Is GOD near or far?: Looking at Faith and Religion
“For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.”
Many people believe in GOD but don’t know GOD intimately as those who are born again claim to experience Him. How can I know that? Because I’ve been in both camps — which I’d call the “before” and “after” camps: before being born again and after being born again.
What’s the difference between born again and not born again? And why does it matter?
Firstly: What’s the difference between being born again or not born again? Biblical Christianity puts the Bible as the first reference point. Born again people generally do that. We base our lifestyle on whether or not it lines up with the Bible’s recommendations for a peaceful and fulfilled life. Although sometimes we fail in our walk, the Bible is our guideline, our plumb line, our reference point.
However, that isn’t a sufficient explanation because many adhere to the strict code or legalistic lifestyle of following the rules in the Bible, not because they have had a revival in their hearts but because they are religious about their commitment to ensuring society — or at least their family — tows the line!
Being born again is a realisation that ‘I want to follow Jesus and I cannot live the life I want to lead without him; and then it is a decision to commit my life to him, to surrender and start again, to look ahead and not behind, and to allow the Holy Spirit to lead me.’ And then there is baptism which is a public profession and experience of being immersed in water as Jesus was.
“What must we do” to be saved? some asked Peter in Acts 2:38. “Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
Let’s make no assumptions as to salvation of another person…. Only GOD sees our hearts.
To be born again means we’ve repented of our mistakes, and surrendered our lives to Jesus. This is what makes us “saved” according to John 3:16 (and other verses of course). But isn’t that also what we do in the Protestant Church when we get confirmed or in the Roman Catholic church when we go to confession?
An aside for a moment…
There is a specific trigger for this my writing this post: I mentioned to someone recently that I was sad that they were keeping GOD at arms length, although I was delighted they had faith in Him. The response was polite but the person did take exception to my comment.
I suppose it seemed as though I had made an assumption that I knew their relationship with GOD. So the other person was taken aback by my comment, which is quite right and a fair point… no one can know another’s relationship to GOD.
AND YET, there are certain markers. The most apparent one is, Do we put GOD first!? Is our relationship with Him the most important in our lives? With this question in mind, I continue on the main track once again…
How do we know we have a personal relationship with GOD?
- We need the Holy Spirit. He is the comforter whom Jesus ascended into heaven in order to send after him. He, like the father and the son, is GOD (John 14).
- Jesus said we must be “born again” (John 3:16) – which is to have a personal encounter with the living GOD, based upon an experience or decision or both, where we willingly die to our old life and seek to start again, knowing GOD is listening. We can trust we are forgiven and are reborn, brand new and without sin.
- Paul wrote we must have faith in order to please GOD (Ephesians 2), and that we are saved by His grace. Faith, by definition is, “the substance of what we hope for”, it is evidence-based. James says faith without works is dead, so while works includes good deeds, it also includes a tangible hunger for GOD’s Word, the Bible (more below). Without faith it is impossible to please GOD (Hebrews 11:6). And – by the way – faith comes from GOD. It is a fruit of His Spirit (Galatians 5:22); we can’t drum it up. But we can ask for it!
- Do we have a desire and commitment to our relationship with GOD which is lasting and ongoing?…. I thought my friend was keeping GOD at arms length. Did I presume or did I sense or observe a lack of engagement?
- Do you have a hunger for the Bible as GOD’s Word? In John 1:1 we read, “In the beginning was the Word….. and the was GOD and the Word became flesh…” That’s Jesus! Do you “Love the LORD your GOD with all your heart, soul, mind…. (Jesus quoted Deuteronomy)? Good works without the Love of GOD first, is NOT Christianity, but simply good deeds. Are you a person wearing the label Christian? Does that mean you are going to heaven? Being a person who believes in Jesus is a necessary start, but that alone doesn’t mean one is going to heaven. According to Jesus’ own words, to some he will say, “I never knew you.” (Matthew 7:23) You can’t whip up your faith. You can only follow; ask and it will be given, seek and you will find; knock and the door shall be opened to you.
- Have you passion to know GOD? It can grow! I was ignorant but I was open… and then the Spirit of GOD began to convict me of my ignorance. I chose to listen. Through 3 different people in the space of 48 hours, I heard “My people are destroyed/perishing for lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4:6) and I realised I was one of those people!
- So much hinges on the Bible, our hunger for it, our growth from it. I started at the top of this post with Hebrews 4: “Word of GOD is living and powerful, sharper than a two-edged sword” ….. “and discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” Our walk hinges on the Word of GOD, which is why Paul writes to Timothy and says, “study to show yourself approved…” A deep study of theology reveals how Jesus’ identity matters, that only as the son of GOD, only he could take our place on the cross, taking all our sin — everyone’s sin — and then how painfully he was abandoned as evidenced by his question to his Father, “why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15) The more we study, the more we can grow. And yet, even this is not what gets us into heaven.
