Chapter<B> </B>1<B>: </B>We Believe in God

Beliefs That Count
by Georgia Harkness

Chapter<B> </B>1<B>: </B>We Believe in God

God is the creative and sustaining Power who works in and through all existing life. God is a Person. His personality transcends our limited human personalities but we are made in His spiritual likeness. He knows each of us and we can have personal and conscious fellowship with Him. God is love. He loves every creature whom He has made and yearns for his salvation and perfection. Not only is His love self-giving, but He craves our love in response. There is no conflict between the justice of God and the mercy of God; both spring out of His infinite love for His children. ("The Episcopal Address of the Bishops," Journal of the 1952 General Conference of The Methodist Church [Nashville: The Methodist Publishing House], pp. 155-56.)

Our Human Situation

Everywhere modern men are insecure. This insecurity is economic, political, and social; and in a deeper sense than any of these -- though related to all of them -- it is psychological.

In America there is a prosperous and, in many respects, an outwardly comfortable state of affairs. Ours is an affluent society unequaled anywhere else in the world. In spite of rising costs of living, salaries and wages for great numbers of people are high enough to afford all the necessities and provide many of the luxuries undreamed of by our fathers. More fine homes, lovely furniture, expensive cars, elaborate country clubs, and well-built schools and churches are produced, used, and at least partially paid for now than in any previous era in history.

In spite of this there is economic insecurity everywhere. Hurry and worry, dissatisfaction, and a sense of grievance are chronic aspects of the world of work. Fears of a loss of profits, unemployment, and economic insecurity in old age hang over our heads. Vast numbers of persons are in debt, frantically trying to meet their payments on houses, furniture, cars, and much else. The keenness of competition in business drives many persons to practices that are admittedly wrong, but which seem so necessary for survival that conscience accommodates itself. Where is God in all this "rat race"?

Every person knows that politically the world is sitting on a powder keg, although this metaphor pales to insignificance when we try without success to stretch the imagination from the familiar old powder keg to nuclear power, which is many million times more destructive. Most persons do not consciously think about this danger all the time; and this is good, for we should be utterly terrified and unable to live with any degree of efficiency if we did. Yet underneath the varied pursuits of work, leisure, and family life there is at the heart of mankind a gnawing fear of global destruction. Again we are prompted to ask, Where is God in all this?

There are many other social dislocations of our time, of which racial tension and alcoholism are the most far-reaching and conspicuous. These and others show themselves in broken homes, juvenile delinquency, and the general unsettledness of family life. Wherever we find such situations we also find broken hearts and frustrated, unhappy lives. Add to these all the normal -- or at least the still unconquered -- circumstances produced by wind and weather, illness and danger in a hazardous world, and it is no wonder that hosts of people are inwardly distraught in the midst of an outwardly comfortable society. Where is God in all this?

Everywhere today men are lonely. There is plenty of togetherness, and the traffic jams on the highways are but symbols of the way lives are jostled until there is little time or opportunity to be alone with one’s thoughts. Yet very few people have any real sense of being understood -- or of understanding one another -- in the inner recesses of the soul. Fellowship in the deeper sense is very infrequent, and this is true even in the family where, if anywhere, it ought to prevail. Insecurity would not seem so terrible if loneliness were not so prevalent. A shared danger, if shared with one in whom a person has confidence, loses half its terror. But because persons are both lonely and insecure, the problem is intensified.

Within this lonely, busy world in which life crowds upon life until only the most resolute can possess his soul in patience, where is God?

Everywhere today -- as in all days -- men are unloving. Not only does this lack of love show itself in the lack of soul sharing, but what is more serious, it reveals itself in sin. Sin is an ugly word that many persons do not like to speak, but it symbolizes a persistent tendency in human life. It is defined in many ways, but at the heart of its meaning is disobedience to God’s command to love one another as it is revealed to us through the Bible and supremely through the words and deeds of Jesus. Listen again to the familiar words whose cutting edge may be dulled through sheer familiarity but whose significance has never been superseded:

But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they came together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question, to test him. "Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?" And he said to him, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets." (Matthew 22:34-40.)

We need not deny that there is love in the world. Nothing is gained by overlooking man’s capacity for unselfish love or the expressions of it that have blessed our lives. But few would question the fact that there is too little love in human relations. It is mainly the lack of love that breaks up families and friendships and which even invades churches to cause disharmony and strife. It is a common experience to be aware of not being treated with love by another, and we resent being used by another for his own advantage.

Far less often, however, we are aware of our own lack of love toward others and our indifference to their needs and feelings. The tendency to self-interest is very prevalent even among persons generally considered "good." Because of this fact, moral dullness often creeps up and possesses us without our being stopped by the signals of conscience that usually flash before we are tempted to other more overt and recognizable forms of sin.

