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There are three things you don’t mention in polite dinner conversation: God, politics, and aliens… so let’s talk about all three. Spoiler alert: this article is primarily focused on God—deciding if He’s real or not—but I’m pretty confident I can sneak politics and aliens into the mix. Buckle up; it’s gonna be fun.
Let me be clear: all answers to the title question are welcome here. I’m serious about that. No matter where you fall on the spiritual spectrum, I think there’s something in here that will help you. Given the questionable record the Church has had in history (looking at you Spanish Inquisition), I’d understand if you were skeptical about that fact. But I can confidently say no one is getting burned at the stake today.
In fact, and this may come as a shocker, my primary goal isn’t to change anybody’s mind—I believe you’re perfectly capable of thinking, and making up your mind, for yourself. Rather than tell you what to think, I want to introduce a way of thinking, of weighing and considering truth, that has become incredibly helpful to me. Someone taught me how to fish, and I’m just passing it on. What you catch with your line will be completely up to you.
So, to the existential task at hand: Is God real?
You don’t need any pretty words from me to answer that question. It’s a pretty safe bet to say that nearly everyone, from the ardent atheist to the cloistered nun, already has an answer—even if they’re struggling to admit it, put the right words around it, or share it beyond the dark corners of their brain.
What’s more important than how you’ve answered that question in the past, is how you’re answering it right now. Everyone (me, you, the Pope, and Richard Dawkins, just to name a few) should ask and re-ask themselves the ultimate questions of life. Because, like a miner working deep in the earth, the more we dig, the more gold I believe we’ll find. We’re all much too comfortable with where we are right now. Today is about moving.
All cards on the table, I believe God is real. Not only that, I believe He’s active in the world, breaks into my own life, and wants to be part of yours. Totally cool if that sounds like crazy talk to you, or if you’re completely convinced in the other direction. As mentioned above, I think the ground we’re going to cover today will be beneficial for every reader because we’re going to (re)introduce a long-neglected skill that’s changed my life as I’ve learned to engage it.
You Were Built For Discernment
Ever wish you could tell the difference between the truth and the imposters? Sometimes it’s easy, but let’s be honest, the fakes are getting more and more advanced. If the past two years have taught us anything, there’s a lot of misinformation in the world, and it’s not always easy to sift through. Just think about how many pseudonyms our culture has for the word lie—mistruth, distruth, false, erroneous, deceptive, red herring, fake, conflicting report, misfact, hoax. At the end of the day, there’s truth… and everything else. How do you sift out fact from fiction? By learning the skill of discernment.
Let’s run with this definition, which I cooked up by smashing a few good ones together I found on Google.
Discernment (n) - the ability to judge well; perception; differentiating between two options
The difference between knowledge and discernment is subtle, but it’s worth parsing out. Knowledge is deep knowledge or understanding about a topic—you may have noticed, there’s a pretty good amount of that to go around. In fact, it seems like we have more experts now than ever before (even if some of them have been self-appointed). Discernment, on the other hand, is pulling information apart, keeping what’s important and discarding what is not. It’s the ability to separate right from wrong, fact from fiction, truth from opinion.
Discernment is all about weighing information; it’s growing comfortable with deciding slowly (instead of reacting); it’s making peace with being in process, and being comfortable with not-knowing-until-we-do.
Discernment is helpful everywhere, from relationships to politics, but it’s even more important as you engage the ultimate questions of life. Stuff like: Is God real? If so, is God good? Would God be for me or against me?
Here’s the good news: I can almost bet you’re already engaging in some discernment somewhere. You have a filter, or filters, you run thoughts and decisions through because no adult is gullible enough to blindly believe everything they hear. If you had to guess, what’s your primary filter for discerning the facts from the fiction?
Some popular ones? Personal experiences. Google. Emotions. Asking friends. Political party lines. Family traditions. Consulting experts. Looking to positions of authority. Ignoring the positions of authority. Influencers.
There are some good filters in that list, and there are some less-than-helpful ones. For me, the magic wasn’t in learning to filter, but in learning to stack them. Like triple-filtered water, a super-premium bourbon, or gold that’s been refined, the more impurities you remove, the better the final product. That includes your beliefs, or disbeliefs, about God.
