Little box, big God
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I like to read. I read a lot of different things. One day I was reading a book. A book that many disdain as “literary trash.” The book was about a person. The author of the book told the story of the person with numerous incredible stories and many preposterous claims. Quite frankly it was hard to believe. Let me just give you some examples: “he never grows faint or weary1,” “his greatness no one can fathom2,” and even “there is no limit to his understanding.1.” Yeah, really hard to believe.
But that’s not all. After almost losing me less than halfway through the book, I ran across even more statements that could only be attributable to monumental hyperbole. Statements like “the heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you3,”, “the number of his years is unsearchable4,” and finally “he performs wonders that cannot be fathomed, miracles that cannot be counted5!” Really! I like fantasy, but this was ridiculous.
Of course if you are even a standard run-of-the-mill Christian, you already know who I am talking about. We have all heard about how big God is and how high “above” us he is. For the Bible exclaims “how unsearchable his judgments and untraceable his ways!6” After all, God is infinite. That is in effect what these claims tell us. He has no limits. He knows no bounds. None. Zero. Zilch. And we believe it … except when we don’t. Actually, that is real the problem with most of our Christian life. We believe in God except when we forget. We trust in Jesus except when we doubt. We are ready to lay down our lives except when we cling to this world. We put God in a box. We sweep him under the rug. We hide him in the closet. Check your attitude, you’ll see what I mean. How many times have you thought
- my problems are too big
- that illness is incurable
- my sins are too great
- the enemies are too strong
- my weaknesses are too many
You are there. So am I. The answer is simple. Painfully simple. Take God out of the box. Let him be God. You see, all those preposterous claims are true. You can’t put God in a box. His power is unlimited. His knowledge is immeasurable. His wisdom is inestimable. His mercy is inexhaustible. His grace is never-ending. His love is unbounded. His goodness is limitless. His faithfulness is everlasting. He just doesn’t fit!
3. Isaiah 40:28 (HCSB)
1. Psalm 145:3 (NIV)
2. 1 Kings 8:27 (NIV)
4. Job 36:26 (ESV)
5. Job 5:9 (NIV)
6. Romans 11:33 (HCSB)
Why would you want a god like that?
I often hear complaints from people claiming they would trust God if only they could understand God’s reasoning or why certain things happened. The questions are many: Why evil? Why would a good God allow so much suffering? Why can good people follow and serve God faithfully for years and still have bad things happen to them? Then there are those that have turned their backs on God because they had prayed diligently but never got what they wanted.
It seems to me that many people just want a god they can understand so they can manipulate that god to get what they want. They want a god who will ensure things work out in a way that they deem “fair”. When asked questions of the sort, my question back is always the same. Why would you want a god like that? Generally my questioner is taken somewhat aback.
Let me put it another way. What would you call a person that behaved exactly the way you wanted them to behave? That thought the way you wanted them to think? A person you could bargain with to get exactly what you want with very little in exchange? I know what I would call them, a servant or a slave. And that’s the problem. Most people don’t want to serve an all-knowing and all-powerful God, they want to run the show. They want to be God.
Quite frankly, if you’re in that camp, you just don’t have what it takes. Neither do I! I make enough mistakes in my daily life that I would never wish to subject my inaptitude on everyone else.
Personally, I’m looking for a real God – a God that I don’t understand. A God whose ways are literally incomprehensible to me. A God who doesn’t need me. A God that is not bound by or subject to anything or anyone, especially me. A God who is literally everywhere and who knows literally everything – past, present, and future. A God who is big. Really, really, big. A God that has no limits. Not in power, not in time, not in space. I also want a God that is good. Really, really good. A God whose goodness is eternally consistent and does not rely on mood or circumstances. A God whose goodness exhibits itself in justice, mercy, grace and love.
Are you looking for that kind of God? If so, I have good news for you. Really, really good news. That God exists and can be found. That is the God of the Bible. That is the God who wants to know you. The God who wants your love and trust.
The story V … is this the end?
What is the story you are living? That is the question we started with when we began this trek through the characters, the plot, and the setting of our story. Sadly – outside of the conclusions that the characters are random, the plot is unintelligible, and the setting is over sized and wild – we are left with more questions than we started with. Our goal was to understand our story and its author. Our analytical skills have failed. Either there is no story and no author thus proving Macbeth to be correct, or we need help.
