Thursday, 7 February 2008

My Scary, Surprising God

How can we be sure that our God is not a product of our own minds? How can we know that the God we believe in is not a projection of ourselves and our wishes and hopes?

This post is in answer to a challenge presented by DagoodS: "How does your god Frighten you? How does your God surprise you? How does your God change your thinking?"

Power can be exciting and comforting at the same time. What child doesn't like to imagine superheroes with great powers? In the same way, our imaginations of God make him an all-powerful genie, and Jesus the ultimate Superman. We can love this kind of a God because his unlimited powers are, in a way, at our disposal. He is on our side. We just have to pray diligently enough, sprinkle a little faith-dust, and *poof* - our wishes are granted.

The God of the Bible bears no resemblance to such a magician. His purposes are vastly different from ours. He does not grant wishes to his favorites. The privileges I am offered if I follow him are himself, and the privilege of knowing him - though my choice allows God to use his power for my benefit, he doesn't use it for my comfort; nor is his power given into my control. Similarly, we experience this in nature. As we take our rightful place in the natural world, the benefits of nature come to us - but never is nature under our control. The universe laughs at a person or people who think they can through study or industry bend the natural forces.

I love the ocean whose salt waves cool my body in summer; whose unseen depths and ceaseless tides at the same time calm and intrigue me. But though I splash and play in the waves, they are no playthings. The ocean is relentless. It is set upon principles that will not be denied, though I cry and beg. It is a thing wholly outside of my control, and is therefore a thing to be feared as well as loved.

So is God. His principles go far deeper and higher than my wanting. He is not controlled by my pleading. He is not devoted to my comfort. He let Joseph be falsely accused and languish in prison for ten years. He let the Hebrews be made slaves to the Egyptians. He allowed John the Baptist to rot in Herod's dungeon until John questioned all that he had lived for - then he let them cut off his head. Who would imagine such a God?

But wait - there's more. The same God who seemingly ignored the pleas and tears of those who followed him the most closely all through history showed that he is merciful, not by granting them favours (as you and I would imagine) but by becoming a man. He became one of us, with all of the human weakness that we despise in ourselves (except sin). He was tired, hungry, dirty, lonely, weak. He had, like us, to seek even his spiritual strength and comfort from heaven. The power that allowed him to give to others offered him no pillow, no home, no dainty food, no freedom from pain or weariness.

Even if it were possible for me to conjure such a God in my own thoughts, if he is an illusion only, then he is a God for contemplation; for philosophizing. When I am cold, I want a blanket. When I am hungry, I want bread. When I am tired, I want a place to lay my head. When I am lonely, I want a friend. The mere thought of a God as the Bible describes him is awe-inspiring when I sit comfortably on my couch and meditate - but such thoughts are easily quenched by the realities of life: loneliness, disappointment, tiredness, hunger, pain. Only the experienced reality of a God who sees and knows - though he denies my request - is enough then.

This sort of a God is frightening. He's too complicated. He's too big, not in the good, "my-Dad-can-beat-up-your-Dad" way, but in the "do-you-even-know-I'm-here?" way. He can give me pain. He can leave me lonely. He can let me be confused. On top of it all, he expects far more from me than I want to give. He's disconcerting.

Then, too, he surprises me. He doesn't do what I expect him to do. He reveals himself as a person I didn't expect him to be.

God surprises me by not being the person I expect; by being subject to reality in a way that he is not in my imagination. In my mind, no one characteristic of God has to have a bearing on any other characteristic, because he doesn't have to make sense except in the way I think of him. In real life, he has to be what makes sense even before I've gone over the parameters and the consequences of his characteristics; even before it makes sense to me. I have to know what he is before I understand why it's necessary for him to be that way.

I used to think that God was completely unlimited; that he could do anything - just anything. Of course, that left me with a million problems that began in my own life and ended in places like Darfur and Indonesia. The God I imagined didn't have to make sense - he could be good AND unlimited AND thus have both the ability and the will to relieve the plight of millions of suffering people down through history... but in reality my little daydream broke down. The God I came face to face with in reality looked astonishingly different because he was limited in the way EVERYTHING is limited in reality. He can't be what he isn't. He can't serve opposing purposes. He can't make a rock so big that he can't lift it. There are reasons for what he does. And yet, the Bible tells me what he is like without my being able to understand how that fits with what I see. It corrects both my imagination and my reasoned deductions. I can see what he does BEFORE I understand why; and I can know (from the Bible) who he is BEFORE I can reconcile that with the evidence. Both of those things are baffling to the imagination. But the fact that I can know who God is before I can understand why it is necessary for him to be that way offers me evidence that my knowledge of God comes from outside my own thoughts.

I thought I could please God by being kind, by helping others, by doing my best to conform myself to the teachings of the Bible. I also thought that by pleasing God, I could expect some favours in return. Oh, not so simply as that. I wasn't thinking that God would ply me with sports cars and overseas flights because I traded in my time and money and tried to be kind to hurting people. But I did expect that there would be some kind of return on my investments. I thought there was some sort of perk to be had for those who follow Jesus. Not so, as it turns out. Well, not like I expected, anyway. No extra comforts, no signs that the King of Kings is my own father.

