How do Christians Connect with God?

Photo of Stephen W. Hiemstra
Stephen W. Hiemstra

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Mubarak Mosque, Chantilly, Virginia on Religious Founders’ Day, October 15, 2017

Background

Good afternoon. My name is Stephen W. Hiemstra. I am a volunteer pastor and a Christian writer. My volunteer work focuses on Hispanic ministry and I write about Christian spirituality. My wife, Maryam, hails from Iran and considers herself a Muslim. We have been married 33 years and have three grown children.

My comments today will focus on how Christians connect with God. Because today we are celebrating Religious Founders’ Day, I take the inspiration for my talk from a sermon by the Apostle Peter that he gave on the day that the Christian church was founded, which we call Pentecost.

Invocation

Please join me in a word of prayer.

“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.” (Psalm 19:14 ESV) In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Introduction

How do Christians connect with God? (2X)

Let me start by asking, what do secular people think about connecting with God?

Basically, they say that if you talk to God, that’s prayer, but if God talks to you, that’s psychosis. While pastor’s often tell this story as a light-hearted joke, psychologist Sigmund Freud described God’s existence as an illusion.[1] Karl Marx believed that religion (that is, God’s existence) was the opiate of the masses.[2] In other words, if you believe in God, Freud tells us you must be nuts and Marx tells us that you must be on drugs.

In my recent memoir, Called Along the Way, published this last month, I write that anyone in this secular age who takes God seriously must be considered a brother or sister in the faith. In this spirit, I would like to thank the Mubarak Mosque for the invitation to speak this afternoon to address this important topic.

Scripture

How do Christians connect with God? (2X)

The basic path to connecting with God is outlined by the Apostle Peter on the Day of Pentecost. Hear Peter’s words:

“And Peter said to them, Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38 ESV)

Elsewhere, the Apostle Paul writes to the church at Rome about 30 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, some 2,000 years ago:

“…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Roman 10:9 ESV)

Rome at the time of Paul’s writing was the capital of the Western world much like Washington DC is today.

Because most of you here today are not Christians, you may be asking yourself why Peter and Paul are so adamant about two things mentioned in these two passages: confession of sins and belief in Jesus Christ (2X).

Transcendent and Holy

To understand the focus here, you need to understand the Christian understanding of God. Christians believe in a personal God who is both transcendent and Holy (2X).

God’s transcendence arises because he created the known universe. The first verse of the Bible in the Book of Genesis says:

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1 ESV)

As creator, God had to exist before the universe that he created and he had to have been set apart from it. Time, as we know it, is part of the created universe. Consequently, God stands outside of time and space (2X). Because we exist inside time and space, we cannot approach God on our own. He has to reveal himself to us (2X).

Likewise, we cannot approach a Holy God, because we are sinful beings, not Holy beings. Our sin separates us from a Holy God.

To summarize, we cannot approach God on our own because he transcends time and space and because he is holy. Only God can initiate connection with unholy, created beings such as we are. There is no path up the mountain to God; God must come down (2X). As Christians, we believe that God came down in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, whose coming was prophesied from the earliest days of scripture. For example, the Prophet Job wrote (slide 5):

“I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth.  And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!” (Job 19:25-27 NIV)

The Book of Job is thought by some to have been written by Moses before any other book in the Bible and before he returned to Egypt, which makes the anticipation of a redeemer all the more stunning. Moses himself lived about 1,500 years before Christ.

God’s Self-Revelation

So who is this transcendent God that loves us enough to initiate connection with us in spite of our sin?

Later, after giving Moses the Ten Commandments for a second time on Mount Sinai, God reveals himself to Moses with these words:

“The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6-7 ESV)

Notice that God describes himself first as merciful. As Christians, we believe that God love is shown to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Because God himself has provided the ultimate sacrifice of his son on the cross, Christians do not need to offer animal sacrifices—in Christ, our debt to God for sin has already been paid. This is real mercy, real love.

Listen to the confession given by the Apostle Paul in his first letter to the church in Corinth:

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [that is Peter’s nickname], then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.” (1 Corinth 15:3-6 ESV)

Jesus, as the perfect son of God, is the bridge that God has given us to connect with himself through the Holy Spirit, as Peter said on the Day of Pentecost:

“And Peter said to them, Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38 ESV)

Through the Holy Spirit, we are able to pray to God with the assurance that we will be heard; we are able to read the Bible with the confidence that God will speak to us; and we are able to live our daily lives knowing that God walks with us each step of the way. In this way, as Christians we are always connected with God in Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit.

Conclusion

Will you pray with me?

Oh dear Lord, thank you for the gift of your presence through the person of Jesus. Forgive our sin and draw us closer to you day by day. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Presentation

Before I turn over the podium, let me read a few words from the acknowledgment section of my book, Life in Tension.

