God is a ‘who’ not a ‘what’ and why that matters

Earlier this week I had an interesting conversation with someone from generation Z. They didn’t announce themselves as being part of that generation but later the same day I was reading about the characteristics of this generation and I realised that the young man I had met was most likely a Z-er – a post-millennial youth born after 1996.

I met him outside my church where I was engaged in a simple task and he offered to help me.

I didn’t need the help but it seemed like a nice chance for a conversation so I accepted his offer and we worked alongside each other for 10 minutes or so.

I asked him If he had ever been inside this church building and he replied,

No, I was brought up a Catholic, and now I don’t know what I believe, but,” he added “you don’t have to believe in anything to be kind“.

It was hard to argue with that, particularly as he was being kind and I wasn’t looking for an argument, merely the opportunity to nudge us both into a spiritual conversation.

As usual, an appropriate reply only came to me 12 hours later in the middle of the following night.

(Not much good to my generation Z boy, but nevertheless interesting for me to reflect on).

Maybe it’s not about what you believe, maybe instead the essence of all faith is a ‘who’ and not a ‘what’?

When Jesus was challenged about the greatest of all commandments, he summed it up by saying “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and love your neighbour as yourself”.

The longer I am a Christian the more frequently I find myself coming back to this summary as expressing succintly the heart of my faith. But when it comes to sharing that faith, in our modern world and to young people such as the kind, nice and sensitive generation Z – the second instruction is a much easier ‘sell’ than the first.

And yet Jesus was very clear and emphatic about that first instruction: that the love of others cannot and should not be separated from learning to love God with your whole being.

The insight that came to me is that in these two instructions what Jesus holds before us is the possibility of relationship; a relationship with a living, loving, and specifically delineated in the face of Jesus, deity. God is personal. God is a ‘who’ not a ‘what’.

A ‘what’ is a set of ideas and although you can measure yourself against a set of ideas you cannot be held to account by a set of ideas, nor can you be loved by a set of ideas, nor can you be forgiven by a set of ideas. They remain an impersonal … ‘set of ideas’.

The entire story of the Bible insists that God is personal, he is nothing if not personal and we must deal with him personally.

The book I was reading which talked about generation Z, had some positive things to say about them “the emerging generation is kind, considerate, tolerant and good. It will not stand for racism, sexism, homophobia or xenophobia. The emerging generation believes in many good things, and also in God (a bit at least)” but rather than a personal living and active God they prefer a ‘therapeutic moralistic deity’. And ‘moralistic therapeutic Deism’ has little to do with an immanent God or a sense of divine mission in the world. It offers comfort, bolsters self-esteem, helps solve problems, and lubricates interpersonal relationships by encouraging people to do good, feel good and keep God at arms length.’

(from Humble Church by Martyn Percy pg 69.)

One of my other favourite writers, Eugene Peterson frequently champions this idea that God is personal, “we need to give careful attention to spirituality because we know, from long experience, how easy it is to get interested in ideas of God and projects for God and gradually lose interest in God alive’… He goes further still “spirituality is not a body of secret lore, not to do with aptitudes or temperament, not about you or me or personal power or enrichment it is about God”

(from “Christ plays in 1000 places“)

It is only as we are in constant daily relationship with a personal being in our ordinary everyday lives that we begin to understand why a ‘who’ is so much better than a ‘what’.

If God is a personal being, a ‘who’, then I can get to know and trust this being, I know I will be heard when I cry, I know I am understood when I fail. I know I am not alone.

So if I were to meet this same young man again, I would like to encourage him that the most important thing at the heart of life, the universe and everything might not be a ‘what’ to believe but a who to believe in and follow.

I would give him copy of Mark’s gospel and suggest that this is a story big enough to live in and that it is a story that can live in him.

“The moment we abandon the story, we reduce reality to the dimensions of our minds and feelings and experience.” (Eugune Peterson, in the same book as above)

Tempted as I might be to collude with mere moral deism, that can only be the starting point of our conversation, my calling is to point to Jesus and unless I do, what I’m offering is not Christianity.

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