In every breath we take, in every beat of every heart – God speaks to us in words of endearment and passionate love.
The dialogue with God is not like any other conversation or dialogue we might have with one another. This conversation transforms us radically if we let it. So, Isaiah is able to speak authoritatively about God as merciful, compassionate and forgiving. He goes on to witness to his broader conviction, born of that knowledge, that God’s ways are not humanity’s – with poetry which has entered our language: ‘Yes, the heavens are as high above the earth as my ways are above your ways, my thoughts above your thoughts.’ So, the wisdom of perspective is gained for us. Human ways and thinking attain depth and height by being measured in the partnering with the Divine. We can measure our thinking now against the criterion of a wider truth. Left alone in the universe, we cannot attain this perspective; we stand unable to filter any wisdom from the sand of our own experience. But the wonderful thing is (and Isaiah, the poet knows this) humanity has never been left alone in the cosmos. The dialogue breathes from every fibre of our being, in every breath we take, in every beat of every heart – God speaks to us in soundless words of endearment and passionate love. How could it be otherwise. If human parents gaze at their children with love (and Isaiah speaks of this), what of the intimate gaze of the Maker of us all?
The great mystery is that humanity’s awful gift, without which we would be bound as slaves without choice to worship God, is to be able to ignore the call on the God whom Isaiah says is ‘still to be found’, despite human sin and pride. God is in us, but we are free to ignore that presence. We are free to choose God or not to make space in silence for the Divine voice. God only acts freely, there is no pressure or force since only love offered freely and received freely can be true. There would be no heroes or heroines who die for love – like St Therese of Lisieux or the innumerable ones who lie in unmarked graves – as George Eliot has it famously in her novel ‘Middlemarch’.
So, for Paul, who has understood the gift of freedom, life and death have taken on a totally new meaning which enables him to place them in the larger picture and perspective provided by his conversation with God – the force of which threw him off his horse outside Damascus. His dilemma is not the usual one posed by ‘life OR death’ but the one posed by someone who sees meaning in death AND life wrapped up to make one glorious sense. It’s a win/win situation. Paul comes to the right conclusion – living for others is better than dying for selfish motives! It is not, after all, a problem.
Jesus can tell stories out of the depth of his closeness and even identification with the word of the dialogue between the Father and humanity. Our human judgements must be stood on their heads. ‘Why be envious because I am generous? Thus the last shall be first and the first, last.’ Jesus knows of the God who overflows with so much generosity that human measures are inadequate to hold it. The slow realisation, born of experience of the conversation with the divine, here gets its final revelation. God is shown, to those engaged with him, as the God who seeks transformation of the heart. God desires to be generous and asks us to be gracious and generous in our turn. This transforms and disturbs all our relationships and encounters in every aspect of our thinking and action.