My cousin Louis had a drinking buddy—a non-believer—who used to comment on how religious Louis
“Why do you keep saying I'm so religious?” my cousin asked; “I do everything you do.”
“I know,” his friend replied, “but it bothers you!”
If it bothers us when we sin, we know we have accepted God as real.
That is an experience of grace!
Most of us assume that an experience of God is an experience of something outside of us. And it can be that. Moses experienced God speaking from the burning bush. Paul heard Jesus speaking to him on the road to Damascus. But for most of us, the experience of God is an experience of ourselves acting in such a way that we know it is God acting with us, in us, and through us.
We experience God through an act of conversion. More precisely, in an act of surrender.
Matthew’s Gospel brings out the connection between the act or choice of conversion and the experience of relatedness to God. After describing the call to conversion in John the Baptizer's preaching, the next scene Matthew puts before us is Jesus's own symbolic gesture of conversion: his decision to be baptized by John at the Jordan river. This is followed by a profound experience of God. The heavens are opened and Jesus hears the Father saying, “This is my beloved Son!” (Matthew 3:13-17).
This calls our attention to the fact that every authentic conversion is an experience of God. And this experience is an experience of relatedness.
The first fruit of authentic Christian conversion is an experience of relatedness to God. When we convert to Christianity we don't just decide to live and act in a different way; we accept Jesus Christ as our Savior and Teacher of life. The decision to base our lives on faith in his teaching, hope in his power and help, love for what he is and can be for us is a decision to base our lives on relationship with him
The act of accepting Jesus is also, by its nature, an experience of being accepted by him—and, although we may not be aware of it, by the Father and the Holy Spirit:
No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me… You did not choose me but I chose you… No one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit (John 6:44, 15:16; 1Corinthians 12:3).
Our acceptance of Jesus might come to mature awareness only gradually, through many small acts of limited “conversion.” Each time we decide to do good as Jesus defines it, and because we believe in him, instead of doing whatever else we may be inclined to do, we are “converting” to his message and to his person more deeply. Each one of these small and perhaps hardly-noticed “conversions” is an experience—also small and perhaps hardly noticed—of relatedness to him.
When we hear the phrase “experience of God,” we tend to think in terms of some dramatic, emotional moment of special illumination or feeling. We think of an “experience of God” as something we receive rather than do.
There is truth in this, of course. Every experience of grace is an experience of gift; it is receptivity. But we are wrong in assuming that the experience of God is necessarily dramatic, emotional, or even that it is always noticed—although, of course, it is only an “experience” in the measure that in some way we are aware of it. Our experience of God can be like our experience of the sun: we may not be aware of ever “experiencing” a sunrise, and yet the sun is a constant reality to us—as much as it is to those who at some particular moment have been awestruck by its beauty and grandeur.
What is essential to the experience of God is not that we should be able on some conscious, explicit occasion to say with deep feeling, “I am experiencing God!” The essential is simply that we should know he is real to us from the fact that we take him for real.
This is why every authentic Christian conversion is an experience of God. The heavens do not need to open. We do not need to hear the Father's voice. But whenever we consciously choose in faith to take seriously the reality of Jesus Christ and to base our conduct on His teaching, we experience our relatedness to God.
The experience of God which comes to us embodied in the choices we make is a more solid, more lasting, and more dependable experience of God than the kind we associate with visions and ecstasies. Consistent actions performed in faith, simply because we choose to believe (and find ourselves able to choose to believe, which is the experience of grace), even if they come without any felt experience of illumination or any tingling sense of God's reality and closeness, are a more valid experience of God than dramatic, emotional happenings.
It is a common principle among spiritual directors that subjective enlightenments, inspirations and feelings, no matter how extraordinary, are not to be trusted as authentic experiences of God unless they show as their fruit some increase of faith, hope and love in our choices. The choices are the key. This is our Lord's own principle: “By their fruits you shall know them” (Matthew 7:15-23).
Choices are the foundation on which we stand. Our choices are our real experience of life—or of ourselves responding to life, which is the same thing. The experience of God which is embodied in our choices is the experience of God we live by, build on, and use to direct our lives. God is as real to us as the choices in which we respond to him; no more, no less.
