God is not beyond our reach

  • March 30, 2009
Two questions have been ringing in my heart.

One came from a gentle, soft-spoken man named Allan. He suffered terribly as a child, abandoned by his parents, in a country at war.  A man of great faith, he works hard to keep from going to hell after death, because “I’ve been in hell, and I don’t want to go there again.”

How do I get out of hell and get to God? Since hell is so prevalent on Earth, it’s an urgent question. I suspect it’s a fairly common one. Not everyone would consider their lives hell. But at least they might ask: How do I get out of suffering and struggle, anxiety and loneliness, depression and suffering, and get to God?
The second question underlies the remarks of Juanita, a woman who’d been in a tough situation for many months.  Far worse than the depression and unemployment plaguing her was the sense of isolation wrapped around her like a garment, keeping the light from her eyes and the smile from her lips. Sombre and silent, anxious and afraid, she thought she was alone on the planet, with no one to hear or understand her.

Does my anguish cut me off from the rest of humanity? Sometimes that’s the far greater pain. Merely restoring people to functionality is illusory if the root illness is isolation. Real healing, the healing which the New Testament proclaims Jesus brought, returns people to themselves so they can be restored to the community. How much the worse is our “cure” when it also divides us from all other people, especially in a society where suffering itself is considered useless and gruesome and, often, suffering people are too.

How do I get out of my hell and get to God? How do I get out of my isolation and get communion? They are related questions, questions wrung from human hearts since Eve and Adam left paradise. They’re particularly poignant today because of our society’s uncertainty about God — not so much about whether God is, but about who God is. 

Here’s a popular way to describe God: There’s something special inside each of us — some spark of divine life (that’s what we point to when we talk about “spirituality”). The environment, all things that grow and exist around us, the universe, is special too and also seems to have some divine presence that connects us with it. And we’re all connected. All these things together make up the divine, the higher power, or “God” if you will.

It’s a common view these days. Attractive, too.  C.S. Lewis wrote, from his earlier point of view as an atheist, that two ideas of God seemed plausible. One was the notion just described, namely pantheism — the divine is the sum of all that is. “The Force,” in the Star Wars movies, is a modern example of pantheism and of why pantheism is so appealing.

It’s not, however, the way Christianity sees God. God is the One who voluntarily reaches out from His own being into nothingness, to draw into His being creatures who are not Himself, who are other than He is (though like Him in some way). If all these creatures were blotted out, God would still exist, undiminished. He doesn’t depend on them for being; they depend on Him. Their being is given and sustained and fulfilled by His, and because they are connected with Him, all are connected with each other. 

This is the antidote Christianity offers to Juanita’s isolation. It names the One who is truly other than us, but not beyond our reach. Not only are we not alone in the universe, but the universe isn’t alone either; it’s within the embrace of Love who called it to be. That’s why, during Lent, the church dares to call us into solitude, to withdraw from the world and come into the aloneness of our hearts.

Words aren’t enough for such suffering as Juanita and Allan expressed, in their different ways. On Good Friday we’ll be offered not words, but silence: the silence of the abandoned cross, of death itself; the silence of the empty tomb, the empty tabernacle; the silence of our own hearts before evil — or rather, before Love present in the midst of sin and evil. Only by entering into this silence, by descending with Christ into the tomb, into hell itself, will we be able to ask Allan’s question: “how do I get out of hell and get to God?” Perhaps we don’t, Allan. Perhaps God reaches out to us in hell. Here we can claim the song of the Easter Vigil:

“Christ has conquered! Glory fills you!

… This is the night when Jesus Christ vanquished hell

And rose triumphant from the grave….

Night truly blessed, when heaven is wedded to Earth

And all creation reconciled to God!”