Knowing the Beautiful God

We prove God’s existence by worshiping him and not by advancing so-called proofs. We have here the liturgical and iconographic argument for the existence of God. We arrive at a solid belief in the existence of God through a leap over what seems true, over the Pascalian certitude. According to an ancient monastic saying, “Give your blood and receive the Spirit.”

Paul Evdokimov in The Art of the Icon: A Theology of Beauty

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I have been writing and thinking about the “unknowable God” and the “unnecessary God.” These have been but small attempts to give example and expression to what the Church does in the work of “apophatic” theology – a theology which is beyond words – one which cannot be spoken. The quote from Evdokimov’s wonderful book, given above, goes to the heart of things. He fully understands that what we know of God is not something that is subject to rational argument and proof. For God is a living God and not an idea that we can “grasp.” Salvation itself is not such an idea. Though God is utterly beyond our knowing, He has made himself known and the journey we begin towards that knowledge is transformative. To know God in the manner in which he should be known – is to find ourselves knowing in a manner that, in our sin, has been foreign to us. Both who we know and how we know are part of our salvation.

The learning involved in how we know is perhaps the most challenging of all the things we face within the faith in our modern context. For modernity itself has no language nor place for the kind of knowing involved in the Christian journey of faith. Even the meager glimpse that we have of God in our journey is of infinitely more value that the knowing that comes through mere rational consideration.

The great difficulty is the knowledge of God that is proper to the Christian journey of faith, is that is not sought as knowledge, per se. It comes to us as insight, sometimes suddenly and unexpected, but it comes as the fruit of humility and penance in our lives. The proud do not know God for we are told that “God resists the proud.” Humility is a very difficult struggle, for we learn ourselves to be lower than others rather than greater. This is a great mystery for we are surrounded by those whom we would easily judge to be less than ourselves and greater sinners than ourselves. However, in the truth that is revealed by the light of the Kingdom of God, this is simply not the case. That Holy Light reveals us to be less than others and the least worthy of God’s good favor.

This is a great mystery by most if not all objective standards – thus we must abandon such objective standards for it must be that their evidence is not the truth (or not the truth we seek). We seek the excellence within those around us, and if we then judge, we find ourselves beneath them. Only the heart can see such excellence or our own weakness in its presence.

We hate and fear our own failure when it confronts us and scurry about to find something with which to cover our mistakes. This is the scurrying of Adam and Eve as they sought to cover themselves falsely from the presence of God. Humility would embrace such God-given moments (our failures) not to shame ourselves, but because in such moments our hearts are broken and far more able to see God. I also find (sadly) that when such moments come I am easily more aware of my failure than I am of God’s presence – such is my pride.

However, God does not wish to crush us, to break us beyond all recognition. He is, after all, a kind God.

Embrace the failings that come naturally as we are humbled before ourselves and others. Flee from pride and stubbornness. Beware of being “right.” Give thanks for all things, in all circumstances, and always. God will make Himself known.

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20 Responses to “Knowing the Beautiful God”

  1. Ferial Says:

    Thank you Father for what you wrote here… It spoke to my heart!

  2. Tasty Tidbits 10/13/11 « Tipsy Teetotaler Says:

    […] (Father Stephen Freeman in Knowing the Beautiful God) […]

  3. Margaret Says:

    These are certainly words of hope and encouragement toward humility that I need to hear continually. Thank you! Glory to God for All Things!

  4. Chocolatesa Says:

    Thank you for this, it comes at a really appropriate time for me🙂

  5. Philip Jude Says:

    “Beware of being “right.””

    This is a wise point, Father Stephen. Especially important when conversing with those who have not discovered the love of God. I have slowly learned to refrain from using Christ as a bludgeon. Knowledge, even knowledge of God, puffs-up. Love, love alone, saves, binds, restores, unifies, comforts, heals, convinces.

    +Philip Jude

  6. Andrew Says:

    Wow – well said +Philip Jude.

