This week's 'thought' comes to you from Donald W. McCullough, and is taken from his book, "The Trivialization of God." It is a perceptive look at the ways that we, or our culture, have "shrunk" God down to make Him more manageable, and comfortable to deal with, or be around.
This selection has to do with the three popular American deities: The god-of-my-cause, the god-of-my-understanding, and the god-of-my-experience, concluding with the much needed God- beyond-my-view-of-God. By necessity I have tried to shorten one chapter into one page, using the cut and paste method. So, if you get a chance, read it all in his book. It's well worth the time. In fact, it's a must for people who desire to avoid the all-too-easy-trap of trivializing God. Enjoy.
"God Of My Cause
It's natural to want help... When I was younger, there was a boy named David. He could hit further, pitch harder, and field better than any kid in the neighborhood. We always wanted him on our side; he pretty much assured victory... The challenges may now be greater and the stakes higher, but I haven't grown out of wanting a David on my side. I doubt I am alone in this desire. The bigger the problem, of course, the bigger the help needed, and God is the Biggest Help available.
So God naturally gets called in to lend almighty support to various causes -- even good causes -- holding the earth with concern, loosing the bonds of injustice, letting the oppressed go free, sharing our bread with the hungry, and bringing the poor homeless into our houses.
What could be more appropriate than seeking God's help with these things? Indeed, this must please the God revealed in Scripture -- so long as a subtle shift does not take place. What can happen, though, is this: instead of serving God by working for a just cause, we serve a just cause by using God. The cause pushes God aside; the divine end becomes simply a useful means, and God gets trivialized. With the best of motives, we throw golden rings and bracelets of passionate concern into the fire, and a calf appears to lead the way to the Promised Land of social righteousness...
If God is brought in secondarily, after the problem and solution have been defined (oppression and political or economic liberation), that will invariably shape our image of God. We may view God, for example, as simply an aid to fulfilling our human aspirations, or simply Big Help for what is essentially a human struggle for self-improvement... Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, 'Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith' -- faith, I would add, in a God who transcends history, who knows the beginning from the end, who holds the truth of any problem in the context of all truth. Seeing salvation from any other god will come to grief, for a god pressed into the service of a particular cause will be a god too trivial to offer significant help.
God Of My Understanding
A child at the beach digs a hole in the sand and, with her little bucket, busily sets about transferring the ocean into it. We smile at the grandeur of her ambition, but only because we know she will soon mature beyond such pathetic futility. An ocean cannot be contained in any hole of any size on any continent. And neither can God be fully contained within any theological system.
Yet well-meaning Christians, in seeking to bear accurate witness to God, often become so attached to their formulations they forget the discontinuity between God and what can be said about God. They forget that only in Christ Jesus has there ever been an exact correspondence between God and humanity. Doctrinal lines are routinely drawn in the dirt, enemies named and challenged, and offending notions bombed in 'jihads' of theological self-assuredness... An honest desire to think and speak accurately about God moves, too easily it seems, to a presumptuous conviction that our affirmations contain the whole truth about God, which has the practical effect of confining God to our truth statements....
The theological enterprise demands humility as much as critical thinking. The best theologians have known this. Thomas Aquinas, after completing thirty-eight treatises, three thousand articles, and the ten thousand objections in his Summa Theologica -- one of the greatest intellectual achievements of western civilization -- abruptly quit his work on December 6, 1273. He had a profound experience while celebrating mass in the chapel of St. Nicholas, and he announced to his secretary that he would write no more. 'I can do no more,' he tried to explain, 'such things have been revealed to me that all I have written seems to me as so much straw'...
Our theological systems may succeed in containing the god-of-my-understanding, but never the holy God.
God Of My Experience
The things we experience, naturally, are the things of which we are the most certain. So, my form of worship, and my style of prayer, and my focus in service easily shape the pattern into which I squeeze spiritual reality...
As a boy I attended a Bible camp run by a Pentecostal denomination... The preaching -- filled with interesting stories, as I recall -- aimed for our conversion and baptism in the Holy Spirit (evidenced by speaking in tongues)... One night I knelt for what seemed like enough time for God to turn me into a certified saint, let alone make me speak in tongues. A counselor did his best to help me: he prayed over me, laid his hands on me, suggested syllables for me to mouth, and held up my arms when they got weary. But he himself got tired, I suppose, and at one point I heard him whisper to someone who walked by, "He really doesn't want it." He really doesn't want it? Imagine what those words did to a boy trying his best to please God! How could I not want it? How could I not want the Holy Spirit?...
I have no doubt that some people have been given the ability to pray in ecstatic utterance as a sign of the Spirit's presence; the New Testament validates this spiritual gift (I Cor. 14), and I have many friends who testify to its importance in their lives. But there is scant biblical evidence for turning this into a necessary proof of the Spirit-filled life. So little, in fact, that most of the church for most of its history, has seen this manifestation of the Spirit as one of the least important (I Cor. 12:31).
What has happened, it seems, is that some have been so moved and helped by this gift, they have not only wanted others to share in their experience, but have made it normative for everyone. Those who lack the experience must therefore lack the fullness of the Spirit, which is another way of saying they lack the presence of God. The counselor of my youth assumed that the presence of God would always be shown in a certain experience, and thus without that experience, God could not really be present -- at least not fully.
Not only does this assumption contradict the fact that the God revealed in Scripture seems to love diversity (I Cor. 12:28-30)... it also has the effect of limiting God, setting boundaries on the way God works in this world.... How easy it is to define authentic spirituality according to my particular experience and expression of it. And when I do, I end up with a very different god from the one revealed in Christ... a god, consequently, too trivial to lift me out of my self and beyond the distortions of my flawed experience.
God Beyond My View of God
...Concerns held with passionate conviction, theologies that provide a helpful framework, and formative spiritual experiences are not bad. A healthy Christian will have all these things! They can be lenses through which we see important aspects of the being of God. The problem arises when we forget the vast difference between our view of God and the reality of God...
Any god I use to support my latest cause, or who fits comfortably within my understanding or experience, will be a god no larger than I, and thus not able to save me from my sin or inspire my worship or empower my service. Any god who fits the contours of ME will never really transcend me, never really be God. Any god who doesn't kick the bars out of the prison of my perceptions will be nothing but a trivial god."
I have to say that as I was reading that section of his book I thought to myself: guilty, guilty, guilty. In fact, I had written the word "guilty" next to one of his comments in the book.
After all, it's hard not to want God to be the way I want Him. It's hard not to want Him to be on my side of any cause, or not want my experience to define how He is. Thank God, though, that He does not comply with my wishes! He is who He is, and remains true to who He is, even if ALL want Him to be different -- and most do on occasion -- myself included.
God help me -- God help us all -- to grow to learn and affirm all that you reveal about yourself in Your Word, remembering the need for humility as we try to do so, since there is so much more of You than our finite and limited minds can ever grasp.
In the service of Him who is loving, beautiful, immense, and holy beyond imagination, Pastor Jeff