Help! What is God?
by Ron Nielsen, MD
Hello, are you a Christian? Please, can you help me? I used to be a Christian; maybe I still am. I don’t know. I am not sure. It’s not that I don’t believe anymore; it’s just… I don’t understand any more. I used to believe in God; at least, I thought I did. They told me that if I made a 100% commitment to God and followed His will completely, God would send the Holy Spirit into the world and there would be a mighty revival that would spread throughout the world. The Gospel would be preached to the whole world, and Jesus would come back soon, in my lifetime.
I lost my father as a child, suddenly. As a teenager, I still wanted a father, and I wanted to go home to heaven. I wanted to see my dad again, so I made that commitment. I gave my life to God. For forty years I never considered what I wanted to do. I constantly carried on a dialogue in my head with God, and I always did what God wanted me to do, well, almost always. There were a few things that I just couldn’t do. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to, or didn’t try. I couldn’t. For forty years I fasted and prayed, and couldn’t. Jesus was supposed to save me and give me strength. He seemed to be helping others. Why not me? Doesn’t he love me too? Doesn’t he want me?
Now decades later, I feel the end coming nearer. But where is God? Where is the revival he promised? Why hasn’t Jesus come? I did my part. Why hasn’t God done his? Where did he go? If he doesn’t hurry, I am going to die without ever having seen my father again. Who is God? I thought I knew. I guess I didn’t. Do you?
For that matter, who am I? I don’t even remember. What do I like for breakfast? Do I prefer baked potatoes for dinner, or yams? Do I like my job? What do I like to do for fun, would I rather go to the mountains for a hike or to the lake for a swim? Do I love my wife? I have no idea. I have made so many decisions because that is what I thought God wanted that I don’t even know what I want anymore. When you are 100% committed to God, I believe those aren’t questions you ask. What you want just doesn’t matter. But how can God love me if there is no me to love? How can I be 100% committed to God and do only what God wants me to do and still exist as a person? It seems so tragic to think about dying, having never lived, having never thought about or done anything I wanted. Yes, I have done lots of fun and interesting things, but it wasn’t me really. I thought it was God. I thought it was what God wanted.
Do you know who God is? Can you help me find him? I thought I knew him. I had certain expectations that in retrospect were apparently wrong.
As a child, I thought that God was the one that would protect you and take care of you. If something was going to hurt you, God would intervene. But now that I think about it as an adult, I don’t ever remember seeing him do it. Maybe he did it in a little way, like when my aunt almost died in a car accident, but didn’t. But not in a big way. Never did God act in a way that I could really be sure wasn’t just the result of wishful thinking or chance. If your definition of God is the God who routinely intervenes supernaturally in physical and social laws to prevent harm, then I can tell you with (how many people are in the world, 7 billion?) with an accuracy of 0.143×10-8 that that type of God doesn’t exist, at least not here and now, in this world, the one that you and I live in every day.
I used to think that if you prayed, God would heal you, especially if you had faith. As a palliative care physician working in the intensive care unit, how many families have I watched pray that prayer? How many have pleaded with me to hang on just a little longer, certain that God could even now work a miracle? How many people have prayed that prayer during my lifetime? Surely at least ONE of the families must have had enough faith. And yet, not just me, but none of my colleagues in any hospital in my lifetime has ever seen that prayer answered, at least not in a definite way that you could be certain of. Yes, sometimes patients surprise you, but sometimes patients do better than expected. Is that really God? One scientific study showed that if patients were prayed for, but didn’t know they were being prayed for, there was no statistical difference in outcomes; however, if the patients knew they were being prayed for, they did worse. Really? I don’t get it.
Some people define God as being unknowable. He is the creator, the first cause, the omnipotent and omniscient one who is beyond our understanding. Maybe. I am willing to believe, but how do you distinguish this god from some yet-to-be-discovered natural law? I can’t tell the difference. Can you? I had a friend once observe that if you can’t tell the difference, it doesn’t matter.
Other people say no, God is intimate. If you will believe, you will know. You will experience him. He will talk to you. He will respond to you. You will know because of your relationship.
I thought I had a relationship. One time as a teenager, I thought an angel bumped the bed when I was praying. Later I discovered that I occasionally experienced an involuntary muscle jerk or contraction just before falling asleep. After going through the ABCs of prayer, it seemed like God was answering my prayers, but after several years, it became predictable, almost a joke, that God would answer my prayer three days after the deadline had passed. Prayer started to feel so abusive that I figured it would be better to assume that God knew what I needed and would do what was right.
That little voice in my head that I carried on conversations with, was that God? How can I tell the difference between that God and what the psychologists describe as the internal dialogue that we all carry on constantly between our conscious and unconscious minds? I am not sure I can tell the difference. Maybe I wasn’t doing God’s will after all. Maybe I was really doing what my unconscious mind wanted me to do, and I just thought it was God. That’s scary. On the other hand, maybe I really had a life after all. But then, if I am really doing what I want rather than what God wants, how is that different from Satan’s rebellion? How can you exist as a person with a truly independent will and not become like Satan? It seems that if you never do anything except what God wants, you will never become someone truly unique. There is no way to distinguish your unique, independent thoughts and will from those of God. Again, I don’t get it. Can you help me?
I want to have a relationship with God, but what does that mean? If I have a relationship with God, how would I know? I don’t want to start another relationship with the wrong expectations. What can I honestly expect from God? Is there anything that reliably demonstrates God’s presence, something that every believer can put a finger on and say with certainty, “Here. This is God”?