Relationship with God, 4: Step Three—Congruence (6/12/05)
Dr. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
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This morning we bring to a close the series on my doctoral thesis, and my hope this morning is to recap and bring together all the parts of my thesis. The title of today’s sermon—Congruence—is the final step in the three-step process that I claim leads to an honest and empowering relationship with God. It is the least controversial of the three steps. I’ve found that if a person can accept the first two steps in the process—wrestling and surrender—step three doesn’t cause too many arguments. So let’s go back to the beginning and try to bring all this together.
I began by explaining a dilemma I faced when I first entered seminary. Some of the professors and most of the students thought there was only one reason to preach, namely, to save souls. And that just isn’t a big part of my theology. If a preacher believes that the people in the pews are all going to hell unless they make a specific confession of faith in Jesus, then by all means he should be preaching to save souls. But as I mentioned in the first week of the series, I do not believe we are born for the purpose of going to hell. I believe God loves us every step of the way, from birth, through life, and beyond. I came to the conclusion that the reason I preach is to point people toward a relationship with God, which I believe is the most important element of human life.
This does not mean I think Jesus was just some great teacher who really knew how to tell a parable. In fact, I have what most would consider a very high Christology—a very high opinion of where Jesus Christ fits into the eternal scheme of things; but I also maintain a great respect for other faiths.
There are three ways for Christians to think about Christianity with regard to other religions: exclusivist, pluralist, and inclusivist. The exclusivist approach says that Christians exclusively stand in the grace of God. The traditional way of thinking about this is that only a person who makes the proper confession of faith in Jesus Christ goes to heaven. People who feel this way are driven by deep convictions, and I certainly feel people have a right to believe as they do. And if a preacher thinks this way, then he should be preaching to save souls—preaching to get people to make that confession of faith. And for people who adhere to the exclusivist approach to Christianity, my preaching about relationship with God would fall well short of what they need to hear in a sermon.
Another approach to other religions is called the pluralist approach. I have many friends who fall into this camp. This approach says that all religions are basically equal. Every religion is a valid path to God, and no one religion is superior to any other. I confess that I prefer this to the exclusivist approach.
But as I studied and prayed my way through seminary something unexpected happened to me. I developed this relationship with Jesus Christ. I came to view Jesus Christ as the perfect reflection of eternal God. And this left me in quite a quandary. Was I to become an exclusivist, and think that people of other faiths were on the wrong path? While I could hardly do that, how could I be a true pluralist, thinking all religions are equal, if I honestly believed that Jesus was the Word become flesh, the incarnation, the logos through which all of creation came into being?
And that’s where the inclusivist approach comes into play. This way of approaching other religions acknowledges those religions are valid, and wonderful, and that God’s grace is indeed at work in those religions. But it holds that Christ is the ultimate revelation of God into our world. If you want to think in a traditional sense about the saving of souls and going to heaven, the inclusivist approach would say that Jesus Christ conquered all evil at the cross. You do not need to make a specific confession of faith in Jesus. God has already covered all the bases. You can’t manipulate God—not even by thinking and saying the right things about Jesus.
If a person accepts either the pluralist or the inclusivist approach to Christianity, then preaching relationship with God is a valid purpose for standing in the pulpit.
Once I established a reason for preaching other than saving souls, it occurred to me that while each of our faith journeys is unique, there are some common elements. The question is simple: Is there a process people go through in order to be in an honest and empowering relationship with God? My thesis says yes, and that process involves three steps: wrestling, surrender, and congruence.
The first step, wrestling with God, indicates that an honest relationship with God takes some work. God is the ultimate mystery. The word itself—the word God—causes a great deal of confusion. I have said in the past that we all have this little room in our minds that we keep tightly locked. It is the room in which we put everything we hear about God, especially when we are growing up.
We ask our parents about arithmetic, or spelling, or how to play some game, and they have the answer for us. But ask them about God and they get that “dear in the headlights” look. Suddenly they don’t seen to have all the answers, and we have to create a special place in our minds for this strange mystery. And as we grow up, we are putting new things in that little room every day. Consider the things we hear about God:
God is almighty, and nothing happens that is not God’s will.
God loves each and every one of us; in fact, God is love.
God will send you to hell for all eternity unless you are saved.
If this doesn’t cause some confusion, you’re not thinking things through. I remember when a childhood friend of mine died of encephalitis when he was twelve years old. God made that happen? Did my friend go to hell?—his family didn’t go to church. Day after day we stick such claims and question in that little room in our minds. No wonder we keep the door to that little room tightly locked. If we let all those ideas have free reign they would drive us crazy.
So we have to wrestle with all those ideas. But our wrestling doesn’t end there. To be in an honest relationship with God we have to try to see things from God’s point of view, and that’s just not natural. The number of people on this planet is approaching seven billion, and we each have a balance scale on which we weight our decisions. We consider what is best for us, and we consider what is best for the other seven billion people in the world, and when push comes to shove, the scale tips in our favor.
