What is God Like?

The Bible teaches that God has revealed Himself to us through creation and by His word. But what does that revelation tell us about the nature of God? Theologians have traditionally divided God’s attributes into two main categories. Some are attributes that have no analogy in human experience. These attributes, often called God’s incommunicable attributes, display the uniqueness of the divine nature. Others, called communicable attributes, are characteristics that have some analogy in human experience. God’s incommunicable attributes show how the divine nature is unlike our own. They display God’s transcendence and reveal the great gulf that exists between the Creator and His creatures. God’s communicable attributes remind us that we have been created in the image of God and, in some small measure, were designed to be like Him.

When Jesus spoke of God to the woman of Samaria, He emphasized two fundamental characteristics of God. According to Jesus, God is both a Spirit and a personal being who seeks those who worship Him in spirit and truth (John 4:24). The title Jesus uses to describe this being is Father. This label implies that God is both intimately involved with His creation while being distinct from it. Creation depends on God for its origin and continued existence, but God is not dependent on anyone or anything (Acts 17:24-25). This independence is reflected in four attributes that flow from it and reflect God’s power: Infinity, Omnipresence, Eternity, and Immutability.

God Has No Bounds

When we say that God is infinite, we are not really talking about size or distance but the fulness of His perfection. God possesses all His attributes without measure or limitation. All that God is, He is to an infinite degree. This infinite God is omnipresent. He is always present everywhere. The Psalmist acknowledged this when he wrote, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there” (Ps. 139:7–8). There is no place or situation in which we will find ourselves that God is not already present. We cannot hide from God or escape His presence.

Where time is concerned, God is eternal. He does not experience the limitations of time the way we do. As Psalm 90:2 observes, He exists as God “from everlasting to everlasting.” God’s eternal nature has implications for God’s interaction with creation. The eternal God can act within time as we know it, but He is not bound by time. Because God exists apart from time, the Bible uses our experience as a point of reference when talking about His eternal nature. 2 Peter 3:8 urges us to remember that “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.” What seems to us like a delay is not a delay to God. Our physical life has a beginning and an end. God has neither. Because we are time-bound creatures, we can only experience time as a succession of events. Unlike us, God is not subject to time or to cause and effect.

This means that God’s infinite nature is also immutable. God can’t be more or less than He already is. James 1:17 says, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” God’s character and nature do not change. Nor does He mature, grow, or evolve. His plans and purposes are fixed (Ps. 33:11; 102:27). At the same time, there are passages in Scripture that seem to attribute change to God. For example, Genesis 6:6 says that God “regretted that he had made human beings on the earth.” Jonah 3:10 tells how, after the people of Nineveh repented, God relented from the destruction He had threatened to bring upon them. As with time, the Bible speaks of these instances using human experience as their primary reference point. In these instances, it is not God who changes but humanity’s relation to God.

Omniscient, Good, Holy, & Omnipotent

The other category of God’s attributes is called communicable because they have some analogy in human experience. They describe God in terms with which we are familiar. They speak of His knowledge, righteousness, and mercy. At the same time, these attributes reinforce the Bible’s message that we are not God, even though we have been created in His image.

God’s communicable attributes include omniscience. God knows things, and so do we. But God knows everything to an infinite degree. He knows all things comprehensively. He knows all that has happened, and all that will happen. “You have searched me, Lord, and you know me,” the Psalmist declares. “You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar” (Psalm 139:1–2). God knows all that we think before we think it and what we will say before we say it. He knows our secret thoughts, even those we have hidden from ourselves (Ps. 139:4, 24). By comparison, our knowledge is as infinitesimal as God’s is infinite.

Another communicable attribute is God’s goodness. This goodness is expressed first in God’s holiness and righteousness. God is Himself the ultimate standard of all that can be deemed good. For this reason, Jesus declared, “No one is good–except God alone” (Mark 10:18). Because God is perfectly holy, His moral standard is one that demands perfect holiness. He upholds this standard by acting justly and holding all those who fall short of it accountable. God has a moral nature and created us to be moral beings. But our nature is imperfect and is flawed by the presence of sin. Our unrighteousness separates us from God and makes us liable to His judgment. This problem of sin calls forth the other dimension of God’s goodness, the love that He has shown by offering us grace and mercy through Jesus Christ.

Of all God’s attributes, perhaps the most familiar is His omnipotence. God is all-powerful. This characteristic is expressed in Job 23:13, which says that God “does whatever he pleases.” Omnipotence does not mean that God can do anything. There are some things that Scripture says God cannot do. God cannot lie. He cannot sin. God cannot deny Himself. But God can do all that He purposes to do, and all that God purposes to do is consistent with His nature. Our God is mighty to save (Isa. 63:1; Zeph. 3:17).

