The Lord is with you when you are with Him.
~2 Chron. 15:2
What is this ancient concept of personal relationship to the divine? Imagination is such a ripe field and personal spiritual experience is so varied. What “divine withness” can we truly count on as something more than fabricated comfort?
On Friday, I referenced an old post titled by the first part of this verse: The Lord is With You When… Back then I quickly pointed to 1 John 1:8-2:2 as a handy summary of what it means to the Christian to be “with” God.
But assuming that one concedes the ideas of sin and forgiveness, and the necessity of atonement–what then?
What then, beyond absorbing such abstracts into one’s daily thinking? Is there a distinction between religion and behaviourism, other than the terminology? Or is religious self-improvement merely a matter of better life disciplines and an enhanced make-believe world?
It can be.
We begin spiritual journeys with a consuming passion for change, and over time, we descend to ash easily caught in the wind. As we’re carried hither and yon, it becomes all too simple to give good churchian lip-service to what we’re saved from, encapsulated in the credo of “Christ died for me,” while forgetting what we’re saved to.
It is popular for the Christian to think of himself as saved from fire, not saved to it. Yet they’re one and the same thing.
Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire.
The Flexibility of Opinion
The Old Testament references to this consuming fire are fraught with wrath. It’s very unfashionable. We prefer to think of God and “withness” as a warm fuzzy comfort. Oh dear, had a bad day? It’s okay, Jesus is your boyfriend. Did you screw up big time? It’s all forgiven, and even better, God forgets our sins. Say a regretful prayer and proceed onward as if nothing happened. (And if anyone should protest your lapse, just firmly remind them: “You ought to forgive me!”)
Yet the Bible says we are “with” a consuming fire, and we’re supposed to be grateful for it. How extremely unfashionable! Trendy skepticism would say that uncomfortable wrath is merely a byproduct of fundamentalist doctrines that make God into some kind of controlling abuser. Down with that.
The Flexibility of Conscience
Pain hurts. I had this conversation with my kids recently. Guilt also hurts. It’s the spiritual equivalent of putting your hand on a hot stove. In that sense, guilt is not bad, it’s an early warning system that one is going to get injured if one doesn’t change course pronto.
Unfortunately, to a far greater degree than the nervous system’s hardwiring, the spiritual nerve centers are flexible. False authority and false doctrine can retrain us into false guilt. Could be it’s for breaking someone’s arbitrary rules, when in fact we were free all along.
On the other hand, with Forgiveness Lite, we risk a desensitization to balanced conscience. We’ve all been on the receiving end of someone else’s lax conscience, and it’s not enjoyable.
If such things cause us wrath, should we not be grateful that they cause God to be wrathful too?
The Purpose of the Fire
Our God is a consuming fire whose wrath is against sin. For that we are to have gratitude, and focus on living in the path He has prepared for us to walk in. We’re to remain with Him.
We’re saved to fire. This is not how we like to imagine it.
It’s the same unfashionable, uncomfortable fire that leads a soul to see need for a saviour in the first place. The same fire that pulpits of old used to warn about. Most imaginatively, and yet most alien to the inventions of human ambition, it’s the same fire that promises a final judgment for every injustice now occurring in this temporal realm. Every one, from the most heinous crimes, to the false impositions of fraudulent spiritual authority, to the injustices of lax conscience.
And He, when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.
If this bizarre belief is false, then we are of all men most to be pitied. That is a solid fact acknowledged in the Bible by the Apostle Paul. (1 Cor. 15:19)
But it doesn’t hinge on conscience, nor on opinion. It all hinges, Paul says, on the existence of the soul. The question is this: Are you mere meat?
Naturalism, Insanity and Lies
Now if Christ is preached, that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?
~1 Cor. 15:12
If we are meat, we can expect not to resurrect. If we’re meat, we can expect our sense of God to be a figment of the imagination, a behaviour-modification tool or a power play invented by false authority. This particular atheist apologetic, you see, is an old, old conversation.
…if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised.
~1 Cor. 15:13
If we’re meat, then the consuming fire doesn’t exist. We have invented it as a means of imposing order on a disorderly world. “Sin” is simply adaptivity–something to do with survival of the fittest, most likely. And the same goes for righteousness. Morality is a construct, not a reality.
As to final reckonings, well, we survivalist creatures must have some means of coping with our eventual, inevitable personal extinction. Perhaps it doesn’t matter whether we tell tall tales of divine intervention or engage in a cerebral discussion of the universe’s heat death. We tell ourselves stories based on the best observations of our own epoch.
Moreover we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we testified against God that He raised Christ, whom He did not raise, if in fact the dead are not raised.
~1 Cor. 15:15
If the soul is nonexistent, then our religious morality is an immoral lie. That was as true two thousand years ago as it is today. Truth and falsehood are timeless.
Humanity and Temporality
We are not so timeless. Over time, we descend to ash easily caught in the wind. The blaze of newfound spiritual experience goes out. We cease to live as soulish creatures and allow our lives to become a matter of meat: its survival, reproduction, and eventual destruction. Sometimes the meat flaps its lips and emits high-sounding ideas, but it functions pragmatically as meat.
However. That says nothing about God and everything about us.
The soul cringes from the consuming fire, because it will burn us out one way or another. It will burn us out whether we acquiesce to it or not. It will eat at our morality, our complacency and our certainty. It will tear through our rightness like flames on dry paper.
The fiery truth will destroy even the comfort of religion.
if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins.
~ 1 Cor. 15:17
It will destroy the comfort of a fluffy-cloud afterlife where everyone rests vaguely in peace.
Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.
~1 Cor. 15:18
It will destroy our satisfaction with our platitudes and our tidy community living. It will consume the very meaning of our greatest charitable acts like a charnel-fire cleans flesh off bones. It will expose us as insane for living like atheists while avowing we are walking “with the Lord.” Why complicate our atheism so unduly?
If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.
~1 Cor. 15:19
The Lord is With You When
The way, the truth and the life is a consuming fire. It is impossible to be nominally with Him. We can seek to escape the fire by ignoring it, or we can embrace it.
Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.
~1 Cor. 15:51-52
That is what we ask of religion. We ask it to change us. Until we don’t anymore.
God doesn’t leave, because our apathy says nothing of His nature. It says only that we have opted out of any meaningful and authentic relationship with Him. Relationship is a two-way street, not a matter of our efforts or God’s overruling demands.
…When You Are With Him
We can fabricate comforts that allow us to ignore God’s presence, but in the end, it’s a one-way road that leads to a dead end. We are called to a discomforting blaze of fire, a passion to be with the holy. It will never feel easy. But it tells us that in a dark world, God is there, because holiness tears down every cheap imitation.
When the facade gets ripped off of life, that’s how we know we’re with Him.