The desire to draw close to God is as innate as our need for food or water. In the same way that it is unnatural for the man to be “alone” (Genesis 2:18) in relation to other people, it is also a bad thing for him to be alone in a spiritual sense. C.S. Lewis writes, “Since we do in reality need one another, then the failure of this need to appear as Need-love in consciousness is a bad spiritual symptom; just as a lack of appetite is a bad medical symptom because men do really need food” (The Four Loves, Lewis, 13). Throughout time, in fact, man has been seeking closeness with the divine, for better or for worse. Adam and Eve, sought closeness with God by eating of the fruit of tree of knowledge. In this grotesque way, they believed that knowledge would make them similar, and thus closer, to their creator. The men of Genesis 11 twisted this desire into something unholy when they built the great tower – thinking they could literally build a tower reaching into the heavens. The Pharisees believed their intense patriotism and religiosity could bring them close to God. Even Jesus Himself stated that many unworthy people were “forcing their way” into the kingdom of God (Luke 16:16).
So how do we draw near to God in the right way? This lesson will actually be the first of several lessons that address the problem of intimacy in our relationship with God. They are aimed at guiding us through the hesitancy, resistance, and excuses that keep us from really being close to a God who has done so much to welcome us. If you are not feeling close to God, then it is not His fault. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him, and will dine with him and he with Me” (Revelation 3:20). Notice in this text that our relationship is supposed to be one of intimate friends. Christ extends Himself to us and desires to be in our lives, sharing our experiences. Not only that, but the relationship is one of exchange – “I will dine with him, and he with Me.” God through Christ wants togetherness with His creation.
“That They Should Seek God”
Even the ignorant desire something bigger than themselves. In Acts 17:16-34, the Athenian philosophers seemed “deeply religious in all respects” to the apostle Paul. They had even erected a symbol in honor of the “unknown god”, a deity they may have been unaware of. Without law, without teaching, these people sought after something divine, unaware of how close they actually were. Their expression of religion might have been ignorant and perverse, but it was a desire nevertheless. We are not all that different from the Athenian philosophers. This innate desire stems from our myriad similarities to God. Created in His image, as it were, we can feel nothing more natural than the divine reflection in ourselves. “And He made from one, every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times, and the boundaries of their habitation, that they should seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘We are His offspring’” (Acts 17:26-28). Paul goes on to say that the divine spark is not found in artwork, idols, or the works of human hands, but in our hearts and minds – in the way we respond to the Gospel with obedience and repentance.
Oddly enough, we do not draw closer to God by displaying our similarities to Him, but by the deepest expression of our dissimilarity. Consider this:
- In the most generalized way, there are really only two kinds of “loves”, need-love and gift-love. The former being one of supplication, incompleteness, emptiness, the latter a love which flows forth to others, giving, gifting, granting, and filling the emptiness.
- In every sense, God is “gift-love”. He is the fulfiller, who says, “Come unto to me, you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28-30), and, “Open wide your mouth and I will fill it” (Psalm 81:10).
- To be closest to God, then, how must we approach Him? By emphasizing our similarity to Him? By granting unto Him gift-love? Interestingly, according to C.S. Lewis, we draw closest to God by being the least like Him! “A very strange corollary follows. Man approaches God most nearly when he is in one sense least like God. For what can be more unlike than fullness and need, sovereignty and humility, righteousness and penitence, limitless power and a cry for help? This paradox staggered me when I first ran into it” (Lewis, 15).
- Remember that God is not served by human hands, as if He needs anything from us (Acts 17:24-25). So thinking that we can earn salvation, force our way into the kingdom, or offer God something in exchange for His favor is foolhardy. In a way, God’s greatest desire (and often the one thing we refuse to accept in order to be close to Him) is for us to be His opposite – not in a moral sense, to be sure, but in how we express ourselves toward Him.
Similar to God or Drawing Nearer to God?
One of the things our culture suffers from is the idea of reveling in our similarities to God. We believe we are like Him in spiritual appearance, and that likeness gives us power (remember our earlier references to Adam and Eve or the Tower of Babel). Unfortunately, being like God is not the same as being close to God. Every person is created in God’s image, without a doubt. We are given the ability to choose right from wrong (Deuteronomy 30:19-20), understand spiritual things (Ecclesiastes 3:11), discern logic and wisdom (Proverbs 2:2). But all of these qualities can be abused for the purpose of worshipping ourselves rather than God. Let us be very careful not to revere mankind because of its similarity to God, instead of drawing nearer to God to revere Him.
Perhaps an analogy will help: Suppose we are doing a mountain hike back to our home village. At mid-day we come to the top of a cliff, which overlooks our final destination immediately below. In nearness, we are as close to home as we have been all day. One could throw a stone only a few feet and it would land in the village square. But as the cliff is impassable we must go a very long way around it, many miles, in fact, to actually reach our destination. At many parts in the detour, we shall be measurably further from our destination than we were at the edge of the cliff, but we are actually drawing nearer every step. In the same way, we have many likenesses to God, but nobody should suppose that the possession of divine attributes brings us any closer to salvation and sanctification. No kind of riches can get us into heaven, no good deeds make us inherently worthy. However, when we approach God, the path often takes us very far away from God-like qualities (God is not supplicating, filled with guilt, in need of grace and forgiveness, etc.), but ever-nearer to Him in closeness. Consider James 4:8-10, in which the writer exemplifies the idea that we draw closer to God through our dissimilarities. “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be miserable and mourn and weep; let your laughter be turned into mourning, and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you.”
“By this the love of God is manifested…”
“By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him” (1 John 4:9). People often love themselves, or perhaps love others to the brink of self-sacrifice, but nobody has loved us as freely, openly, and fully as God. By virtue of our creation God loves us – after spending the time and energy to design us and put us in this universe, He is now doubly concerned over our spiritual well-being. “He would not have made us only to ignore us or treat us with indifference… He is concerned not only to give us positive blessings of His good creation, but to remove the negative consequences of sin. Thus in terms of concern, God does not love us less now that we are sinners; He loves us even more” (Cottrell, p. 337). It should impress us that God loves us so much in spite of our sin. It goes to show that even if I have nothing in worldly terms (because of hardships) and even less in spiritual terms (because of my sins), God still loves me. He loves us even when we are stripped of everything. Even though we are nothing more than sinners in our world, the love with which God loves us is incomparable (Romans 5:8).
“Not that we loved God, but that He loved us”
1 John 4:10 gives us evidence of the utter error in the theory that Jesus came to appease the wrath of a vengeful, angry God. It is not that Jesus and the Father were two different sides of the same coin, either. There is no “good cop, bad cop” with God – there is just God. In every sense of the word, God loves us, even to the point that He holds nothing back. He was prepared to give His dearest one, to make a sacrifice beyond any other, and give salvation to people who rejected His love. In this sense, 1 John 4:10 is so very true: compared to how much He loves us, we cannot even begin to say we have enough love. That is why Paul exhorts the Thessalonians to “love still more” (1 Thessalonians 4:9-10). We must devote ourselves entirely to the pursuit of self-improvement, increasing our love, learning more, sacrificing more, giving more. In light of all this, how can any man be stingy with God? It would be much more understandable if God was frightening or terrifying and asked us to come close. But since He is tender, compassionate, understanding, and kind, who would not trust His voice when He calls, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him, and will dine with him and he with Me” (Revelation 3:20).