Unity in Trinity

Although we tend to separate God’s attributes when we analyze them, they are not separate in God’s being. God is not divided, nor is He in conflict with Himself. God’s holiness does not battle with His grace and mercy. One of the dangers of focusing on the divine attributes is that it tends to reduce God to a list of philosophical abstractions so that we lose His personal nature. The Scriptures reveal that God is a personal being and that He exists as a unity of three distinct persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Both the Old and New Testaments agree in their assertion that “God is one” (Deut. 6:4; Mark 12:32; Gal. 3:20; James 2:19). This means that there is only one God. There are not many gods. But it also means that God is one by nature. The three Persons in the Trinity are distinct from one another as persons but not in essence. Scripture does not portray God as a single divine person who manifests Himself in three different modes, nor does it speak of the Godhead as three separate divine beings. The triune nature of God has no analogy in human experience. All attempts to explain it by comparison with nature or philosophy are bound to fail. We can affirm this truth by faith, but we cannot fully comprehend it.

“Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves,” the Reformation pastor and theologian John Calvin observed. He goes on to note that one leads to the other. When we look at ourselves, our thoughts turn to the God who made us and sustains us. When we contemplate God, we can’t help being aware of the ruin that sin has brought about in our lives. “To this extent we are prompted by our own ills to contemplate the good things of God,” Calvin explains, “and we cannot seriously aspire to Him before we become displeased with ourselves.”

The Bible shows us what God is like so that we will see ourselves as we truly are. The main lesson of the attributes is twofold. First, God’s attributes show us that although we have been created in the divine image, we are not God. Second, they remind us that we need God’s mercy and grace shown to us in the person and work of Jesus Christ before that image can be fully restored in us. This is the hope of the Christian. It is the hope that “when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).

The Recent History of God

Where does one begin when speaking of God? A biography usually starts at the beginning with its subject’s birth and ancestry. But the God of Scripture, unlike the gods of myth, is uncreated and eternal. He has no beginning or point of origin. He has no ancestors. For this reason, God’s account of Himself in Scripture begins not with His creation but with ours. If the Bible is the history of God, it is only a record of recent history.

Why this had to be the case should be obvious. God’s existence in what we call the past is infinite. It is not possible to grasp, let alone record. God’s eternal nature is also unlimited in its power and scope. He is not bound by time or space. He is not dependent on anyone or anything but sustains everything that exists (Acts 17:25; Hebrews 1:3; Colossians 1:17). The full scope of all that God is and has done is beyond our view. There is too much to know and too much to write. Even if it could be written, it is doubtful that we would be able to comprehend it.

The Bible only records what we might call God’s recent history because it begins with our history. It is a mistake to think of the Bible as the autobiography of God. It is just the opposite. The Bible is God’s biography of us. From the Bible we know something about what God is like. God has shown us this through what He has said and done in our world. The Bible also tells us about ourselves. In many respects, the Bible tells humanity’s story as much as it does God’s.

The theologians have a word for this. They call it revelation. Divine self-revelation is where all knowledge of God begins. We only know about God because God has chosen to reveal Himself to us. Moreover, what we know about God is dependent upon what God has chosen to reveal. We cannot put God on a slab to dissect Him to expose all His parts. We cannot watch Him through a microscope or find Him in the world’s most powerful telescope. If we are to know what God is like, He must show us Himself.

God has done this in two primary ways. God has revealed Himself by actions and in words. The Bible also shows that God has done this in two different modes. One is broad. The other is narrow. There are some things that God has revealed to everyone. They are plain for all who are willing to see. These truths are expressed in the universal language of creation. This is what the Psalmist means when He says, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalm 19:1). The Psalmist goes on to describe creation as a kind of non-verbal communication that “goes out into all the earth” (v. 2).

This general revelation of God is also communicated to us internally. Because this internal message operates on the level of conscience, its function is primarily negative. The primary purpose of internal general revelation is to show us that we are not like God. The apostle Paul explains its negative function when he says: “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. (Rom. 1:18–19).

Another important feature of this general revelation is its limited scope. Neither the external general revelation of creation nor the internal revelation of conscience can tell us everything that can be known about God. They do not even tell us the most important things that we should know about Him. This mode of revelation covers only a few basics. In a way, general revelation is God’s kindergarten, limiting its message to God’s eternal power and His divine nature. General revelation tells us that God exists, that He is the creator, and that we are not Him.

