God Relates To Us Personally


This article deals with the most fundamental truth
regarding all growth in prayer, namely,
that all spiritual growth and perception is dependent
on God's gift of God's Self which is grace. 
Here, this theme is considered within the context
of God's desire to share God's very self.
This is applied to prayer, and to prayerful decision making.
On the spiritual journey 
both prayer and prayerful decision making
have an impact on our helping to nurture 
the growth of God's household,
or in a more traditional language, the work of God's Kingdom.

        The qualities of God's relationship with us individually and socially are expressed in scripture through various metaphors. These metaphors and images are inevitably ambiguous and lack scientific precision. However, this is to be related to the richness of the truth that they convey, a richness that can never be completely understood or encompassed by any human understanding or ways of knowing, "My thoughts are not like yours, and my ways are different from yours. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways and thoughts above yours" (Is 55:8,9). These images and metaphors point to the very deep realities of life called mysteries: "how deep are the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!"(Rom. 1:33) No one metaphor can express the totality of the relationship to which it points. (1)

        First of all God reveals God's Self to us as one who is near us, faithful and concerned about us. "If you go through the fire I will be there...I have written you on the palm of my hand" (Is 3,49). In Deuteronomy 32:10, God is imaged as guarding us as the pupil of God's eye. But God relates to us with much more tenderness and graciousness than even such expressions convey. As well, God relates to us as mother: "Does a woman forget her baby at the breast, even so I will not forget you" (Is 40:14). "As a mother bird collects her young I have desired you..." (Lk 14:34). In Psalm 131 God is like a mother holding her weaned child. Then God reveals God's Self as a father -- as a father of orphans in Psalm 68:5. In Psalm 103 God has compassion on us as a father has compassion on his children. Jesus himself teaches us to pray: "Our Father.... " (Lk 11:1-13).

        Further, God reveals God's Self as our lover and husband. To the people of Israel, Hosea pictures God as saying: "I will allure her into the desert...she will call me my husband" (Hos 2:14ff). Isaiah tells the people of Israel, "for he who has become your husband is your maker, his name is the Lord of hosts" )Is 54: 5 ff). Ezekiel describes God as the lover who finds Israel in the desert like an abandoned young girl, then when she is grown, he finds her beautiful and makes her his own through a marriage covenant (Ez 16).

        These metaphors and images refer to God's relationship to the people of Israel socially - as a community. Because of the revelation of Jesus and the faith of the church we know that these metaphors can also apply to us individually. These two dimensions -- the communal and the individual -- need to be kept together. Just as an individual person is able to come to a deep personal awareness of one's relationship with God, so too, a community (2) or group can come to a deep personal awareness of their relationship with God. Further, just as an individual's ministry is to be decided upon and chosen from within the context of the experience of this relationship, so too a group's communal ministry is to be decided upon and chosen 'out of' the communal experience of this relationship.

        God relates to you, therefore, as mother, as father and as lover -- hence, personally and experientially. You are person and God is person; you are mysterious solitude and God is mysterious solitude. Whether you want to admit this or not, God very much desires to relate to you not just a creator to creature, not just as life giver to "lifed," not just as sustainer to sustained, but as person to person. Further God desires to relate to you even more radically than other human relationships - more so than the relationship found in friendship, sharing, commitment, and loving sexual intercourse. God does this by giving God's very self from God's "within" to your "within."

        Let me explain this. When someone other gives himself or herself to me, whether it be by listening or caring or loving he/she gives oneself TO me from the OUTSIDE. However close we are to another we cannot give to the other our centre; we cannot give the other the core of our being; we cannot interpenetrate our centres. Even in the deepest I - Thou relationship between two human persons there is a sense in which we cannot transcend our own solitude. In the deepest forms of human loving and communication our attempts at union are MEDIATED through meaningful gestures and signs. Therefore one human person relates to another human person, at best, in this way: from the "outside" from the "within" to the "outside" to "within." God ("Father, Son and Spirit") desires to relate to you more radically: God gives God's very self to you from God's "within" to your "within." God's relationship with you is an interpenetration of centres: heart really does speak to heart; mystery penetrates mystery. In many Christian traditions, the eucharist or holy communion is precisely the sign and assurance of this most interior reality.

