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May 24, 2007

This is the third article in a series that discusses that tendency Christians have to put God in a box. In the first article (link) 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, this framework is accurate and trustworthy. In the second article (link) 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.

Today we will look at Christian piety and how it can lead us to put God in a box.

Piety is the desire and willingness to live out what we believe—to live in light of our faith. Any religion can and does encourage piety in its adherents. There are pious Muslims, pious Hindus and pious Christians. The difference between Christians and adherents to other religions is that Christians are indwelt by the Spirit of God, who enables us to live in ways that are consistent with the Scripture and are pleasing to God. This process of sanctification (becoming holy) is a necessary component to the Christian walk and is the very basis of Christian piety. The Spirit gives us both the ability and the desire to live in a way that is pleasing to God; to perform our religious duties for His sake and in His power.

But just as something as wondrous and pure as doctrine can lead us to box God, in the same way we can box God through our piety. Today we’ll look at three ways that we are prone to do this.

Boxing God When I Know That I Know

We put God in a box when we “know that we know” what God can or will not do. This is a popular phrase in evangelical circles and one that people often use to convince others that they are secure in God’s will or understand exactly how God works. In the first article of this series we looked at verses of Scripture written by the prophet Isaiah. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9). We need to keep in mind that what God has revealed of Himself in Scripture is true. We can know with certainty from Scripture, for example, that God can and will not sin. Were God to sin, He would disprove His own existence and Divinity. Were God to send a flood to destroy the entire world, He would contradict a clear and absolute promise. God is entirely rational and trustworthy. So what the Scriptures plainly teach, we can believe with confidence.

But too often we limit our belief in what God can or will do in areas far beyond those He has expressly told us. We need to be careful when we say “God wouldn’t do that” or “God doesn’t act like that in the world today.” If God did miracles in days past, He can do so today. If He healed the sick and raised the dead, He has proven that He can and will act in that way. For us to flatly deny that He acts in that way today is to deny Him an ability that is His. He may choose not to act like that in our day or even in our culture, but we need to be careful with what we state He will never do (or what He will always do).

Some of the most shocking verses in the Bible come from Mark 11:23, where Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.” Do we really believe this, or have we filed it away as metaphor or exaggeration? A similar passage is 1 John 5:14-15 which reads “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him.” God places no limits on His own ability to act in and through us. But often we impose those limits in Him.

Boxing God by Knowing the Unknowable

We put God in a box when we believe we know exactly why things happen the way they do. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29). The starting point of Reformed doctrine is often taught to be the depravity of man, but it really needs to begin and end with God’s sovereignty. God is overwhelmingly sovereign in this world, so that there is nothing that happens that is beyond his knowledge and control. When calamity strikes, God not only knows about it, but has in some way ordained that it should happen (yet in a way that does not make Him the author of evil). As the Shorter Catechism tells us, “The decrees of God are, his eternal purpose, according to the counsel of his will, whereby, for his own glory, he hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass” (Question and Answer 7). Somehow, mysteriously, everything that happens brings glory to God. God has necessarily withheld from us why many things happen. Why the tsunami of 2004 had to take so many lives and destroy so many families, we do not know. And we do not know why God allowed and decreed that thousands of lives would be lost on September 11. But God does. We need to rest in our knowledge of His foreknowledge and sovereignty.

When we determine why things have happened, we place God in a box, believing that we can know the unknowable and that we can understand what He has not given us to understand. Soon after the tsunami I heard Christian leaders suggesting that the tsunami was sent to punish people in areas of the world where Christians are undergoing particularly harsh persecution. But we do not know this. After September 11, vocal Christian leaders decreed that the events of that day were sent as a punishment for America’s moral decay. But we do not know that either. God has hidden that knowledge from us, and we should not place Him in a box by making up in our minds why these things have come to pass. We need only look to Job’s friends to see the danger and the folly of declaring the hidden things. Perhaps in eternity God will reveal these things to us and make the reasons clear. Perhaps not. In either way, this is His world and He is free to act in it as He sees fit. Rather than boxing God as the one who sends calamity to punish evil, we need to understand Him as the one who controls the world, yet dispenses knowledge only as He sees fit.