Fortunately, God has also chosen to reveal Himself on another band. This is a mode that the theologians call “special” revelation. Special revelation is more narrow than general revelation. While general revelation is available to everyone, special revelation was experienced by only a few. God revealed Himself to a few chosen messengers who passed what they had heard from God down to others. Special revelation is also narrow in its focus. The message of special revelation primarily has to do with God’s plan to redeem humanity from sin. Special revelation was personal and ultimately verbal. The things God said and did were written down and collected in the Scriptures. They describe His saving acts and interpret those actions for us. They tell us what God expects of us and give us a glimpse of what God will do in the future.

Divine self-revelation is where all knowledge of God begins.

When you read the Bible, you quickly discover that God did not make Himself known all at once. Instead, He revealed Himself in stages. This progressive revelation of God reaches its peak in the person and work of Jesus Christ. As the writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews observeed, “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe” (Heb. 1:1–2).

God, who dwells outside of history, entered history to make Himself known once and for all in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Not only does Jesus reveal God to us in human terms, but He also shows us what God had in mind when He created the world. If the Bible is a history of the human race described from God’s perspective, Jesus Christ is the key that unlocks that history for us. Jesus is the bridge that connects God’s story with human history. Jesus is the end toward which all God’s words and works in the world tend. Jesus is the sum of all that God has to say about Himself.

Revelation shows us what we can know about God. But the fact that God has shown us Himself in this way reveals something about us as well. It proves that there is something that stands in the way of our understanding God. The word the Bible uses for this is sin. Not surprisingly, this is where the Bible’s history of God begins. Not just with creation but with humanity’s departure from God through disobedience.

Therefore, if we want to describe God’s history with humanity in simple terms, we could probably articulate it in three sentences. God made us. We rejected Him. So God took on human nature and came to redeem us in person. The Bible’s revelation of God is not a collection of vague philosophies or abstract facts. Everything that revelation has to say about God has redemption at its center. Everything that can be said about divine revelation, the discipline that we call theology, can pretty much be divided into five categories: the nature of God, the nature of humanity, the person and work of Jesus Christ, the nature of redemption, and God’s plan for bringing this stage of His history to a close.

Where does one begin when speaking about God? We begin with God. The only way to begin with God is to begin with what God has said. Everything that we can say about God depends upon what God has said Himself. Scripture tells us that God has shown Himself both by word and action. But between these two, it is Scripture that must have the primary place. Scripture both describes and interprets God’s words and actions for us.

But why would God reveal Himself to us in the first place? It is not so that we would accumulate facts about Him. The goal of revelation is faith. We study Scripture so that we might know about God, and by knowing, that we might come to believe. For, as the writer of the book of Hebrews observed, “without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Hebrews 11:6).

God’s Emotional Life

My father was a man of his times. He lived in an age when dads were not expected to be “engaged” with their children. In the 1950s, fathers weren’t in the delivery room coaching their wives as their children were being born. Not those fathers. They were all in the waiting room, smoking cigarettes. Parenting in that era was far more detached than it is today.

Like most children, I was happy to see my father when he returned home from work. But I knew he expected to be left alone. He sat in his favorite chair and read the Detroit News before dinner. After dinner, he returned to his chair and slept through George Pierrot Presents, as the show’s white-haired and gravel-voiced host interacted with his guests who showed 16 mm films of their various travels. When we tried to change the channel to some more child-friendly program, he awoke immediately. “I was watching that,” he said.

God & Feeling

I mention my father because it is his image that first comes to mind whenever I hear the word impassible used in connection with God. Impassibility is the word theologians sometimes use when they speak of God’s emotional nature. Actually, in theology, the term’s meaning is narrower. Theologian J. I. Packer explains that the theological doctrine of divine impassibility does not have anything to do with God’s emotional detachment but with God’s relationship to suffering. To say that God is impassible means that God’s capacity to enter into the suffering of His creatures is voluntary. As Packer so vividly puts it, “he is never his creatures’ hapless victim.”

That God does have feelings is the inevitable conclusion for anyone who takes divine self-revelation seriously. The Bible often speaks of God’s emotions. It does so in such human terms that we are sometimes disturbed by the thought. This is especially true of the three primary emotions which the Bible seems to mention in connection with God: love, anger, and jealousy. The problem is not that we can’t relate to such references but the opposite. We are all too familiar with these kinds of feelings and believe that God should rise above them.