        In the resurrection of Jesus all the relationships that I have been speaking of are verified and present. Through the power of Jesus' resurrection, by the working of the Spirit, God gives God's Self from within to within. "We will come to you and make our dwelling place with you" (Jn 14:23). "I will ask my Abba who will give you another helper to stay with you forever... who will remain with you and be in you"()Jn 14:16 ff). So present 'within' God that the church can teach that we are made temples of the Holy Spirit and St. Paul can write:
"The Spirit personally gives witness with our spirit" (Rom 8:16);
"The Spirit too helps us in our weakness for we do not know how to pray as we ought; but the Spirit makes intercession for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in speech" (Rom 8:26);
"The proof that you are daughters and sons is the fact that God has sent forth into our hearts the Spirit of his Son who cries out Abba - Father" (Gal 4:6).

        The term "grace" is the great historical and technical expression of Christianity which has been intended to help us grasp intellectually as best we can the myriad special ways in which God is in relationship to us. By using this term here we can review what we have already said from another perspective. More importantly we can really come to appreciate and be amazed at how radically God is in personal relationship to us, that is from God's within to our within.

        In 1 Cor 4:7 Paul reminds us, "What do you have that has not been given to you?" We are indeed held in God's hands; God's got the whole world in his hands! As such we are the same as the rest of creation, a child of the universe, a cosmic instant. As with the rest of creation God has a relationship with us a creator to creature just like the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, though we are worth more than these. We are also different from non-human creation because we can acknowledge God as our creator. There is something further -- and this is where the term grace is used. I am called not only to be creature but to be his son, daughter, friend with God's very own life that has been poured into my heart (Rom 5:5). God, who is father and mother and so much more than we can think or imagine, desires to share God's very self, personally, not with any kind of intimacy, but with such intimacy that I participate in the divine nature (2 Pet 1:4). But God can not give God's very self to me unless I have the capacity to receive the gift of God's Self which God gives. So, in addition to being creature, who is looked after by my creator, God gives me, at the same time as God gives God's Self, the ABILITY to be in relationship to God. Therefore it is God's gift that makes it possible for me to enter into a relationship of love with God. God first has to make it possible for me to receive the gift that God wants to give - which is God's Self. And this "ability-gift" still persists even if I close myself to God's self communication. When Jesus says that "without me you can do nothing" (Jn 15:5), he means precisely that. God not only loves me and desires to personally with me, but also, within the me, God has to create even the ability to do the very thing God desires to do. (3)

        God gives God's Self and desires to give God's Self (uncreated grace) to me at the core of my being with a relationship that can grow in depth, with a life that becomes eternal life. This is grace (we call this also sanctifying or habitual grace) which makes of me a new creature, a temple of the Holy Spirit, makes me just through and through. Grace is the person of God in relationship to me "from within to within." It is all gift; I have no claim on it; I can not earn it. Sometimes we visualize this term as an energy or as a thing; such images are false for this image obscures how closely and intimately God desires to relate to us.

        This personal relationship is one of freedom. I have the power to say "no" to it; I can refuse to allow this personal relationship to grow deeply or even to exist. The fact that it exists and continues to exist depends on my cooperation and free response. Yet I do not of myself have the ability to thus cooperate and freely respond unless God gives me the grace to freely respond. Therefore even my positive free response to receive and to cooperate is a gift (actual grace). When I have closed myself to this personal relationship, the very ability to return and say "yes" again -- that ability as creature and as sinner I do not have. Again this is gift.

        All the external and interior ways by which I have been disposed to receive and cooperate with this personal relationship, first in fact and then in ever deepening ways all these are God's gifts ( graces ). The ability to experience God's presence, the actual experience of this presence, the experience of the sanctifying grace already within us, the experiences of strength, courage, peace; all those inspirations, nuances, illuminations, interior promptings, spiritual movements -- all these are the gifts of God. They are completely gratuitous. God gives them not because God has to or because I earn them but because God wants to and he freely loves me. In fact it has always been the teaching of the Christian church that any positive action of mine that has any relationship to my salvation whatsoever is the result of grace -- all is gift. My existence is gift, my being cared for is gift, my ability to receive God's presence is gift, my reception of this presence is gift, my experience of this presence is gift, my growth in the experience is gift. These last four aspects are grace.