Boxing God By a Faith/Values Split

We put God in a box when we separate our piety from our every day lives. We live in a society which makes it easy to claim to be a Christian, but also makes it too easy to separate our faith from our everyday lives. Nancy Pearcey, in her book Total Truth, says that Christianity is in “cultural captivity.” She shows how far too many Christians have succumbed to society’s belief that there are two spheres in society, the private and the public. The private sphere is awash in moral relativism. Religion is to be kept in the private sphere and is considered a subjective choice, not an objective reality. This is the sphere of values. Conversely, the public sphere is the dwelling place of facts — that which is objective and can be proven scientifically. The public sphere, the sphere of facts, is objective and binding on everyone.

Far too many Christians see the world in this way. We see this often in the words and the faith of politicians. They constantly claim to be Christians, yet are always careful to separate their faith from the decisions they make in ruling the nations. They claim to hold Christians beliefs but also claim that these beliefs have no real bearing on the way they act as politicians. Privately they are Christians but publicly they are not. Sadly, this is in no way unique as it is probably safe to say that the majority of those who claim to be Christians hold similar beliefs. In Total Truth Pearcey writes about a woman she met who claimed to be a Christian, yet worked at a Planned Parenthood clinic (which, sadly, was staffed by many other Christians). She did not see the clear conflict between her values and her job — she had compartmentalized God in the values sphere while her job was part of the objective, facts sphere.

When we view the world through this lens we have placed God in a box (or a sphere — I’m beginning to mix my metaphors). We have practically, though in all likelihood unknowingly, defined our faith as a private, subjective belief. We have boxed God as One who is important to us privately, yet has little impact on our daily lives. We need to understand that we cannot and must not separate our piety from our doctrine. We must always live what we believe, at home, in church and in the workplace.

*

I made it clear in the last article that the Bible does not contain God. Rather, the Bible contains and restrains us. This is as important to note in our piety as in our doctrine. We must live lives that are consistently pleasing to God, never placing limits on His ability to act in a way that is consistent with His revelation of Himself. At the same time, we must maintain a piety that reaches every corner of our lives, for His grace and in His power.

In our next article we will look at how we place God in a box Transformationally.

May 22, 2007

A couple of years ago I got thinking about the idea of putting God in a box. This is a charge people often level at conservative Christians and Reformed folk in particular. It is not unusual for us to hear that we seem to feel that we have got God figured out, stuffed and mounted on the wall. And to some extent this may be true. I began to write about this and soon came up with a short series of posts. I’ve been thinking about this again recently and wanted to take the opportunity to revisit this series, tear it apart and try to do it again. So over the next few days I want to talk about our propensity to put God in a box, see how this is happened and what we can do to escape this temptation. I hope you’ll find the series both interesting and useful.

My family used to own a beautiful cottage in the woods near one of the most picturesque villages in Ontario. This village was once a center of commerce along the Rideau Lake system - a series of canals and both natural and artificial lakes that span the 200 kilometers between the cities of Kingston and Ottawa. The canal system was built in the early part of the nineteenth century to provide a quick avenue of travel should hostilities once again break out between the United States and Canada. Today it stands as a part of this nation’s history and as a peaceful and beautiful vacation destination.

This village, named Chaffey’s Locks after Samuel Chaffey, one of its first inhabitants, now has a population of only a hundred people. Yet it was once a bustling town centered around a series of rapids flowing between two lakes. Because of the thirteen foot difference in elevation between the lakes, a dam and a lock had to be built in this town. The dam held back the water and created a fast-flowing series of rapids that provided the energy to run Chaffey’s mills. Farmers from miles around came to the town to use these mills, and it grew, quickly becoming one of the most important towns along the Rideau. Though Chaffey died of malaria only seven years after founding these mills, by the time of his death his milling complex consisted of grist, carding and saw mills and a distillery. The town was prospering.