It is not easy or natural to try to see the world from an objective point of view, truly loving one’s neighbor as oneself. And this is where the real wrestling with God begins. It is a battle between our heads and our hearts. We are inclined to center the universe around ourselves, and when God calls us to see things from a less selfish perspective, the wrestling match begins in earnest.
I contend that after some honest wrestling, we come to a conclusion. There is something eternal in us. There is a spark of the divine. There is a perfected person, truly in the image of God, who is trying to break through our selfishness and live out his or her life in this world. And that inner self is eternal. The little worlds we build around our egos turn back to dust. But that part of us deep inside that is created in God’s image—that unique and special thing that makes each of us individuals but also makes each of us a part of the same creation—that part of us is one with God.
When we surrender to God, we surrender our egos to God’s purposes. We make an honest attempt to let that beautiful inner person live through us. When I was diagnosed with a serious illness several people asked me how I was able to take things in stride. And I said it is because I figured out something very important a long time ago: God is eternal, and Gary Cox is mortal. And that is a perfect plan. Any part of me that is worthy of living through eternity surely will. And except for my love, I cannot imagine what part of me would have such worth.
And that leads us to the third step in the process: congruence. I told you at the beginning of this series that it is important not to think too systematically about this three step process. It is not as if we wrestle with God through one part of our lives, and then say to ourselves, “Okay, I’m thirty years old now—time for the surrender phase.” There is a general movement in life from one step to another, but each and every one of us wrestles with God every day. And none of us ever reaches the points where we can say, “Ah, finally, I have moved beyond all selfishness and am completely surrendered to the will of God.” It’s more of a continuum than a step-by-step methodical process.
But once we have wrestled with God, and surrendered to God, we reach the third step, which I call congruence. Congruence is the quality or state of agreeing or corresponding. I contend there are three things that make a human being the person he or she is. Head, heart, and hands—how a person thinks; how a person feels; and what a person does.
My thesis claims that the final step in relationship with God is to have all three elements of our lives—our heads, our hearts and our hands—congruent—lined up in surrender to God. The closer we can come to making this happen, the stronger our relationship with God, and the more joyful our lives.
Let’s consider some ways we tend to be incongruent. Many who profess to be Christians believe all the right things. Their preacher tells them there are certain unquestionable fundamentals—the virgin birth, the physical resurrection, the Second Coming, the inerrancy of scripture, etc. This person’s head is in one place. But perhaps his heart is in another. Perhaps he is thrown off balance when he hears that same preacher say that people of other faiths are going to hell. He understands what the preacher is saying, but his heart is telling him something different. And his hands—the way he lives out his life in the world—indicates that God loves all people, because this person has Jewish friends and even non-religious friends that he simply cannot envision being cast into hell by God. So his heart and his hands are congruent, but his head is going off in a different direction. And this incongruence will affect both his relationship with God and his level of happiness in life.
Another example. Consider a man who goes to church every Sunday. He confesses Jesus Christ as his savior. He gives generously to charity. He treats his family and friends wonderfully. His head and heart are truly in the right place. But Monday through Friday he is the most ruthless, dishonest businessman in town. His hands—his work in the world—betray him. His handshake means nothing. He is not like the vast majority of business people who understand that a good deal is a good deal for everybody involved—it’s called win-win. He is a basically a crook, who skirts the law to enrich himself, while others drown in the wake of his greed and self-absorption. He is not in an honest relationship with God, because his hands are not congruent with his head and heart.
A final example of incongruence, and this should hit home with many of you here this morning. Most of the people who are drawn to this church have, at some point in the past, had a real struggle with the Christian faith. And the reason for that struggle is not because they were in an honest wrestling match with God, but rather because the church of their youth insisted that they check their brains at the front door.
Their faith life was incongruent. Their hearts were in the right place—they were honestly seeking a relationship with God through the Christian faith. Their hands were doing the right things—they were living good Christian lives, caring for others, and doing their best to be good people. But they were told to believe that the Bible is literally true, and that the universe is only 6000 years old. They were told there were certain things they had to believe about Jesus or they were not proper Christians, and to wrestle with God—to ask honest questions—was evil. They were forced to pit their religion—Christianity—against the truth. And they were unable to enter into an honest and empowering relationship with God because they could not, or would not, shut off their brains.
I hope this will always be a place where people are allowed—encouraged—to think freely. God gave us these brains for a reason, and when Jesus tells us to love God with all our hearts, souls and minds, I think that precludes us from having to check our brains at the church door.
Well, its time to bring this series to a close. My conclusion in all this is that the only way to have our head, heart and hands congruent is to have each of those things surrendered to God. And when we stop and think about it—which is okay, even at church—we realize that they belong to God anyway. Every tiny piece of each and every one of us is the sole property of God. And when we understand that, life gets simple, and beautiful… and congruent.