One final thing before we get to it. No matter what you think about God, you likely believe it’s based on facts; on evidence; on simple 1+1=2 rationality. But humans are anything but rational beings. We’re little blobs of emotions and traumas, of hopes and hurts, of things we desperately want to be true and things we’re not ready to admit. You’re not a calculator, and what you believe is much less rational than you’d hope. Shoot, I can’t even work on my monthly budget without my emotions and dreams and disappointments rearing their ugly heads. How much less— questions of existential importance?
When I think about God, my thoughts are a jumble of good and bad— miracles and tragedies; church hurt and stunted emotional growth; abuse, addiction, and recovery. Very little of it is actually what you’d call “rational.” It’s a big mix of emotions, reactions, lessons learned the hard way, and the wisdom of hindsight.
You might think, with much of the above falling in the negative column, that I’d pitch my tent in the God’s Not Real camp. If my own experiences were my primary filter, that might be the case. But in stacking, in running my beliefs through a set of four filters, I’m left with the unexpected: a hopeful, persistent, informed faith.
I said all opinions about God were welcome here, and that’s still the case. The God question is a big one—and unfortunately, for many people, it carries with it unspeakable traumas and tragedies. That’s why, I believe all the more, we only benefit as we filter our beliefs. With a question as huge as God’s existence, we need more than just our solitary experiences or feelings to anchor it down. There’s enough fleeting and intangible in this world; I’m done with that. I want to drive a stake into a rock that will hold, no matter what life brings.
So, with all the rambling context (thanks for sticking with me, I promise we’re going somewhere), let’s get to the four filters I use for better discernment to pin my life on something more permanent than the latest TikTok trend.
Interestingly, I was introduced to these filters while listening to a podcast about aliens (trifecta upgrade achieved! I mentioned politics a few paragraphs up, and now aliens. I’m claiming my gold star). The two hosts were going back and forth on the topic of “do aliens exist” when one of them mentioned this four-filtered method for thinking. It was off to the races for me after that (honestly, I don’t even know if I finished the podcast). It became my new filter for deciding if that article I saw on Facebook was trustworthy, if those biting words from a family member were accurate, and for all questions God-related.
To give credit where credit is due, these filters are the brain work of a brilliant theologian who lived 300 years ago by the name of John Wesley. The Scrabble word name for these filters is The Wesleyan Quadrilateral… but, honestly, that word reminds me too much of math, so I’m just going to call them the four filters. A student of the scriptures, Wesley developed these filters to help him wrestle with difficult passages in the Bible (of which there are more than a few). But as I’ve said, I’ve found them incredibly helpful in all areas of life.
Cue the drum-roll… The four filters are:
1. Experience (How does my experience, or the experience of others, speak to this?) 2. Reason (How does my intellect speak to this?) 3. Tradition (How does history speak to this?) 4. Scripture (What does the Bible say about this?)
Understandably, some of you might scoff at the last filter. Isn’t that ‘leading the witness’, to use the Bible as a filter for determining if God exists? I’d answer back, “You’re right, so let’s talk about the chair you’re sitting in.”
Chairs come in all shapes and sizes. There are sturdy chairs of oak with four legs, foldable camping chairs with three legs, and some models of office chairs with two legs (though, to be honest, they’re more like skis than traditional legs). I say all that to say, the movement forward for you might be choosing to use two filters instead of one, or three filters instead of two. Perhaps you’re not ready for scripture to be a filter—that can be an honest and respectable place to be. All I’m trying to say is that the more legs you add to your chair (or the more filters to your thinking), the sturdier it becomes.
How about some quick hits to unpack each one, and then we’ll finish with how these filters influenced my answer to “Is God real?”
You’ve got a life. You’ve had experiences, and you know other people who’ve done things you haven’t. Better discernment comes from leaning on that wisdom. So mine the lessons from your past. Ask your wise friend about their life. Read autobiographies and take MasterClasses and learn from what other people have experienced. In essence: live with your eyes open.
This is an important filter, but for me, it’s not the most important. My experience, even the experience of my close friends, represents only a tiny sliver of human existence on earth. So much of how I process the world around me is related to the place I was born, the family who raised me, and the culture I live in. It’s incredibly important to be exposed to voices outside your ethnic/religious/economic background.