The importance of the town was inseparable from the dam. It was this dam that held back the water, confining it and then allowing it to be released with the power to drive the mills. Without the dam the town would have been no more important than any of the other villages dotting the length of the system of lakes and canals.

Most Christians, whether they will admit it or not, have dammed God in much this way. We have erected barriers around Him, seeking to constrain Him within a system of theology. We often seem to think that the tighter we box Him in, the greater the power we will be able to bring to bear when we release Him. In the same way that water, when placed under enough pressure can drive the wheel of a mill, or can even cut through steel, so we believe that God is at His most powerful when He is most constrained within a system of theology.

In this article series I would like to examine some of the ways we have put God in a box and suggest ways we can free ourselves from this box. It is worth noting that while I suggest we are the ones who put God in a box, we are also the ones who need to be freed. That is simply because we may put God in a box in our minds, but this in no way affects His character or His ability to act. God cannot be bound except in our minds.

Before we begin, we need to reconcile God’s revelation of Himself with our ability to understand Him. In other words, has God put Himself in a box? God has given us knowledge of Himself, both through Creation and through the Scriptures. But the Bible is clear that this is not complete knowledge — it is only and exactly what we need to know about Him. He told us no more than we need and no less than He considered beneficial. Whenever we study God, we need to acknowledge that He defines the limits of our study. James White writes, “If we wish to know God truly, we must be willing to allow Him to reveal to us what He wants us to know, and He must be free as to how He wants to reveal it. He has given us a treasure trove of truth about Him, but He has not deemed it proper to reveal everything there is to know (if such is even possible). We dare not go beyond the boundaries He has set in His Word” (James White, The Forgotten Trinity, page 34). As Francis Schaeffer pointed out, God has given us true knowledge but of Himself, but not exhaustive knowledge. God is the one who sets the limits as to what we can know and how much we can know.

Thus while God reveals Himself most fully through the Scriptures, this does not place Him in a box. He gives us His Word so that we can know and understand Him, but only so far as finite humans can understand an infinite God. “He defies our categories and our feeble attempts to comprehend Him. If He didn’t, He wouldn’t be God” (The Forgotten Trinity, page 42). God is not contained in Scripture — He is merely revealed in part and in a way we can understand.

There is a difficulty inherent in attempting to define what is indefinable. The barrier is language. How can a finite mode of communication such as words, do justice to what is infinite? In truth, it cannot. Words cannot adequately express who God is and how He works. Humans communicate by means of examples. We compare one thing to another and compile a database in our minds of like objects. Many years ago I used to work at a Starbucks and people would often ask me what the different types of coffee tasted like. To answer I would try to determine whether the person often drank high quality coffee or if he usually drank coffee from the local donut store. If he was accustomed to donut shop coffee, I might say “this coffee tastes like a very strong cup of Tim Horton’s coffee.” Of course there may be other varieties of coffee that taste more like this new one than Tim Horton’s, but those flavors have not yet been inputted into his database. As he continued to visit the store and as his knowledge of coffee increased I was able to provide more concise and more accurate descriptions based on closer comparisons. “It has a lighter, smoother taste than the flavor you drank last time you were here.” Or “this coffee has a strong, earthly flavor much like the Sumatra.” In either case I still use only use comparisons but I can draw more accurate comparisons because his frame of reference has increased.

This process works quite well. Or it does until we attempt to define something that is truly unique. Much of God’s revelation of Himself, even the portion of it that He has given to us, is truly unique. There is nothing we can use to adequately compare with God’s omnipresence or with the Trinity, to provide only two examples. And so our language limits us from true understanding. (For more on this, see chapter 2 of The Forgotten Trinity).

Thus we need a spirit of humility as we approach the Word of God, knowing that it tells us many things about God, but not everything. And while we can truly know God, we cannot know Him fully. We would do well to keep several passages in mind. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29). “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).

Again, we must remember that while what He has revealed of Himself is entirely truthful, it is by no means complete. In Psalm 131 David affirms that there are some things that He can never understand. “O Lord, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me.” David’s response is important. “But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me.” David is at peace, resting in his understanding that God does have full knowledge and that He is fully in control, even of those things we do not understand. This leads him to exhort his people to “hope in the Lord from this time forth and forevermore.” David’s understanding of his own limitations leads him to worship the One who knows all.