        All the realities that we have been speaking about, Christian tradition over the years has explored and attempted to understand through many different distinctions about grace: sanctifying grace, actual grace, sufficient grace, efficacious grace, justifying grace, inhering grace. All these various ways of seeking understanding of the mystery of God's love for us and God's freedom in choosing us and our freedom in cooperating with God come down to this: God, Father, Son and Spirit desire to be in relationship to me at the core of my being. I am so dependent on this love that even to freely say "yes" I need God's help.

        Therefore growth in spirituality and growth in prayer and growth in spiritual leadership is growth in the awareness of my utter dependency and trust on God who desires to so give God's Self. Growth in spirituality is growth in union with God; growth in spirituality is growth in my freedom to respond.

        What does all this mean for our prayer life? It means that we begin every act of worship with the stance of gratitude and the stance of asking. Often it is helpful to ask for what we need in prayer and then it is helpful to wait for the gift for which we have asked. (4) Prayer from our part is more disposing ourselves to receive rather than doing or saying the right things; for we know that even to dispose ourselves is made possible by his gift. If I need to grow in freedom from some disordered attachment then I need to ask to be freed from this disordered attachment and I keep on asking until God frees me. If I need to make a decision and I am not in the proper frame of mind or in the proper stance of freedom to do so then I keep begging God for the grace I need in this regard. God knows what I need but often he waits until I become conscious of my own need before God gives me the gift; otherwise I am likely to reduce God's gift to the level of the finite and of my own doing and take credit for it myself. This would be a lie.

        As Van Breemen wrote in As Bread That is Broken: "Prayer is not so much a searching. Searching suggests a kind of impatience, an activity, I have to do something. Prayer is a waiting. Waiting places the emphasis on the other person who is coming. I can only wait for this person. To wait is to express my powerlessness, my insufficiency, and that is my attitude towards God. I cannot force God to come. All I can do is wait and be present. To pray means to lose my grip. I am no longer in control when I pray. God is in control...Prayer is he courage to listen, to give up my self-determination."

        When a person reflects on her or his experience in order to gain understanding often she or he will pray for enlightenment. If you simply pray for enlightenment and then go doing an analysis with your own reflection, then you really have not meant what you have prayed for. Yes you do some reflecting upon your experiences for which you need enlightenment and yes from your own powers of reflection you can discover some understanding of the things you are attempting to analyse. But then you must 'hang loose' with your own reflections, you must again wait. By doing this you make your own experience available to God and allow God the space to give you enlightenment. This enlightenment may happen while you are actually carrying on the reflection or it may come later during the day at the most surprising of times.

        All through the history of the church persons have tried to seek some form of independence in attaining salvation, as if by some action of their own they might be able to say that they have earned God's grace. In the early part of the fifth century Pelagius rejected part of this basic Christian teaching and the effects of this on our attempts to achieve salvation by our own means. He conceived a person as having a kind of autonomy from God's gift of grace as if by oneself one can live in harmony with God's desires for us and thus achieve something of the reward of salvation by oneself. Pelagianism was condemned as a heresy by the church through the work of St. Augustine and his disciples. Later the heresy appeared in another form and became known as semi-pelagianism. The heresy is with us today as the operative theology of many Christians who believe that somehow through their prayer and good works they can make themselves worthy of God's love. It is a kind of pharisaism.

        Pelagianism not only affects individuals in their attitude to God. It affects the way we exercise our communal ministries and endeavours. We go to meetings to discuss an issue; we even begin these meetings with a prayer for help; but the way we go about our decisions, even with the most advanced and 'enlightened' approach that we can muster for group participation and the facilitating of hidden values, we REALLY show that we do not believe that God is helping us out at all. There is a whole dimension of God's gift of God's Self to which we actually pay no attention to. We make our decisions independently of God and then somehow believe that we act in harmony with God's desires for us.

