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May 23, 2007

This is the second article in a short series dealing with the tendency Christians have to put God in a box (click here for the first article). Several people, commenting on this first article, remarked that this is a topic usually reserved for people attacked Reformed theology rather than defending it. Bear with me and I think you’ll have to agree that we, even as Bible-loving Christians, can put God in a box. We can find ourselves feeling insecure about Him unless we have contained Him within a structure of our own making. We saw yesterday that God has revealed Himself to us in the Scripture in a way that is incomplete, yet in a way that we can understand—in a way that is sufficient and true but not exhaustive. This revelation of Himself provides a framework within which we can begin to comprehend Him. To close the article I suggested that there are three predominant ways we box God and these correlate with the three emphasizes of Reformed theology - the doctrinalist, the pietist and the transformationalist. Today we will examine the first of these.

The tragedy of the Fall is often seen most vividly in times of war. It is overwhelmingly tragic when humans fight against humans, destroying lives, tearing apart families and plunging whole nations into terrible chaos. There is often a strange irony in war, where each side claims to be fighting for God. The American Civil War pitted a nation against itself, with each side being blessed by the presence of some inspiring, godly men who felt they were fighting for the Lord. In the Second World War, while millions of Christians were praying for God’s help in defeating the Nazis, the German army marched against nation after nation wearing belt buckles inscribed with the words, “God with us.” Each side in these conflicts felt God was on their side and that He was neatly boxed and bundled ready to be called on to wage war against the enemy.

Christians can box God in just this way, even through their knowledge of Him. Let me affirm that doctrine is of critical importance to the Christian walk. I love doctrine and love theology! Few things excite me as much as learning something new about God and about coming to a more accurate understanding of who God is and how He acts. The Bible continually exhorts us to be sure of our doctrine and to ensure that we are walking rightly before God. There are many passages of Scripture that speak to this. In Ephesians 3 Paul expresses his willingness to suffer for Christ, “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Ephesians 3:10). Paul exhorts Titus to “teach what accords with sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1). There are repeated warnings in Scripture that we ensure we do not allow ourselves to be deceived by false doctrine. The Bible paints a clear picture of the importance of doctrine—of knowing God precisely as He has revealed Himself to us.

So while we dare not downplay doctrine, at the same time we must admit that it can lead us to place limitations on God. This should not convince us to conclude that the fault is with doctrine in general or with biblical doctrine in particular. The fault is with us. Today we’ll look at three ways Christians are prone to box God through their doctrine.

Boxing God With Our Ignorance

We have the responsibility to know and believe what God has revealed of Himself in the Scripture. Sometimes, though, we get it wrong. So the first way we can put God in a box is through our misunderstandings of Him and His nature. Furthermore, we may also try to define God in a way that is simplistic or that is inconsistent with who He is. A classic example would be the statement that “God is love.” Of course this is true for the Bible affirms that God is the very embodiment of love. Love is part of the very fabric of His being. But this is simplistic if we do not take into account God’s other attributes, such as His wrath. If we create a definition or understanding of God that overemphasizes one of His attributes at the expense of others, we have constructed a false view. We have put Him in a box of our own making. In the end we have created a view of God that is based on ignorance. Quite simply we do not know God as we should based on the information He has given in His Word.

I am sure you can see the danger here. Most of the false views of God we encounter are based on just this type of ignorance. People, sometimes deliberately but more often acting out of ignorance, ignore an aspect of God that they do not understand or that makes them uncomfortable.

We see then, that to avoid constructing this type of box, we need to know Him and to know Him as He truly is. We need to study all that His Word tells us about Him, His character, His attributes and the ways He acts. We need to always keep in mind the limitations of language that we discussed yesterday—that God’s attributes are infinite, yet we can only define them by comparing them to the finite examples we know and understand. When we say that “God is like” something, we mean that He bears a vague resemblance to it, not that He truly is the same as it.

In the example above, we cannot accurately say that God is love until we have reconciled His love with the other attributes He has seen fit to reveal to us and until we have seen how this attributes work themselves out. God’s love cannot be separated from or dealt with in isolation from wrath and justice. Just this morning I finished reading a book dealing with penal substitution and was grateful to see how often the authors emphasize how many of God’s attributes were seen clearly and without conflict at the cross. God’s love, justice, wrath, mercy, grace and so many others were all in full display at the cross. Those who consider penal substitution a vulgar or distasteful doctrine so often portray God in such a way that they ignore one or more of His attributes that are clearly revealed in Scripture.

