“Behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” Luke 17:21
The greatest longing of the human heart is to know God. To have some sense that there is a higher power, and to believe that higher power is aware of you, has a will for you, AND has a positive regard for you is either the greatest comfort or the greatest fear. It solves everything or is the cause of endless angst.
Our solution or search for this assurance often leads to religious practice. We try to do enough things to connect with God and have some sense that we are accepted. These external religious practices such as worship, prayer, meditation, service, rituals etc. are common to every faith, and they are essential to sound spiritual health.
I want to emphasize that. There is a great deal of chatter today about the difference between being religious and being spiritual, with the latter normally being viewed as positive, the former negative. In others words, being spiritual is better than being religious.
I maintain both are essential. In fact, a 2013 article in Psychology Today entitled “Troubled Souls: Spirituality as a Mental Health Hazard” cited studies that indicate people who claim only to be spiritual but not religious are significantly more likely to have poorer, general mental health.
Of course, it’s possible to have a healthy spirituality apart from organized religion. Many people do, and my concern here is not to get more people into organized religion. I’m simply pointing out that most people need the structure and defined commitments of religious institutions to form, express, and maintain their spiritual convictions. To airily dismiss church, for example, as obsolete or even detrimental to our greatest longing smacks of the very self-centeredness genuine spirituality should dissipate.
Bottom line, the human psyche needs churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples; as well as priests, preachers, rabbis, imams, and monks; and scriptures, prayer books, rosaries, saints, holy days, etc. etc. As a Christian, I maintain it’s important for people of faith to express their faith faithfully. That is, be good Christians, good Jews, good Muslims, good Buddhists etc. Religious conviction, nurtured by gentleness and reverence for other faiths, honors the God I know.
Now having “firmly affirmed” my support of the external religious practices, I want to highlight the absolute necessity of the inner spiritual experience. Knowing God is different from knowing about God. There’s something about my experience with God as a personal Trinity that transcends, but is supported by, my external religious practices.
An old slogan states the matter clearly: “going to church does not make you a Christian any more than going to a garage makes you a car.” In other words, to know God I have to KNOW God.
The good news is that the most remarkable feature of the Bible is the insistence on God’s personal regard and love for every individual. A good illustration of this principle is Jesus’ discussion with some Pharisees concerning the arrival of the Kingdom of God. When would it happen? When would God finally show up and make everything right?
Jesus’ answer is surprising. He said the kingdom is not coming in ways that can be observed. We will never be able to say “here is it, or there it is.” And then the clincher, “for behold the kingdom of God is in you.”
Think about that. The kingdom of God, or the ability to truly know God, is within every person. Notice Jesus didn’t say this to his disciple, but to Pharisees who steadfastly opposed Him. Jesus seemed to be emphasizing that there is something divine about every human being. Call it the image of God. Or think of it as the spiritual tinder that God is trying to spark into flame.
The bottom line is that what we desperately seek for our greatest soul-need is right there inside. The answer is within. The solution is within. God is waiting for us to stop scurrying around so much on the outside, and to stop worrying so much on the inside, and to be still and know that He is God, He is right there with you, and has been all the time.
The fundamental premise of grace is God’s acceptance of us. All of our religious activity, as important as it is, does not create anything particularly new. It awakens us to something we already are, or something we already have.
Sometimes religious fervor is an attempt to impress God, please God, and appease God. How different our lives are when we realize that God cannot be more with us than He already is, and He cannot love us more than He already does.
The Bible is so clear on this point that I’m surprised by how many people still struggle with this simple truth. The psalms are full of promises of God’s care. Isaiah wrote a Book of Consolation about God’s tender love for us. Jeremiah promised us that God would be with us from the least of us to the greatest. Hosea married an adulterous prostitute to demonstrate God’s unfailing love for flagrantly faltering people.
Jesus told parables of God’s love and grace. He prayed that we would be one with Him as He is one with the Father (think about that!). Paul wrote repeatedly that Christ is in us and that we are in Christ. This divine union, this divine relationship is the heart of the Bible. It’s clearly what God wants us to know.
I spoke to a very religious woman many years ago and explained this personal nature of faith. She began weeping and said “I always knew it was supposed to be like that.” It is. You can know God because the kingdom of God is within you.
Dr. Terry Ellis
October 9, 2016