(Photo taken by Erik Johansson)

Written by Jonathan Toccoli

3/1/2017

Why everything you have ever thought about God is wrong, and that’s a good thing.


(Scriptures to meditate on before, during or after: Genesis 15, Isaiah 6 and Psalm 107)

You may be surprised to find that every thought you have ever had of God is, fundamentally, wrong. Not merely flawed or inadequate or just-your-speical-take-on-things (looking at you, millennials): wrong. In fact, the issue is more severe than wrong; you and I and many (all?) of those wonderful cloud of witnesses that have come before us are Idolators. And the worst kind of idolators: (often) ignorant-of-the-fact-that-we-are and unrepentant ones. I offer here no flippancy, but sincere and earnest exhortation. So don’t lose heart! The Lord Himself knows we’re idolators (for reference see THE WHOLE BIBLE) and so reveals Himself to overpower our idolatry (I don’t say ‘overcome’ because the sin has but one cure – see an idolator’s encounter with the living God in Isaiah 6). But before we get to the Lord’s solution, we must first outline the problem. The problem is a common one, one that haunts you and me and everyone daily. Since it is so common, let’s shed light on it from an every day perspective. Let me tell you a (mostly) true story from my own life.

I dated a girl once; her name was (not) Kaitlin. She was pretty and funny and very popular. But best of all, she was kind and loved with a piercing and energetic love – the kind of love that shamed my flimsy attempts at charity, but I didn’t mind, because I saw that charity was possible and it made me want to grow in charity all the more. Things were great with Kaitlin and me. We spent as much time as possible in each other’s presence. She loved movies, so we watched movies. She loved drives, so we went for drives. She loved her friends, and so we hung out with friends. Life was bliss. Life was good. I really, really liked Kaitlin.

Yet, as in all young relationships, issues arose. Kaitlin loved her friends, and my friend named (not) Markus not the least. It transpired one day that as Kaitlin, Markus and I were going to watch a movie, Kaitlin and Markus sat together on the love seat. My world was u.n.m.a.d.e. “What are you doing?!” I did not cry. As they watched the movie, I was deciding in my heart that I could no longer date Kaitlin: she spent so much time with other people :::cough:::Markus:::cough::: “and really,” I mused, “we have been growing apart recently: no drives, no sitting together for movies, no sharing of life’s most special hopes and desires. Yep, it’s time to end it.” And so, next day, Kaitlin and I had the most remarkable DTR (Define The Relationship). “Kaitlin,” I said, “you are truly an amazing person, but I think we should stop seeing each other.” To which Kaitlin said, “…” “Does that hurt your feelings?” I enquired. Then the three words I would have sworn were impossible to hear, “we aren’t dating,” she said, “we have never dated.”

Let me explain. Kaitlin and I did talk about potentially dating early on in our friendship but decided it was not what the Lord had for us at that time. “If we ever do date, though,” we said, “we will date publicly, keeping our relationship within the context of our friends until it becomes clear the Lord is calling us to an even more committed relationship.” Do you see what happened yet? We had moved into the type of relationship we had looked forward to, but we never actually talked about it. A rookie mistake indeed.

As you can imagine, I had to reconstruct all of my thoughts about Kaitlin and me and our relationship to reflect this new and most uncomfortable reality: we had never, ever dated. It was like I never knew her. She, with whom I had felt so comfortable and from whom I found such inspiration, was until that fateful, Markus-filled day a figment of my imagination. “I want to introduce you to my girlfriend,” I had told my family. “Here she is,” I said. There she most defiantly was not.

I don’t know if you can empathize with my distress at having to face the fact that the way I viewed reality was completely and comprehensively wrong. Or if you can sympathize with the pain of having to rethink my whole world in light of my Markus-filled discovery. “Take care of all your memories… for you cannot relive them,” warned Bob (that’s Bob Dylan, of course). But what do you do when your memories fade and crack and wash away as if in a rain? It’s hard in those movements to not think that it would have been better to have never had those memories at all. If only I had actually known Kaitlin.

“All these things will be lost, like tears in rain.”
– (Yep, that’s from) Blade Runner

We wayward sheep have made a very similar mistake with the God of Everything that I made with Kaitlin. We have said, “God is” and “God does” (which for the Ancient Hebrews was the same thing, FYI) and believed it. We have believed our ideas of God are rather good after all and that God is probably pretty happy with us for knowing Him so well. This is an ancient struggle, one that reaches back all the way to the most perfect of all (non-Jesus) men, Adam and the most perfect of women, Eve (Genesis 3 – though Satan gets some of the blame on this one). It is a burden and error that beset even the ‘Friend of God’ himself: Abraham.