- Is the Holy Spirit active and alive within us: convicting us of sin, prompting us to dig deeper. Do we allow the Holy Spirit to go to the heart of our matter, not only touching our minds? What leads us to heaven is to have our names written in the Lamb’s Book of Life (Revelation 21). And it is through relationship with the Lamb of GOD, through the Holy Spirit, through our following him, that we are born again, saved for our place in heaven. Jesus said, “In my house are many mansions…” and “I go to prepare a place for you.” (John 14:2).
These are markers of our relationship with GOD. But of course, only GOD knows the heart.
On the structures of religion in Christianity
What about the ceremonies of religious denominations?
- What about confirmation then? And our promises and vows made to GOD at this time? Is this less than baptism? Zach 4:6 says, “Not by might, nor by power but by My Spirit says the LORD of hosts.” At Jesus’ baptism it was then that the Spirit descended upon him like a dove.
- IF GOD is at the centre, then do we get to choose how we come to Him? Intimacy, unity, lap of Abba/Daddy comes through baptism: sign, obedience, step of commitment. Some people are committed born again believers and yet they are in a culture where they are confirmed rather than baptised. Does them make a difference to GOD? All I know is that I was confirmed at 16, born again at 24 and was challenged at 31 to be baptised. GOD convicted me and I was baptised. It was only then, after my first 7 years as a Christian, that I truly began to grow: hunger, read, pray, improve my human relationships. I believe I was saved from 24 and destined for heaven. But it was after 31 that I really, really began to grow and be useful to others — helping them to grow in the likeness of Jesus.
So, what’s the difference between GOD being near or far?
Our relationship with GOD, which includes our hunger for His Word and our prayer life through the Spirit, is what makes the difference between a person of religion or faith and the person who is born again.
We can define our relationship with GOD as something that goes far beyond attending church, though developing fellowship with other believers is important.
Romans 12:1-2 says, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”
We surrender and we allow our minds to be renewed (not washed as in brain washed) seeing things from GOD’s perspective, beyond what we know and see in the here-and-now. And within us, we’ll notice that there is much more is going on as we develop our understanding of GOD’s Spirit within us.
Why bother with church?
And yes we attend church for fellowship, because iron sharpens iron, and being part of a family keeps us strong and supported. If we merely attend a religious act or ceremony, it may take us to church but does it help us or others to grow? To be with the people: our brothers and sisters in Christ, who also have a relationship with GOD is a wonderful opportunity to share His love, to discuss His word, and to grow in His likeness. When we are in fellowship, we have the opportunity to work as one body: hands, eyes, ears, hearts all working together to give us the ability to function fully. (1 Corinthians 12)
And finally, in our walk we look ahead not behind: “Forgetting what is behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the upward call of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:13-14) It is not our behaviour, our deeds, our successes or our failures that marks us for an intimate relationship with GOD… but it is our hearts — our yearning for Him and the growth of our spirit within us — which sets us apart for Him.
Conclusion about religious Christianity: Jesus tore into the religious pharisees because they were hypocrites many times in Matthew and of them he also said,
“Brood of vipers! How can you, being evil, speak good things? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” (Matthew 12:34) Religion alone does not cut it with Christ.
We cannot presume anyone’s level of intimacy or faith with GOD our heavenly Father. But we can encourage intimacy, sincerity, and if we meet with opposition, we can pray for that heart to be convicted and that mind to be renewed. If the spirit dwells within, alive — born again — and well, then the person will experience conviction. He or she will choose what to do with that, and they are encountering the living Creator of the Universe. When that occurs, GOD is at work and the “arms length” no longer applies.
Secondly: Why does it matter whether or not we are born again?
It matters to GOD whether we are born again because Jesus said ‘unless you are born again you cannot see the kingdom of GOD’. So arms length or intimacy now is not only about how we experience GOD now, but also where we end up later…
Where are we at now?
Reader, Are you a long-term believer or one new to the faith?
Solution: Read the Word. Spend time with GOD in prayer. You’ll find answers.
Reader, are you a person with faith who doesn’t know how to get closer to GOD or even whether or not you want to?
Solution: Read the Word. Spend time with GOD in prayer. You’ll find answers.
Reader, are you a person who doesn’t believe?
Solution: That’s okay, you can read the Word and even ask GOD if He’s there, in prayer. You’ll find answers.
Is GOD at arms length or intimate with you?
We are all equal as human beings. GOD offers us all the same opportunity. He meets us wherever we’re at and if we allow Him, He draws us to Him, from arms length to close.
I pray you’ll be closer to Him today than you were yesterday. I pray that for myself too.
Shalom — I ask for GOD’s peace for you, and GOD’s blessing too.