Only God can answer that of God in another person


We Quakers like to talk about “that of God in the other person,” a phrase from George Fox whose use among Friends became broadened beyond its original context largely through the influential writings of Rufus M. Jones (1863-1948), so that today one hears Friends speak as though “that of God” were part of the mortal individual, and “answering that of God” in that individual were something that another mortal individual could do as a sort of pious courtesy, like bowing and saying “Namaste.” North American Friend Lewis Benson (1906–1986) worked tirelessly to expose this misconception, but it persists nonetheless.

This may be largely because we don’t want to have that of God answered in us. It will upset us. It will penetrate our defenses and touch parts of ourselves that we’ve locked into a closet to silence their screaming: places of terror, rage, deep shame, overwhelming grief. These parts of ourselves frighten us, so we’ve set up standards of politeness and other cultural patterns to protect ourselves, and one another, from having to face them, although the brainwasher, the waterboarder and the deprogrammer may find ways to pick the lock anyway. Fortunately, there is One who loves us who also knows how to pick the lock: God. And God’s touch heals whatever it exposes. But we may not know that until it’s happened to us. (That’s why repentant slave-trader John Newton called it “Amazing Grace:” it is amazing.)

This might explain why there are so many low-voltage Quaker meetings where the hour of worship is filled with messages that don’t come from the Holy Spirit, but from the interesting thoughts of the mortal individual, and the hearers, predictably, aren’t deeply affected. A psychotherapist might call this phenomenon “collective resistance;” an engineer might call it a homeostasis mechanism.

To “answer that of God in another person” is to speak to that of God in them, in words or meanings that That-of-God-in-them wants conveyed to them. Got that? Let’s say you’re an unhealed mentally ill person, an unrecovered addict, a troubled conscience, some sort of broken person who’s patched yourself together with duct tape in order to keep going on with life, but you’re really not OK. There is that of God in you, but you’ve silenced It, duct-taped your inner ear closed. But God still wants to save and heal you. So God, who can do everything, raises up a prophet to speak to you – to speak God’s words to you from outside, since you resist hearing them from the inside.

The “prophet” may have no idea that he or she is functioning as God’s prophet. The words that smite your conscience may have been written weeks ago by a journalist, or centuries ago by a dramatist. They may be said to you through sobs by your partner or child, or icily by the boss who’s firing you. God, who created everybody, can use anybody. But the words hit home. Which is to say, they answer that of God in you.

But “answering that of God” in another person is not something we can do in our own will. We like to hope we can, by praying hard enough, or lobbying the other person sweetly enough, or threateningly enough, or with enough allies on our side, or persistently enough. My mom desperately wished she could get my dad to stop drinking. But she had to die before he hit bottom and, by the amazing grace of his Higher Power, sobered up. This is why I resist saying “we Quakers answer that of God in other people” like “we speak truth to power” or “we live in that power that takes away the occasion for all wars.” It’s wishful thinking. We answer that of God in other people if and when God wills. When it does happen, it’s really more truthful to say that God answered that of God in the other person, and then to give thanks for the miracle that God worked.


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6 Responses to “Only God can answer that of God in another person”

  1. Rima Segal Says:

    As John Edminster says, It is clearly true that God speaks to that of God within each person. We hope our ears are unclogged enough to hear God speaking.
    I have a slightly different take on George Fox’s words. They seem to me to direct me to do whatever I can to encourage the people I meet to rise up to be the best people they can be. I can’t do God’s work in them, but I should be helping it along.

  2. treegestalt Says:

    You might also (as with a meeting I know) have “an hour of worship filled’ with silence — when that is not the silence of people hoping to hear God, but the silence of people who ‘don’t want to hear it.’ What they want instead is an hour of ‘peace and quiet’ — which they might not otherwise allow themselves — so God (I think) obliges.

    I wouldn’t say the problem is ‘messages that don’t come from the Holy Spirit’; rather, what happens is that that Spirit sends kindergarten messages for kindergarten people. More accurately, in the case of LiberalFriendist Friends: very cerebral messages with no juice in them to people who don’t much want their juices getting uncontrollably stirred. God will help people where they are; and if they don’t much want to fly higher than an inch up, such tends to be their flight path — until they crash into a gopher mound someplace.

    There isn’t really a subset of a person to call ‘that of God’ — just a subset of us that’s wired into God at a very low voltage; because we don’t — what we call ‘our ego’ doesn’t — let God guide us on the controls. Too much power through such a crude mechanism as human beings in automatic mode… and something might blow.

    It does boggle my mind, at least finding a good way to phrase things… because we really can’t have anything “real” that _isn’t_ God, yet a lot of stuff goes on that “isn’t what I would have expected” the Reign of God to look like. What’s miraculous is that God’s power does continue to work, incognito through the cracks in all that.

  3. John Jeremiah Edminster Says:

    Well put, Treegestalt, and thank you! I do think God does help people where they are, providing milk for the babes (1 Cor 3:2) so long as we’re babes, and respecting our needs for homeostasis, which no one understands better than our Creator. I especially like your last paragraph, which speaks to my heart! So much of my experience is “not what I would have expected!” How subtly God’s power works, incognito, through the cracks!

  4. Paul Ricketts Says:

    What I come to believe Fox was not a systematic theologian. In other words, his theology is experiential and not a carefully thought out and logically consistent system. He sometimes means different things when he uses the same words. And he is constantly exploring, unpacking, repacking, testing, trying out new understandings, and pushing language to the limits. Sometimes he seems to use language sloppily, and the inconsistencies annoy and frustrates me at times. Sometimes he seems to be intentionally ambiguous in his use of terms, and I am impressed. John Jeremiah Edminster what I am learning (slowly) the way you or I speak of our faith (or anyone for that matter) is deeply personal and may well change over time.I suppose that if the words never change at all, then there is a good chance we are stagnant.What I know experientially the holy spirit is working in us (and in me) in ways that we do not yet understand. As we continue to listen, worship, pray, love and serve, it will gradually become clearer to us. I believe the same is true for me and for any person of faith. Words are just that. What is more important is the reality behind the words.

  5. John Jeremiah Edminster Says:

    Absolutely, Paul, the reality behind the words is what is important. I pray that it will not be long before all of us now engaged in this conversation are swept up into a direct experience of God that will leave us completely known, completely knowing, and with little need to use words any further, except it be to guide some wanderer to the door we entered by.

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