Another call-out: you have to be brutally honest with yourself for this filter to be as powerful as it needs to be. Be sure to ask yourself questions like: Do I believe this because of emotion? Am I reacting this way from fatigue? Am I overcompensating for feelings of anger, betrayal or insignificance? Am I worried about being “right?” If I’m proven “wrong,” how will I react? Am I flexible enough to change my mind?
Experience is a powerful teacher, but it’s only as strong as your ability to be honest. Using it wisely, though, leads to a deeper level of discernment—not only about the topic at hand, but of yourself.
Out of all life on earth, humanity has the highest ability to reason—to use our brains to problem solve, consider possibilities, and make choices informed by that thinking. There’s a false narrative in our culture that we have to process on the fly. Every newsworthy event needs an immediate social media hot take, opinion, and position. But that’s just not the case. When it comes to discernment, you need time to research, process, and think. So take it.
Think through the ramifications. Consider the variables. Read the philosophers and the thinkers, the ethicists and the scientists. Listen to lectures from people who push you. Consider the points of the other side. Turn it over in your brain. Enjoy the freedom of educating yourself, instead of grabbing the hot take headline and rushing to an answer.
Especially when it comes to reason, I find Occam’s Razor especially helpful. In short, it’s a philosophical understanding that the simplest explanation available is usually the correct one. There are lots of people with explanations for their opinion about God, but when things get complicated and convoluted, Occam helps me sort through it all.
Put that beautiful brain to good use, and you’re halfway to a more discerned life.
“Those who refuse to learn history are doomed to repeat it.” You had a history teacher that quoted that at least once a week, right? Me too.
Crazy thing, it’s true. No matter what we’re experiencing today, there’s something in the past that can offer valuable insight. The problem is, we just don’t care all that much about history. Our culture stays drunk on the possibilities of the future—When’s the next iPhone available? Is the new season of the hit show streaming yet? Christmas shopping starts right after St. Patrick’s Day now, right?—but that forward focus is to our detriment. Examine history, and you’ll feel more equipped to spot untruths in the present.
A note, because it’s something I’ve really come to appreciate. There’s such a thing as “chronological snobbery.” That’s the belief that anything “old” is bad or outdated or less valuable than a new perspective. That might be true for internet speeds, but when it comes to questions of existential significance, that can be dangerous. Some of the most impactful things I’ve learned about my life, faith, and family, have come through the writing of men and women long dead. So my encouragement is to elevate the altitude of your view. Don’t just consider the people with the loudest voices right now. Look to the full breadth of history, and you’ll find truths that have withstood the test of time.
Finally, and most important for me, is scripture. How does what I’m experiencing, or considering, measure up when compared to what I find in the Bible?
You might be thinking, why the Bible, and not one of the other myriad of holy books? That’s a great question. The length and breadth of this article (which only seems to keep increasing) is about considering the validity of the existence of God, not necessarily if that God would line up with Christian theology. That being said, the Bible is far and away the most read, critiqued, accessible and studied religious texts, as well as being one of the oldest. To me, it offers the best chance for us to get an outside perspective on the idea of God.
It’s also true that this filter only applies to someone who willingly submits themselves to the authority of the scriptures. I trust the words I read there because I’ve seen how they’ve completely rearranged my life. They’ve turned me upside down (in a good way) and given me faith in the (sometimes countercultural) wisdom it contains.
It’s important to caveat, though, that you have to take in the full breadth of the ancient book. It’s much too easy to cherry-pick one passage from the Bible and contort its meaning. Every passage should be adequately measured against the full spectrum of what the Bible teaches on the topic. How do you do that? There’s no easy way to say this, but you have to read it— and not just the easy passages.
I completely understand it can be a hard book to just pick up. Google can actually help. “What does the Bible say about (fill in the blank)” is a great way to begin your search. Just be sure to read more than just one verse… and ideally, in the context of the larger chapter or passage it comes from.
For me, the Bible is an outside source of wisdom, far removed from my experiences, desires, and irrational brain… which makes it an invaluable filter when facing tough questions.
