Project Canterbury

The Good News

By Bernard Iddings Bell, D.D.

Milwaukee: Morehouse Publishing, [1921]

Chapter II. The Knowable God

AGNOSTICS for the most part are quite right in their statements. What, you ask, can a Christian admit that agnostics are right? Certainly. All intelligent Christianity is based on Agnosticism. Agnostics are thinking people who say that this God of whom we are speaking is so vast, so mysterious, so intangible, that man can never know Him as a friend; can, indeed, know nothing of His plans and purposes. He is a mystery beyond our human comprehension. Therefore, say they, why try to know Him? Why bother? Live along, day by day, content to be ignorant about Him. Do not attempt the impossible.

Agnostics are justified in saying that it is impossible for us, hampered as we are here on earth, to escape from human limitations and to know the unlimited God. To know God is impossible, unless God translates Himself into terms that we mere human folks can understand. That is, in very truth, what God did. God showed us Himself in terms that we can comprehend. He came from the unlimited, and lived among us all as man.

"He made Himself of no reputation, and took upon Him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men; and being found in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient, unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore is given to him the name that is above every name, that at the Name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and in earth."

Let us understand this thing. It is of primary importance to anyone who wishes to know God. Let us consider a parable. The blazing light of the sun shines down. You cannot look at it for a single instant. Its light is too strong for your eyes. You take a smoked glass and hold it up. You can now look upon the sun's light, because it has been translated into terms your eyes can grasp. Take another parable. Over a wire comes a mighty electric current. You cannot use it. It is too powerful for your motor. It would burn the thing, melt it, ruin it. You shunt the current off into a resistance box and transform it to a voltage which is usable. It burns on longer. Your motor is not destroyed but empowered. Think of another and still a better parable. There comes to you a little child who says, "Please explain how engines make trains go." How do you do it? Do you talk to the child in the terms of your mature knowledge of mechanics? If you do the child will never understand. No, you must for the moment put yourself on the child's own level, and give your explanation in terms of the child's own meagre experience. Your explanation will not be adequate, but it will be as adequate as possible.

Jesus Christ is the glass through which we see God. He is the resistance box through which the eternal forces pass that they may touch and not consume us. God said, "Behold these men on the earth. They are but children. I wish them to know me and love me. They cannot understand unless I explain to them the infinite in terms of their own experience. In the ages to come they shall see me face to face, but not now. They are but children. I shall reveal myself as one of them. I shall take their flesh upon me, limit myself as they are limited, and let them learn to know and love me so."

"Impossible," you say. "He could not leave Heaven vacant." Heaven is not a place. Think you because Christ walked the earth as man that He was not also in other ways present everywhere? He may have become incarnate for a million worlds beside this, if men are on them. Puzzle not your head trying to confine, limit, and constrain the Eternal One. Look at that which is before you,--Jesus God-made-man. He is no mere man, no mere prophet, no mere teacher. Jesus is our God.

Would you know God in terms of babyhood? Go to Bethlehem's stable. Would you see God as a child? The temple and the home of Nazareth. As a young man setting out upon his labors? The baptism at the Jordan. As a workingman? The carpenter shop. As a friend? Bethany. As a teacher? The Mount. As a man tempted of flesh and devil? The wilderness. As one in sorrow? The weeping over Jerusalem. As one in bitter loneliness? Gethsemane. As one in pain and death's dark agonies? The Cross. Jesus is God, the only God we human folks can ever understand. Therefore it is that when we Christians pray we finish the prayer with the words "through Jesus Christ." That is the only way we can see and touch our God,--through Jesus Christ.

Men rarely come to know all at once that Jesus is God. It is usually a gradual process.

The first step is to perceive in Jesus a good, true, honest, noble, simple man; to admire His single-heartedness in the midst of a world of fuss and foolishness; to covet that strength of His wherewith He persisted in a plan regardless of threats and even of martyrdom; to commend His charity toward others, His refusal to scold such sinners as the grafter Zacchaeus, the fallen Magdalen, or even those who crucified Him; to say, "This Galileean carpenter is much beyond any man I know in real achievement of human character."

There are many people whose Christianity goes just about that far, and no farther. That, however, is but the beginning.

The next step is to set one's self to the task of becoming like Him, as far as one can, to seek to imitate Him, to work hard to follow His example. Most people never honestly try that. I wonder how much you and I have really tried to be like Jesus. We abstractly recognize that He is a noble fellow; but we get so busy making money, or seeking prestige and honor in the world, or chasing pleasure of one sort or another, or cultivating our minds, or developing our personalities, or admiring ourselves, or something or other else, that we really try little to live like Him. And because this is so, to most people the Christian religion is of very little real importance. Jesus says of many of us, of all of us a good part of the time, the same thing, with the same sorrow, which he said of many in the long ago,--"This people's heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, and so I cannot heal them."

