The God Within is a trendy notion in spirituality these days. Generally speaking it is a very helpful concept, but it is subject to misinterpretations that are not only inaccurate but potentially harmful.
It is important to begin any discussion of God with a statement of perspective. It is my conviction that there is one God who is known by many different names and understood and worshiped in many different ways that are largely the result of the time and culture into which one is born and in which one is raised. At the risk of belaboring the obvious, it is important to note that such a God would be so vast and transcendent that all attempts to describe or define such a God will of necessity fall short.
This perspective having been defined it may be obvious that THE God Within does not imply that this is one of many gods, but rather that this is one aspect of God – one place where God can be encountered. The God Within, then implies neither a polytheistic perspective nor the notion that I somehow AM God by virtue of God dwelling within me. After all, I dwell in my house but I would never assert that my house IS me. I would more likely say that my house is one of the places in which I can be encountered – and so it is with God, who can be encountered within me (as well as any and everywhere else).
If God can be encountered any and everywhere, why is The God Within even worth mentioning? After all, if God can be encountered anywhere, why point out that God can be encountered within me? First and foremost, if God dwells within me then I don’t have to go to any physical place to find God. I may choose to go on pilgrimage or retreat (and those things are fine) but I don’t have to. This also means that nobody can withhold God from me because I already have God in me.
The God Within has profound implication for prayer as well. I don’t need to go anywhere to pray – to enter into dialogue with God – because God is accessible to me at all times. A further advantage to having God within me is that I can feel free to pray in the place and in the way that feeds me most.
While the notion of God Within is very helpful, distortions of it are potentially very damaging to a healthy spirituality. I believe there are two major distortions of the God Within. I call them the Ego Within and the Isolationist Within.
The Ego Within distortion fails to recognize that while God dwells within each of us, no one of us contains the totality of God. It says “I am God.” The individual involved in this distortion believes that they have the mind of God. Ideas and spiritual practices that pop into this person’s head are automatically and without prayer and reflection received as God’s. This is not to say that God doesn’t speak to people. It is to say that non-ego driven individuals who believe they are hearing from God tend to reveal what God is saying to them only after a period of prayer and reflection. What’s more, if the message they get from God is truly from God it will be consistent with the spiritual tradition of the individual receiving the message. Stated plainly, God isn’t going to tell anyone to jump off a bridge or blow up a clinic.
The Isolationist Within distorts the God within into an excuse for spiritual withdrawal. As in the ego within, the Isolationist Within believes they contain the fullness of God within them. From this they conclude that they have need of nothing else. They either reject community worship or become members of small independent churches isolated from the broader Church. The problem with that is that such individuals and groups can easily drift into a belief system quite detached from reality without realizing it by virtue of their closed, almost inbred nature. Any room into which fresh air is not allowed to flow becomes stale and musty very quickly.
In the final analysis, a healthy understanding of the God Within requires that it pass the test of any spiritual concept – it must be life giving, not life denying. Life giving things draw me out of myself, stretch me, move me out of my comfort zone and into a fuller encounter with life and with God. Anything less is life denying and cannot possibly be of God.