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The way of the burning heart

(except from ‘Hearing God: building an intimate relationship with the creator’ by Dallas Willard)

I have tried to clarify what hearing God amounts to, and make a life with God’s guidance, in the Way of Jesus, accessible to anyone who would enter it.  I have aimed to give a biblical and experiential understanding of the theory and practice of that life.  Now, as we come towards the end of the book, I am still painfully aware of the one great barrier that might hinder some people’s efforts to make such a life their own.  That barrier is what Henry Churchill King many years ago called ‘the seeming unreality of the spiritual life’.  We could equally well speak of it as ‘the overwhelming presence of the visible world’.

The visible world daily bludgeons us with its things and events.  They pinch and pull and hammer away at our bodies.  Few people arise in the morning as hungry for God as they are for cornflakes or toast and eggs.  But instead of shouting and shoving, the spiritual world whispers at us ever so gently.  And it appears both at the edges and in the middle of events and things in the so called ‘real world’ of the visible.

God’s spiritual invasions into human life seem, by their very gentleness, almost to invite us to explain them away - even while soberly reminding us that to be obsessed and ruled by the visible is death, but to give one’s self over to the spiritual is life and peace (Romans 8:6).

Progress towards becoming a spiritually competent person finds its greatest hindrance in teh ease with which the movements of God towards us can be explained away.  They go meekly, without much protest.  Of course his day will come, but for now he cooperates with the desires and inclinations that make up our character, as we are gradually becoming the kind of person we will forever be.  That should send a chill down our spine.

God wants to be wanted, sufficiently wanted that we are ready, predisposed, to find him present with us.  And if, by contrast, we are ready and set to find ways of explaining away his gentle overtures, he will rarely respond with fire from heaven.  More likely, he will simply leave us alone - and we shall have the satisfaction of thinking ourselves not to be gullible.

The test of character posed by the gentleness of God’s approach to us is especially dangerous for those formed by the ideas which dominate our modern world.  We live in a culture which has, for centuries now, cultivated the idea that the skeptical person is always smarter than one who believes.  You can be almost as stupid as a cabbage, as long as you doubt.  The fashion of the age has identified mental sharpness with a pose, not with genuine intellectual method and character.  Only a very hardy individualist or social rebel - or one desperate for another life - therefore stands any chance of discovering the substantiality of the spiritual life today.  Today it is the sceptics who are the social conformists, though because of powerful intellectual propaganda they continue to enjoy thinking of themselves as wildly individualistic and unbearably bright.

Partly as a result of this social force towards scepticism, which remains very powerful when we step into Christian congregations and colleges for ministers, very few people ever develop competence in the life of prayer.  It is chiefly because they are prepared to explain away as ‘coincidences’ the answers which come to the prayers that they do make.  Often they see this as a sign of how intelligent they are.  (‘Ha! I am not so easily fooled as all that!’)  And in their pride they close off the entrance to a life of increasingly confident and powerful prayer.  They grow no further, for they have proven, ‘to their own satisfaction’, that prayer is not answered.

Nearly all areas of life where we could become spiritually competent confront us with the same type of challenge, hearing God and divine guidance among them.  They all require of us a choice to be a spiritual person, to life a spiritual life.  We are required to ‘bet our life’ that the visible world, while real, is no reality itself.

We cannot make spirituality ‘work’ without a significant degree of confidence and commitment that the visible world is always under the hand of the unseen world of God.  Our own spiritual substance and competence grows as we put what faith we have into practice, and thereby learn to distinguish and count on the characteristic ‘differences’ that begin to emerge as the presence of God in our life.  This is how, through the gospel of Christ, God’s righteousness - what it is about him that makes him absolutely good, really okay - is revealed from faith to faith (Romans 1:17).

The greatest of divides between human beings and human cultures is between those who regard the visible world as being of primary importance - possibly alone real, or at least the  touchstone of reality - and those who do not.  Today we live in a culture that overwhelmingly gives primary, if not exclusive, importance to the visible.  This stance is incorporated in the power structures that permeate our world, disseminated by the education system and government.

But God, as well as the human mind and heart, is not visible.  It is so with all truly personal reality.  ‘No one has ever seen the Father,’ Jesus reminds us.  And while you know more about your own mind and heart than you could every say, little to none of it was learned by sense perception.  God and the self accordingly meet in the invisible world because they are invisible by nature.  They are not parts of the visible world, though both are related to it.

The second of the ten commandments tries to help us find God by forbidding us to think of him in visual terms (Exodus 20:4).  It forbids us to think of him in visual terms (Exodus 20:4).  It forbids the use of images as representations of the divine being.  The entire weight of the history of Israel - and its extension through Jesus and his people - presses towards the understanding of God as personal, invisible reality.  This God invades history to call human beings individually to choose whether they will live in covenant relation with him, or put something else - always something visible - in the place of ultimate importance.

This is the challenge which I face every day when I wake.  It walks with me through the events of each day.  Will I, like Moses, ‘endure as seeing him who is invisible’?  Will I listen for God and then obey?  For me this tension is what it means to live as one who is learning  from Christ how to live in the Kingdom of God.  Right where I am, moment to moment, I sweat it out with my brother Paul: ‘My visible self may be perishing, but inwardly I am renewed day to day ... producing something far greater than my troubles, and eternal in its glory, while we disregard the seen and focus on the unseen’ (2 Corinthians 4:16-18 paraphrase).

