Aslan Comes and Goes
“He’ll be coming and going” he had said. “One day you’ll see him and another you won’t. He doesn’t like being tied down–and of course he has other countries to attend to. It’s quite all right. He’ll often drop in. Only you mustn’t press him. He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.”
A Brook became an Ocean
Dan DeHaan, talked about man’s quest to grasp a full understanding of God’s character being like a boy following a trickling brook as it flowed downstream. Step by step, as he followed each babble and turn, he learned more and more about the little brook. Soon, the brook he knew well widened into a fast-moving creek with deepening pools, and eventually flowed into a mighty river. As he walked the bank he grew to know the river well. Day by day he understood it better. Until one day he looked up and the river became an ocean.
A Desperate Prayer, a Quiet Answer
In his important book, The Crucifixion of Ministry, seminary professor Andrew Purves describes what he needed as he faced down a cancer diagnosis and the upcoming chemotherapy he would soon endure:
I remember lying in hospital after cancer surgery, wondering what the upcoming six months of chemotherapy would be like and whether I was going to make it through the process. What I need now, I thought, is not a theological treatise to edify my mind, though that has its place. Not some sense that God in Christ is in solidarity with me in my suffering and fear, though that too is helpful. What I need is a God of power. I need a God who acts to change things.
The Dickensian Approach to Storytelling (Or, Rather, the Biblical Approach)
Sometimes great stories introduce the protagonist in the very first paragraph. In Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, for example, we are immediately introduced to Pip, the central figure of the novel, and we learn why he has such an odd name. Yet other stories wait for some time before the protagonist appears. In Les Misérables by Victor Hugo, Jean Valjean does not show up until around page 50 (out of 1200). If you were not familiar with Hugo’s classic story, you might think while reading the first chapters that the Bishop of Digne is the main character. As it turns out, he plays a pivotal but relatively small role in the story of Les Misérables, in which Valjean is the main character.
The Bible takes a Dickensian approach to its protagonist. The leading figure appears in the very first verse: “In the beginning . . . God.” …I want to underline the centrality of God in the biblical story.
God is the protagonist. God is the main actor. God is the one who ties together all the pieces of the story. God is the one who orchestrates the events. Indeed, God is also the author of the biblical story. To be sure, the Bible tells a human story as well, with people playing an essential role from the first chapter of Genesis to the last chapter of Revelation. The Bible also narrates the affairs of the nations, especially Israel. The Bible can be useful for philosophy, psychology, and a wide array of other disciplines. It provides the sure foundation for right theology. But, at its core, the Bible is a story, a story of God, the story of God.
Do I Have a Choice?
While I was speaking to some college students recently, an interesting twist on the contrast between our unresponsiveness and God’s great desire for us came up. One student asked, “Why would a loving God force me to love Him?” It seemed like a weird question. When I asked the student to clarify what he meant, he responded that God “threatens me with hell and punishment if I don’t begin a relationship with Him.”
The easy retort to that statement is that God doesn’t force us to love Him; it’s our choice. But there was a deeper issue going on, and I wasn’t sure how to answer it in the moment. Now that I’ve had time to think about it, I would tell that student that if God is truly the greatest good on this earth, would He be loving us if He didn’t draw us toward what is best for us (even if that happens to be Himself)? Doesn’t His courting, luring, pushing, calling, and even “threatening” demonstrate His love? If He didn’t do all of that, wouldn’t we accuse Him of being unloving in the end, when all things are revealed?
If someone asked you what the greatest good on this earth is, what would you say? An epic surf session? Financial security? Health? Meaningful, trusting friendships? Intimacy with your spouse? Knowing that you belong? The greatest good on this earth is God. Period. God’s one goal for us is Himself.
Is God an Object?
We think that God is an object about which we have questions. We are curious about God. We make inquiries about God. We read books about God. We get into late-night bull sessions about God. We drop into church from time to time to see what is going on with God. We indulge in an occasional sunset or symphony to cultivate a feeling of reverence for God.
But that is not the reality of our lives with God. Long before we ever got around to asking questions about God, God had been questioning us. Long before we got interested in the subject of God, God subjected us to the most intensive and searching knowledge. Before it ever crossed our minds that God might be important, God singled us out as important. Before we were formed in the womb, God knew us. We are known before we know.
The God I Want
Some while ago, I picked up a book in a second hand bookshop. It was an old, slightly faded paperback with what looked like an intriguing title: The God I Want. Published in the late 1960s, it was a collection of essays by various public figures explaining the kind of God they could cope with, the God they could bring themselves to believe in.