Paradoxically, we may experience God's reality to us in choices that refuse him—refuse him but do not ignore Him. If in choices to sin, for example, we are aware, whether dimly or keenly, that we are choosing to go against the reality of God, that reality becomes more vividly a fact of our experience. For many of us, God may have become “real” for the first time—that is, personally, experientially real—the first time we sinned. We chose to act as if God were not there and we discovered that for us he very definitely was. We knew we were sinning, not just against the values of other people (our parents, for example), but against him.
If it bothers us to sin, we know God is real to us.
Perhaps the most common—and strongest—Christian experience of God takes place over a period of years, almost without being noticed. This experience lies latent, like unmined ore, in a series of choices based on faith in God's reality, in his presence, his words, his action through the Church; choices that we could not and would not have made if God were not acting in us by grace.
For example, the choice to pray on our own time and in our own way; the choice not to sin, even when no one will know about it; the choice to take part in the Sunday celebration with personal attention and involvement, even when there is very little “celebration” about it to turn us on; the choice to receive the sacraments believingly and seriously in the deep, quiet solitude of our own hearts—all these choices, repeated over a period of years, form a true, solid foundation of experience of God which is real. As we look back on them we know that God is, and (perhaps for as long as we remember) always has been real to us. We know that our lives have been lived in relationship to him; that he has been a part of them. We also know that he has been acting in our hearts. Nothing else can explain the way we have responded to him.
For the same reason, when people say that going to church is just “meaningless” to them; that Jesus Christ “doesn't seem real,” or that Christianity just doesn't seem to “do anything” for them, the first (not the only) question they should ask themselves is whether they have implicitly chosen to act in some ways that are incompatible with loyalty to Christ. We cannot expect the person of Jesus to have meaning for us in our hearts if, without adverting to it, we have already decided not to accept his words as having meaning for us in our lives.
That is why sins—especially sins rationalized or persevered in—can block our experience of Jesus. In whatever measure we have “made our peace” with sin and accepted it as a part of our life, in that same measure we know—consciously or not—that we have not accepted Jesus. Sins have the effect of drawing a curtain between us and the reality of God in our lives.
Even though we say, and say sincerely, that we believe in Jesus; even though we continue to go to church, pray at times and do other things that are an expression of religion; still, if we are choosing to build into our life things that are incompatible with the teaching and desires of Jesus for us, we know in our hearts that we are not building our lives on relationship with him. This numbs us to the experience of God.
Through our experience of taking God seriously we should expect to come to a deeper awareness and felt conviction about two things. We may not advert at the time to these realizations, any more than we are aware from day to day of the air we breathe, or of the growth of our bodies. But when we look back on our experience of God and our response to him we should be able to see two truths:
- First, that God's identity as related to us has become stronger, clearer to us. Jesus at the Jordan saw God descending upon Him as Spirit, heard God speaking to Him as Father. To begin with, we may have experienced God in a pre-Christian way as Creator, Lawgiver and Judge. But as we matured and his grace within us ripened we experienced God more and more in his true identity as Father, Son and Spirit.
- Secondly, our own identity as related to God has been revealed more and more clearly to us, with deeper and stronger credibility. We hear the Father saying to us, in echo of his words to Jesus, “You are also my beloved son. My favor rests on you.” We see Jesus presenting us to the Father with the words, “This is my Body; this is my own flesh and blood.” We know that we are “in Christ” as members of his Body, acceptable to and loved by the Father as “sons and daughters in the Son.” And the Spirit hovers over us with wide, protecting wings. We have a Paraclete, a Comforter, a Friend. He dwells within us as in a temple made holy by his presence (see Ephesians 2:20-22; 1 Corinthians 6:19).
Matthew follows his account of the preaching of John the Baptizer with the story of Christ's baptism in the Jordan. The first is a call to conversion; the second an experience of God. The connection between them is not just literary, but real: they go together.
(See A Change Within, Chapter Two: “The Experience Of Relatedness To God ).