By Hazrat Inayat Khan
A large number of mankind are so-called believers in God. And we may ask ourselves whether they are all happy, whether they are all wise, and prosperous and spiritual. There is also a large number of unbelievers, and again we ask ourselves whether they are all prosperous, happy, spiritual, intelligent, and progressive. And we shall find in the end that we cannot fix a rule. We cannot say that belief in God makes a person good or prosperous or evolved: we cannot say that the unbeliever is kept back from progress, prosperity, happiness, and evolution. But this leads us to another question: how to benefit ourselves by the God-ideal, and why the God-ideal is meant to be the best way to reach the truth.
If a man is standing on a staircase and remains on the first step, he may be a believer but he is not going up. Thus there are many believers who have a certain conception of God, but they are standing there without moving, while perhaps a person who has no conception of God at all may be moving. There are thousands of people who pronounce the name of God many times during the day, but who are perhaps most wretched. The reason is that they have not yet discovered the purpose of the God-ideal. It is not merely belief; belief is only the first step. God is the key to truth, God is the stepping-stone to self-realization, God is the bridge which unites the outer life with the inner life, bringing about perfection. It is by understanding this that the secret of the God-ideal is to be realized.
It is the spirit of all souls which in all ages has been personified as God. There are periods when this spirit has been materialized in the faith of humanity and worshipped as God, the Sovereign and the Lord of both worlds, as Judge, Sustainer, and Forgiver. But there are also periods when this realization has declined and when mankind has become more absorbed in the life of the world than in the spiritual ideal. Thus belief in God comes to humanity like tides of the sea, and every now and then it appears on the surface, mostly with a divine message given as an answer to the cry of humanity at that time. So it is in the life of individuals; at times the belief in God comes like tides of the sea, with an impulse to worship, to serve God, to search for God, to love God, and to long for God-communication. The more the material life of the world is before one’s eyes, the more this spiritual impulse is closed. The spiritual impulse therefore arises especially at times of sorrow and disappointment.
Belief in God is natural, but in life both art and nature are necessary. So God, who exists independently of our conception of Him, must be conceived by us for our own comprehension. To make God intelligible, man must first make his own God. It is on this principle that the idea of many gods and the custom of idol-worship were based in the ancient religions of the world. God cannot be two. The God of each is the God of all, but in order to comprehend that God we each have to make our own God. Some of us seek for justice; we can better seek for God who is just. Some of us look for beauty; we can best find it in the God of beauty. Some of us seek for love; we can best find it in the God of mercy and compassion. Some of us wish for strength and power; we can best find it in the God Almighty. The seeking of every soul in this world is different, distinct, and peculiar to himself, and he can best attain to it by looking for the object of his search in God.
The moment a person arrives at this belief, he need ask no question of his fellow man, for the answer to every question that springs up in his mind he finds in his own heart. The dwelling-place of God, which is called heaven, is then found in his own heart. The Friend on whom he can constantly depend, whom he can always trust, whose sympathy and love are secure, who will never fail whatever happens, who is strong enough to help, and who is sufficiently wise to guide him in life, he will find in his own heart.
Those who because of their materialistic outlook cannot believe in the God-ideal, lose a great deal in their lives. That ideal which is highest and best, the only ideal worth loving, worshipping, longing for, worth the sacrifice of all one has, and worth depending upon both by day and through the darkness of night, is God. He who has God in his life has all he needs; he who does not have God may possess everything in this mortal world but he will be lonely; he is in the wilderness even in the midst of the crowd. Thus the journey of the Sufi is towards God. It is divine knowledge which he seeks; it is the realization of God-consciousness, which is his goal. The existence of God is a question which arises in every mind, whether of the believer in God or of the unbeliever. There are moments when even the greatest believer in God questions His existence – whether there really is a God. On reflection he finds it sacrilegious to have a notion such as this, and he tries to get rid of it. But more often such a question arises in the heart of the unbeliever: he wonders if it is really true, if there is such a thing as God. The idea of God is inborn in man. The God-ideal is the flower of the human race; and this flower blooms in the realization of God.