But wait. What if someone has already given us the answer to our story and the secret of its author? What if someone has provided us a story that answers all the questions our investigation uncovered? Would not that be wonderful? Perhaps all those questions about our purpose would be answerable. Is it too much to ask?
But where would such answers come from? Who could understand the story you are living, the characters, the setting, and the plot. Yes, that’s right. Only the author would know. Only the author could know. So how would the author reveal this? Wouldn’t the author have to enter our story itself in order to provide us the answers we so crave? What if the reason we have not found the author is that the author has been in the story and part of the story all along?
Let us, for a moment, assume that is true. The author has been in the story all along. What stories have you been told where the author and creator of the universe, the giver of life has entered into the human story? Is not that the story that Christianity tells? Does not Jesus – who claims to be God himself – enter the human story as a baby, live a life of purity, teach of freedom and redemption, die at the hands of ruling elite, return to life and heaven, and create a way people to have an intimate, personal relationship with the God of the universe? Yes, it does! But does the Christian version really provide the answers to the questions we have been asking?
Remember we first looked at the characters and were left confused. We don’t even know who the hero or the villain is. More than that, we still don’t know what part we might actually be playing in our own story. However, if true, the story Christianity advocates does in fact provide these answers. The hero is none other than God himself, the author. God who entered the story in the human form of Jesus Christ. Who came to crush the villain and set the captives free. And the villain? The Christian story tells of the arch-enemy of God called Satan. Satan, who at one time was the highest ranking and most beautiful of all angels. Satan, who thought himself to be equal to God. The same Satan who was cast out of heaven and has spent the entire story of humanity trying to keep us from being reconciled to God. And what about us? What does the Christian story tell us about our place in the story? According to Christianity, we are the captives that Jesus came to set free. We are Jesus’ beloved. Does it get any better than that?Wouldn’t it be fabulous if the Christian story was in fact true? Don’t you want it to be?
But then there is the plot. The story of Christianity tells of an all-powerful God who seems to have trouble subduing the enemy Satan. A God who has trouble getting his creation to acknowledge him, much less worship him. But we leave that discussion for later. What we do find in the Christian story as told in the Bible is a very familiar plot. In fact, the story begins with a familiar “Once upon a time …”, or more specifically “In the beginning …” And what follows is also familiar. The story begins with everything being good, even great. For the story begins literally in the Garden of Eden. Then, as in all good stories, tragedy strikes. Humans, enticed by the evil one Satan, defy and betray God himself. But God does not simply wash his hands of these traitors, God loves them and woos them back. He himself becomes one of them and pays the price for the treason they committed in order to make way for a reunion. And, according to Christianity, that’s where we are in the story today. God is wooing and Satan is working to conceal the path made for humans to return to their God. Essentially, we are in a life and death struggle set in the middle of a love story. While this Christian story explains much of what we experience, it also has an ending. A happily ever after that is too good to be true. Or is it?
This brings us to the question we raised above. Why would an all-powerful God not just make us love him? Why doesn’t he just obliterate Satan? Why did he ever create him in the first place? Why is there evil? Without convincing answers to these questions, the Christian story becomes just that, a story. Some would say, nonsensical gibberish. But here again, Christianity does have an answer, and the answer is “love”. As Philip Yancey tells us in Disappointment with God
Power can do everything but the most important thing: it cannot control love… In a concentration camp, the guards possess almost unlimited power. By applying force, they can make you renounce your God, curse your family, work without pay, eat human excrement, kill and then bury your closest friend or even your own mother. All this is within their power. Only one thing is not: they cannot force you to love them.
Thus, Christianity tells us that evil exists to give us a choice. A choice to love God or to turn our backs as we did in the garden. Thus the conflict we see in our own story – good versus evil – is the mechanism required to give us our choice. Ours not because we deserve it or because we demand it. It is ours as a gift. The gift from God who loves us so much he gave us that choice.
And then there is the setting – wildly dangerous and grotesquely oversized. According to Christianity, it simply reflects the author. The earth reflects the beauty inherent in the author as well as the author’s more wild and dangerous side. And the universe? Scientists tell us that if the universe was simply intended to hold the earth and all its inhabitants, it is way too big. The Christian story would agree. According to the story, it was designed not only as a home to humanity, but to reflect God himself. If so, then it is probably just about the right size.
If you accept the Christian story, you have found the author. The author is God. The God as revealed in the Bible, in nature, in the conflict between good and evil. If you accept the story, you are left with a choice. A choice to love God or to ignore him and continue on with a seemingly random and unsatisfying life. It’s that simple. As the author, God has written a story to draw you to him. That is why you are reading this text. That is why you have those original questions that so deeply haunt.