    Andrew

  7. Manu Says:

    I am an Orthodox Christian recently immigrated to US from India. Whenever I see the debates between atheists and theists here, I feel that it is futile. There is no point in trying to give proof for or against God’s existence from science or material world. God is in the spiritual realm and He can be known only through our souls.

  8. Andrew Says:

    One of the things that drew me to Orthodoxy (as opposed to my wife who dragged me, willingly) was my tiring of having to continuously look for obtuse proofs of what I experienced and felt in my heart. Thanks for Sharing Father!

  9. Darlene Says:

    Father,
    You said, “I also find (sadly) that when such moments come I am easily more aware of my failure than I am of God’s presence – such is my pride.”

    Could you explain what you mean by pride in this case? Isaiah was fully aware of his failures, his insufficiencies, when he exclaimed in the presence of the Almighty, “Woe is me for I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Immediately afterward the seraphim touched his lips with the burning coal and Isaiah’s guilt was taken away and his sin forgiven.

    In Isaiah’s case, he recognized his failure saw his own sinfulness in the presence of God and it was not considered pride at all. Rather, God acknowledged Isaiah’s humility in recognizing his failures. And at the same time Isaiah recognized his failures, he was aware of God’s overwhelming presence.

  10. Kristos Says:

    Dear Fr. Stephen,

    You said, “However, God does not wish to crush us, to break us beyond all recognition. He is, after all, a kind God.”

    My life has been filled with pain and suffering from my childhood on. I was abused as a child and have struggled with seeing myself as being worthless. So when I encounter in my Orthodox prayers and in comments about pride, things like we are to see others as more important than ourselves (or we call ourselves “worthless”), I have a hard time understanding how that shows that God thinks of me as having value.

    Of course I have pride, too. Archimandrite Zacharias encourages those who struggle like I do to give thanks for everything, but to not focus on how others are more important, or that we are worthless–that thanksgiving is a path toward humility. I would like to think I’m not worthless, but that I’m unworthy.

    I’ve also read that St. Maximus the Confessor defined pride as: “The passion of pride consists of two kinds of ignorance; a person with pride is ignorant of God’s help, and ignorant of his need for God. So pride is lack of knowledge about God and about man.” I can see how such ignorance can lead to arrogance, but this is not the same thing as believing I have value, that I have gifts God has given me that I should seek to use, that I have a real contribution and purpose in life, as opposed to being a worthless heap of flesh that is worse than everybody else.

    At times in my life, I have felt as though God is crushing me, is breaking me beyond recognition, and I’ve struggled with keeping my balance between having genuine humility and hating and despising my self and wishing I had never been born.

  11. Philip Jude Says:

    Kristos,

    Look to the Cross, for you worship the God who was nailed to a tree. It sounds simple, but it gets me through difficult and challenging periods.

    +Philip Jude

  12. Barbara Says:

    Dear Kristos

    I like your distinction between unworthy and worthless. Thank you!

  13. Joe Says:

    Fr. Stephen,
    I have a Muslim friend who also claims that he has a peaceful experience and inner certainty about God when he worships Allah. How can I explain to him the difference between my Orthodox experience of God and his experience with Allah without using proofs?

    Thanks,
    Joseph Patterson

  14. Drewster2000 Says:

    Kristos,

    I hear you. If I consider myself worthless – or even less than others – where does that leave me? Why do I have any reason to go on living, let alone attempt to serve God? How?

    The simple answer is that I must move all my hope over to God. I am of course not worthless. To borrow a phrase, “God doesn’t make junk.” But I don’t possess any qualities that can save me, or even give me hope or the will to live.

    If I through faith am able to step out and say that God is the only thing that matters, that He is sun and moon and everything else that my life depends on, only then can God reach through my misery and begin to lift me out of it. This is because only then are my eyes totally looking to Him for help instead of to my own abilities.

