By Connie J. French
“Are you willing to die for the truth?” The question weighed heavily on my preschool shoulders, with fears of the investigative judgment and the time of trouble and persecution so confidently taught to me as I grew up in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Truth? What truth? God? Knowing God?
I was born a believer in God—whoever He is. This faith was not taught to me. Believing in God is simply true to my soul. When I say so I feel comfortable with myself. When I try to imagine not believing in God I feel stupid. When I am asked to prove God in some way I say “How?” It is not possible. It is not an option to me to “unbelieve” in God. God is my starting point, my driving passion and the home of my heart. My belief in God is not an objective, observable, experimental truth; it is a grand, mysterious, convincing relational truth.
At the bottom of my heart I know that knowing God is the one necessity of my being, the pinnacle of my fulfillment and the fountain of my worship. I know God is. I have always known it.
The Wilderness of Not Knowing
But most of my journey in life has been in the wilderness of not knowing God. Why? The reason is that almost from my birth I was taught to think of God as a substance outside of myself, an idol, a judge in the courtroom of life, and a person from whose judgment I needed to be saved, either by my own efforts or someone else’s pleadings for me. What I was taught about God was the big barrier that kept me from knowing God.
Not for decades did I realize that the need to be saved from God was so ingrained into my whole mentality that it was the barrier separating me from knowing God and from discovering God in real life experience. What I was taught about God blocked my ears from hearing God telling me the truth that would make me free. But with a personal and individual revelation of God to me in my own real life experience, I stopped thinking of God in terms of what anyone else said about him. He had spoken to me. I knew him for myself. And I knew then that the truth of God is relational truth.
God vs. the Idea of God
God cannot be explained or identified by religious teaching. No matter how well-intended, religious teaching is (usually) the communication of ideas. God is presented as some “substance” outside of oneself, to whom one is accountable and so has a “relationship” with. However, a relationship with a substance is like taking pills or hugging a tree. There is no meeting or knowing in it. The relationship is also just a hearsay one, like being told that my grandfather was Austrian. I could not have a relationship with him other than, perhaps, looking at a picture of him, like looking at a picture of a cat and trying to have it as a pet.
I could not have a relationship with the idea of God. It would be like trying to have a honeymoon with a corpse. Relationships depend on the essential reality of being who we are to each other. They depend on the life of the person. That relational truth can only be known by the people involved in the relationship. No one can reveal a third party to someone else. Only God can reveal God. Revelation is unique. God’s revelation of himself is the only way to know the truth of who he is to a person. We cannot tell anyone who God is to them, only who he is to us.
Is God Accessible?
What I falsely learned from the adult religious environment was that God was not accessible to me to know. The adults did not believe in me as a child of God. They did not trust the word of God in me. They did not show interest in listening to my thoughts, my feelings, my intuitions and beliefs. They were mostly interested in trying to impose on me their thoughts, their beliefs, their rules, their practices and their justification for their beliefs as right. They saw me as deprived of God’s favor in some way and needing remediation. This behavior drowned out the voice of God in me, so that I could not trust my own judgments, have my own faith, express my own feelings, or be led to see the way God speaks to us in our responsive feelings and the experiences of our own lives.
By their teaching me to look for God in substantial ideas, I lost the sense of God in relational truth as his child.
I remember the first time I came up against the problem of having two “gods.” I was sitting in a children’s meeting in which the preacher closed by asking all those who “wanted to give their hearts to Jesus” to stand up. I was the only one who remained seated. I cringed. I was eight. My mother heard of it and asked me the inevitable: Why? I replied lamely, “I didn’t know what he meant.” My mother was disappointed and no doubt blamed herself for my disloyalty, but there was another voice speaking in my soul saying “You did the right thing. You did not pretend. You were true to yourself.” That, I now see, was God speaking to me within. My heart was already on the side of God. Trying to give it away would be to separate from God. Knowing God inside is relational truth.
I had many years of learning, though, before I got close to shore again. I was still trying to relate to that God as a substance, even a “spiritual substance,” “out there,”a God who could be imagined, described, importuned, manipulated by the right kind of behavior and by attempts to serve him, offering myself in numerous ways, only to be rejected every time. A relationship with this God was frustrating and undermining to my self-worth. My response was, I’ll just go back to university and do another degree. I was still trying to know God in the mode of modern intellectual accessibility.
Another clue I missed was a trail of failed relationships. I mean relationships in which I had pursued my best goals and most authentic Christian faith and practice. I was staggered by their disastrous consequences. And yet, my pursuit of a fulfilling relationship indicated that I knew intuitively that in the end, life is all about relationships and not intellectual prowess. After all, the mark of Christianity is the love by which everyone will know a person is a disciple of Christ. Love is relational truth.
I pursued the quest for truth about knowing God in the only way I knew how, by asking an author of the Biblical testimony about Jesus to tell me what he thought, felt and believed, namely, John. Although this study was subject to the usual university demands and academic accountability, God used the text to speak to me and to get through to my brain that I was hanging on to a belief that was preventing me from knowing the truth I needed. God got through to me on the inside!
Now this is the tricky bit. Knowing someone is always a unique experience. I can’t tell you who God—or anyone else—is to you. I can only tell you who a person is to me, and I know a person, ultimately, by how he makes me feel. So when I believed I heard a word from God beyond the barriers I had up, and felt a new freedom to be me, it came to me like a real encounter with God, a kind of Amen from within, a kind of I-know-I-have-come-to-myself-and-feel-whole experience. It was relational truth.
Now I can look back on my past experience of deprivation and see God’s constant word at work in my experience, forbidding falsehood to support me so that he could lead me into the promised land of his love. I now see that God speaks to me in every experience of living. I am interested in the testimony of other people as to how God has spoken to them, but I do not hear that as God’s word to me too. I now listen for the voice of God within, confirming his own relational truth.
So no, I would not die for the truth of an idea about God, but dying for love seems to be of the essence of worship.
Connie J. French graduated from Avondale College as a teacher. She was disfellowshipped for disagreeing about the Adventist view of the sanctuary. She earned a Bachelor of Divinity from London University, and returned to teaching. She subsequently earned a Bachelor of Education and Master of Educational Studies at Monash University, and pursued a career in remedial reading and finally completed an MA at Latrobe University with a dissertation on “Accessing Soteriology in the Gospel of John.”