Well, perhaps not love. We like the biblical thought that “God is love.” It is the other negative emotions that make us uncomfortable. We can accept that God might feel a measure of irritation at times, as any superior being might with an inferior. But the notion of wrath seems too uncontrolled, especially when it is attended by flames, plagues, stinging serpents, and the earth opening up to swallow the unfortunate objects of God’s wrath. We comfort ourselves with the thought that they probably deserved it. But deep inside, there is a lurking uncertainty about the whole thing. It all feels just a little too out of control. We feel just as awkward about those passages which describe God as having the kind of emotions we usually associate with vulnerability. How is it possible for God who is eternally blessed to experience sorrow or jealousy?

What are We to Make of God’s Grief?

When I was young, I did something that made my mother cry. To be honest, I don’t remember what it was. I only recall the dismay I felt that I had hurt her so badly. It was a kind of horror to realize that this was even a possibility. Of course, I knew that it was theoretically possible. But to see the reality and to know that something I had said or done had sparked it was too much to bear. I felt the same way as I watched my father spiral down into despair in the months after my mother died. Sometimes I sat with him late into the evening as he spoke to me of the grief and anger he felt at being left behind. I was a new believer at the time and thought I should have a remedy for his pain. But I could think of nothing to say to make him feel better. It shook me to discover how helpless he felt. I must confess to feeling a measure of anger at being placed in such a position. It was not the anger of bitterness but the anger of impotence. I had no remedy for his grief because I had no remedy for my own. I could only hold his hand and weep.

If we feel so disconcerted over something as commonplace as human grief, what then are we to make of God’s grief? And let us make no mistake about the fact that God does indeed experience sorrow. The sorrow of God is spoken of in both Testaments. Even if we had doubts about whether such a thing was possible, Jesus placed the answer beyond doubt when He shed tears over Jerusalem and wept at the tomb of Lazarus. “How do we tend to the sorrow of God?” Thomas Troeger asks. “How do we answer the sorrowing God who asks: ‘Is there no balm in Gilead’?”

My most truthful reply to Troeger’s question is that I have no answer. How often must the child tend to the father? How can the child even begin to do so, when the Father is God Himself? If God cannot manage His own grief, what can I possibly do for Him? But this instinctive response misunderstands Troeger’s question just as it so often misinterprets God’s emotional life. Troeger is not asking me to manage God’s grief. He is not calling me to fix it. He is urging me to take note of it and respond in kind.

The Problem of God’s Emotions

It is easier to accept the fact that the Bible speaks of God having an emotional dimension to His nature than it is for us to understand it. Using the emotional life of Christ as his Rosetta stone, theologian B. B. Warfield underscored the two primary temptations we face when it comes to the question of God and emotions in his essay entitled “The Emotional Life of Our Lord.” At the one extreme, there are those who tend to minimize Christ’s emotions. At the other, there are those who magnify them unduly. “The one tendency may run some risk of giving us a somewhat cold and remote Jesus, whom we can scarcely believe to be able to sympathize with us in all our infirmities,” Warfield writes. “The other may possibly be in danger of offering us a Jesus so crassly human as scarcely to command our highest reverence.” Yet those who attempt to follow the middle path between these two extremes may find that they stumble as well. Warfield warns, “Between the two, the figure of Jesus is liable to take on a certain vagueness of outline, and come to lack definiteness in our thought.” The result is a Christ that is neither godlike enough to inspire our devotion nor human enough to enable us to identify with Him.

Perhaps the key to understanding the emotional life of God is to move in the same direction that C. S. Lewis does when he attempts to imagine the nature of heaven. In The Great Divorce, Lewis describes a heaven where all the analogous delights of earth are infinitely heightened. As Lewis puts it, heaven is “a larger space” and even “a larger sort of space” that would give the untransformed visitor “a feeling of freedom, but also of exposure, possibly of danger.” The features of its landscape are like those of earth but also substantially different. The flowers and the grass are diamond hard. The realities of heaven as Lewis imagines them are so substantial that all that is of earth becomes mere shadow and ghostly imitation by comparison. Likewise, Lewis imagines a hell which is so diminished by the heavenly that it is smaller than one pebble of the earthly world and smaller even than one atom of the “real” heavenly world. Might not a similar dynamic be true when it comes to the affective nature of God?

This would mean that, instead of viewing God’s emotions as mirrors of our own, we would see our emotions as signposts which point us toward something in God that is infinitely higher, purer, and more solid. In this view, the line that connects our emotional nature with God’s moves from the lesser to the greater. We are like God, but He is not like us. His love and His joy are immeasurable in their scope and substance. Our experience of love or joy are only a faint echo of His, but in them, we may sometimes catch the fragrance of the undiscovered country.