“The LORD had said to Abram, ‘Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you,'” (Genesis 12:1) and Abram (later to become Abraham) did, um, kind-of, do this. Abram set out from Harran towards Canaan (12:4) and basically walked right through Canaan and went immediately into Egypt (12:10). Oops; strike one. God resets things for Abram and brings him back to Canaan where becomes powerful and influential and a blessing to those around him (13-14) – i.e. God is beginning to fulfill his promise from 12:2-3. And for a while, things go well. But after great victories and watching the Lord do as he promised, Abram doubts. What does Abram doubt? Because this question is essential for us: he doubts that God is who He says He is:

“I will make you into a great nation, Abram” says God.

“That seems unlikely because I’m really old (about 90+/-) and my wife has never even been pregnant,” responds Abram.

Note what Abram has just done: The Lord told Abram what He was going to do and Abram said, ‘unlikely.’ He just called the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth, the God of Everything a liar. ‘You might want to, God, but you probably can’t – don’t you understand Biology?!’ Abram has committed idolatry. Abram, then, the Father of Faith, was an idolator like you and me.

Now comes the hardest part of this post: to convince you that you, like Adam, Eve, Abram, Isaiah, Peter, John, James, Mary and Paul before us are an idolator. I hear your protests:

“But I’m a Bible believing Christian!” As if Paul didn’t know his Bible – he wrote half of the New Testament.

Or, “You are overstating your point,” you claim. “Paul if anyone was certainly never an Idolator (or, at least not after his conversion…).”

Or perhaps, “Jesus meets with me daily in my quite time; I know Him and He knows me.” I don’t mock this at all – I hope Jesus does (via the Holy Spirit) meet you daily in your quite times. But, as you will see below, your hubris is still getting the better of you.

Here’s the reason (beyond the thousands-upon-thousands of words in the Bible confirming this) that I can confidently say you and I are idolators: the Lord, the one-God-in-three-Persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Maker of heaven and earth is – to use a wonderful English word, infinite. You, my dearest friend, cannot with your best thought comprehend the fullness of God in any capacity. “God is love” you say quoting 1 John, and so He is. But His Chesed (the Hebrew word [חֶסֶד] for God’s extra-special love) is from everlasting to everlasting; His love created the morning and the evening and the noontime and predestined His love to us in Christ. It’s not that God is more love than you can imagine. It’s that God is love and you cannot imagine it. Full-stop. Always and forever and in everything. The God of the Old Testament whom you think has such anger issues: infinite in love. The God who you think has turned his face against you because you cannot get pregnant: infinite in love.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take,
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessings on your head
– William Cowper, God Moves in Mysterious Ways

I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God
– T. S. Elliot, The Four Quartets, 2.192-93

And you may be surprised to know, it’s not just God’s love. It’s everything about Him – and that’s part of why we always think wrongly about Him. All things terrestrial come in parts and they are the unity of their parts: a tree is a tree because it has roots, trunk, limbs and leaves. And as humans, we are partial and that’s how we were made to be. We are flesh and souls – rational animals as the ancients would term it (see Thomas Aquinas, et al.). And our lives are made up of parts: I work 8 hrs/day, sleep 8 hrs/day and [who really knows what else] 8 hrs/day. And that’s my life; 24 hours of part + part + part = whole. God, on the other hand, does not sleep or wake or ‘[who really knows what else]’; God is judge, savior, king and all the same time all of the time and always and completely.

And that is why we daresn’t ever trust that our ideas of God are God; and so we look to Him, and not our ideas about Him, to find out who He really is. Let me put it in two different ways.

1) If we could have thoughts that fully captured God in His glory and majesty, He would most definitely not be a God worth worshiping. His thoughts alone, after all, are above ours as the stars are above the earth: greater in grandeur, complexity, simplicity and beauty (Isaiah 55:8-9).

2) Or, to put it far more satisfactorily: God reveals Himself to us continually – in scripture, in prayer, in the church – whereupon we are shown, as Isaiah before us, that we are creatures and He is Lord. “Woe is me! I am destroyed,” we cry after Isaiah (Isaiah 6:5) and so we (and our minds and ideas) are; at least, who we think we are and who we think He is is. We are in fact in that very moment being remade, which is to say, we are being brought into His presence. As C. S. Lewis reflected upon the death of his wife:

My idea of God is a not divine idea. It has to be shattered from time to time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence?
– C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

To which we say, “Yes, Mr. Clive Staples, yes.”

While it is true, then, ‘everything we have ever thought about God is wrong,’ we yet rejoice. Because it is not that our ideas about God are too good to be God. It is that our God is too good for our ideas. And so have the best ideas of God that you can, my friends, because He will always be better than you dare imagine.

Soli Deo Gloria.

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Jonathan is an over educated, fourth generation Stocktonian and leads the Lincoln Village CG with his wife, Emily. When not lazing around with his dogs, he enjoys vice principaling at Jim Elliot Christian High School. He used to like reading when life was slower; now he prefers to scourer Netflix to find names for future pets.