God is not insensitive to our problem of overcoming the power of the visible world.  He invades the visible.  The elaborate visible provisions dictated to Moses by God - the rituals and equipment of sacrifice, tabernacle and so forth - provided a point of constant interaction in the visible world between the invisible God and the people he had selected to reconcile the world to himself.  There was to be a continual sacrifice, morning and evening, at the door of the tent of meeting between God and the Israelites, ‘where I will meet with you, and speak to you’.  This is the form in which God chose to ‘dwell among the children of Israel and be their God’ (Exodus 29:42-6).

The ‘speaking’ here was not something metaphorical, as the biblical records clearly indicate.  There was an audible voice, usually with no visible presence.  Although still ‘physical’ in the manner of sounds, it was a step away from the visible towards the unseen and spiritual world (Deuteronomy 4).  As for Moses himself, when he ‘entered the Tent of Meeting to speak with the Lord, he heard the voice speaking from above the cover over the Ark of the Testimony from between the two cherubim: the voice spoke to him’ (Numbers 7:89).

We have seen that the audible voice unaccompanied by visible presence continued well into the events of the New Testament.  No doubt it can occur today as well, since God is still ‘alive and well on planet earth’.  But the tendency of life in Christ is progressively towards the ‘inward word’ to the receptive heart.  The aim is to move entirely into the hidden realm of spiritual reality, where God desires to be worshipped (John 4:24).  

God’s audible voice ‘from Heaven’ also came in the presence of Jesus.  But, as he himself explained on one occasion where an audible voice came from Heaven, ‘This voice spoke for your sake, not for mine’ (John 12:28-30).  Jesus constantly presses us towards a life with our ‘Father who is in secret’ (Matthew 6:6), towards an eternal kind of life in the invisible and incorruptible realm of God.

After his resurrection, he appeared to his disciples in visible form only on a very few occasions over a period of forty days.  His main task as their teacher during these days was to accustom them to hearing him without seeing him.  Thus it was ‘through the Holy Ghost’ that he gave instructions to his Apostles during this period (Acts 1:2).  He made himself visible to them just enough to give them confidence that it was him speaking in their hearts.  This prepared them to continue their conversation with him after he no longer appeared to them visibly.

An instructive scene from these very important days of teaching is preserved in the last chapter of Luke’s Gospel.  Two of his heartbroken students were walking to Emmaus, a village about seven miles northwest of Jerusalem.  He caught up with them in a visible form which they did not recognize, and heard their sad story about what had happened to ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ - and about how, it seemed, all hope was lost.

He responded by taking them through the Scriptures and showing them that what had happened to their Jesus was exactly what was to befall the Messiah Israel hoped for.  Then, as they sat at supper with him, suddenly ‘their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; but he vanished from their sight’ (v31).  But the recognition went far deeper than the visual, and that was the whole point.  They asked one another, ‘Were not our hearts on fire as he talked with us on the road and explained the scriptures to us?’

What were they saying to one another?  They were recalling that his words had always affected their ‘heart’, inward life, in a peculiar way.  That had been going on for about three years, and no one else had that effect on them.  So they were asking themselves ‘Why did we not recognize him from the way his words were impacting us?’ The familiar ‘Jesus heartburn’ had, no doubt, been a subject of discussion among the disciples on many occasions.

Soon he would meet with them one last time as a visible presence.  There, in the beauty and silence of the Galilean mountains, he would explain to them that he had been given authority over everything in heaven and on the earth.  Because of that, they were now to go to every kind of people on earth and make them his students, surround them with the reality of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and teach them how to do all the things he had commanded.

You can well imagine the small degree of enthusiasm with which these poor fellows rose to greet the assignment.  But his final words to them were simply, ‘Look, I am with you every minute, until the job is done’ (Matthew 28:20 paraphrase).  He is with us now, and he speaks with us and we with him.  He speaks with us in our heart, which burns from the characteristic impact of his word.  His presence with us is, of course, much greater than his words to us.  But it is turned into companionship only by actual communications we have between us and him, and which are frequently confirmed by external events as life moves along.

This companionship with Jesus is the form which Christian spirituality, as practiced through the ages, takes.  Spiritual people are not those who engage in certain ‘spiritual practices’, but those who draw their life from a conversational relationship with God.  They do not live their lives merely in terms of the human order in the visible world: they have ‘a life beyond’.

Today, as God’s trusting apprentices in the Kingdom of the Heavens, we live on the Emmaus  road, so to speak, with an intermittently burning heart.  His word pours into our heart, energizing and directing our life in a way which cannot be accounted for in ‘natural’ terms.  The presence of the physical world is, then, if I will have it so, no longer a barrier between me and God.  My visible surroundings become, instead, God’s gift to me, where I am privileged to see the rule of Heaven realized through my friendship with Jesus.  He makes it so in response to my expectation.  There, in some joyous measure, creation is seen moving towards ‘the glorious liberty of the children of God’ - all because my life counts for eternity as I live and walk with God.

Now is the shining fabric of our day
Torn open, flung apart, rent wide by love.
Never again the tight, enclosing sky,
The blue bowl or the star-illumined tent.
We are laid open to infinity,
For Easter love has burst His tomb and ours.
Now nothing shelters us from God’s desire -
Not flesh, not sky, not stars, not even sin.
Now glory waits so He can enter in.
Now does the dance begin.

David Wanstall, 27/03/2008