It may be helpful to view God’s revelation of Himself as the framework that defines the edges to a box. God has revealed Himself to us within this framework. While what He has told us is surely truthful, it may not be complete. When God tells us within Scripture that “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5) we can have confidence that He means it. He will never leave nor forsake those who believe in Him. When Scripture assures us that God is not the author of sin, we know that the words are true and that God is in no way culpable for the sin in the world. And when we read “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28) we can have confidence that God does mean “all things.” He does not send us purposeless calamity. These things that God tells us He will not or cannot do serve as a framework around which we can understand Him. The fact is, if God did not provide us with a framework within which we can understand Him, we would be unable to comprehend Him in any way. To repeat an important point — God is not contained in Scripture — He is merely revealed in a way we can understand.

I would now like to move on to show how we are prone to place God in a box. Within the Reformed tradition there are three major emphases that have flourished in the past. I believe they provide a helpful framework through which we can understand the ways we box God.

The first emphasis is the doctrinalist. This emphasizes adherence to doctrine and theology as taught in the Bible and in the creeds and confessions of the church.

The second emphasis is the pietist. This emphasizes God’s work in one’s daily life and a close, personal walk with God.

The third emphasis is the transformationalist. This emphasizes the importance of relating the message of the Bible to the world.

These three emphasizes may overlap to some extent, and there is a sense in which we are making false distinctions, yet they provide a helpful breakdown. We will examine each of these three in further articles.

June 08, 2004

There has been some controvery in the Forum since I posted my article about How To Hear God’s Voice. Perhaps controvery is overstating it, but people have been asking what I mean by “God’s voice.” This gives me the opportunity to write about something I’ve been meaning to say for a while now.

Two Christians may experience the exact same thing, yet relate it to others in a completely different way. I grew up in the Reformed churches and never once heard anyone use the expressions “God told me” or “I told God” or anything like that. I know that these people were equally in tune with God as the evangelical crowd I spent the next years of my life with, but they simply did not express themselves that way. When faced with major decisions in life they would seek God’s counsel and very often would find it and respond appropriately. When asked about the difficult time they may have faced leading up to a decision they would be very “I-centered.” They would say that “I prayed about it and then I decided to go ahead with it…” What they meant was that they asked God’s will and found peace that moving forward would be within His plan.

Evangelicals might relate the same experience in different words. I think of a man I heard speak in a church some time ago who related how he had faced the difficult decision about whether or not to take a new opportunity with his company which would require moving to a new town. He said things like “…and God said to me, ‘do you have faith that I will lead you?’” or “I said ‘God, do you really want me to pack my family in a van and move to a whole new city?’” He related the whole experience as if it was an ongoing conversation between himself and his Maker. I asked him about it later and he told me that God had never really spoken to him - it was merely his way of expressing what he felt, what he thought and what he read in the Bible.

I do not believe that God speaks to us audibly anymore, for He has no need; He has given His perfect, complete revelation in the Scripture. However, He does whisper to us through His Word and through the Spirit who indwells us. I believe both these men had very similar experiences. They had an inkling that they were supposed to do something. It may not have been something they wanted to do but was something they felt they were supposed to do. So they turned to God in prayer and devoted themselves to reading His Word and soon both found comfort that they knew His will in how to respond. Later on they expressed what had happened in vastly different terms, but I think the actually processes they went through were similar. They expressed themselves in the words they were familiar with from the church tradition they were part of.

Ultimately, I believe we have all we need in order to make decisions and have assurance that we are moving forward within God’s will. So long as we ensure that what we intend to do does not contradict the Bible and we bring it before God in prayer, I believe we have the freedom to move forward with security that God is with us. The seven pointers my pastor provided fit within this framework. They merely give us some pointers we can use to determine if something we feel we are supposed to do is God’s will and not just our own (or Satan’s).