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HOW DO WE KNOW GOD EXISTS?
Psalm 139 John 7: 17 1 Corinthians 13:12
I:-- "Does God exist? Does God exist for sure?" There is no single sentence which can persuade the doubter or the sceptic. There is no single twenty-minute sermon which can nail down the case for God. There isn't a four hundred-page book which will prove, beyond any refutation, that God is. In fact, there is no proof, irrefutable proof that will convince anyone possessed of elemental logic, that God exists.
At the same time, there is no proof that God doesn't exist. Sigmund Freud maintained that what people call "God" is simply their wishful thinking projected outside themselves. People believe in God because deep down they want to; they invent God in the way that a child invents an imaginary playmate. But of course this argument cuts both ways. We can just as easily turn Freud's argument back on Freud himself and say that people don't believe in God because they (Freud included) don't want to or don't dare to; they find it convenient not to have God around and therefore they invent God's absence the way a child wishes away someone she doesn't like.
II -- To be sure, there have always been arguments which claimed to prove God's existence, such as the argument from design. If you came upon a wristwatch lying on the sand of a deserted beach, you would have to conclude there was a watchmaker around somewhere. The universe appears to be a grand design, it is sometimes said. Therefore, there must be a designer. But of course the question is begged. After all, when we see a watch we already know it's been designed by a watchmaker. But when we look at the universe, we don't already know it's been designed. Eight billion years ago a huge meteor crashed to the earth at Sudbury. The force and heat of the impact left lines in patterns on the rocks around Sudbury. The lines on the rocks are exactly twelve degrees apart, like evenly-spaced-wheel-spokes. But we shouldn't speak of a "design" here, simply because no one designed these impact-lines twelve degrees apart. It was a random occurrence. The pattern was formed by accident. No one who doubts the existence of God travels to Sudbury and comes away exclaiming, "Now I really know that God exists!" Other arguments which attempt to prove God's existence never quite prove it. Or at least a philosopher seems to have proved God's existence when another philosopher refutes the proof, only to have a third philosopher refute the refutation. In other words, "proofs" of God's existence are forever inconclusive.
III -- Nevertheless, if we cannot prove that God exists (or doesn't exist) might there be some pointers which incline us in one direction or the other?
[a] Let's be honest. There are pointers which suggest that God doesn't exist, or at least that a God worth believing in doesn't exist. Think of the evil that scourges people. A parishioner in my former congregation spoke to me of her relatives, husband and wife, who waited for years to have a child. At last they had the child of their dreams. A baby girl. Before long they noticed something peculiar about the baby's eyes. An ophthalmologist informed them that the eyes were diseased. Before the child was six months old both eyes had been removed.
A pastor from Lithuania visited New York City where he listened to some American clergy discussing their work. The discussion struck the Lithuanian pastor as insufferably shallow. Finally he said quietly, "I was a pastor during the last war. The front (i.e., the leading edge of the fighting) surged back and forth through my village eight times. After it had passed each time, all I did was bury people, mostly children."
Most of the world is hungry. In Latin America a handful of very rich people own virtually all the farmland. They use it to grow luxury crops, like carnations for dining-room table decorations in North American homes. The wretched poor have no access to the land; they are not allowed to grow the food they need. At the same time, they are paid such a pittance for their semi-slave labour that they cannot afford to purchase the food they need. They remain malnourished and disease-ridden. My cousin went to Honduras as part of a visiting medical team. He found people lining up at the clinic at five o'clock in the morning. All of them were infected with something. They all had fevers, high fevers in some cases. Many of them had been infected and feverish all their lives.
The suffering some people have to endure is simply indescribable. When I was newly ordained I became friends with a fellow my age who was also fresh out of seminary. He had come from a large family (eleven children) and had had to go into debt in order to prepare for the ministry, since his parents could provide no financial help. He was serving a small congregation which paid the minimum salary, scarcely enough to live on in those days, never mind retire a debt. One evening as he told me how long it would take him to get out of debt (by now he had three children) he wryly remarked to me, "You know, it costs a fortune to be God's witness." Later four inoperable tumours appeared in his head. "It costs a fortune to be God's witness." Does God care a fig for the love and devotion and sacrifice of his servants?