This happens all the more commonly when the persons we ought to be loving and helping are in the impersonal structures of business, on the other side of a political conflict, "on the other side of the tracks," or among the hungry and underprivileged peoples on the other side of the earth. Consequently, the world that was meant to be a great human family "with liberty and justice for all" is the scene not only of injustice, tyranny, and heartache, but of bitter strife that may engulf us all.

In this world of struggle and conflict, of "every man for himself" and where every great group and nation is for itself in a vast struggle for power, advancement, and even survival, where is God?

Our Belief in God

Let us look back now at the statement that heads this chapter. We shall take it section by section to see what light it throws on man’s predicament.

First, God speaks to our insecurity. God is the creative and sustaining Power who works in and through all existing life.

It is basic to the Christian faith that God is the Creator and Ruler of the universe and of all that is in it. This is stated again and again in the Bible and is the theme of the majestic prose poem that constitutes the first chapter of Genesis. Science may tell us much that the biblical writers did not know about the processes by which God continually fashions an unfinished world, but it cannot go beyond the great truth stated in Genesis 1:1, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." Likewise, wrestle as we may with the problem of evil, the heart of the matter is found in the great refrain of this Genesis story after the account of each "day" of creation, which says, "And God saw that it was good."

There are a thousand ways in which we try in today’s language to affirm this faith, but perhaps none is more forceful or rings truer than the words of Maltbie D. Babcock’s familiar hymn:

This is my Father’s world,

O let me ne’er forget

That though the wrong seems oft so strong,

God is the Ruler yet.

This is my Father’s world:

Why should my heart be sad?

The Lord is King: let the heavens ring!

God reigns: let the earth be glad! (From "This is My Father’s World")

This faith has something very important to say to man’s insecurity. It does not make life easy, rosy, or free from conflict and struggle. But it does indicate a spirit in which we should accept inwardly the necessary uncertainties of existence, and it provides an incentive by which we can change society in the direction of greater security for all men.

In our economic life, for example, it is very essential that we should broaden our conception of stewardship from giving to the church -- important though that is -- to the stewardship of all of life. This is our Father’s world, and whatever we have of material resources, talents, time, or energy are gifts from his hands. More accurately, he has loaned all things to us to invest in his service for the making of a better world in which all may share more fully in his bounty.

During the early days of the Protestant Reformation it was believed that the common life was sacred and that every form of daily work which could be presented to God without shame was a form of divine vocation. We have too largely lost this great idea and need desperately to recover it. To the degree that we hold this view, our making, spending, and giving of money takes on a new dignity and meaning in stewardship to the God who "is the creative and sustaining Power who works in and through all existing life."

The faith of the Christian is no panacea to solve all the political problems of the day. To do this requires technical knowledge, responsible citizenship, patient negotiation, and, in the opinion of many, the possession of military strength. Nevertheless, the faith that God is the Lord of history; that even atomic energy is God’s energy to be used for human good and not for mutual destruction; that no nation is sovereign in its own right but that God alone is the sovereign Ruler of the world -- such a faith makes a vast difference in the way we deal with political issues. To the degree that this faith can be made to capture the minds and direct the speaking, acting, and voting of Christian citizens -- to this degree the world will be a far safer place to live in.

Much the same may be said of the other great social problems of the day which precipitate insecurity and injustice. There is no simple, easy, or quick solution of them. But there is a direction in which to move and an impelling motive to act if we take our gospel seriously. The God who works in and through all existing life will sustain us as we go, even as he judges us if we are recreant to his calling.

Most of the world’s evil is man-made; it is precipitated either by "man’s inhumanity to man" or by human ignorance or carelessness. Because of this fact, it is not Christian to be complacent. It is not the will of God that children suffer from hunger and malnutrition and grow up in unsanitary slums with lack of proper education, that persons because of the color of their skin are debarred from schools, hospitals, employment, or housing projects; that persons are denied other basic human rights; that personalities and homes are broken through drink and that great numbers die on highways through drunken driving; that marriage vows are often taken lightly and that easy divorces shatter home after home and leave children the pawns of the parents’ selfishness.

The problem of evil in such matters is not the intellectual question of why a good God lets these things happen. He has given us the great gift of human freedom and the ability to act responsibly, thereby setting us apart from and above the whole sub-human world. Therefore it is man’s fault and not God’s design if this freedom is misused. The primary problem, then, is the problem of inducing sinful and complacent people to act responsibly to eliminate situations that cause such evil effects.

It must be granted, however, that there are other aspects of the problem of pain which are more shrouded in mystery. We do not fully know why illness strikes when and where it does; why the forces of nature are sometimes swift and terrible in their destructiveness, nor why, according to our human vision, death comes too early These are matters about which we must often say with Job, "I lay my hand on my mouth." (Job 40:4.) But there is no circumstance so dark that God cannot redeem it with his presence as he gives us strength to see it through and to find life deeper and richer on the far side of it. So, let us look now at this angle of our faith.

Second, God speaks to our loneliness. God is a person. His personality transcends our limited human personalities but are made in His spiritual likeness. He knows each of us and we can have personal and conscious fellowship with Him.

