Don’t Cram God into a Box

Recently I wrote about how our estimation of God is often too small and the inevitable problems we bring upon ourselves by thinking like that. Yet we must resist simply sticking Him into a larger container and leaving it at that. The great I AM will always remain too great, too powerful, too beautiful and too amazing to be explained using human language. A perfectly suitable but seldom-used adjective that appropriately defines God’s indescribability is ineffable. That’s why philosopher Alan Watts said that putting into words the true essence of the Almighty is like attempting “to eff the ineffable.” The bottom line is that we can’t effectively reconcile God’s imagination-stretching bigness with His unimpeachable goodness no matter how hard we try. If we emphasize either of those characterizations we end up putting Him in a box. When we do that we put limits on the divine Creator of all who has no limits. It’s commonplace for us to put labels on things. We do it with music, paintings and almost everything else in the realm of art. We especially do it with people all the time. We pigeon-hole them into a particular classification according to the color of their skin or hair. We assign to them a certain ethnic designation by the region of the country/planet they grew up in or their religious affiliation. We can’t help ourselves, it would seem. But when we do that with the Holy Trinity (and thereby foolishly confine God in any way, shape or form) the joke is inevitably on us.

The immeasurable glory of our Heavenly Father is not a subject that gets brought up much because it can generate anxiety in many believers. Pondering the infinite God can be so overwhelming it often terrifies them because it reveals their religious lip-service catch phrases, half-hearted generosity, idle curiosity about Biblical teachings, feelings of superiority and fastidious dedication to earning a decent living to be woefully hollow in comparison. To truly contemplate God is to enter into the unfamiliar territory of His transcendence. By that I mean mentally venturing beyond the boundaries of ordinary experience and encountering an entity who is far better, far greater than what we’re comfortable with. It’s scary because it makes us come face to face with the fact that death and judgment awaits us all. Both are taboo topics that can cause some to want to curl up in a fetal position under the bedsheets, whimper and suck their thumbs. Thus we shouldn’t be surprised that most pastors, priests and preachers avoid delivering sermons dealing honestly with God’s transcendent nature. Kinda hard to blame them, though. It’s like playing with fire. Brennan Manning wrote, “Throughout the history of salvation God has revealed His presence but never His essence. Since the Holy One is ultimately unknowable, we can only stutter and stammer about an omnipotent deity who, with effortless ease, created a star 264 trillion miles away.” Now, don’t get stymied by this unknowable business. Christianity is not Islam. Muslims believe that everything about Allah, including his personality, is absolutely unknowable. Not so with followers of Jesus. We believe the promised Messiah, the Son of God, came in person to not only redeem us but to demonstrate the palpable and very knowable character of the great I AM.

The fear and confusion this stuff can potentially instill in some believers isn’t a valid excuse for evading talking about God’s awesomeness altogether. Understandably, ministers of the Gospel don’t want to come off as inept. They don’t want to engage in what their congregation might consider lofty-sounding blabber or dumbed-down gobbledygook. Since either could possibly run folks off they usually take the safer low road and skip God’s transcendence entirely. They work hard to build up their church members’ trust and they’d prefer their flock left the service feeling good about choosing to spend their Sunday morning in a pew. If they were to leave in a state of angst and worry over their lack of enthusiasm in praising God, fretting they’re in desperate need of making some serious readjustments in their life’s goals because they’ve been cowed into thinking God’s a mean mogul who insists on their giving Him all their possessions (instead of giving Him their heart and mind) the sanctuary would soon be an empty barn. Prudence definitely has an important role to play but as the body of Christ isn’t there a steep price to pay for side-stepping the challenge involved in courageously delving into the more difficult aspects of God? Could it be that the loss of abject wonder over our Lord’s incalculable glory has caused harm to the hearts of many believers and Christian spirituality in general?

