goes on to speak of God as the creative power of the Universe. All spiritual people of all religions are aware of this power. We cannot explain it, but everywhere we look, everything we taste and touch, reminds us of this power behind all power.
Look at a tree. To unspiritual people it is just wood—a trunk, branches and leaves. To a spiritual person it is that, but it is also a work of God’s power in which we literally see God.
Paul is saying that part of our being calls us to literally see God everywhere, and more than that, to feel the presence of God everywhere on the most basic level of our being. Paul says in 26-27 that God made us so that we “would *search for God* and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us.” This is what we are made for. God is what we are made for. People are always asking, What is the meaning of life? God is the meaning of life. What is my purpose in life? God is my purpose in life.
Now Paul is speaking to Greeks in the very heart and center of Greek civilization, and he is very much aware of that. So he does not quote the Hebrew OT to these folks—which would be pointless, and probably would lose him his audience. Instead, he drives home his point by quoting Greek poets. Verse 28 consists of two quotes. The first is from the 6th century BC poet Epimenides, who wrote a poem to Zeus, the high god of Greek Paganism, in which he said,
“But thou art not dead: thou livest and abidest forever,
For in thee we live and move and have our being.”
Now in the first century, Epimenides had been dead 500 years and he was esteemed as part the heritage of Greek Literature. He would have been sort of like Shakespeare to us, and the probability is that many in Paul’s audience on Mars Hill were familiar with this poem, so Paul connects with them, saying we have the same insight here--Epimenides was right. God’s people breathe in the atmosphere of the divine and live in God.
Then to drive his message home, he quotes a second poet—Aratus. Aratus was as 3rd century BC poet who also wrote a poem to Zeus. Let me quote a few lines:
Let us begin with Zeus, whom we mortals never leave unspoken.
For every street, every market-place is full of Zeus.
Even the sea and the harbor are full of this deity.
Everywhere everyone is indebted to Zeus.
For we are indeed his offspring... (Phaenomena 1-5).
Now Paul has practical reasons for quoting these two ancient Greeks, and they were ancient Greeks even in his time. Paul is establishing his credentials. People hearing him quote from Greek literature would say, “This guy is not a redneck hillbilly from the backwoods of Palestine. This is a learned man who deserves our attention.” That is part of Paul’s purpose, but that is not the main point. Paul quotes these Greeks because he agrees with them.
Now that raises a side issue. Paul is quoting Greek Pagan poets. What did Paul think about Greek Paganism? Paul’s attitude was straightforward. Before the coming of Christ, God tolerated all the religions of humankind. This applies to Greeks and Hebrews to Indians and Africans and everybody else. But once Christ came, there was only one acceptable way to come to God, and that was through Jesus. So Paul would say to the Athenians, before I told you about the gospel, you did not know any better, and God accepted your ignorance in worship, but now you do know better and paganism is no longer acceptable.
With that in mind then, Paul has no problem using the valid insights of earlier pagan poet-philosophers. He says Epimenides and Aratus were right. God’s people cannot live without God. we need God in our lives.
Many years ago, when I was in seminary, Dill Allison was my primary teacher in theology. Dr. Allison wrote his dissertation at Princeton on John Calvin. So it was not surprising that we spent a lot of time reading Calvin, mostly reading Calvin’s major work the Institutes of Christian Theology. Calvin wrote The Institutes back in the 16th century, and it is no easy read. I still remember trying to pound my way through Calvin’s elaborate sentence structure. Dill kept saying that the longer you read Calvin the easier it gets, and I suppose that is true, but it never got that easy. Maybe that experience explains why I do not expect to find much of God in most theology books.
But I don’t want to put down Calvin. The opening sentence of the Institutes reads: “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” Calvin goes on to say that these two parts of knowledge are always interconnected because whenever we look at nature or ourselves, we are led to God. Then Calvin quotes Acts 17:28, “For in him we live and move and have our being.” And we realize that when Calvin speaks of knowledge of God, he does not mean just intellectual knowledge. He means knowing God with every level of our being. He is not talking about knowledge in the scientific sense where we measure and weigh and quantify. We cannot know God in that way. But we know God in that we feel and sense his presence in everything around us and even in ourselves.
Saint Thomas Aquinas said something similar. Aquinas was probably the greatest Christian theologian of the middle ages. So having put down theology a little bit, I am still quoting theologians. Aquinas said, “Sacred doctrine is not concerned with God and the creatures equally. It is concerned with God fundamentally, and with the creature in so far as they relate to God as their beginning or end” (Summa Theologica I, I, 3). Aquinas is talking about the basic insight that spiritual people have. They see God in and through the world and thus, in a manner of speaking, since they live in the world, they live in God.
All of which brings me back to the basic division I mentioned earlier. Spiritual people must have God. Non-spiritual people do not care. What kind of person are you? What kind of spiritual life do you have?
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
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