But if we have followed after Him, honestly and even if imperfectly, for awhile, although we may have started to do so merely because we thought He was an admirable man, He gradually reveals His true self, more and more. They who do the deeds of the Gospel shall know the truth of the Gospel. Some day it flashes over us that the saints of all the ages have not been fools, and that the Christian Church in her creeds has not been uttering the arrant nonsense that many clever people say she has; that this Jesus is really God Almighty come among us men; that lie is alive forevermore; that in very truth He does reveal God in all His power and friendship to us mortals; that when we pray to Him, God hears; that to go to Communion is to touch God; that to hear Jesus' words is to hear God speak; and that to walk the streets of earth with Him is to tread the courts of Heaven.

That is what "getting converted" really means. To get converted is not to stand up and say, "I accept Jesus as my Saviour," without knowing what those words really mean; it is not to hit a trail and shake some fiery evangelist by the hand; it is not merely to say, "I wish to turn over a new leaf and be a more decent sort from now on." It is far, far more than that. It is to awake to the amazing realization that God is not far off, unknown and unknowable; that He is not some vaguely recognized abstraction which may be acknowledged and then put out of one's mind, like gravitation and the ether: but that God is Jesus, walking still among us men, hearing us pray, blessing us in sacraments, our loving friend, touched with every feeling of our infirmities, but at the same time God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God.

Truly blessed are the eyes which see the things which Christians see, for we have found God. No more can we be utterly lonesome for, though all men may have left us, Jesus walks with us, and He is God. No more can we despair, even though all be black around us. Beside us in the dark, He stands. We talk to Him, and He hears. It is He who touches us in bread and wine at the Altar. His Holy Presence ennobles our offices, our shops, our kitchens and our schoolrooms. He eats at our tables and is known in the breaking of bread. We wake in the night, and find Him near. Wars and confusions may overtake us, nation destroy nation, and blood flow out like water; cathedrals and civilizations may crash about our heads before those guns which human science, minus God, has made; but Jesus moves among us, promising that truth and justice and brotherhood and mercy and peace shall not perish from the earth. Sickness or age may weaken our physical frames; but as the body writhes and gasps and shudders at the pain, Jesus still shines in our souls undimmed. Death comes, the great bogie of all the ages since man was, and crashes over us; but with Him in the passing forth we fear no ill.

Blessed are the eyes which see the things which we see, for truly I tell you that many prophets and kings have desired to see the things which we see and have not seen them, and to hear the things which we hear and have not heard them. We do not deserve this friendship with God. All we can do, in service to Him and to our fellow men, His brothers as He calls us, can never repay God's love "who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and took flesh by the Holy Spirit, of the Virgin Mary, and was made man."

There is someone who reads these words and who says to himself or herself, "I wish I could feel that. I wish I could believe it. I wish I might know God. Jesus does not mean that to me. Hymns of adoration addressed to Him sound forced to me. Pageantry of worship offered to Him seems extravagant, bizarre, unreal. To me He is not God. Understand me. I do not deny what you have written. I know that it is this very belief you speak of that has made the happy saints, the noble martyrs, the whole blessed company. But I, I am unfortunate. Possibly I am lacking in some religious sensitiveness. I have never once felt Jesus thrilling me with His Deity."

My friend, do not despair. Neither did even His twelve chosen ones for a long time know Him so. In all the ages many of Jesus' greatest followers have been found of Him and have found Him only after years of searching. If ever you are to find Him, though, comrade, two things are necessary. One is that you must really from your heart show Jesus that you are trying to imitate Him, seeking to become like Him in humility, in simplicity of life, in kindliness, in unselfishness, in regardlessness of the subtle lures of luxury and ease and pride. That is the first thing. You must be attempting honestly to do the deeds of Him if you are ever to know the love of Him. And second, you must never think that you have explored the depths of Christianity until you have found him as your God. Do not be satisfied with any pale shadow, any sugary sentimentalizing, any philosophical explaining away, any watered down substitute for the comradeship of Christ. If you remember these two things,--if you imitate Him as best you may, and if you keep seeking Him in the hope that haply you may find Him,--you will find Him. Often the finding of Him comes in days of youth, and even of childhood. Happy are they who meet Him so. It may come in the midst of your busiest years; when some great sorrow bursts over you; or some great pain. It may be not until you are old and gray and weak, and those years have come wherein you say, "I have no pleasure in them." The vision may come so slowly and gradually that you hardly know when or how it came; or it may break over you with a blinding flash as it did over St. Paul on the road to Damascus. How, or when, I know not I do know that the time will come, and you will find Him, and will cry, with Thomas the beloved doubter, "My Lord and My God!" Then you will know that whereof we speak who have seen Him. Blessed are the eyes which see Jesus, who is "the image of the Invisible God."

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