I suspect the most serious injury was the one inflicted upon our willingness to bow in silent, reverent, utterly-blown-away astonishment at God’s undefiled goodness.   We’re missing by a country mile the point of the often-used biblical phrase, fear of the Lord.” It doesn’t mean we’re to act like paranoid, frightened mice. True acknowledgment of our Heavenly Father’s power and grandeur will always manifest itself in unintimidated respect for who and what He is. Speechless adoration is in pitifully meager supply these days because we won’t hold still long enough to include it in our prayer time. I’m as guilty as anyone on that score. My prayers usually follow a paint-by-numbers routine wherein I quickly as possible run through the Lord’s Prayer, my set list of family members and friends to ask God’s blessings on, an almost-incoherent, bumbling review of how I’m doing spiritually, a few thank-yous for His generous provisions and finish with a hurried “in the name of Jesus amen” coda. Rarely do I take the time to let His serene, comforting reassurance have a chance to be gently poured into my agitated-over-one-thing-or-another psyche. I know I have plenty of company. There’s one study that concluded the average Sunday morning congregation can’t tolerate more than 15 seconds of silence before they get antsy and worry something’s amiss if someone doesn’t jump in with an announcement, a song or a reading of Scripture. I finally attended my church’s monthly prayer meeting not long ago and was pleasantly shocked to discover how easily the Holy Spirit was able to tug at my heartstrings when the sanctuary was allowed to fall completely silent for minutes at a time while we prayed together.

Parker Palmer wrote, “Too often the church is an enemy of our solitude. Too often the church is one more agent in the vast social conspiracy of togetherness and noise aimed at distracting us from encountering ourselves. The church keeps us busy on this cause and that, this committee or that, trying to provide meaning through motion until we get burned out instead and withdraw from the church’s life. Even in its core act of worship the church provides little space for the silent and solitary inward journey to occur (sometimes filling the available space with noisy exhortations to take that very journey!).” In other words, if we’re not careful our focus will shift to current affairs or taking political stands, the deliberate cultivation of righteous virtues or promoting self-help programs intended to expedite the extermination of sinful behaviors and so on. Manning opined we can end up in a place where “personal responsibility replaces personal response to God, and we become engrossed in our efforts to grow in holiness. Our primary concern becomes our spiritual, intellectual, and emotional well-being. When other Christians ask us if we’re happy, we automatically respond in the affirmative or brush them off with a benevolent smile even if we’re close to tears.” That’s why I love Celebrate Recovery meetings. There I can take off my mask and be honest about how I’m feeling whether I’m doing okay, so-so or in a deep funk. Simon Tugwell wrote, “One of the surest ways to avoid being happy is to insist on being happy at all costs. The religion of cheerfulness… is a cruel religion, and maybe the best way not to go mad is not to mind too much if you do go mad.”

Too bright a spotlight was put on morality growing up and it blurred my perception of the relationship between God and man. My parents were excellent folks but they taught me God hated my inattentiveness, my non-stop pestering of my sister and my tendency to complain. When I started school I found most teachers to be, in that respect, a lot like God. In church I was informed God had additional priorities, too. I learned He was upset that service attendance was down and some members weren’t tithing as He demanded. By the time I got to high school I was made aware God was fanatically obsessed with sex, drinking, drugs and the scourge of rock & roll. After getting out on my own it dawned on me that my parents, teachers, Sunday School leaders, etc. had been using God as a fall guy for whatever they deemed necessary to keep me in line and I resented the hell out of it. Seemed the God of the Bible wasn’t full of grace and love; He was someone to be petrified of. So I went in search of a nicer, more tolerant deity and I figuratively wasted about forty years wandering in the arid deserts of “New Age” religions looking for Him. I’m proof that moralism and its sibling, legalism; can throw monkey wrenches in the development of Christ-like character. No wonder so many young people, by the time they reach their 20s, ban Jesus from their consciousness or attach themselves to “alternative” spiritual sects. A lot of those who remain in the traditional church do so reluctantly, regarding their membership as spiritual insurance against incurring God’s awful wrath. When those well-meaning fence-straddlers settle into a particular pattern of sinning (as they inevitably will) they get caught up in the destructive web of denial in order to protect their carefully-constructed public image. That was me. The God I’d manufactured inside my imagination had no need for my worship, praise or thanks. But that was the only God I knew. Manning wrote, “The loss of transcendence has left in its wake the flotsam of distrustful, cynical Christians, angry at a capricious God, and the jetsam of smug bibliolatrists who claim to know precisely what God is thinking and exactly what He plans to do.”