The Way God “Feels”

What is true of love and joy must also be true of God’s wrath and His grief. Not only are they untainted by sin or self-interest, but they are also likewise immeasurable in scope and substance. God’s anger is not like the petty wrath of the pagan gods. He is not selfish or petulant. If the flash of justified human anger in a parent, spouse, or employer is enough to make us shiver, we cannot begin to imagine what it will be like to cower under the withering gaze of Christ on the day of judgment. No wonder the biblical writers described God as a consuming fire and warned, “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31).

To “tend to the sorrow of God” is not to manage it. If God’s sorrow is like His joy, we cannot begin to comprehend it, let alone stanch it. We might just as well attempt to quiet Niagara by capturing its rushing waters in a thimble. We can only glimpse God’s sorrow from a great distance. But He fully comprehends ours. Scripture tells us that He voluntarily entered into them through Jesus Christ, “the man of sorrows” (Isaiah 53:3).

Finally, the biblical language of God’s emotions should be interpreted through the lens of the divine attribute of immutability. This attribute is simply articulated by the Psalmist when he compares God to the variableness of all that God has created: “They will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment. Like clothing you will change them and they will be discarded. But you remain the same, and your years will never end” (Psalm 102:27-28). The author of Hebrews makes a similar affirmation: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). God does not have a variable emotional disposition like ours. He does not fly into a rage and then regret it. He does not get “bummed out.” He is not given to whims or to uncertainty. He “does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17). The emotive language which the Bible often uses when speaking of God describes the various ways in which God relates to us. The old lines from a children’s hymn which celebrates the incarnation of Christ are also in some measure true of God in general: “He feeleth for our sadness, and He shareth in our gladness.”

John’s latest book Practicing the Present: The Neglected Art of Living in the Now (Moody Publishers) is now available from Amazon.com. Order your copy today.

This Empire of Ruins

5033798748_08d987c2e0_oThe images coming out of Oklahoma City are so painful to see that it is hard to say anything about them without somehow trivializing the tragedy. It seems better to hear from someone who has lived through a comparable experience. I was reminded of a passage from Helmut Thielicke’s series of sermons based on the Lord’s Prayer. Thielicke was a Lutheran pastor who preached these sermons to his congregation in Stuttgart, Germany during the collapse of the Third Reich and as allied bombs rained down on the city.

In the sermon based on the phrase “Thy Kingdom come,” Thielicke writes:

When we, inhabitants of a severely damaged city, walk through a flourishing undamaged section, almost involuntarily our eyes perform a little trick upon us and suddenly the intact facades are transformed into horribly mutilated walls and horror dwells behind the bleak and empty windows. We know what a house looks like beneath its sleek surface, and it is shockingly easy for our imagination to produce this little inversion in which the order system of beams are seen as a chaotic confusion of bizarre and splintered fragments of wood. Again and again the face of death peers out from behind the features of the living, and the shadow of ruins leers at us from the ordered peace of respectable homes…In this world of death, in this empire of ruins and shell torn fields we pray: “Thy kingdom come! We pray it more than ever.”

In his sermon, Thielicke goes on to say that God’s kingdom is to be sought at the point where two lines of the Bible intersect. One is the descending line of divine judgment. This rarely consists in God’s destroying offenders with a thunderbolt from heaven but rather in leaving them to their own wretchedness. “There is nothing more terrible than the man who is left to himself,” Thielicke observes.

The other line is the ascending line of God’s kingdom. This is not a matter of evolution, human development, or the gradual Christianization of the world. Rather, it is a mysterious exercise of God’s dominion which is simultaneous with and contiguous to the other. Thielicke explains, “The manifestations of God’s will are emerging ever more clearly and conclusively in the very midst of decline and decay, and God’s sovereignty rules in power above all rebels and usurpers, bringing his great and ultimate plans for the world to fulfillment.”

This is as true of those natural events which shake the foundations of our world as it is of human affairs. Jesus is the one of whom the disciples said, “the wind and the sea obey Him” (Mark 4:41). Perhaps it is not so surprising that instead of being comforted by such a thought, they were filled with fear. Jesus controls the winds. He is the living one who died and is alive forevermore. He alone holds the keys to death and the grave (Rev. 1:18).

Grace & Personality

Not long ago I had dinner with an old college friend named Dave. I reconnected with him last year through the magic of social media, but until the other night it had been 25 years since the two of us had talked face to face. Dave was just as I remembered him. Older, of course, but the same essential person: a serious follower of Jesus Christ who is devoted to his family, his church and his friends. He has been in the same church and has been teaching the same Sunday school class for over 25 years.