    Then He can show me my worth, my place, my reason for being – and I am ready for it. Things look so much different when everything and everyone is in the place it was made to be.

    hope this helps, drew

  15. fatherstephen Says:

    Kristos,
    May God preserve you. Archimandrite Zacharias is spot on in his advice. God does not crush us, neither should be crush ourselves. It’s hard to receive kindness when our live are deeply afflicted. May God give you grace.

  16. fatherstephen Says:

    Joe,
    Pray for him regularly and deeply. How God would accomplish that in his heart in unknown to me.

  17. Philip Jude Says:

    Father,

    Isn’t there a place for persuasion? God gave us reason for, er, a reason. It seems to be our duty — our privilege — to preach the Gospel. Charitably, of course.

    Joe,

    Four quick points:

    1. I recommend you introduce your friend to those parables which emphasize the tender mercy and fatherly forgiveness of God. The prodigal son, perhaps? I’ve heard Muslims respond well to this. Offer to listen to a surah from the Koran in exchange for a couple parables from the New Testament.

    2. Enlighten him as to the integrity of Scripture. It is a historical fact, contrary to Muslim propaganda, that both testaments have been reliably preserved.

    3. Make sure He is aware of the true nature of the Trinity. The Koran distorts it terribly. Make it clear that we believe God is One.

    4. Explore the hadiths with him. Islam is as much the product of the hadiths as it is the Koran. And Muhammad — supposedly the perfect man — exhibits some bizarre tendencies therein (never mind copying many of Christ’s sayings). Compare the behavior of Muhammad as presented by the Koran and the hadiths with the behavior of Jesus in the New Testament.

    And, as Father said, pray pray pray.

    +Philip Jude

  18. Ferial Says:

    Joe,

    I live in a country where the majority is Muslim, and I know for a fact that Jesus seems to deal with them more directly. He has a special way to reach them. Reasoning with them doesn’t help, it makes them want to cling more to the ways of Islam. The only way I know to which they respond extremely well is by loving them and loving them some more. If you show them love and respect, and they can see in you a genuine and honest person who really wants their good, they will listen, they will want what you have, they will ask to know more of your ways, of your God… Believe me, speaking in a bad way about their prophet doesn’t help in any way. Praying for them does miracles.

  19. Philip Jude Says:

    Ferial,

    I agree that it is not productive — never mind right — to slander Mohammad. In my experience, that would be a terrible mistake.

    However, it is important to expose Muslims, more or less directly, to the realities of his life and his teaching, especially as expressed in the all-important hadiths. Many Muslims have not investigated these sources, despite their massive influence in shaping the daily life of Islam.

    It might also be profitable to gently demonstrate that many of his sayings are borrowed from the Gospel. This is why it is also essential to demonstrate the integrity of the Old and New Testaments. Will Muslims give it the time of day if they think it is utterly corrupted?

    Of course, all of this must be done gradually and with great charity and genuine attention to the person’s particular situation. Prayer and persuasion, grace and reason, must work together.

  20. StayinAnglican Says:

    Joe,

    I don’t doubt that your friend as well as many other Muslims have some experience of God as he really is when they pray. The problem is the disconnect between God as he really is and the teachings of Islam. Muslims, being human, have a hard time associating anything negative with what they have personally known about their religion. Their Islam is strictly defined by their personal interactions with their families and other loved ones. But their version of Islam is a lie. Lies cause all kinds of harm both in this world and the next. Lies also obscure so that your friend may only feel content becuase he doesnt know what he doesnt know. He may experience God in a dimmer more abstract way that he otherwise might if he were to recognize the face of God in Jesus Christ. The loving thing to do is to always model Christ as best we can to those who are blind to him and to work to teach them as best as we can whenever we have the opportunity.

    It is also helpful to realize that while we often use similar words to describe things, we can often mean different things. Muslims will use the word love as an attribute of God but their concept of love is limited without knowledge of Christ and his saving work in the flesh. Their understanding literally stops short of the full measure of God’s love. I think we can work with them on those differences but only if we are patient and respectful of them as people first. You are on the right path if you see this person as your friend first. If you honor that friendship, the opportunities to talk about differences will present themselves over many years.

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