FOR THE LOVE, BRING IT HOME
As I consider (and regularly re-consider, because that’s healthy) the existence of God, I always come back to these four filters for my answer.
In my own experience, God has broken into my life in ways that defy logic. There are so many stories to tell, but a sampling would include:
- The birth of my twins, when we have no family background of multiple births, after a specific prayer experience in which twins were predicted for us… before my wife was pregnant.
- The time I desperately asked God for a car…. and 30 seconds later, a complete stranger texts me about giving me her van.
- Begging God for a chance to write for a living… and you’re reading this right now.
That’s to say nothing about the ways engaging with God has changed me personally, from a passive and hurt child into a man with growing confidence and authority. The experiences of my wife, and my closest friends and family members are similar. God has left a trail of (sometimes massive) breadcrumbs for us to follow.
But it wasn’t always like that. I’ve gone through long seasons of hurt, pain, and questioning. Even in those, the experiences I’d had kept me hanging onto hope. And God has always come through. It’s one of the reasons I believe in Him today. But it’s not the only.
For me, when I turn to reason, the existence of God just makes sense. As I look up at the night sky, or spend time in a national park, or put my kids to bed after a long day, I can see God’s fingerprints all over the place. It’s actually more intellectually disingenuous for me to think everything is random chance than to think the opposite. Everything just works together way too well for that. That understanding was a gift I received from science.
A life of faith doesn’t mean you check your brain at the door. Before I worked for a church, I was a science teacher. Science and belief in God are wonderfully complementary. I like to think that they are looking for two different types of answers—science seeks the “how,” while faith seeks the “why.” They actually can fit together like a puzzle.
The more I learned about the breadth of the cosmos, the subtleties of insulin-response, or the variety of life in the rainforest, the more in awe of God I was, not less.
Within Christianity, there’s a specific discipline known as apologetics. I understand it as the intellectual defense of faith through facts and figures. It’s important for some people, but I’ll be honest, it’s not for me. You can try to factually prove Bible stories till you’re blue in the face, but what’s affected me the most are the personal stories. There are just too many people who’ve completely changed their lives (or willingly chosen to lose them) for belief in God to be a clever fairytale. And as I’ve dived into the writings of people much smarter than me, from ancient saints to present sages, that belief has only grown stronger.
Which drops us into history. On the timeline of world history, the growing popularity of disbelief in a higher power is a relatively new idea. Of course, there have always been people who doubted the existence of a Divine Being, but history seems to point to more people in the other camp. Incredibly, as our lives have gotten easier (with the advent of technology, more reliable food sources, indoor plumbing and heating, UberEats), our connection and affection for a higher power watching over our lives has decreased. But what if the ancients had it right? You know, chronological snobbery and all.
Speaking of the ancients, what about scripture? That book certainly speaks positively about the existence of God, as He’s the only entity that can be found inside it, cover-to-cover.
When it comes to the Bible, some people find support for trusting it internally. They point to the vast number of prophecies made in the first half of the book that were fulfilled in the second, or to the unbelievable unity of a book written by 30+ authors over the course of a millenia. Others point to external evidence: archeological or scientific discoveries that line up with scriptures, or the way it’s persevered despite many targeted attempts to wipe it out.
But for me, the proof has always been in the pudding of my own life. When I engage with the Bible, I find it changes me. And when I choose to put it to the test by actually doing the things it teaches, I only come to one conclusion: it works. And it works incredibly well. If the Bible is right about that, might it also be right about the deity at its center?
GET TA FISHIN’
We’ve covered some miles in this article, so let’s finish back at the chair. We could all use a good sit-down.
My thesis is this: no matter what you believe about God, it benefits you to pick up that belief and put it back under the microscope from time to time. Run it through multiple filters, adding some metaphorical legs to your metaphorical chair. Let’s have no more lightweight, belief-by-default in our lives. If you’re going to believe, or not, let’s be honest and confident about it.
So pick up a new filter (or two, or three, or four) and run your beliefs through it. How does experience speak to it? What does reason say? Is there a lesson to be learned from history? What about the Bible? Bravely follow where it leads, and do some fishing for yourself.
I think you might be pleasantly surprised by what you reel in.