Dave is a people person. He is someone who is energized by the crowd. He loves being part of a small group. In other words, he is pretty much everything I am not. I am energized by the crowd, but only when there is a pulpit between us. I hate small groups, for the most part. I am, as Dave told me at dinner the other evening, the same curmudgeon that I was in college.

This came as something of a shock to me. Because to tell you the truth, when I was a young man I did not see myself as a curmudgeon. In fact, I thought I was a people person: an outgoing, vivacious, life of the party sort of guy. Looking back on it, I can see that what is true of Dave is also true of me. As far as my personality goes, things have not really changed much. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that Jesus hasn’t made any difference in my life. He has. My values and behavior have changed radically since I began my walk with Jesus in the early 1970’s. But being a Christian does not seem to have changed my personality, at least not fundamentally.

The late Martyn Lloyd-Jones once observed, “There is no profounder change in the universe than the change which is described as regeneration; but regeneration–the work of God in the soul by which He implants a principle of divine and spiritual life within us–does not change a man’s temperament.” In other words, what the gospel does promise to do for us is something more radical. Instead of changing our temperament, it promises to set apart what I am and have for God. The shy person does not suddenly become outgoing but learns to glorify God with his or her shyness. The surly person does not lose the capacity for surliness but will be able to subject this natural tendency to the purpose and power of God through the Holy Spirit (often with great struggle).

What I saw in my friend Dave the other night is what I see in my own life. Jesus Christ set us on a trajectory of grace and we are still following its arc. We are further along than we when we last met face to face. The intervening years have altered our appearance. But the aim is still true.

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What I Learned from Dave and Paul

For some time now I have been puzzling over God’s tendency to expect more of me than I expect of myself. Every time I read the Scriptures I get the sense that my standard of expectation and his are not the same. He tells me to love God with all my heart, soul and strength and to love my neighbor as myself. He tells me to be patient and show mercy. I like the “me” I find in these commands. The person reflected in these divine expectations is compelling. It is the kind of person I would like to know–the sort of person I would want as my friend. But it is not me. Not as far as I can tell.

 If I were speaking of anyone other than God, I would be tempted to say that such expectations are marked by a certain naïveté. You know what I mean. This is the kind of insipid good nature found in the person who mixes unfounded optimism and denial in equal measure. It is the sort of person who “expects the worst” but “hopes for the best” in others. They are not truly optimistic. They are either blind or foolish. This cannot be the case where God is concerned. The Bible which calls me to such a high standard is also marked by a stark realism. God knows my frame. He knows that “nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature” (Rom. 7:18). He knows that I have repeatedly disappointed him on every count.

 This morning it dawned on me that this same mixture of honest assessment and gracious expectation is reflected in two of my good friends and colleagues. Dave DeWit and Paul Santhouse both work in the publishing division of the organization where I teach. Their personalities are very different but they both have the same capacity to look “through” my shortcomings and see me in a different light. They are patient and gracious in their friendship but they are also truthful. Although they know what I am really like, they have high expectations of me. Higher expectations than I have of myself. When I see myself through their eyes, I do not see the person that I think am but the kind of person I want to be. They make me want to be a Christian like them.

 This is the kind of remarkable vision that God’s word provides. It is one which compels me to “see through” myself. With its “unrealistic” call to obedience, God’s word offers me a vision of the person I was meant to be. With its unflinching truth, God’s word shows me what I am now. This is the love of Christ which “does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Cor. 13:6-7). But it is a love which does more than show me the gap between what God expects and how far I have fallen short. It is a love which has closed the gap with the bridge of the cross. It is a love that empowers me by grace and promises to carry me across. This is not the kind of love that makes me want to be a Christian. It is the love that has made me one.

Between Heaven and Hell

Hell is not the only doctrine that has fallen out of favor in our day. Heaven has fallen on hard times as well. We used to sing, “Heaven is a wonderful place, filled with glory and grace.” But these days Evangelicals are more likely to speak of the kingdom than of heaven. Justice is more important to them than the hope of heaven.

To many the notion that heaven might be an actual place seems about as awkward as the thought of a literal Hell. N. T. Wright seems typical of this thinking when he asks what the ultimate Christian hope is and what hope there is for change, rescue, transformation and new possibilities within the world in the present. “As long as we see Christian hope in terms of going to heaven,” Wright claims, “of a salvation that is essentially away from this world the two questions are bound to appear unrelated.” No, Christians today don’t want to go to heaven. We want our heaven on earth and we want it now.