Boxing God With Human Wisdom

A second way we can put God in a box is through creating or assuming knowledge of Him that He has not revealed to us. When we understand our limitations, we will have to conclude that there are some things that are simply too wondrous for us to comprehend. There are some areas where we need to understand and believe what Scripture tells us, but probe no deeper. Yesterday we read the verses of Psalm 131, “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. 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’s humility and confidence need to be ours. We are to let God be God, realizing that there are some things that He has withheld from us based on necessity (those things that we simply cannot understand) and based on His wisdom.

Perhaps the clearest example of something that is beyond our comprehension is the doctrine of the Trinity. We can know and understand from Scripture that God exists as three persons, yet one being. We can understand some of what this means and can begin to grapple with the nature of the Godhead. Yet we can never come to a complete understanding of a doctrine so wondrous. The same is true of the correlation between human responsibility and Divine sovereignty. We know they both exist, yet we cannot always understand how they relate. The best of men, the greatest of theologians, have had no choice but to admit their own inability when faced with such grandeur.

And so we must, in humility, refuse to create a full, complete or exhaustive understanding of God in those areas He has kept silent. While we can have confidence that He knows these things and that they are consistent with His nature, we should not jump to conclusions about the finer details. Where God has kept silent, so should we, in an attitude of awe towards Him. If we feel we have mastered the doctrine of the Trinity, we have placed God in a box of our own making, for the reality is that God does not give us sufficient information about this doctrine for us to ever master it.

Boxing God by Sola Theologica

A third way we can put God in a box is by making theology an end in itself. We are all prone to this error, but perhaps Reformed Christians more than others. In our flawed, limited understanding of God, we can make an idol of theology. Rather than studying God with a view to making theology a practical outpouring of the wonder of who He is, we succumb to theology-ology, or “the study of the study of God.” This lazy study leads only to puffed-up knowledge with little practical application. An unbeliever can study the study of God as easily as a Christian, for it does not depend on the Spirit to apply the words to our lives.

Jesus warned “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ (Matthew 7:21-23). In the last days there will be many who have accumulated vast knowledge of God, but who have never truly known Him. They will know about God without ever knowing Him. They will be cast into the lake of fire despite their great knowledge of the Bible and biblical theology.

The warning for us is that we must continually seek the Spirit’s help in applying Scripture to our lives, so that it does not become empty knowledge and an end in itself. Our knowledge of God is useless if it remains only in our minds. All we know about Him should spur us on to worship Him in spirit and truth and to motivate us to take what we know to the world, that others may rejoice with us.

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It bears mentioning once more that the Bible does not contain God. Rather, the Bible contains God’s sufficient (but only partial) revelation of Himself. Yet because God is rational and truthful, we must understand that He will act in accordance with this revelation (lest He prove irrational). Thus any understanding of God that is dependent on doctrine that is outside of the clear teaching of Scripture must be rejected. We can have confidence in the framework of knowledge God provides in the Bible. We can have confidence that it is truly true, even if it is incomplete.

When we study the Bible we must understand that God’s Word is not given to us so that it might restrain or contain God. On the contrary, the Word is given to restrain and contain us! We need to be subject to God, not as He is found in a single verse of Scripture or as He is found in our imaginations, but as He has revealed Himself through the entirety of His revelation.

In our next article we will look at how we are prone to put God in a box through our piety.

May 16, 2006

How many times have you heard a person claim that he has “accepted Jesus as his personal Lord and Savior?” Have you ever asked him what it means that Jesus is his Lord? Have you ever asked him how Jesus is his Savior? What makes Him his Savior? And what does it mean that He is his personal Lord and Savior?

How many times have you heard a person open a prayer with the words “Dear God?” What do those words really mean? Are they addressing God or addressing a letter? Why do we begin our prayers with an address? Is this necessary or merely custom?

How many times have you heard a person thank God that Jesus is present, for “where two are more are gathered together, Jesus is there?” Have you ever asked him why Jesus is only there where two or more are gathered? Have you ever asked if He is present in a more special way when people are gathered versus when they are alone?

There are so many times we flippantly speak of God and His attributes without even caring to understand what we are saying. So we really understand what it means to address God and to bring ourselves into His presence? Do we understand what it means that “Jesus is there?” Do we even care to know what it means that Jesus is my Lord and my Savior?