        The influence of Pelagianism is made more complex by the influence of society upon us, a society which was built up through the influence of the "protestant work ethic" and such maxims as, " God helps those who help themselves." This is not to deny the value and use of the human and scientific skills that we have at our disposal for analysing data and discovering the proper issues around which decisions should be made. But God's grace of enlightenment, God's spiritual movements, God's influences in our decision making must have larger part in the way we make our decisions and carry out our actions.

        "I ask the God of our Lord Jesus Christ to give you the Spirit, who will make you wise and reveal God to you, so that you may know God. I ask that your minds may be opened to see God's light, so that you will know what is the hope to which God has called you, how rich are the wonderful blessings God promises God's people, and how very great is God's power working in us who believe" (Eph 1:17-18).

I want to love you without clutching,
Appreciate you without judging,
Join you without invading,
Invite you without demanding,
Leave you without guilt,
Criticise you without blaming,
Help you without insulting,
If I can have the same from YOU
then we can truly meet and enrich each other.
(from Virginia Satir)


1. The bible continuously uses metaphor as a way of communicating what is both beyond our immediate experience and at the same time connected to it. All the images that the bible uses for God are metaphors: shepherd, father, rock, shield, buckler, etc. Metaphorical language is connected to symbols and symbolic discourse. Like symbols the link with the object of the metaphor is often beyond our experience. When metaphors are used to open our awareness to the mysterious and transcendent they are closer to symbols. When they are used only to underline and point to a reality that is very easily grasped they are closer to signs.

True symbols are not just signs. Etymologically, symbol means "to put together." A symbol reveals a non-perceptible order through a perceptible figure. This revealing function defines the symbol and distinguishes it from a simple sign. Road signs, for example, are figures employed by convention to control chaotic traffic on our highways. They are humanly contrived and do not point us toward any awareness that deepens and enriches our experiences of the physical world. On the other hand, symbol denotes a perceptible figure which evokes an experience that embellishes our worldly existence; it does this by revealing more than what the objective world presents to us in physical perception. The meaning of this experience is never exhausted in a literal or objective definition. It opens a fissure of consciousness that discursive reason cannot easily close (Muldoon).

2. Communal Spirituality exists when mature Christians understand and accept themselves humbly, as a small part of the larger universe, while using discerning processes for making decisions and implementing actions with others in cooperation with God's desires for humanity and for this planet.

3. Grace is the word which Christians have used over the centuries to denote and connote God's personal relationship and consequent activity with humankind as a whole and with each person individually. Since earliest times, we Christians have believed that anything we do that has any relationship whatsoever to our salvation or to our growth in God's love comes as a result of God's initiatives. "It is by God's favor [grace] that we have been saved" (Eph 2:5). "It is not we who love God but God loved us first..." (1Jn 4:10; Rom 5:8). Grace is a freely given and unearned gift. It refers to the abiding presence of God's life within us, which, in Roman Catholic theology, has been called sanctifying grace. It also refers to those impulses, initiatives, inspirations, etc., that ultimately encourage us into deeper involvement in God's life which, in this same tradition of theology, has been called "actual grace(s)."

4. In the Ignatian spirituality expressed in personally directed retreats, often the spiritual guide will encourage the directee to "pray for the grace" or will ask, "For what gift or grace do you need to ask God at this point in your prayer experience?" During the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola (which is a more focussed personally directed retreat over thirty days) every prayer exercise begins by asking for a grace. In each prayer exercise, the directee is instructed to "ask for a grace" -- that is, to express his/her desires to God. We know that, ultimately, it is only from God and not from one's own effort that one can receive what one desires in the prayer exercises. The very asking for a grace or the articulation of one's desires for a deepening of one's relationship with God in some particular way, comes from God. The initial impulse, the consequent shift in one's consciousness, the openness to the gift, the reception of the gift, the presence of God's self in one -- all this is grace.

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