This weekend I went with my family and in-laws to Bintan for a year end break. When we arrived, what played host to us was not so much the beautiful double-storey villa with a personal pool not far from the sea. They were awe-inspiring no doubt. But what added the finishing touch to the holiday was the universal warmth of the sun. The sun was beaming from the east to the west. It blanketed the entire estate for as far as the eyes could see. And in one of the Range Rover rides around the resort, we were told that it has been raining since the day before we arrived and the local driver could not be certain whether it will be rain-free for the duration of our short 4-day stay.
But it gloriously was...
Throughout our stay, the sun shone and the sky was almost crystal clear. Above me was the boundless expanse of calm blueness and below my feet were the plains of golden sand. It was an incredibly self-indulgent holiday for a nerd like me to read, and sleep, and then to read again with no end in sight. I guess nothing would spoil me more than the perfect mix of sun, blue skies and books. A taste of a piece of heaven on earth? My point?
Admittedly here is the non sequitur part of this writing and it all started at one of the breakfast sessions with my beloved family. Towards the end, my father-in-law asked me a question out of the blue, "Mike, do you believe in a personal God?" I was caught off guard by it. It was a disarmingly disconcerting question for me. I groped for answers. I wanted to say, "Yes I believe" and move on to the next subject. Isn't that what is expected of me (a Christian of 30 years)?
But then, the unassuming ambience of the dining hall compelled me to be earnest and honest. It was one of those life's moments where you feel strongly that you needed to be transparent and authentic. Alternatively, I guess I was just being mawkish or over-sentimental about it - softened somewhat by the sedating holiday spirit. So, in the discordant mix of emotions, I recovered a little and replied, "Define personal, Dad."
Of course the discussion between us on that question "Do you believe in a personal God?" lasted almost the whole morning and it was an amazingly enriching time for all of us, me most of all. We delved deeply into our own convictions and spiritual experiences. We exchanged personal testimonies, sought to understand the different views presented, and encouraged one another forward with passion.
That morning, I felt a deep connection with my belief and the inspiring conviction of my father-in-law's and the assurances of the other members of the family. The gist of our discussion was essentially on what a personal God meant to us. In other words, the focus is on the reality of a personal God. Alas, the caveat here is that I will never fully understand His ways for it will undoubtedly be higher than mine. And that is the reason for my reservation when that question was first thrown at me.
Surely, the personal quality of this divine Creator is unlike that of an earthly father. I am a father myself and I know with some certainty the personal bond between my children and I. In my limited strength and knowledge, I will put the interest of my children before mine. I can't imagine an existence where their well-being is being threatened or jeopardized without me lifting a finger to help or assist in whatever ways that is within my power and resources. That is what a personal relation means to me. That is my human understanding of personal fatherhood.
Now, when it comes to a personal God, underscore "personal", I know I cannot apply the same logical extension, unqualified. I know I cannot expect this perfect heavenly Father to think and act in the same manner as an imperfect earthly father like me would. The distinction is self-explanatory.
God's family by Abrahamic birthrights and Calvary adoption far exceeds mine. Whereas I have three, God's children on earth alone are in the billions. Whereas my children living under my roof must obey my rules (although I am more lax than you think), the world populace living under one heaven must comply with His. And I should therefore expect that His rules will be less straightforward than mine from my limited perspective.
For this reason, the constraint for which I operate with when I admit to my limitations to help my children in their hour of need is different from the "constraint" that an omnipotent and loving God faces when some of His children's cries for help fell on deaf ears. At such a time, my only invocation is to humbly submit with this refrain, "God works in mysterious ways."
Of course I can anticipate the apologist's rejoinder that God works all things well in His time. But still, what is well and when such well-being is realized to the fullest is something that is clearly beyond my level of understanding. Whilst I may interpret the spilling of innocent blood in the hands of the tyrannical ruler under His divine watch as an unnecessary overkill, the author and finisher of my faith may think otherwise and for a reason better conceived than I will ever understand.
God may have other plans for the faithful when they are tortured, oppressed, persecuted or even exterminated. Evil men may seemingly thrive on earth only to ultimately face His wrath in a way that they may live to regret the day they were born. And the refusal to intervene in the most earnest of prayers for help may be an act of mercy and prudence that only He can fully comprehend in the larger scheme of His will.
So, what is personal about God in relation to us is a concept that differs in substance and depth from what is personal for us in relation to the people we love and interact with. If an analogy helps, men's ways are linear and time-bound, whilst God's ways are kaleidoscopic and time-defying.
Can I then do any better? It is easy to say with a show of empty boast that I will act differently if I were endowed with omnipotence but the consequences of my actions may very well result in a universe far less favorable to the existence and well-being of the subject-matter of my undying affection. Personally, I don't trust myself with a little adulation from men, what's more infinite power.
If the advice "father knows best" is applicable here, then I guess a God who is personal in his own way knows best when his apparent hiddenness and inactivity indirectly results in this ongoing decadent world that we are witnessing today. Is this then the best of all possible worlds? Alas, I will never know and will never come to fully understand.
So, going back to my father-in-law's question, "Do you believe in a personal God?", I guess the onus is on the one who thinks otherwise to bear and discharge the burden of proof (or disproof). Honestly, I happen to struggle with this personal quality of God. It is to me a genuine struggle for authenticity, faith and conviction. His love and unlimited power in a world of gratuitous suffering somehow confounds the issue further for me. His logic of nonintervention and non-apparentness ruffles more than just my spiritual feathers. This struggle is my furnace of doubt and at the same time, my Calvary of hope.
I know this is a personal question directed exclusively at me and I can only answer it as personally and honestly as I can. And my answer is probationary because the journey of faith to me is always a journey of discovery. My doubts in this journey is as real and as empowering as my faith. God is personal in His own way and in a way only He can fully understand because He is God.
Some of His actions or inactions seem impersonal, and even alienating, to me. And I guess it is His sovereignty that will always elude me. But one thing I can't deny and this brings me back to the beauty of the sun and the sand in the Bintan villa this weekend. Our overseas getaway was blessed with a weather that to me defied all natural explanations. The four days of propitious meteorological favor somehow makes me feel especially singled out. Some may call this wishful thinking. But I choose to see it as a spillover of the mystery of His sovereign ways.
My struggle is therefore ameliorated here by the beauty of creation, by the fortuity of becalmed nature, by the redeeming qualities of the faith of men and women like my father-in-law (and mother-in-law), and by the simplicity and generosity of a sunny overall in an otherwise precipitating climate. If anything, I am blessed in a way that the trials of this world cannot rob me of. And if a personal God refers to this specific cover of blessedness, notwithstanding the doubts and the occasional misgivings about the faith, then I guess God is personal and better still, at times, reassuringly so. Cheerz.