The story IV … examining plot
And on we go in our search for our author. Leaving behind a cast of characters that only helped to confuse and frustrate, we now turn to the plot of our story. When we ask the deep questions of the soul, the first seems to be “Why am I here?” However, generally failing to find an adequate answer, we turn to more shortsighted questions that would seem to be easier to answer such as “What should we do?” This is the essence of plot. What is going on and how we should act and react to what is going on around us. Understanding our plot would also lead us to discern the end of our story, which opens up all kinds of truths about who we are, what we are doing here, what is our role, and who really are the main characters. Understanding our plot is surely the key to understanding our story and finding our author.
So we look at what is going on in our lives. Surely there is good and bad. All stories have bad moments, so this is nothing to worry about. All lives begin positively. That miraculous moment of birth when all lives are a blank page and all epic stories of romance and heroism are still possible. For some that moment is cut short – sometimes before the moment of birth itself. Complications, birth defects, or unspeakable tragedy too often transform joy to despair. But this experience is the same throughout our lives. One moment elation, the next catastrophe. Perhaps it is not wise to look at individual lives and try to interpret our story. Perhaps we must look at the bigger stories, the stories of nations and peoples.
Unfortunately, throughout history we see a similar pattern. Has there been a time that the world has not been at war? Times where devastating natural disasters have not erased whole groups of peoples from the earth? No. However, there is a great savior – if you would believe some – called technology. Technology seems to hold great promise to bring people together, to erase differences, to solve many of our woes. But, alas, history would beg to differ. From the beginning, technology has promised to simplify, revolutionize, and eliminate human suffering. From wheels to hunting and gardening tools, technology has been used for good as well as for evil. But still the history of nations and peoples has plodded on unchanged. One group dominates for a time and then gets replaced by another. Nations led by cruel and vicious dictators are displaced by more benevolent rulers who in turn are overthrown by even worse regimes. The seemingly random cycle continues unabated. Thus the plot, so promising in concept, fails to inform us about much and fails to lead us to our author.
But all stories have a setting. Perhaps this could provide a clue or lead us down a fruitful path. After all, the setting is where the story takes place. The setting helps set the mood of the story and introduces constraints on the characters. Truthfully, would texting in a medieval setting make sense? Nope. Wrong setting. So what is the setting of our story? It appears to be Earth in the 21st century. But maybe, like Neo in the Matrix or the Pevensies in the Chronicle of Narnia, we will find our story existing in another setting altogether. That could change everything.
But we are trying to understand our story, so we will assume our setting is what we can actually see and hear. Trying to reason otherwise would put us in a state of pure conjecture. So we study our setting; while it changes over time, it also remains the same. But it does give up some secrets about our author. What do we learn by looking at our world? First, that the world is a wild and dangerous place. Regardless of our sophistication, intelligence, and technology we can not even begin to be able to modify the winds and storms of nature. And lets face it, being left alone in the wild without traces of modern conveniences is daunting for even the most adventurous among us. We are likely not up to the challenge.
But then second, what about the immensity and size of our environment? The world in which we live seems large to us, yet is but a pale blue dot in the sea of asteroids, planets, stars, nebula, and galaxies. Some even theorize multiple universes! What could be the reason for such enormity? Is our author really so large as to require all this to tell our story? As the known universe leaves us speechless, so its part in our story leaves us with insufficient imagination to even begin to envision its purpose.
So once again we are baffled. The plot is seemingly random, littered with both triumph and tragedy. And our setting, while leaving clues, is so wild and dangerous and so grotesquely over sized that we are left to wonder even more: what is going on here?
Perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps trying to understand the story can provide no clues about the author and can certainly not lead us to the creator of our story. Perhaps.
You hovered o’er the waters
as you hovered o’er my soul.
For I was void and without form
darkness brimmed my soul.
You spoke light into being
as you illumed my heart.
You rent my darkness from your light
my soul aroused to start.
You reforged me in the image
of your righteous holy one.
And charged my soul be fruitful
Til its time on earth be done.
I offered my worldly wealth to you,
Yet my gift did not impress.
I committed my time to work your deeds,
Still my soul you did not bless.
I enslaved my body, broke its demands,
But it brought not your delight.
I stood on the corner and preached your word,
And my efforts afforded no light.