It seems to me that these two things are linked. The church’s neglect of the doctrine of hell springs from the same root that has prompted us to marginalize the hope of heaven. It is a result of being worldly-minded. This is a major cause of all our disappointment with God. We are disappointed because we are primarily interested in the comforts of earthly life and troubled by earthly sorrows. We have forgotten Jesus’ warning that there are other worse sorrows yet to come as well as better joys that cannot be described in earthly terms.

The often quoted observation of C. S. Lewis was right. We are too easily satisfied: “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered to 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.”

Our distaste for the old doctrine of hell reflects a similar lack of vision. We clamor for justice but what we really want is a kind of spiritual egalitarianism. We want a heavenly bureaucracy which makes sure that everyone is serviced. We do not really want justice. How could we? If a blameless and upright man like Job, someone who feared God and shunned evil, withered under the faintest breath of God’s justice, what makes us think that we could survive its full blast?

John’s latest book is coming in September. You can find out more about it at follygraceandpower.com.

Read John’s article on “the trajectory of worship” in the March issue of Christianity Today.

Since You Asked

I was on the radio yesterday morning. It was one of those call-in programs where people ask questions about the Bible. The regular person (the man who has all the answers) was gone. So they called me. I didn’t mind. But I’m afraid I wasn’t very good at it. My answers were too tentative. Too qualified. Too many long pauses while I tried to locate the chapter and verse. On radio the rule is talk first and think later. Or at least, think while you talk. I can do both. But I find that it usually works better if I think first.

Still, I stumbled through to the best of my ability. Do this sort of thing often enough and I suppose you eventually come up with a supply of stock answers. I have answered questions on the radio often enough to notice that they are almost always along the same line. The questions themselves are not exactly the same. But they usually fall into the same basic categories. They are the sort of questions that everyone asks:

“If God is a God of love, why is there suffering?”

“Will God really punish the wicked?”

“Are we free to choose God or does he choose us?”

“And just who does God think he is anyway?”

 About half-way through the program (somewhere between the question about the Nephilim and the one about the origin of evil) it dawned on me that most of my callers were not looking for answers so much as they were hoping for air-time. They were not asking questions. They were making a point. And they are not the only ones. We all ask questions like this. We say things like, “Is there a reason you left your unwashed dishes in the sink?” or “Do I have to do it myself?”

 These are questions but only in the technical sense of the word. They are not intended to solicit information. Not really. More often than not the answer is implied in the question. So why do we ask them? Sometimes we ask them to make the other person feel foolish. The point made by the question is self-contradictory. More often the question is intended to provoke a response. The Bible is full of these kinds of questions.

God, in particular, seems fond of them:

“Where are you?”

“Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”

“Who do people say I am?”

 If the Bible is any indication, we are just as prone to ask such questions of God:

“How long, O Lord, how long?”

“Will not the judge of all the earth do right?”

“Are you the One who was to come, or should we expect another?”

 Usually, our aim in asking God such questions is the same as my callers. We hope to make a point. We want God to see the inconsistency of his position. We aim to provoke him to action. And sometimes, we are even interested in his answer.

John’s latest book is coming in September. You can find out more about it at follygraceandpower.com.

Read John’s article on “the trajectory of worship” in the March issue of Christianity Today.

The Myth that Became Reality

As a child, my favorite book was a collection of Greek myths. I checked it out of the library again and again and read it from cover to cover. To this day, when I stumble across a copy of it in the bookstore, I can’t help thumbing through it. I was captivated by the colorful pictures but even more by its stories of gods who acted like men. They loved and fought, were jealous and plotted against one another. The humanness of these ancient gods appealed to me, perhaps because I recognized myself in them.

Years later, when I began to study the Scriptures, I read of a God who was very different from these ancient deities. “God is not a man, that he should lie,” the Scriptures said. The Christian God–the God of the Bible–is also the God whose son’s birth was the death knell for the gods of the ancient world. Scholars have long recognized that the growth of Christianity made the all too human antics of the ancient gods such an embarrassment, worship of them eventually became untenable.

Perhaps that’s why I find the Christmas story so surprising. Because in the Bible’s account of Christ’s nativity it almost seems as if one of the ancient myths has come to life. The theme of the God who takes human form and comes to earth is a common one in these ancient stories. The unrecognized visitation of the gods is one of the most familiar story lines in Greek and Roman mythology.