An explanation/warning that needs to be kept in mind when thinking about something is known as a caveat. The caveat in this case is this: God’s transcendence must be balanced with our human ability, however constricted it is, to comprehend Him. His nearness must be taken into account along with His bigness. What I’m saying is if we concentrate solely on His immensity and His mysterious omniscience we’ll begin thinking He’s far away. In the 2014 movie “Wild” there’s a scene where the protagonist is in a counseling session. On a pegboard there’s a drawing of the Milky Way galaxy. A caption points to a tiny dot and announces, “You are here.” She sneers at it and sarcastically asks something to the effect of “Is that supposed to comfort me?” My thought was “I reckon it depends on how you look at it.” As a Christian I consider it miraculous that the same God who created not one but billions of galaxies like the one our solar system whirls within loves me, a miniscule speck on a relative speck of space dust, as much as He loves His only begotten Son. Thus my wholehearted acceptance of His incomprehensible love is all I can give back to Him. His nearness and transcendence are two sides of the same coin whether I understand it or not. Manning wrote, “Transcendence means that God cannot be confined to the world, that He is never this rather than that, here rather than there. Immanence, on the other hand, means that God is wholly involved with us, ‘that He is living in all that is as its innermost mystery,’ that He’s here in His mysterious nearness.’” God is God and with Him it’s anything goes. I have no problem with that.

If the God-with-us issue is something you wrestle with don’t feel alone. The church has waffled on this subject for 2,000 years. In the 3rd century Arianism reared its heretical head and proclaimed Christ couldn’t have been God because there’s no way He could’ve been here and everywhere else in the universe at the same time. They wanted to put Him in a box. However, this caused the church to go to extremes and overemphasize Jesus’ divinity at the expense of His humanity. They played down the fact that God Almighty actually walked and talked alongside men and women in the flesh. In other words, the church was guilty of trying to put God in a bigger box. Christ’s statement in John 15:4 of Remain in me, and I will remain in youand the declaration in Hebrews 4:15 of For we do not have a high priest incapable of sympathizing with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way just as we are, yet without singot lost in the glare of His shade-your-eyes divinity. The whole pride-driven argument over what the Lord could and couldn’t do opened up a gulf between the children of God and the transcendent Savior of mankind that exists to this day. To put it mildly, the church freaked out and turned what had been a communal celebration of God’s grace into a strictly clerical affair. What’s succinctly spelled out for all believers in 1 Peter 2:9, “… you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own…,” got cast aside as an unrealistic pipedream. The church, in an effort to curb heretical shenanigans from arising among the illiterate rabble and causing problems, decided they knew better than God’s Holy Word when it came to who was going to be in charge down here. Thus we got an all-too-human theocracy foisted upon Christianity that I doubt Jesus had in mind when He designated Peter as the rock He’d build His church on.

A tragic consequence of this major realignment was that the holy observance of the last supper, also fittingly known as communion, became a considerably less-than-profound continuation of an old traditional rite the faithful, out of duty, were ordered to show up for. Historians tell us that herds of Christians started rushing from one mass to another every Sunday, not to hear the Good News of the Gospel being preached from the pulpits but to attend as many bread-and-wine happenings as they could participate in. In fact, due to the frequency of their droning repetition of “Hoc est enim corpus meum,” the derisive phrase “hocus-pocus” (gleefully employed by cynics and snobby know-it-alls to make fun of believers) entered our vocabulary.

A few days ago an elderly couple (even older than me!) came to my door. They were members of the local Jehovah’s Witnesses assemblage. They were polite and asked me how I’d answer three specific questions. The only one I remember was something about “Why’s there pain and suffering in this world?” I told them I have the same response to all three inquiries. I said, “I don’t have questions, I have trust.” I realize the whole intellectual dilemma about how God can be on-site at the far edge of the universe and literally present inside me simultaneously is beyond my capacity to savvy. Same goes for how He can know my future and yet allow me uninhibited freedom to make my own decisions independent of His will. Yet I don’t lose sleep trying to figure Him out. One of my favorite quotes from Mother Teresa is “I’ve never had clarity. What I’ve always had is trust.” Through reading my Bible every day I’ve come to accept there’s an indivisible Holy Trinity requiring only acceptance that a torture-filled sacrifice was made on my behalf and my belief in the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who suffered that barbaric indignity and rose again so I can live with Him forevermore in heaven.

I look at it this way. It’s futile for me to try to put God in a box. It’s more reasonable to think that I, along with everyone on earth and everything that exists in this universe, are inside God’s box. And, for all we know, He may have a gazillion other humongous boxes overflowing with wonders we can’t even come close to fathoming. I do know that for about 33 years the Lord was both God and man. Period.   Explicit explanations aren’t all that interesting to me when it comes to God’s perfect plan because I have something much more valuable than smarts: The rich treasure of trust.

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