Every once in a while people ask me, “How do you know that what you think is God, is not, in fact, your own mind masquerading as God? How do you know your experience of God is not a self-created, self-serving self-deception?” And these are important questions.
In the Bible, most people who encountered God face to face experienced something in common. Prophets, patriarchs and ordinary people like us were asked to leave the safety of their private religious experience and were sent into the world, sometimes hurled there despite their resistance.
When they thought being with God meant leaving the world behind and obtaining the personal blessing in the encounter, God asked them to see the world as a place where every person, every nation and every creature is to be included in the circle of God’s care.
This was a pattern of true encounters with Him. Over and over the God of the Bible acts as a bouncer: “You have come for a blessing, but I send you away. I want you to be a blessing.” Genesis 12:1-3 describes the moment when three great monotheistic religions were born, a moment spoke face to face with Abraham, “I will make your name great.... I will bless you ...and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” Instead of being an exclusionary blessing for a believer, this blessing was instrumental. Blessing this father of faith was an act of blessing the world! n We know we have met God face to face when the journey to learn to love the world around us begins. Failure to take this “dynamic of blessing” seriously is the greatest failure of any believer and any religion. Whenever I, as an individual, or we, as a group, assume we have been called merely to be blessed— and that this blessing is an action of God separate from sending us to be a blessing to the world—we can be sure we have not met God face to face.
Can a call to salvation be a sophisticated call to self-interest? It depends on what we mean by salvation. When the largest concern I have is my soul, my personal destiny in heaven and my rewards, I have structured my faith in God in terms of self-interest. Author Brian McLaren argues that many of us have grown up in a period of human history and in a part of the world where we were taught that the central story of the Bible was about “saving individual souls.” No wonder people say to Christians, “If your religion gets you into heaven but does not offer something that all people can benefit from, if it gives you a reward but leaves others out, then I don’t want it.” In a pluralistic world, a religion is valued based on the benefits it brings to its non-adherents. Here, God and the pluralistic world concur.
To have a personal Saviour is precious.
We certainly don’t want to be in some kind of generic relationship with the Divine. But we also realise there is far more to God than getting our individual selves into heaven. What if getting to heaven was not meant to be the only thing, nor even the main thing? What if knowing and loving God cannot be done without knowing and loving people, nations and all creation? More and more Christians today are beginning to ask these questions because we want to leave behind the concept of salvation as another consumer product. We want God to be more to us than “personal Saviour” and Christianity as a marketing program for it. We want our faith to benefit the world.
Our personal salvation is not the goal. The gospel does not appeal to us on the basis of our self-interest. The gospel is not a mere “sin-management system” that invites us to be saved by being good. The goal is restoration of all that is good and right and beautiful in the entire world. Our personal salvation is only a supporting process, a by-product, a beginning, an injection of confidence that we as individuals are accepted and whole. God asks us: “I love the world. Do you want to love it with Me?” That’s why Jesus told His disciples, “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends” (John 15:15). Here, Jesus invites them into God’s business of setting the world right. From now on, their personal relationship with God was to be about the world.
If one takes this call in Genesis and the Gospel of John seriously, the following implication is unavoidable: The Christian message is universally good news for Christians and non-Christians alike. To only hear the first part of the call, “I will bless you,” and not hear the second part, “You will be a blessing,” would amount to missing meeting God face to face.
In contrast, when we hear the call of God in its entirety, then those who want to become Christians we welcome, and those who don’t we also welcome, and we love and serve and cherish, joining God in seeking their good, seeking their blessing, seeking their peace. We become friends of God, His partners in loving, blessing and changing this world. God sees His kingdom as one inclusive community and, freed from the obsession with our own personal salvation, we begin to live for the salvation of the world.
Knowing God involves us with our neighbour, strangers and enemies. It involves us with the world where the Spirit of God is constantly engaged with every person we see, with every cause for good, with every struggle for justice, with every battle for freedom, with every quest for beauty. The call of Christ was based on the single incentive Jesus emphasised in His ministry.
Bypassing considerations of happiness, power, security, money and friendship, He made a single offer: “If you follow Me, you may be worse off in every way you measure life, except one. I guarantee you this: You will learn to love well.” This is a simple offer. It takes time for the beauty of this pearl to break into one’s consciousness. But once you take a look at this offer, once you start to compare it with any other offer in life, any other treasure, any other goal in life, you start to realise that nothing in this world can possibility compare to becoming a person capable of loving.
Many world religions use a circle as a symbol of inclusion and harmony. I have heard it said that when someone makes a circle and tells you, “You are outside,” you can draw a larger circle around theirs and say, “You are inside.” And our great God can draw the greatest circle of all.
As writer Mike Erre puts it, “The circle of those whom God loves has always been bigger than the church has drawn.
That is the scandal of grace.” God’s love is far more inclusive than any human being or religion can ever be, and those who meet God face to face will see the oneness of us all, and find their greatest joy in friendship with the God “who so loved the world” (John 3:16).