None of them said they wanted a crucified God. The cross of Jesus simply bars the way to that approach by confronting us with something that so offends common sense that it makes us start back at square one. It directs us, at the start of our search for God to a scene which tells of the absence of God, the strange and counter-intuitive wisdom of God.
It tells us that if we are to find the true God, we need to give up our ideas of what God should be like and sit and listen for a while. It tells us that the journey to find God starts, not with human wisdom, human chattering and speculation on what kind of God we might like, what kind of God we can get our heads around, what kind of God we cm bring ourselves to believe in, but instead, we should stop talking, just for once. The journey to God begins in silence, not speculation.
“An Old Man with a White Beard”
My friend and colleague Keas Keasler, who teaches a class on spiritual formation, recently asked the class to close their eyes and picture God. After a few moments he had them open their eyes and, if comfortable, share what they saw. Most of them said the same thing: “An old man with a white beard floating in the clouds, looking down at us.”
Keas then said, “If what you imagine God to be like is anything other than Jesus, then you have the wrong image of God.” Jesus is beautiful, and so are the Father and the Spirit: “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth” (John 1:14 KJV).
On Heaven and Hell
There’s a story of a young girl on a plane who was reading her Bible, and there was a businessman sitting next to her. He looked over to her and he said, you don’t really believe that do you?” And she said, why yes I do”. And the businessmen than said, you really believe that Jonah was swallowed up by a whale. “Well it was actually a big fish” she responded. Okay, a big fish. You don’t really believe he’s in heaven do you? And the young girl responds “well yes of course I do, and I plan on meeting him there some day. Well what if he isn’t there? The business man replied. “Well then you can meet him” she replied.
On the Side?
In his thoughtful book, Our Good Crisis: Overcoming Moral Chaos with the Beatitudes, Jonathan K. Dodson shares a funny, yet poingnant encounter with a man who wanted to keep religion private:
I had the crazy idea that going on a five-hour field trip to NASA with fifty fifth-graders would be a good idea. As a chaperone to three kids, I was tasked with not letting them out of my sight. On the way to NASA, one of them told me about a summer camp he went to.
He said, “I didn’t really like it because they made us sing to God every night and listen to someone talk about him. I mean, I believe in God, but I just think you should keep him on the side.”
I thought about what he said and replied, “If God is the most important person in the world, don’t you think he should be more than ‘on the side’?” He stared at me blankly for a moment, then looked away and said, “I guess.” When we sideline God, something has to take his place. Up sprouts the Big Me.
Taken from Our Good Crisis: Overcoming Moral Chaos with the Beatitudes by Jonathan K. Dodson Copyright (c) 2020 by Jonathan K. Dodson. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
Our God is Great as God is Good
The great African-American preacher Gardner Taylor, preacher of the Concord Baptist Church in Brooklyn for over 40 years, begins one of his sermons with a paean to the God revealed to us in the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments. What comes up are some of the major themes of God’s character throughout scripture: God’s goodness, God’s eternality, God’s perfection. God’s love:
Our God is as great as God is good and as good as God is great, and this is to say marvelous things about both God’s goodness and God’s greatness. The God we serve merits our reverence, bowed heads, bent knees. And trembling spirits, the touch of a whisper in our voices and unstudied pauses of silence when we talk with God. Our God is different from us creatures, but God is as God ever was, and was as God ever will be.
I bow before God, because God is without start and without finish, is without increase and without decrease, never grows better because He is already, and ever was, perfect. God never grows worse because in God there is no changing. God demands and receives my unqualified reverence. Love is a part of the character of God. By that love, we are blessed. We should not take for granted the love and blessings of God.
There are so many people to whom God has been exceedingly good and abundantly kind. How marvelous this life is because God has opened a way for us—a way of good health, good fortune, and good circumstances. Because of this care, we should in turn offer our lives, time, loyalty, and our own love to God. We love God because God loved us first. Our God is love.
Sculpting God in our Image
The temptation to sculpt God according to our expectations and presuppositions, to make this God much like another, is strong with us. You see it all down through history: in the Middle Ages it seemed obvious for people to think of God as a feudal lord; the first missionaries to the Vikings thought it obvious to present Christ as a warrior God, an axe-wielding divine berserker who could out-Odin Odin. And so on. The trouble is, the triune God simply does not fit well into the mold of any other God. Trying to get along with some unspecified “God,” we will quickly find ourselves with another God.
