When Peter, who is an atheist, asks me, “Do you believe in God?”
“I sure do,” will be my answer.
He asks, “How do you know God exists?”
“I don’t know,” I will say. “That is why I believe.”
“Do you believe that you will go to heaven when you die because you believe in Jesus?”
“Are you sure, Hi-Dong?”
“Well, I will let you know when I get there.”
I know that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.
I know that I was born into a family in Korea.
I know that my father was a Christian minister.
I also know that I will die some day.
But when I talk about God and the life after death, I use the word, believe, because I don’t know whether God really exists or not. I don’t know whether there is life after death or not.
It took me more than 50 years for me to realize that when I said, “I believe,” I was also admitting that I didn’t know what I believed.
But when I was a child, I knew what I believed.
My god was an old man with gray hair falling down to his shoulders. His eyes were thin and straight like a ruler. His face covered with wrinkles, and his wrinkled face never smiled. His eyes followed my every move so that he could catch my mistake and throw me into a burning hell.
Hell was a very hot place. I saw a mile long track laid with red hot charcoal. I saw naked people walking on the red hot charcoal on bare feet. They screamed and wailed to jump off the track, but horned devils would not let them.
I was scared to end up in Hell. In order not to end up in Hell, I had to be a good Christian boy. The elders told me, to be a good Christian boy and not to end up in Hell, I had to obey ten commandments.
So I obeyed. I worshipped God of Jesus as my god. I did not swear like my classmates. I went to church every Sunday and did not play with my friend because Sunday was a holy day to worship God. I obey my father and mother. I did not kill. I did not steal. I tried not to be envious when my friend had a nice pair of sneakers. I said nice things about my friends. The classmates whom I didn’t like, I kept the feeling to myself, or sometimes shared it my mother. I did not worry about the 7th commandment, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” because Mother said I was too young to worry about it.
The problem that I had was the 2nd commandment: Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt worship God of Moses alone.
During WWII under Japan, my Japanese teachers took us to Shinto shrine to bow to the picture of Japanese emperor whether I wanted it or not.
“What do I do?” I asked Mother.
“You do what your teacher tells you to do,” Mother said. “God will understand.
When I look back at my childhood, I was really a good boy. Not only that I was a good boy, I also brought home A’s and some B’s making my parents proud. The parents of our neighborhood want their children to be like me. Unfortunately, I was a good boy because I was afraid of the thin eyed, wrinkled god. I did not want to end up in Hell and walk on the red hot charcoal track.
The strange thing about my childhood was that I was taught that Jesus loved me. I sang, ‘Jesus loves me this I know…’ I recited, ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.’ But I was really afraid of God because I was taught that God loved me but… There was always that but. God loves you, but if you lie, you will go to hell. God loves you, but if you do not go to church on Sunday, you go to hell.
I was born happy and loved by my parents and friends, but the Sunday school teachers and the church elders helped me turn into a child who carried the fear of eternal damnation in his heart because my childhood god was a conditional god, like those parents who expect total obedience from their children. Otherwise, they will end up in a dog house.
When I was a teenager, I knew what I believed.
I had a list of things to do to be a Christian, and this list was the list that everyone should follow to enter the kingdom of heaven. Some of the items in the list are
Read the bible and pray every day.
Go to church on Sundays.
Smile and nice to people whether I felt like it or not.
Do not smoke and drink because smoking and drinking would defile my body that was God’s temple.
Stay away from the opposite sex to avoid having fornicating thoughts.
I had a nice set of rules to follow and expected others do the same.
One day I visited a minister in his church office. When I walked into his office, I saw him smoking a cigarette. I was agahast. “How can a minister smoke and defile his body, a god’s holy temple? Certainly he is going to hell.” I came home and before going to bed, I kneeled down with my folded hands on the mattress and prayed that God would forgive the minister and see that smoking was a sin.
I followed those rules with utmost seriousness and diligence, and I was pretty sure that God would not throw me in hell but receive me in heaven. But something bothered me. A question kept surfacing up to my consciousness: “I hear those who believe in Jesus and follow his commandments find joy and peace in their heart. How come I do not fine the peace and joy in my heart? My heart is always filled with guilt and fear of condemnation? How come?”