The incredible thing is that we don’t need to understand these things to be God’s children. We do not need to devote ourselves to endless studies in theology and doctrine in order to be saved. God sees and knows and values the heart more than the mind. Yet if we want to grow deeper in our love for God, we need to begin to understand these things. We need to grow deeper in our knowledge of Him.

On that day that I got married, I loved my wife deeply. On our wedding day, as I looked at her walking down the aisle towards me, I never would have believed that I could love her more than I did at that very moment. I had known her for four years and had spent thousands of hours just being with her, listening to her talk and watching her interact with other people. And now she was walking towards me, looking absolutely radiant, and intending to pledge her life to me. I began to sob like a child and felt my heart would nearly burst with the love I felt for her. But you know what? Almost eight years into that marriage I can honestly say I love her more now than I did when we got married. Why is that? It is simply that I know her so much better now. The more I learn about her, the more I know her. The more I know her, the more I love her.

I use that illustration to show that you can really only love God inasmuch as you know Him. When you are an unbeliever and do not know God you cannot love Him at all. When some day you die and go to be with Him, you will know Him in a perfect way, and will accordingly love Him in a perfect way. The time between when you come to love Him and you are called to be with Him is your opportunity to experience that love and get just a foretaste of heaven here on earth.

I love God more now than I did when I first believed. As a child I loved God with a childlike love, but I barely knew Him. I can think back to distinct moments as I grew older when God taught me something new and amazing about Himself. I can remember moments where something hit me like a lightning bolt and I was awakened to a new reality about God that I had not known before. There were times when my whole body broke into chills as I grew in my knowledge of my Creator. There were other times when I broke into tears as I began to realize the necessity of Christ’s sacrifice for me or the vast depths of His love for me. As I learned about my God I learned to love Him more. As I learned about my God I had to love Him more!

You can be a believer and know almost nothing about God. The man who hung on the cross beside Christ new little more than that Christ was the Son of God and that God had forgiven his sins. And that was enough. But if you want to love God more you need to know Him more. I know that I’m a mere preschooler when it comes to knowing God. I look at others and see some who are in primary school, some who are in high school and some who must be about ready to finish up their post-graduate studies. And how I yearn to know Him that much, knowing that the love I feel for Him now, as great as it may be, is nothing more than a child’s love! I long to love Him, and therefore long to know Him. And I look forward to the day when I will know Him even as I am known by Him, that I may love Him with the perfect love with which He loves me.

September 04, 2005

I am in a reflective mood today and since I have been experiencing one of those frustrating times with my children began to think about what it means to be a child of God. I was reminded of an article I wrote a couple of years ago and decided to resurrect it, editing it and adding to it a little bit.

Being a parent is such a profound experience. My children make me want to laugh and cry. They will fill me with love at times and with frustration at other times. I have learned so much about myself and about human nature through being a parent. But that is not all. Parenthood has also taught me so much about God and why He refers to Himself as my Father.

God is patient. Parenthood is a constant battle of my patience. My children love to test me – pushing to see just how far they can go. They want to know exactly what obedience means and where the line is that distinguishes obedience from disobedience. If I need patience with my children, imagine the patience God requires to put up with me. I also like to push against the line or cross it altogether. Yet God patiently stays with me, never deserting me.

God loves. I love my children more than I can express. The Bible says that the measure of the deepest kind of love is that a man would lay down his life for one he loves. I would without hesitation trade my life for my children’s lives. Occasionally I will read of a parent who lost his life trying to save his child from a burning building, and I marvel at his courage, yet understand how it would be easier to die trying than to regret never attempting to save that child. God loves with a perfect love. God loved me even while I hated Him and while I did all I could to show Him how much I hated Him. But God did more than love me when I hated Him. He also suffered and died for me. What awesome love!

God loves equally. I love my children equally. I could never choose one over the other. They are both equally the apple of my eye. God also believes in equality. There is not another of His children in the world that God loves more than me and there is not another one He loves less than me.

God loves distinctly. While I love my children equally, I love each one in different ways. As I consider how I love my children I am reminded of Revelation 2:17. “To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.” Jesus loves us all equally, yet He loves each of us in a way that takes note of what distinguishes us from each other.

God teaches. Children are ridiculous. Only in a household containing children would you expect to hear commands like “don’t eat food that’s been in the toilet!” and “take that straw out of your sister’s nose!” Children have no common sense and have to learn so many lessons either by being told by their parents or by experiencing pain. And isn’t that the way I am? I can learn God’s ways from the Bible or from others who have already walked life’s pathway before me, but more often I prefer to learn by trying things out. I am then left to deal with the often-painful consequences of my actions.