I sought out the poor and answered their need,
Still your joy lingered far, far distant.
Daily I studied your word with zeal,
Although your peace was nonexistent.
Sacrifices were my next pursuit,
Though I failed your delight to gain.
I struggled mightily to do the right,
Yet in my heart I felt but pain.
I finally stopped and searched your heart,
My soul required its purpose.
I offered you my heart, my soul, my all
And you reveled in my worship.
Too old to fight?
Caleb. My favorite character in the Bible – bar none. Moses defied a great empire. David vanquished nations. Peter charged into the night against trained soldiers. Paul was just reckless. But Caleb. Caleb was magnificent. I know what you’re thinking, “Caleb? Sure he had faith. He went into the Promised Land. But so did Joshua. What’s so great about Caleb?”
We all know how Caleb started. He and Joshua went on a covert mission to the Promise Land. While ten others shriveled in fear, Caleb proclaimed “Let’s go take the land, we can do it.” But, the people sided with the ten and against Caleb … and God. And God responded quickly. The ten were struck dead. The people were promised retribution. Caleb was promised an inheritance. Contrite, the people tried to take the land. They failed.
But that’s not why I love Caleb. That’s not why he is my favorite. I love Caleb for how he ended his life. Fast forward 40 years. Forty years of wandering the desert. Forty years of waiting. Forty years of discipline for a rebellion he opposed. After 40 long years, the time had come to take the land. Not everyone made it in. Moses did not go. The other ten did not go. None that left Egypt would go. Except Caleb. Except Joshua.
Five years later, the fight was over. The land had been conquered. Almost. But the time had come. Caleb’s time. Joshua sectioned off the land. And Caleb spoke once more.
So here I am today, eighty-five years old! I am still as strong today as the day Moses sent me out; I’m just as vigorous to go out to battle now as I was then. Now give me this hill country that the LORD promised me that day. You yourself heard then that the Anakites were there and their cities were large and fortified, but, the LORD helping me, I will drive them out just as he said.
Joshua 14:10-12 (NIV)
Here stands Caleb at 85 years – he doesn’t sound like any 85 year old I know – he’s saying: “I was ready 45 years ago and at 85 I am still the man I was at 40!” Caleb was ready. Not just to possess the land but to fight the battle. I can hear him now: “I want the land promised me. I want the best piece. I want the toughest battle. Bring on the giants! I will whip them.” And he did.
Then Joshua blessed Caleb son of Jephunneh and gave him Hebron as his inheritance. So Hebron has belonged to Caleb son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite ever since, because he followed the LORD, the God of Israel, wholeheartedly.
Joshua 14:13-14 (NIV)
I sit at my computer at 55 and wonder what 85 will bring. Will I still yearn for battle? To fight the fight? That is my prayer. Not just to survive to 85, but to train for 85. To fight daily. To stay strong. To stand firm to the end. To be like Caleb. To follow God wholeheartedly.
The future contains choices. We can follow God and fight. Or have fear overtake us, atrophy, and die. Will you be a Caleb? You say you tried fighting and lost? Good! Caleb fought and lost. You qualify. God had another battle for Caleb. God has another battle for you. What land will belong to you because you followed the Lord, the God of Israel, wholeheartedly?
The story III … what the characters tell us
So we will study our story in our attempt to find the author. We begin with the characters. Characters are usually easy to spot. They are all around us. In fact, we are one of them. But are we an important character? Perhaps we are heroes or might we even be villains? Or worse, are we simply extras that just exist to make the story seem more believable? Perhaps we are somewhere in between. So who is the hero1? The villain? If we could answer those questions perhaps the story would be understandable. There is obviously good in our story. And the hero must be “good”, right? I suppose the hero could be evil, but that seems to go against our core, our very nature.
Let’s assume we are the hero. That is the character we would like to be, correct? The character upon whom the triumph of good versus evil depends. The character that always comes through when the night is darkest, when evil seems to be on the verge of victory. It would seem that if we are the main character we would have some grand and glorious purpose. Our character would be capable of literally changing the world forever. Does that seem like you? Me? Probably not. But we do desire to play the hero do we not?
But if not us, then who is the hero of our story? There seems to be many powerful characters in our story that could fill that role. But at the same time, even the most powerful characters have serious flaws that would seem to make them unsuited to the part. Of course, all heroes have flaws, if not within themselves then in their place in the story, but the characters we experience tend to look more like villains that heroes. Even those that appear heroic at a point tend to eventually show their darker and self-serving inclinations. But there must be a hero, right? All stories have heros. We are left wondering who it could be.