Then perhaps God doesn't exist. At least a God worthy of being loved and adored and obeyed doesn't exist.
[b] But hold on a minute! If God isn't, simply isn't, then there are sober consequences to be faced.
If God isn't, then there is no ultimate redress for human suffering. The terrible unfairness which victimizes people heartlessly in life is never redressed finally, ultimately. Those whose lives were afflicted ceaselessly with much less privilege and much greater pain never have it made up to them, never. Victimized in life, they are cheated still in death. The random loose ends of anyone's life are never gathered up and woven together definitively. Life is just a bagful of loose ends as pointless finally as it is patternless now.
If God isn't, then there is no true meaning to life, no transcendent meaning, no ultimate meaning. Certainly there can be a meaning to life without God. There can be a thousand different meanings, all the way from what is humanly profound to getting rich through the porn trade or pulling the slot machine handle in a provincial casino. People who pursue these matters find them exceedingly meaningful. But if God isn't then whatever meaning we find in life is a matter of mere whim, mere taste. Which is to say, there is no true meaning, no transcendent meaning, no eternal meaning, nothing more that this person's opinion or that person's taste. In a word, there is nothing ultimately substantial and finally perduring for us to pursue in life. If God isn't then life ultimately "signifies nothing" (in Shakespearean vocabulary).
In the third place if God isn't then we can never know what is good just because there is no ultimate good to be known; there is no good which isn't finally arbitrary; there is no good beyond this culture's assertion of what it deems good or that culture's assertion or someone else's guess as to what might be good or what we hope is good.
If God isn't then what is now called "God" is at bottom mere preference. It may not appear to be mere preference. The preference may be preceded by and followed by reasoning of greater or less rigour, arguments of greater or less cogency, wisdom of greater or less persuasiveness. Nonetheless, at the end of the day, if God isn't then there is no good which is eternally good inasmuch as there is no good which is good because it's of the nature of the eternal God himself.
If God isn't, finally, then life is a capricious jumble headed for a death whose very deadliness reaches back and begins to deaden life long before we die.
On the one hand, if God does exist, there are hard questions to be asked. On the other, if God doesn't exist, there are equally hard questions to be asked. Then where are we?
IV: -- We are precisely where the psalmist was when he was surprised by the Voice. The Voice: "Be still, and know that I am God!" (Psalm 46: 10) "Be still". The Hebrew means, "Stop being frantic. Stop your frenzy. Stop doing flip-flops in your mind and heart (`Does God exist, does God not exist?') Stop going around in circles. Just be still for a moment and know -- come to know -- that I am God".
Even if we can be still in this sense, how are we ever going to know that God is God? We have to take one step forward in however little faith we have. One step. As we do, we shall find that this one step is confirmed as a step along The Way. This one step is confirmed as God's way, God's truth, and God's wisdom. Which is to say, God himself confirms himself to us as God. Whereupon we shall take a second step. After all, one step ventured in the littlest light we have means greater light; a second
step, greater light still until that day when faith gives way to sight and we are bathed in the light of him who is eternal light. On the other hand, one step not taken in the littlest light we have means greater darkness; another step not taken greater darkness still until that day when non-faith gives way to irrecoverable blindness and we are sunk in that darkness which our Lord never hesitated to call "outer darkness".
But what is the first step we should take? There are dozens. Begin anywhere. Begin where what is regarded as the truth of God seems to collide with the inclination of your own heart. For instance, the book of Hebrews tells us we must uproot any root of bitterness in our heart, lest many people (including us) become defiled. When next we are kicked or betrayed and have every reason for allowing the root of bitterness to thrive, THIS TIME we are going to root it out and see what happens. We find that we have spared people defilement, including ourselves. We find that we have promoted reconciliation and peace, THE work of God. We understand now what it is that makes the kingdom of God the kingdom of God and how the kingdom of God differs from the kingdoms of this world. Truth and reality are stamped on us. Which is to say, God has taken on a solidity, a density, which he had always lacked for us.
