The Holy One of God

When I was a pastor, I noticed that my visits with people occasionally made them nervous. Maybe it was my personality. Perhaps I didn’t make enough small talk. But I think the cause lay elsewhere. I think they were sometimes uncomfortable because they saw me as a symbol of something else. Or, perhaps I should say, I was a symbol of someone else. One woman told me that she spent the whole day cleaning before I arrived. Then she said, “When the pastor visits, it’s almost like having God come to your house.” My wife, Jane, who had come with me, answered her with a laugh. “The difference is that God already knows what your closets look like.”

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Heaven Can Wait

Have you ever wondered how fast God is? It sounds like the kind of question a child might ask. But for many of us, the honest answer would probably be, “Not as fast as we would like Him to be.” Although 2 Peter 3:9 says that God is not slow, waiting is so much a feature of the redemption story that Revelation 6:11 tells us that even the souls in Heaven must wait.  

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Is God Hard of Hearing?

Despite the countless number of books on prayer that have been written, C. S. Lewis observed that he had never come across one that was of any use to him. Ironically, he made this observation in a book he wrote about prayer. Lewis said that he had seen many books of prayers, but when it came to those written about prayer, the writers usually made the wrong assumptions about the reader. Or, at least, they made the wrong assumption about the kind of reader Lewis was. “The author assumes that you will want to be chatting in the kitchen when you ought to be in your cell,” he observes. “Our temptation is to be in our studies when we ought to be chatting in the kitchen.” 

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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.

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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.

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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.

My latest book Folly, Grace & Power is now available from Zondervan. You can order a copy at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble.com or Christianbook.com. Click here to learn more about it.

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.