This is the third 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, this framework is 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.
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. Any religion can encourage piety in its adherents. There are pious Muslims, pious Hindus and pious Christians. The difference between adherents to other religions and Christians 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.
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. 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. Similarly, were God to send a flood to destroy the world, He would contradict a clear and absolute promise. God is nothing if not rational. 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.
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.
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 in reality it should 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. 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. Perhaps in eternity He will reveal them to us. 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. I have seen this most publically in President Bush. He constantly claims to be a Christian, yet is always careful to separate his faith from the decisions he makes and his rule of the United States. Sadly, he is in no way unique as it is probably safe to say that the majority of those who claim to be Christians hold a similar belief. 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.
As I said in the last article, the Bible does not contain God. Rather, the Bible contains 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.