Alas, maybe we are only extras. For many, our very soul cries out against the possibility. However, for others, it seems all too possible, no probable. For regardless of our position, it is all to easy to see that if we do nothing the world goes on as if it did not need us. Maybe we are not the main character, but it would be nice to think that we are more than extras. That we do have some purpose, even if we are not the main character.
Perhaps, if we are not the hero, we are part of the hero’s inner circle, members of the Knights of the Round Table or the Fellowship of the Ring. Characters upon whom the hero depends. Characters who are willing ride with the hero into hell itself if necessary. Or perhaps we are the hero’s beloved. The one for whom the hero would risk all in a pursuit of true, selfless love. Unfortunately, we have no clarity. We assume we are on the side of good, but is that true? No, we dare not even consider the possibility.
So, what have we learned? Although we live in our story, we have no idea who the characters are. Who is the hero? The villain? What part do we play? Surely this is a sad state. More importantly, we have made no gain towards our knowledge of the author. Where do we go next? Perhaps understanding the plot will reveal the author.
1 We use the term hero to refer to the principal character in our story, male or female, who has heroic qualities, performs heroic acts, and is regarded as the ideal person.
What do you want?
“What do you want?” How warmly I remember my little girls sheepishly approaching me with angelic faces and saying the word I loved to hear “Daddy?” That simple phrase would instantly melt my heart. Still does! And, of course, my response was always the same “What do you want?” More often than not, my girls left with exactly what they were hoping for. It was well understood, dad was a pushover! (For some reason I wasn’t quite as easy on my sons, but that’s a topic for another day.)
As parents, we know how much we love our kids and how much we want to give them good things. But why don’t we assume God has those same desires! Surely God loves us as much as we love our kids. In fact I’m sure of it.
In the tenth chapter of the gospel of Mark there is a fascinating set of stories. First, as the disciples are walking with Jesus along the road to Jericho, James and John make a quite ridiculous request. They ask Jesus to give them whatever they ask for! Surely Jesus will reprimand them for their arrogance or teach them about humility and meekness. But, does Jesus rebuke them? No! Does he tell them they should not asking for so much? No! He says “What do you want?” Really! “What do you want?”
Later as Jesus enters Jericho, the scene is chaotic. Everyone in town had come to see him. Suddenly, by the side of the road, a poor, blind beggar starts yelling: “Jesus, have mercy on me!” The crowd tells him to shut up and mind his manners. But the beggar keeps pressing: “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Now the beggar was causing a stir. Surely Jesus would hurry by and get somewhere where he could teach the crowd without hecklers. But once again, Jesus does the unexpected. Jesus tells the crowd to bring the man to him. When the beggar arrives, Jesus asks him simply “What do you want?” Really?
Believe it or not, God is not the mean tyrant who waits for you to make mistakes so he can squash you and make your life miserable. No, God actually wants to give you what is good and best in life. He wants us to ask him for those things. I think C.S. Lewis puts it well.
It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
― C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory
So, what do you want? Really!
once upon a time
there were two men
who set out to run a race
the first man
being an experienced runner
and never let his eyes
stray from the prize
while the second man
being just a rookie
took it easy
and never trained for the race
when the day
for the big race
the first man
being the mature athlete
got to the race early
to warm up and prepare
while the second man
that eager young lad
got to the race just minutes ahead of time
stripped off his warm up suit
and sprinted to the starting line
when the race began
the second man
a young man full of energy
took off as fast
as his feet would carry him
while the first man
the well prepared runner
began running at a steady pace
as the race dragged on
the second man
the unprepared youngster
began to tire
his mind began to wander
he thought about enjoying life
he thought about taking it easy
and he thought about how tired he was
while the first man
the one who trained hard
kept his mind on the goal
kept a steady pace
persevered (even when it hurt)
and did not falter
when the race was over
the second man
the immature man
was no where to be found
while the first man
the mature runner
the one who pressed on to the goal
claimed the prize
once there were two men
who set out to run the race of life
the first man
a humble servant
forgot the treasures of this world
and strained on to the prize
while the second man
a worldly man
indulged in pleasures
and gained all this world
had to offer
when the race was over
the second man
the man’s man
was no where to be found
while the first man
the godly man
the mature child of the King
the one who focused on the prize
reached out and grasped the crown of life