When I was in college at Austin, Texas, I joined the group called Christian Faith and Life Community. There about fifty students lived in a dorm-like setting and studied Christian theology and philosophy. I was introduced to the writings of Paul Tillich, Reinold Niebour, Bonhoeffer, Kirkeggard, Alber Camus, and others. The two years at the Christian Faith and Life Community were the most intellectually stimulating period of my life. There I said, ‘Good bye’ to my childhood and boyhood god. I left there with the awareness that God’s love for me was total and unconditional.
God accepted me totally and unconditionally.
God accepted me not because I was a good person, but because God was love.
God’s love was like the sunshine that shined on all the living creatures.
But to experience his warmth, I had to break open my cocoon and walk out to the open meadow and let the God’s sunshine engulf my being.
When I left the community, the unsmiling childhood god who checked on my every move no longer scared me. The mile long track laid with the red hot charcoal in hell no longer bothered me. But I still did not find the peace and freedom that came to those who surrendered their lives to the God’s unconditionally love. My head accepted the God’s unconditional love, but my heart was still bogged down with an uneasy guilt. How come? What is wrong with me?
On a warm spring day in 1989, I was walking on the hill next to my house, feeling fortunate and grateful. I had survived fifty years of suffering through the Japanese occupation in Korea and the Korean War and years of struggle to establish myself in America. Now I had a wonderful family, good friends, a great place to live, and a wonderful job where I could help aspiring students to be the best they could be. What more could I want? I felt I was the luckiest person on the earth. Then soon afterward, I had a series of fainting spell. I felt terribly alone. I saw myself standing alone on a huge empty desert with the moon and stars looking down. I felt the numbing pain throughout my entire body for 24 hours a day. Day after day draining every ounce of my energy. I did not want to continue to live. I went to a doctor for check up. The doctor said there was nothing wrong physically. He said that I was in a major depression. I went to a therapist for the treatment. For months, I shared my inner most feelings that I had kept to myself. It was like going to a priest for confession. During one of the session, I experienced the God’s amazing grace: the experience of peace and freedom that I had never expected to experience in this world. That experience of peace and freedom is still with me – more than twenty years later.
“How can I say that other religions are wrong when I don’t know for sure my God really exists or I don’t for sure that there is life after death?”
John says, I believe in God. Tom says, I don’t believe in God. Who is right? John or Tom? Nobody came back from death to report on his finding. We really don’t know. John can be right and Tom can be wrong. Or Tom can be right and John can be wrong. Only God knows. We just believe.
Thus when I say, “I believe,” I am admitting, “I don’t know.” When I say, “I don’t believe,” I am also admitting, “I don’t know.”
Since believing and not knowing go hand in hand, I don’t want to be critical of and ridicule the faith of other people.
I am a Christian. Kim is a Buddhist. Moniem is Muslim. I wish Kim well. I wish Moneim well. I hope that their faiths will help them to lead happy, healthy, and responsible lives as I hope the same for myself.
But what happens when one equates believing with knowing?
When St. Paul says, ‘I know my redeemer lives,’ we call him a man of great faith.
Henry says, “I know that God of Jesus Christ is the only true God.” Moniem says, “I know that God of Mohammad is the only true God.” Who is right? Henry or Moniem? We can either say both Henry and Moniem are men of great faith or both of them are self-righteous.
There is a danger when one turns believing into knowing. It breeds self-righteousness, and self-righteousness leads to discord. Discord can lead to fighting, torture or killing. Pharisees crucified Jesus because they were sure their faith was the right one. They equated their faith – believing – with knowing.
When it comes to religion, we are dealing with the unknown. Because it is unknown, we believe. If we understand that believing and not knowing go hand in hand, we become humble and respect other’s religion as we respect our own.
Then why do we believe when we don’t know what we believe?
Because when we believe in our abilities, we can become the best that we can be. For those who believe in themselves, their faiths give them meaning for their existence. Their faiths give them power to accomplish feats that often boggles our minds. Olympic champions and athletes are good examples of what their faiths in their abilities can produce.
Jackie Robinson believed in his God-given talent as an athlete. He believed that he could be as good as or better than White baseball players. He was alone. When playing in the south, he could not go to a restaurant with white teammates. He had to use colored only restrooms. His team-mates did not invite him to social gatherings. He was threatened by the white players and spectators. Some opposing team members refused to play the Brooklyn Dodgers with him playing. But he never lost his focus on the baseball. He became the rookie of the year in 1947, the MVP in the National league in 1949, and won the world series in 1955. Through believing in his ability and willing to risk his life, he broke the racial barrier in sports in America.