There are some persons -- both theologians and laymen --who object to saying bluntly, "God is a person," To them, such a statement seems to detract from his divine majesty and to make him too much like ourselves. However not many are averse to using the adjective form, "God is personal" provided it is clearly understood that his personality transcends our human limitations. Of course, this does not mean that God has a body that can be visualized, but that he is a God of infinite wisdom, goodness, mercy, and love. He is a God of tender compassion as well as: creative power. The Bible does not use the term "Person" or "personal" for God but from start to finish it expresses this idea. It was brought to its fullest meaning when Jesus addressed his God and ours as "Father."

Man is a sinner; that is certain and of this we must speak repeatedly. But man is also made in the spiritual image of God. Another tremendous verse from the Genesis story of creation says "So God created man in his own image in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them " (Genesis. 1:27.) It is this fact that gives us our true worth and dignity as persons.

And it is this also that is the supreme answer to our loneliness. It is possible to have an interest in inanimate things and impersonal forces but it is not possible to have fellowship with any except a being who can respond to us enter into our joys and sorrows, our longings and achievements. God is such a Being above all human beings! Although an influential contemporary theologian, Paul Tillich, insists that Got is not a Being but, instead, "being itself," or "the ground of being," most Christian thinkers find such a view too impersonal to answer man’s deep need for divine companionship.

If we grant that God has made us in his spiritual image for fellowship with himself, prayer becomes possible. Prayer is "the practice of the presence of God" It is, communication and response to and from the very Source of our existence -- the Source who is also what the late Professor Alfred North Whitehead called "the great Companion, the fellow-sufferer who understands." The familiar words of Alfred Lord Tennyson then take on great realism:

Speak to Him thou for He hears, and Spirit with spirit can meet --

Closer is He than breathing, and nearer than hands and feet. (The Higher Pantheism, stanza 6.)

Prayer is communion with the Father, in whom Jesus found his strength and to whom he bids us pray. Prayer is the turning of our souls to that supreme Source of compassion, forgiveness, and insight who has brought new life to Christians through many centuries of dark days.

Accordingly, the primary answer to man’s loneliness today is fellowship with God in prayer. Some would say this is not possible until one has been led to it by experiences of human fellowship, and certainly human fellowship is needed and has much to do with the deepening of the spiritual life. Yet such divine companionship is not simply a man-made thing. In deepest, darkest hours of loneliness Christians have again and again been: able to say, as our Lord said on the night of the Last Supper, "The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, every man to his home, and will leave me alone; yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me." (John 16:32.)

Finally, God speaks to our lovelessness. God is love. He loves every creature whom He has made and yearns for his salvation and perfection. Not only is His love self-giving but He craves our love in response. There is no conflict between the justice of God and the mercy of God; both spring out of His infinite love for His children.

The supreme quality of the personal God whom we worship as Father is love. Power, might, majesty, and wisdom to know all things are his. But it is God’s love that Jesus proclaimed above all else. At the heart of the Christian faith is this great assurance: Although we have sinned terribly against him and our neighbors through our lovelessness, he still loves us and seeks to win us to salvation by that love.

God’s judgment is real. It must be real if he is a righteous God, and he would not be worth worshipping if he were so spineless or so indifferent to what happened to his children that sin made no difference to him. In short, he would not be the God of all goodness to whom Jesus calls us to give supreme allegiance if he were simply a casual onlooker at the enormity of human sin. In fact, one might say without presumption that even you and I would hardly do that! He who loves most suffers most at the sinfulness of his erring children and in justice must condemn them.

God condemns, but he does not reject us. Mercy, not judgment, is God’s last word. Around the world are many millions of Christians who know and repeat the great affirmation of John 3 :16. But some of these are not aware that an equally great truth is stated in the next verse, which says, "For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him."

Therefore, we should not be surprised to find that "there is no conflict between the justice of God and the mercy of God; both spring out of His infinite love for His children." And if this is true, it is certainly true that in response to his self-giving love he bids us love both him and our neighbor.

More will be said about God’s answer to human lovelessness in later chapters, particularly the one that deals with our salvation from sin. The next chapter -- that which deals with our belief in Jesus Christ -- will also speak to this theme. Therefore we shall discuss it no further at this point. It is perhaps enough to say here that as man’s lovelessness with its dullness and indifference to human need is our basic curse, so is God’s love the foundation of the duty and the demand to love one another.

An ancient seer put this truth in words far better than we can frame when he once wrote:

Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God,

and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He

who does not love does not know God; for God is love.

. . . . . . . . . .

We love, because he first loved us. If any one says,

"I love God," and hates his brother, he is a liar;

for he who does not love his brother whom he has

seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And

this commandment we have from him, that he who

loves God should love his brother also. (I John 4:7-8, 19-21)

And through the centuries men have been reading these words, but often they have not heeded them.