Some Christian see a crucial difference between Christianity and the other major world religions: in other major religions humans must strive to reach God, while in Christianity God reaches out and comes to us. I, however, think that it is important not to let this crucial difference obscure an even greater similarity: Christianity and the other major religions share a common assumption that God is outside of us. Whether we are striving toward God, or God is coming to us, in both cases God is assumed to be outside ourselves.
This assumption, that God is separate from and outside us, shapes the experience of many Christians. These Christians speak of a God-shaped void inside us, a void which can only be filled by inviting God into our lives to sit on the throne of our hearts and direct us. I believe that many people feel a God-shaped void because of their basic assumption that God is Out There. Believing that God is outside us actually creates the experience of an inner emptiness. Those who believe that God is outside us will put all their energy into striving toward God-Out-There, or into inviting God-Out-There to come in.
Even after God has been invited in, a Christian often continues to experience God as Someone Else, Someone who was outside and who has now come inside her from without. This Christian senses that she is no longer in control of her life but that God, who has now come within, is controlling her. In fact, when such a Christian does something good and helpful for others, she often says, “I didn’t do that in my own strength. It was God acting through me.” God is perceived and experienced as completely separate from the self. God is within the Christian, but as an outside Power: what God wills and does within the Christian is separate from what the Christian wills and does on her own.
For me, this perception of God as Someone separate caused serious problems during my earlier Christian years. It prevented me from listening to and knowing myself. I believed that I had to be concerned with God’s will, and since God was separate from me, this meant shutting down and negating my own thoughts and feelings so that God could take command. All my energy and attention went into God: God’s thoughts, God’s ways, God’s desires. I was prevented from listening to and discovering who I was, for I did not matter; it only mattered who God was and what God wanted of me. I had to suppress myself and my own voice in order to think God’s thoughts, speak God’s words, and do God’s actions. Karen had to disappear. In fact, I was cut off from myself in two ways: both as an individual and as a woman. Since the Christian God is male, doing God’s will meant doing His will. I was under the control of a male God. I had to deny both my individual self and my womanly self.
Thus, the assumption that God is separate from us leads to the experience of an inner void without God, or of an outside Power controlling us when God enters our lives. This can cause us to feel that we must deny and negate ourselves in order to hear and do God’s will.
But I now believe that a different basic assumption about God is far closer to the truth of what is: the assumption that God is already within us as an intrinsic part of who we are as human beings. In other words, I am created with a part of myself that I might call God-Within-Karen, or God-in-Karenshape. This very different assumption creates an entirely different set of experiences.
With the basic assumption that God-in-Karenshape is an integral part of who I am, I do not experience a God-shaped void, or inner emptiness. I do not perceive God as Someone Else toward whom I must strive or whom I must invite into me from without. Instead, I find God within me. Listening to God and listening to myself are not two separate activities. Listening to God is listening to myself. Just as I learn to listen to my rational thoughts as part of myself and to my feelings as part of myself, so, too, do I learn to listen to the voice of God-in-Karenshape as part of myself.
I believe that the perception of God as separate from and outside us makes us effectively blind and deaf in a spiritual sense because it prevents us from using our inner eyes and ears. Imagine a person who keeps her eyes shut all the time, not because she has no capacity for vision, but because she is unaware that she has eyes to open! Such a person is effectively blind, not because her eyes don’t work, but because she never uses them, not realizing that they are there to open and use.
In the same way, many of us do not open our inner eyes and ears to God within, not because God isn’t there, but because of our basic assumption that God is separate from us. Unaware of God within, it never occurs to us to connect with the God part of ourselves; hence, we feel a void. Feeling a void, we assume, not that we are ignoring a part of ourselves, but that we are empty. Our belief in a separate, outside God creates this experience of inner emptiness. We look to be filled by God from without because we do not realize that God is already within. We cannot have an experience of God within us unless we go within ourselves to experience God there. And we will not go within ourselves to experience God unless we first assume that God is within us to be experienced.
I believe that God is meant to be experienced in this earthly life from within: within myself, within others, within the world. In fact, I find it impossible to have an experience of God as separate and without. God comes to me as God-Within-Friend, God-Within-Stranger, God-Within-Sunset, God-Within-Full-Moon, God-Within-Oak, God-Within-Azalea, God-Within-Elephant, God-Within-Spider, God-Within-Hurricane, God-Within-Rainbow, God-Within-Color, God-Within-Music, God-Within-Poetry—and most frequently and powerfully as God-in-Karenshape.