Dianah Nyad believed. Four times she tried to swim 100 miles of shark infested sea from Cuba to Florida and failed. But she believed that she could do it. Thirty five years later, at age 64, she tried again. Her fifth try. And she made it. It took 53 hours. Her motto: Never give up. Never too old to chase your dream.
Now why do we believe in God whom no one has ever seen? We don’t know whether God exists or not. Why do we believe Jesus as the Christ, the son of God, who was crucified on the cross for our sins, who rose from the dead for our salvation, and who ascended into heaven in glory?
Why do we recite, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life”?
We believe because our faith in God through Jesus Christ gives us the meaning for our existence and strength to march on through the pathway of our lives – especially when we walk through the dark tunnel of despair and distress.
Let me share with you the story of my mother:
The life of my mother was suffering upon suffering. Yet her absolute faith in God gave her the strength to lead her children with love and wisdom through her trials and tribulations. She prayed in the morning. She prayed in the evening. I found her praying in the dark of the night while everyone was fast asleep. She prayed, sometimes with her eyes drenched in tears.
Mother married a Christian minister in the land of Buddhists and Confucianists in the early 1900s. She bore ten children. Three of her ten children died before they could walk and talk. In 1910 Japan annexed Korea and ruled the country for 35 years until the end of WWII on August, 1945. During that period, the Japanese forbade us from using Korean alphabet. They forbade us from speaking Korean in public. They gave us Japanese names and told us to go to the Shinto temple and respectfully bow down to the picture of their emperor. My father, who was a Christian minister, refused.
Father recited the scripture, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
One day the Japanese police came and took Father to prison while my mother helplessly watched her husband taken away. Mother prayed that the angels protect him from the fury of the prison guard. Mother prayed that he would get enough food, enough drink, and a place to lie down in reasonable comfort.
While Father was in prison, Hi-Seung, his 15 year old son, volunteered to join the Japanese military with the hope of having his father released from the prison. After Hi-Seung left, Father had a stroke in prison and was brought home under house arrest. Mother took care of him under the watchful eyes of the Japanese police.
The war came to an end in 1945, and Hi-Seung returned home. He left home as a young 15 year old boy full of energy. He returned home as a worn-out, injured 18 year old man. He died a year later from his injury.
At the end of WWII, Korea became two Koreas: Communist North Korea and Democratic South Korea where we lived. My eldest brother became a Communist in the democratic south. The police arrested him and put him in prison. Some of my father’s church members became disenchanted. “How can a minister who has a non-Christian communist son preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to us?” They asked. “He may also be a Communist in preacher’s garb.” During that period, Father lost his strength. His hair turned gray.
Then in 1950, the Korean War broke out. The North Korean army entered Seoul where we lived. One day two North Korean officers came and took my father away because he was a Christian minister. He never came back.
How did my mother survive through those ordeals? How was she able to take care us while taking care of her sick husband who was under house arrest during the Japanese control? How was she able to maintain peace at home with her anti-communist Christian minster husband and her anti-Christian Communist son living under one roof? How was she able to lead us onward after her husband was taken away by the North Korean Communists?
The only answer that I have is that she had total faith in God, and she prayed without ceasing. To Mother God was not some being high in heaven looking down on us, but God was next to her twenty four hours a day. She prayed when she was happy. She prayed when she was sad. She read the bible in the morning. She read the bible in the evening. She believed that her trials on this earth were only temporary. She believed that God would welcome her and embrace her when she left this earth.
The Bible says,
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went….For he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker was God
Many of the faithful died, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. They desired a better country, that was, a heavenly country.
So my message today is
Believe and you shall live. Faith is like a flash light. It helps you to see where you are going in the dark of the night. What should you believe? It is up to you. But remember. Wherever you may be, whatever you may be doing. God’s love for you is total and unconditional. God’s love is like the warm sunshine that shines upon the all creatures on the earth. But to experience the warm of the sun, we must get out of our cocoon, and let that warmth of the sun engulf us. To experience God’s love, we must surrender our beings to Him.
When we surrender our lives to him in faith, we can recite like my mother did A Psalm of David:
The LORD is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
2 He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters.
3 He restores my soul;
He leads me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.
4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
For You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup runs over.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life;
And I will dwell[a] in the house of the LORD