Moving Closer to God

I’ve been reading What’s Right With Islam by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf lately. He has a very easy-to-read writing style without being simplistic.  He writes about our spiritual life as a journey of development as we open up to God more and more. I never thought of it in quite that way before. I just thought, Oh, I have to obey all these rules to show God that I’m obedient/submitted. But that’s making obedience the end, when the end is actually communion with God. A fine difference but a hugely important one.

Claude Monet, Bend in the Epte River Near Giverny, 1888

I read an analogy the other day about how some people look at a Monet painting and all they see are the dots while others see the whole picture. The writer said that’s like Muslims who get so hung up on the rules that they lose the sense of what they’re all for. They don’t see the whole picture.

Imam Rauf also writes about how some people will emphasize some of the names or attributes of God to the exclusion of the others, but that gives them a limited picture of God and prevents them from entering into complete communion with Him. He said that the one who has embraced all the 99 names of God will be the most blessed when he enters Paradise. The point is that when you know God so fully, you will be able to commune with Him that fully when you are in Heaven. (Imam Rauf also described Hell as lack of communion with God.)

It’s true that when we’re caught up in our own little world of human emotions and motivations we feel trapped. The feeling is almost like panic. I don’t want to be here, we cry. I don’t like the way this feels. Let me out of here! That must be what Hell feels like, only to the nth degree. But the more we practice the things that move us closer to God, the less panicky we feel. At least that’s the way that I experience it. My recent experience of not getting the jobs I interviewed for is a case in point: I was so overcome by hurt and feeling rejected, and so full of anger, I just wanted to lash out—I thought that would ease my pain. But it wouldn’t have; it would only have made things worse. When you do that, you’re moving away from God, not toward Him. You’re descending into Hell.

Why is it that I’m finding a peace in Islam that I stopped feeling in Christianity? I was worshiping the same God. But I didn’t know where to go from there. Islam gives you a blueprint for how to live; Christianity just gives you platitudes. Oh, sure, Christians have Jesus as a model to emulate, but so do Muslims. The Bible doesn’t address human nature the way the Qur’an does. Both talk about man’s shortcomings, but the Qur’an slams the point home. And yet it doesn’t leave it there; it’s not fire and brimstone. It tells us exactly what we must do to transcend the negative parts of our nature. It teaches us the absolute importance of submission and gives us practical examples of things we can/should do to enter into a close relationship with Allah. Again, the point isn’t our being submitted; the point is what is possible because we’re submitted.

Submission manifests itself in three ways: in our actions, our faith (beliefs), and our openness to God. Imam Rauf describes it as a progression. If we stay stuck in any one phase, we will never reach true communion with God. If all we emphasize, for instance, is following the rules, we’ll never experience God as more than a taskmaster. When we start doing what we do because of our faith, we draw closer to God. This is where many people stop. But there’s one more step: letting our selves fall away and all barriers between us and God dissolve. Then we have seen Paradise.

This last phase is a hard one to reach. It’s mainly mystics (or Sufis) who seek to go there. But we all can get glimpses of this degree of closeness to God. When we meditate on God’s nature, when we pray for others, when we lose ourselves in prayer, when we bend to God’s will, when we are overwhelmed by thoughts of God’s grace and mercy. These moments may not come very often, but, inshallah, they motivate us to seek more. The catch is that we cannot experience closeness to God just by willing it; we have to practice it.