A PERSONAL RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD?
Song of Songs 3:1-4
I John 4:7-21
"On my bed at night, I sought him whom my soul loves... but found him not... But when I found him, I held him, and would not let him go."
"We love because he first loved us."
In response to my meditation last week someone asked me whether I believe it is possible to have a personal relationship with God. Is it not more rational to believe that the ultimate mystery behind the universe is an impersonal force, however majestic and creative? We may then relate to it in mystic contemplation, but we would not pray in the way Jesus taught us saying: "Our Father," for that implies that God is personal. The God portrayed in the Bible is not an object, an "it," even though the Bible sometimes speaks of God as a "rock" or a mighty fortress. God is rather a "Thou" or subject, the Eternal Father to whom we can personally relate whether in prayer or worship, or in other ways.. But in saying God is personal we are not saying he is simply a big one of us. "We speak of God as personal," as Sam Keen says, "because we are personal, and we have only metaphors created by our time-bound, space-bound imaginations with which to reach the ultimate reality that forever exceeds our grasp." And nothing could be more personal or relational than to say with St. John, "God is love." We may love mountains, trees and beautiful places, but they don't love us. To say God is love means that God loves us and relates to us. The story at the heart of a the Bible is, in fact, a love story.
The Song of Songs (or Solomon) is often interpreted as an allegory of this love story between God and us humans. In the passage we read, the writer describes how he searched everywhere for his lover: "I sought him whom my soul loves; but found him not, I called him but he gave no answer." She went searching all over the town, but still could not find her lover. She asked this person and that, but they did not know where her lover was. Then, all of a sudden she discovered that her lover in the very place from which he had set out in search of him. And when she found him, she held him, and would not let him go.
But the love story in the Bible turns that around. It is not we who are the lovers seeking God, but God who is the lover seeking us to hold and not let go. Right at the beginning God comes looking for Adam in the Garden: "Where are you?" God asks. It is a question God addresses to all of us as he seeks for us. The story of Jesus likewise is the good news that God comes looking for us. "God loved the world so much that he gave his only son..." God, the cosmic lover comes searching for us in a far country, and the moment we turn towards him, he comes running to embrace us. The good news is not that we have to find God in order to establish a relationship with him, but that God comes to us, seeks us out, and finds us right where wherever we are and in whatever condition we might be. "We love God," St. John writes, "because he first loved us!" Even though, like Adam, we may play hide-and seek with God, God does not give up the search, for it is the nature of divine love to seek and to save that which is lost. God is like a bloodhound as Francis Thompson discovered, the veritable "Hound of Heaven":
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the midst of tears
I hid from Him...
Halts by me that footfall:
Is my gloom, after all,
Shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly?
'Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
I am He Whom thou seekest!
Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest Me.
We can hide with Adam or run away with the prodigal, but we cannot escape because we live, move and have our being in the God who is love. And when he finds us he holds us, and will not let us go.
To participate in the life and love of God is not some kind of mystical trance that takes us away from life in the world. On the contrary our relationship with God is inseparable from our relationship with others. It is not only personal but interpersonal. "Those who do not love a brother or sister who they have seen," John writes, "cannot love God whom they have not seen." Right from the beginning of the Bible's love story, love for God is inseparable from love for others. To speak of God as personal and relational, to speak of being in relation to God, about being embraced by God, is inseparable from loving and embracing others. John puts in bluntly: "Those who say, 'I love God,' and hate their brothers or sisters are liars." To be in a truly personal relationship with God means being in a truly personal relationship with others. We don't have to look for God somewhere else because the image of God is sitting, walking, living beside us!
Yes, the God "whom we live, move and have our being" becomes known to us in personal ways, precisely because we are persons who are loved by him. It is for this reason that we are perplexed when God seems to hide his face from us, rather than us from him, or when bad things happen to good people. Yes, the problem of pain and suffering perplexes us and sometimes makes us angry with God and even lose faith. But if God is love it is a love that suffers with us, a love that walks with us through the "valley of the shadow of death," a love which having found us, holds us and does not let us go even when our faith falters.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 23 July 2015