But those visitations differ significantly from the biblical account of Christ’s birth. In those ancient tales the human form of the gods is really just a mask. Like a celebrity who wishes to remain incognito, they disguise themselves in order to pursue their own, usually selfish, ends. They disguise themselves to seduce a human lover or get their petty revenge on someone.

When Christ comes, however, he does not merely use human form to disguise himself, he becomes a man. The incarnation of Christ is no mask, it is essential to his being. What is more, Jesus does not take a human form and then discard it at the resurrection. He retains his human nature. This is one of the proofs Christ uses to show his followers that he has truly risen from the dead. Luke 24:39 the risen Christ urges his disciples, “See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”

Moreover, when Jesus arrives on the scene, he doesn’t come to pursue his own ends. “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me and to accomplish His work” he declares to his disciples in John 4:34. And that work, it turns out, is to offer his body as a sacrifice for sin. Indeed, that is why the nativity story is so central to the Christian faith and is why it was inevitable that Christ’s infant cry in the manger in Bethlehem would be the death knell of the ancient gods. Because their worship was dependent upon the paltry things that men and women can offer: a bull, a goat, a cup of wine. Things that might satisfy God if he had human appetites.

The appearance of the babe in Bethlehem showed that true worship is dependent something else. It rests upon Christ’s offering of himself. That’s why the author of the book Hebrews ultimately attributes the words of the Psalmist to Christ when he says, “…it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Therefore, when He comes into the world, He says, ‘Sacrifice and offering you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me.”

 That is also why we ultimately show our misunderstanding when we romanticize the gritty details of the nativity. Our image of the night of Christ’s birth is one that is largely sanitized. In our romanticized image of Christ’s birth there is no sobbing pain from a pregnant girl who isn’t even out of her teens yet. No infant cry and flail of limbs as the umbilical cord is cut. No sudden chill as the rush of blood and placenta are poured out on straw at the moment of birth. Our image of the event is neat and tidy. Theatrically lit and comfortably warm, like the nativity plays we will watch tonight. But that is our myth. Not the reality that Christ experienced.

Thanks be to God.

Echoes of Heaven

In his latest book entitled Wonder Reborn: Creating Sermons On Hymns, Music and Poetry, Thomas Troeger describes the effect the hymns he learned as a child had upon his imagination. While Troeger was raised in the northeast, his mother came from South Carolina. She often complained that churches in the north did not sing the hymns she knew. When they did, they did not sing them with the same warmth.

Troeger writes that this difference was typified for him by the contrast between the two hymns In the Garden and O God of Bethel by Whose Hand: “As a child I recognized immediately the difference in sound, and with a child’s sense of knowing, I sensed two different musical characterizations of God in the contrasting tunes and rhythms.” In the Garden always made Troeger picture his great-aunt’s flower garden. While the hymn O God of Bethel  By Whose Hand made him think of the New England pilgrims. The contrast between these two fascinated Troeger, who could not figure out how they fit with the pictures he imagined of the biblical stories.

In his book Troeger cites the research of religious sociologist Robert Wuthnow, which reveals the importance of childhood experience on our spiritual lives. According to Wuthnow: “Looking at the data the childhood experience that matters most is not attendance at services but the subliminal contact with the holy that comes through hymns and other religious music, pictures, Bibles, crosses, candles, and other sacred objects.” This observation is enough to make any good Protestant wince–especially one whose children progressed far enough in the AWANA program to earn the Timothy award. Wasn’t the Reformation precisely a reaction against this sort of thing?

Yet as someone who grew up in a religionless home, I can testify to the truth of what Wuthnow says. My earliest memories of an experience of transcendence and my longing for God inevitably revolve around Christmas. The music of Christmas captivated me, along with the Christian images on the few Christmas cards we received and by the Christmas story itself. I stared at those pictures for hours, meditating on their meaning and wishing that I had been alive to see those ancient events unfold. I gazed into the night sky hoping to see some faint glimmer of the Christmas star. I played with the figures of our nativity set, something that was more of a cultural artifact than an object of devotion in our household, and imagined myself traveling with the magi as they traversed “field and fountain, moor and mountain.”

No wonder, of all the varieties of the church’s musical forms, it is the carols that I love the most.  I loved them all growing up. But I loved the old ones the best. Indeed, my favorite may be one of the most ancient. Its words, attributed to the Roman poet Aurelius Prudentius and dating back to the fifth century, still have the power to transport my imagination:

Of the Father’s love begotten,
Ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega,
He the source, the ending He,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see,
Evermore and evermore!

As a child those ancient carols sounded to me like something from another world, an echo heaven come down to earth. They still do…evermore and evermore.