Just as everything in the objective world tends to rise upward, so the tendency of the soul can be seen in human aspiration, which always soars upward whatever the sphere of man's consciousness. The aspirations of the man who is only conscious of material life, reach as far as they can in material gains; yet his aspirations become higher and higher, and he remains discontented with all that he achieves, owing to the immensity of life in every phase. This craving for the attainment of what is unattainable is the longing of the soul to reach life's utmost heights. It is the nature of the soul to try to discover what is behind the veil. It is the soul's constant longing to climb heights, which are beyond its power. It is the desire of the soul to see something that it has never seen; it is the constant longing of the soul to know something it has never known. But the most wonderful thing about it is that the soul already knows there is something behind this veil of perplexity; that there is something to be sought for in the highest spheres of life. It knows that there is some beauty to be seen; that there is Someone to be known who is knowable. This desire, this longing, is not acquired; this desire is a dim knowledge which the soul has within itself.
Therefore disbelief in the God-ideal is nothing but a condition which is brought about by the mists arising from the material life of illusion, and covering the light of the soul like clouds. That is why the unbeliever is not satisfied with his unbelief. Of course, sometimes his vanity is fed by the thought that he is wise in not believing in someone whose existence is only believed in by blind beings. So he begins to think, 'After all, to believe in God is not difficult; any simpleton can believe in the God-ideal.' He therefore takes the opposite direction and refuses to believe. He is honest, and yet he is like someone who stands before a wall which hinders his progress.
Even if this world offered somebody all it possesses, the soul would not be satisfied, for its satisfaction lies in its higher aspiration, and it is this higher aspiration which leads to God. Thus aspiration is a man's nature, but sometimes he wonders whether at the end of the journey he may perhaps find nothing. There is, however, no question which has no answer, and there is no desire that is impossible of fulfilment. There is appetite, and there is food; there is thirst, and there is water; there is sight, and there is something to be seen. So if there is aspiration then there is God, for one cannot know what does not exist; something must exist first to enable one to know it.
[…] The reason why the soul seeks for the God-ideal is that it is dissatisfied with all that only gives momentary satisfaction. All beauty, goodness, and greatness which man attributes to God are things he admires and seeks through life. He admires these things in others and strives to attain them for himself. At the end of his examination, he finds that all he thought to be good, great or beautiful falls short of that perfection, which his soul is seeking. He then raises his eyes towards the sky and seeks for the One who has beauty, goodness, and greatness; and that is God. The one who does not seek for God, is disappointed at the end of his journey of illusion. Throughout the whole journey he did not find the perfection of beauty, goodness, and greatness on the earth, and he neither believed in nor expected to meet such an ideal in heaven. All the disappointments, which are the natural outcome of this life of illusion, disappear when once a person has touched the God-ideal, for what one seeks after in life, one finds in God.
The seeking for God is a natural outcome of the maturity of the soul. There is a time in life when a passion is awakened in the soul which gives the soul a longing for the unattainable. If the soul does not take that direction, then it certainly misses something in life for which it has an innate longing and in which lies its ultimate satisfaction.
Now the question is: all beauty, goodness, and greatness, however small and limited, can be found on the earth, but where can the same be found in the Perfection called God? The answer is that the first necessity is the belief that there is such a Being as God, in whom goodness, beauty, and greatness are perfect. In the beginning it will seem nothing but a belief; but in time, if kept in sincerity and faith, that belief will become like the egg of the Phoenix, out of which the magic bird is born. The birth of God is the birth of the soul. Every soul seeks for happiness, and after pursuing all the objects which for the moment seem to give happiness, it finds out that nowhere is there perfect happiness except in God. This happiness cannot come by merely believing in God. Believing is a process, and by this process the God within is awakened and made living; it is the feeling that God is living in one which gives happiness. When one sees the injustice, the falsehood, the unfriendliness of human nature, and to what a degree this nature can develop – that it culminates in tyranny of which both individuals and communities become victims – there seems to be only one refuge. And that is the centre of the whole of life, God, who is the only place of safety and source of peace, which is the longing of every soul.
[Extracted from the section titled “The God-Ideal” in Hazrat Inayat Khan, The Unity of Religious Ideals (The Sufi Message Vol IX)]