Or our first step can be taken elsewhere. Having trifled with "Now I lay me down to sleep" for too long we resolve to get serious about praying. Either we are going to get serious or we are going to give up the childish recitations as surely as the person who is no longer a child is finished with thumbsucking. We start with ten minutes a day wherein we mean business. After a month we know perfectly well why Jesus never argued for prayer but simply regarded it as as natural and as necessary as breathing. Another step along the way is confirmed as truth. Which is to say, God looms bigger for us.
The apostle Paul tells us that love is not irritable or resentful; neither does it rejoice at wrong. Let's be honest: love is hard work. Kindness pressed upon others without regard for their merit or our recompense -- this is hard work in the face of situations where it's easy to be irritable or resentful or vengeful. Yet as we become "still"; i.e., as we dampen down our frenzied irritability and resentment and pursue kindness we "know", profoundly know, the very God whose love for us is a persistent self-giving without regard for our merit or his recompense. As we take even as small a step as the three or four we have mentioned today enough light appears for a second step. And then a third.
Several years ago I visited the Sojourners Community in Washington, D.C. For years now the Sojourners Community has exercised a ministry in what is deemed to bet the worst slum in the USA. At the time I was interested in ministering to poor people, and so I arranged to visit the community and speak with members of the congregation. (I might say in passing that while I learned much, I didn't learn a great deal that could be used immediately in Canada, and this for two reasons. One, the social history of the United States is hugely different from the social history of Canada, if only on account of the horrific blight that slavery has been and its aftermath continues to be. Two, the American poor are much poorer, vastly poorer, than the Canadian poor. What we call slums in Canada bear no resemblance to slums in the U.S) While I was in Washington I stayed at the home of Paul and Joanne Sparacio. Paul had been raised in an agnostic household and had remained an agnostic throughout his teenage years and early adulthood. He had gone to Viet Nam in the U.S. Army. He had been in firefights of the sort depicted in movies like Platoon or Apocalypse Now: phosphorus flares soaring into the air, illuminating the battle scene; machine-gun fire, grenade explosions, mortar fire, tracer bullets glowing like laser beams, men screaming in terror and pain. He told us he knew that if he raised himself six inches off the ground he was gone. Eventually he returned to the USA and enrolled in a southern university. He was still an agnostic. The students who belonged to the Christian organizations on the campus turned him off utterly. Many of these Christian students who babbled so cavalierly about their beloved master were racist to the core. They were bent on using religion to reinforce social superiority. Paul Sparacio told these students that he wasn't a Christian, didn't want to be, and despised the God they believed in, if such a God there were. Thanks to the Christian students he was no longer an agnostic; he was now a soundly converted atheist. Then one day Paul began to suspect -- for who knows what reason, in that providence of God which remains forever mystery -- that these students might have misrepresented Jesus Christ. He avoided the students and began reading the New Testament itself. The Sermon on the Mount arrested him. He found himself taking that one step. "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied". And the longing -- the profoundest hunger and thirst -- which he had never been able to identify was now identified in the moment of its being met. "Don't be anxious...but seek first God's kingdom, and what you have will be enough". The kingdom confirmed itself as truth.
I admit, our first step or two may seem artificial, but not for long. Our first step or two may seem awkward, even contrived, even embarrassing to us, but not for long. The day comes when we know with all the assurance we shall ever need that God is and we are God's child. God is. God thrives. God throbs in his people.
Just when we get to this point of conviction and assurance, just when we have come to know that God is God, something peculiar happens to us. We understand that while we do know God, knowing God isn't as crucial as being known by God. Being known is always more profound than knowing. When we were little children and felt strange or frightened, what we knew brought very little comfort. (How much does a child know?) Far more important was the fact that we were known; we were known by our parents. We were known by people we could trust; we were known by those who knew vastly more than we knew. The ground of our confidence and comfort and reassurance wasn't anything that we knew; it was rather that we were known.
The psalmist says he has been searched by God and is now known by God. Paul says that regardless of how well we might know God, we are a long way from knowing God fully -- even though we are fully known by God right now. The God who knows us fully now wants only to bless us as our knowledge of him grows surely, however slowly, until that day when we do know fully -- as fully as God knows every one of us at this moment.
It all begins with one step.
Victor Shepherd November 2002