So Much Straw
Thomas Aquinas, the famous medieval theologian, created one of the greatest intellectual achievements of Western civilization in his Summa Theologica. It’s a massive work: thirty-eight treatises, three thousand articles, ten thousand objections.
Thomas tried to gather into once coherent whole all of truth. What an undertaking: anthropology, science, ethics, psychology, political theory, and theology, all under God.
On December 6, 1273, Thomas abruptly stopped his work.
While celebrating Mass in the Chapel of St. Thomas, he caught a glimpse of eternity, and suddenly he knew that all his efforts to describe God fell so far short that he decided never to write again.When his secretary, Reginald tried to encourage him to do more writing, he said, “Reginald, I can do no more. Such things have been revealed to me that all I have written seems as so much straw.”
Three Dollars Worth of God
I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.
Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep, but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk, or a snooze in the sunshine.
I don’t want enough of God to make me love a black man or pick beets with a migrant.
I want ecstasy, not transformation.
I want warmth of the womb, not a new birth.
I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack.
I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.
The Two Surveys
My friend Scot McKnight is a New Testament professor in Chicago. For years, he taught a class on Jesus, and he would start every semester with two surveys. The first was a set of questions about the student: what they like, dislike, believe, and so on. The second was the same set of questions, but this time about Jesus. He told me that 90 percent of the time, the answers were exactly the same. That’s telling, isn’t it?
That’s telling, isn’t it? Here’s how you know if you’ve created God in your own image: he agrees with you on everything. He hates all the people you hate. He voted for the person you voted for. If you’re a Republican, so is he. If you’re a Democrat, she is too. If you’re passionate about ____, then God is passionate about ____. If you’re open and elastic about sexuality, so is he. And above all, he’s tame. You never get mad at him or blown away by him or scared of him. Because he’s controllable. And, of course, he’s a figment of your imagination.
What God Do You Believe In?
In The God-Shaped Brain, medical doctor Timothy Jennings various aspects of our God-given brains, how they function, and how they can be optimized for a full-life. In this excerpt, he describes the research performed by University of Pennsylvania neuroscientist Andrew Newberg on faith and its impact on various aspects of our lives:
Does it matter which God-concept we hold to? Recent brain research by Dr. Newberg at the University of Pennsylvania has documented that all forms of contemplative meditation were associated with positive brain changes—but the greatest improvements occurred when participants meditated specifically on a God of love.
Such meditation was associated with growth in the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain right behind our forehead where we reason, make judgments and experience Godlike love) and subsequent increased capacity for empathy, sympathy, compassion and altruism. But here’s the most astonishing part. Not only does other-centered love increase when we worship a God of love, but sharp thinking and memory improve as well. In other words, worshiping a God of love actually stimulates the brain to heal and grow.
What You Think About God Determines Your Life
Put another way, what you think about God will shape your destiny in life. If you think of God as homophobic, racist, and mad at the world, this distorted vision of reality will shape you into a religious bigot who is—wait for it—homophobic, racist, and mad at the world. If you think of God as a Left-Coast, educated, LGTBQ-affirming progressive, that will shape you into the stereotype of the wealthy bohemian with the “We Will Not Tolerate Intolerance” bumper sticker on the back of your hybrid. (Don’t take that as a slam. I’m writing about half of my neighbors and friends.) If you think of God as the cosmic version of a life coach, there to “maximize your life,” that will shape you into a self-helpy yuppie, even if you dress it up and call it following Jesus.
The ISIS terrorist beheading the infidel, the prosperity gospel celebrity preacher getting out of his Hummer after late-night drinks with Kanye West, the Westborough Baptist picketer outside a military funeral screaming “God hates f—s!”, the Hindu sacrificing a goat to Shiva, the African witch doctor sacrificing a little boy, the U.S. Army sniper praying to God before he takes the shot, the peace activist risking her neck to stop another war because she believes in Jesus’ teachings on enemy love, the gay singer who stands up at the Grammys and says thank you to God for his song about a one-night stand, the Catholic nun giving up a “normal life” to live in poverty and work for social change—all of these men and women do what they do because of what they believe about God.
So clearly, what we think about God matters. Who God is has profound implications for who we are. Here’s the problem: we usually end up with a God who looks an awful lot like us. As the saying goes, “God created man in his own image. And man, being a gentleman, returned the favor.” There is a human bent in all of us to make God in our own image.