This is the fourth installment in a series of articles discussing the Christian tendency to put God in a box. In the first article we saw that we tend to feel insecure about God unless we have contained Him within a box in our minds and then saw that God has revealed Himself to us in a way that is incomplete, but which we can understand. God’s revelation of Himself provides a framework within which we can understand Him. While incomplete and not exhaustive, this framework is nevertheless accurate and trustworthy. In the second article we examined how we can allow our doctrine to put God in a box through our ignorance, through our imaginations and by making theology and end in itself. In the third article we looked at ways we put God in a box through our attempts to live a life of Christian piety.
As I explained in previous articles, the Christian faith in general, and the Reformed faith in particular, has often been divided into three main thrusts. These overlap, and thus are somewhat false distinctions, but serve to differentiate between diverse emphases of the Christian life. They are the doctrinal (what we believe), the pietist (how we worship on the basis of what we believe) and the transformationalist. Today we will look at the Christian’s duty to the world to be a transformationalist and how it can lead us to put God in a box.
The transformationalist emphasis refers to the way Christians relate to the world and to the culture around us. It seeks to avoid isolationism, but to impact the culture in ways consistent with Christian doctrine and piety. It seeks to fulfill the Great Commission to take the Gospel to the whole world, and to respond to the exhortation of James that “faith without works is dead.” For some believers it includes the “cultural mandate” which is how they describe the job description God gave to man at the beginning of time: to rule the world with Him. Yet in doing these things–noble pursuits though they may be–we can unknowingly or unintentionally place God in a box of our own making.
When we emphasize God’s Sovereignty over Human Responsibility
There is always a tension in the Christian’s life between the sovereignty of God and our responsibility to act. We can never come to a full understanding of how God interacts with this world and with its inhabitants for this is a mystery too great for us to conquer. Thankfully God does not expect us to conquer it. Rather, we are to live in this tension and to delight in it. He commands us to go forth in His power in order to do the work He has assigned to us. We do not need to concern ourselves as much with the “why” as with the “how.” And then we just begin to do it.
When we over-emphasize God’s sovereignty, we can place Him in a box whereby we deny that He can or will act to save people. Taken to its deepest connotations, we know this as hyper-Calvinism, and it is a dangerous belief to slip into. Hyper-Calvinists see no reason to go into the culture or to evangelize the lost. For, they say, God will necessarily save His elect and He does not depend on us to help Him. This view fails to understand that God sees fit to use us to accomplish His work in the world, not out of necessity, but because it fits His plan. We must act in full view of God’s sovereignty and trusting in His sovereignty.
When we emphasize Human Responsibility over God’s Sovereignty
Just as we can overemphasize God’s sovereignty, in the same way we can place too great an emphasis on human responsibility. When we do this, we tacitly deny that God is the one who is sovereign in the salvation of souls. When we lose sight of God’s right to act as He sees fit, and to act in accordance with His plans, we can place God in a box whereby we believe that He is helpless without us. We may then examine our words or actions in light of their results instead of in the light of God’s Truth. We may elevate results to the status of ultimate arbiter of right or wrong.
This is known as pragmatism and it is very common in the evangelical churches. It underlies the church growth movement and has done much to damage the church. The biblical truth is that God does not need you or me. God expects us to act in accordance with His wisdom, as revealed in Scripture, instead of human wisdom which is based on human folly. Hudson Taylor, missionary to China in the nineteenth century, said, “God’s work, done in God’s way, will never lack for supplies.” They key to doing God’s work in a way that pleases Him is to do it in His way, acknowledging that He chooses to use us, despite not needing us. We must act, to be sure, but we act only in the ways God, in His sovereignty, has told us to act.
When We Forget Where We Came From
When we have been justified and are beginning to be sanctified, conforming ever more to the image of Christ, we can become smug, forgetting that it was only the grace of God that saved us and made us new. We can begin to believe that we somehow merited His favor, or that the changes wrought in us have been made through our own power. It is shocking that we can so quickly lose sight of our past and lose sight of God’s grace, but this is all too common among believers.
It is crucial that we continually heed the words of Peter where he warns that we must, “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5). We need to maintain a humility born of knowledge of who we are. We need to realize that God did not choose us because of anything in us or anything we could offer Him. God chose us only through His sovereign free will.
When we forget the past and lose sight of our total and absolute depravity, we place God in a box whereby He chooses those who love Him most or those whom He can use best. And then we hesitate to take the Word to those we deem somehow unfit to hear it or unlikely to respond to it.
Through the last four articles we have seen that Christians can box God in any and every area of our lives. We are as likely to box Him, denying His power or right to act in our piety as we are in our doctrine. We are as likely to need to break boxes in our attempts to take the Gospel to the world as we are in our understanding of His character.
This short series will conclude with one final article where I’ll attempt to put this together and see what boxing God can do to us. We will see the wonders that can be ours when we let God be God.