Just Him. He is the perk. There is deep peace in knowing him. There is joy and purpose, even in the midst of struggle, confusion, and depression.

The more I get to know him, the more he surprises me. He wakes me up early, just to talk. (Ask my mother how likely it is that I'd wake up early on my own!) He shows me the selfishness at the core of the sacrifices I make, and the pride that surrounds my most selfless acts. He bursts all my balloons, and replaces them with himself. Oh, he is lovely, but make no mistake - God is a party pooper. Just when I'm feeling great, patting myself on the back for a particularly selfless act, he sticks his foot out and I'm flat on my face. That's not just surprising, it's frustrating.

And just when I've got him in a nice, neat little box - the kind you can hand to someone like a present - I come smack up against a whole new side of him I've never seen before.

He tells me I'm wrong. In fact, sometimes he shows me that my whole perspective is wrong. I used to think that it was my job to point out sin - from my schoolfriend who lived a gay lifestyle to my sister who hurt my feelings with her carelessness. One day God showed me that judging is his job, not mine, and that being right is far from enough in his eyes. In fact, in trying to take his place, I am worse than those I judge! Do I like that? Nope. When somebody does what I know is wrong, I love the rush of knowing that I'm right and they are wrong, and I want them to understand exactly what the situation is. (There, now you know just what a little prig I am, though I usually try my best to hide it!)

Then, when I thought I was doing a pretty good job of showing what God's love is, He showed me that I don't know a thing about love. He pointed out how much of my "love" is emotionalism, neediness, and pride. He let me see how fast my brand of love turns to hatred and resentment when it is met with rejection, weakness, or apathy. But he didn't leave me there - this is the wonder and the loveliness of the God I worship! - he let me have a little of his love. I had to receive it myself before I could give it, and even then, it wasn't anything like I expected. As it turns out, God's love isn't a warm, smooshy feeling, but a heaviness. It isn't what makes me smile and hand out sandwiches to homeless people - it's what lets me come back for more when I've been kicked in the teeth; it's what lets me sincerely want good for someone who has rejected me; it's what makes me see the beauty of God himself in the kind of person whose sinfulness is all too evident to me; it's what allows me to want another's good at my cost. Don't get me wrong, I've experienced real love in trace amounts - but even the minutest grain of such a thing was enough to turn my whole thinking on its head.

Oh, I am smart enough to figure out what my weaknesses are - but God shows me the deep darkness and the flapping foolishness that entwine themselves about my strengths. The better I know him, the less I trust myself.

No, the God I worship is far more frightening, more complex, more deep, vast, and breath-takingly beautiful than I could ever dream up. I know myself more free as I am changed by him, but I am not released from the chains of selfishness with smooth sighs - it is a bitter struggle with one who is stronger than I. His purpose cuts across mine. He offers me pains that I could not and would not choose for myself. Many in our world have pain, but the pain God gives is different in this - it results in love, joy, and peace. It sets free those who choose Him.

The idea that I could imagine a God so wise, so pure, so full of the kind of love that doesn't even make sense to a human being, is not only laughable but indeed, if it were possible, it would make me - the dreamer of such a dream - myself worthy of worship. That I am patently unworthy is a fact beyond dispute.


joeyanne said...

"Just Him. He is the perk. There is deep peace in knowing him. There is joy and purpose, even in the midst of struggle, confusion, and depression."
I love this! This is the perspective I need. He is the perk!!

kittykat said...

I agree! Just Him! That is really a paradox. He is immeasurably more than anything else I can imagine. And yes, Jenny, anything that wakes you up early in the morning has to be powerful. haha
Your writing makes me think and marvel. Wow! What a God we know. Oh that I knew Him better!!

Robert said...

*be still and know that I AM GOD* so simple so impossible it seems so often for us The way you delineate how He shapes, molds.sculpts and refines is sheer artistry my friend!!! I love your ending, if anyone could conjure up such a God as the Living God, they themselves would command worship for being able to pull off such a feat. This is why He is above beyind all we ask or think wonderful jennypo!!!

bjk said...

He wakes me up early every morning just to talk.....I know and WOW!

Jim Jordan said...

Excellent response to Mr. Dagoods' query.

Gen 15:1 - After this, the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision:
"Do not be afraid, Abram.
I am your shield,
your very great reward."

Indeed knowing Him and knowing that He knows you is enough. It's scary and wonderful at the same time. Good Word.

Paul K said...

My heart began to lift as read your post and just continued to climb...

He is so wonderful indeed. You represent Him well. Thanks for sharing.

Brandon said...

How great this is. I'm so glad I read this! If only all people could get such a wonderful glimpse of God, what a change it would make.

Thank you so much for taking the time to write this, Jenny.

God bless ya,