“In the fall of 2014, I was invited to speak at a local mosque about my book, A Christian Guide to Spirituality. Speaking at a mosque was new to me and anticipating this visit I spent three days fasting and praying for guidance. Instead of guidance on the mosque visit, God inspired me to write this book.” (xvii)

The reference here is to the Mubarak Mosque where we now stand. Consequently, I would like to present you with a copy of the book, Life in Tension. Thank you.

[1] Sigmund Freud. 1961. The Future of an Illusion. Translated by James Strachey. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opium_of_the_people.

How do Christians Connect with God?

Also see:

Blackaby Expects Answers to Prayer 

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/2fEPbBK

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Analysis versus Synthesis

It is common for people to say that they plan to analyze an issue, but what do they really mean? Suppose your professor asks you to analyze an author’s point of view and review his book. Typically, an analysis involves breaking a big idea into the smaller ideas that together compose the big idea.

For example, a book about the history of the United States might be composed of sections describing the period before colonization, the period of colonization, the revolutionary war period, the presidency of George Washington, and so on. The analysis focuses on American history, but the details break that history up into manageable time periods and special events. In fact, one might say that American history is a synthesis of these smaller units that help to explain what it means to be a country called the United States.

Notice that a synthesis is used to compose an aggregation of these parts while an analysis takes the whole and breaks it up into the parts. It is fair, for example, to describe the Bible as a synthesis of the historical revelation of God to humankind. The best minds of the church undertook this synthesis historically and continue even now to affirm the special character of the books chosen. This is why the Apostle Paul could write to Timothy:

“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim 3:16-17 ESV).

Another example of synthesis in our faith walk arises when we employ an ACTS prayer. The first part (A) of the prayer is adoration (or praise). We adore God for his mercy, compassion, patience, love, and truthfulness (Exod 34:6), attributes rare in the world, but which characterize God. Having praised God, in the second part (C) we confess that we are sinful and cannot enter God’s presence, except for the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. Confession marks us as believers in Christ—an insight gained from analysis of the three verses in Romans 10:8-10.[1] Having praised God and confessed our sins, we then move into the third part (T) where we thank God for the many blessings of this life. Then, in the final part (S), we supplicate—an old-fashioned word for ask—God for his help in our lives. In effect, our synthesis in an ACTS prayer is a short statement of our personal theology.

It is helpful to distinguish analysis from synthesis because both are useful, but in different ways, in organizing and presenting our thoughts clearly. For example, a sermon is typically a synthesis composed by the pastor, for example, while the listener is engaged in more of an analysis of what is being said. If the pastor rambles a few observations about a particular passage of scripture without preparation,[2] then the congregation may find the observations interesting but not be able to draw any serious conclusions, even if they take notes. By contrast, the same observations preceded by an introduction with a statement of premise, separated by restatement of premise, and followed by a conclusion repeating the premise may be understood by everyone in the room.[3]

David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons recently underscored the importance of clarity in church preaching and teaching. They write:

“Many Christians worry about secularism taking over, but secularism shouldn’t be our greatest concern. In other words, secularism’s advance is downstream from anemic Bible engagement and thin theological thinking.” (Kinnaman and Lyons 2016, 227).

Because of the Internet, original documents from the time of the Bible and the early church have never been more widely available and the number of competent researchers and pastors has likewise never been greater. So why are so many Christians having trouble applying their faith in everyday situations? Part of the answer is that we need to take ourselves more seriously as researchers and pastors, and communicate our faith clearly.

References

Kinnaman, David and Gabe Lyons. 2016. Good Faith: Being a Christian When Society Thinks You’re Irrelevant and Extreme. Grand Rapids: BakerBooks.

Robinson, Haddon W. 2001. Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.

Sedniew, Andreii. 2013. Magic of Impromptu Speaking: Create a Speech that Will Be Remembered for Years in Under 30 Seconds. Santa Clara: Andreii Sedniev.

[1] “But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” (Rom 10:8-10 ESV)

[2] In an impromptu speech, you talk about one idea for a couple minutes, transition to a second idea, then transition to a series of other ideas. Transitions are hugely important to bringing your audience along with you. One way to transition is a synthesis (this idea is a part of a larger class of ideas, as in cups to dishes) or an analysis (this idea can be broken into subclasses of ideas, as in cups to tea cups), which Sedniev calls linguistic pyramids. Another way to transition is to use associations, as in a table and a donkey are similar in that they both have four legs (Sedniev 2013, 32-35).

[3] This is a brief overview of “big idea” preaching as articulated by Haddon Robinson (2001, 33-46).

 

Other ways to engage with me online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/2slSaTM

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