God laughs. Children are hilarious. The things my kids say and the things they do keep me laughing. How can you help but laugh when your two-year old son imitate the pastor’s prayer by saying, “Dear God. Blah blah blah blah blah. Amen.” When my children laugh and play together, I laugh with them. Similarly God must laugh when He sees me blunder through life and must laugh with me when I am simply laughing out of the enjoyment life.

God cares. There are few things I care about more than my children and their well-being. I cry with my children – I feel what my children feel. When my daughter hurts herself, I feel her pain. When my son gets bullied, it makes me angry. God feels my pain and He burns with anger against those who come against me. He wants nothing but the best for me.

God provides. My children trust me to provide. When my son is hungry he asks for a snack. He never considers that perhaps it is actually my will to keep him hungry. He trusts that I can afford to buy him snacks. He has blind faith in my ability to provide. And so I can trust that not only can God provide, but also that it is His will and his desire to provide for me. “What father among you, if his son asks for[a] a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke Luke 11:10-13).

When we look at such a list, is it any wonder that God calls Himself my Father? Is it any wonder that He chooses to reveal Himself to us in such an intimate, familiar way?

November 17, 2003

“The way I see my life shapes my life” is how chapter five of The Purpose Driven Life begins. That sounds very “Anthony Robbins to me!” Warren asks the question of if I were to think of my life as a picture, what image would come to mind? I had never stopped to consider what life metaphor I hold to, but at his request I gave it some thought and really did not come up with anything convincing. I have some idea as to what my purpose is and what my goals for life are, but have not found a way of summarizing this in a picture.

The Bible, says Warren, offers three metaphors. Life is a test, a trust and a temporary assignment. The first two of these are covered in this chapter and the third in the next.

The Bible tells of countless examples of life being a test. Abraham, Jacob, Adam and Eve, David and Esther are just a few of the examples. The tests they face and the tests I face both show and develop character. Tests do not need to be major events. Even the smallest event can be a test meant to show something about my character. When everything in life is viewed as a test, suddenly I realize that even the smallest incident is full of significance. Warren goes on to say that in his life he has found that God tests his faith through problems, tests his hope by how he handles possessions and tests his love through people. I would have liked to see an explanation of those, especially the second, but unfortunately there was none.

Life is also a trust. What this means is that God has entrusted me with many talents, resources, relationships and opportunities. I am responsible to be a good steward of all of these. At times I am prone to believe that it is really only my resources for which I am responsible, so this serves as a good reminder that God has entrusted me with far more. Practically, this revelation should make me realize that everything on earth has value since God owns it all. There is eternal significance to treating everything as a trust. If I am a faithful steward God promises three rewards. First, God will give me affirmation as a good and faithful servant. Second, he will give me a promotion, saying that since I have proven myself faithful with little he will make me responsible for more. Thirdly, I will be honoured with a celebration as I share His happiness. I really appreciate this section because though I know the Bible passages on which this is based, I had never considered it this fully. It is both exciting and intimidating to learn this!

Warren closes the chapter by showing how money is both a test and a trust. This is something my pastor believes and teaches a lot. “There is a direct relationship between how I use my money and the quality of my spiritual life.” Money may be the greatest test and trust since how I use it really does effect my spiritual life and show where I am spiritually. If selfish with my resources I can be assured that I am spiritually dry or even dead.

Bible Passages

Warren quoted the Bible twelve times in this chapter, using six different translations and paraphrases. He did so accurately and remained true to the meaning of the text.

Question To Consider

Today’s question to consider is “What has happened to me recently that I now realize was a test from God? What are the greatest matters God has entrusted to me?” This is an important question to me since I do feel that I have been facing various tests lately. These have not been matters of life or death, but I have perceived that some things have happened that have had real significance. As for the greatest matters God has entrusted to me, I believe money has to rate near the top. Now it bears mention that I really have very little of it, but I believe that makes it even more of a test. I find that when I give a lot of my little God blesses me far more than when I give sparingly or not at all. I also find that I generally only give generously when I am in a good place in my walk with God. Another great matter with which I have been entrusted is my family. Raising children to be faithful to God is an awesome responsibility for which I don’t think any parent feels equipped. I am no exception, yet trust that if I am faithful steward of these relationships, God will bless my children and bring them to a knowledge of Him.

Up Next

Tomorrow’s topic is Life Is A Temporary Assignment