December 14, 2017

Noted: John Armstrong on The “Easy” God

UPDATE: Trevin Wax posts this Phillip Yancey/Karl Barth quote.

“I have learned one absolute principle in calculating God’s presence or absence, and that is that I cannot. God, invisible, sovereign, who according to the psalmist “does whatever pleases him,” sets the terms of the relationship. As the theologian Karl Barth insisted so fiercely, God is free: free to reveal himself or conceal himself, to intervene or not intervene, to work within nature or outside it, to rule over the world or even to be despised and rejected by the world, to display himself or limit himself. Our own human freedom derives from a God who cherishes freedom.

“I cannot control such a God. At best I can put myself in the proper frame to meet him. I can confess sin, remove hindrances, purify my life, wait expectantly, and – perhaps hardest of all – seek solitude and silence. I offer no guaranteed method to obtain God’s presence, for God alone governs that.”

– Philip Yancey, Reaching for the Invisible God, pg. 121

HT to Bill Kinnon for this fine quote from John Armstrong.

The mystic Catholic, Thomas Merton, once noted that: “If you find God with great ease, perhaps it is not God that you have found.”

This statement underscores one of the deepest problems I have encountered over the course of my own life. I settled for thinking that I knew God, or God’s will or purpose, when I am quite sure that I was overconfident many times. The ease with which I spoke, and the ease with which I processed this knowledge, should have warned me but I was too dull oft times.

Theologians rightly speak of the deus absconditus, or of the God who is absconds, or is absent. The Psalmist knew this reality and do did Mother Teresa. Great mystics have known it and so have ordinary saints. Luther and Calvin knew it too. Just when we think we have God, or we have figured him out, he is absent from us again. He will be sought but finding is on his terms. He will be known, but not because we are so wise. His grace is for all, but not all find it unless they seek it. Ours is an age for “easy” this and that. Knowing God will never fit into the category of something called “easy.”

I’ll dedicate this to all those folks who don’t get it when I say I’m rediscovering what I believe about the God I know in Jesus.

Comments

  1. Scott Miller says:

    This hits it right on the head. Many evangelicals talk about “God opening the door” to a job, relationship, opportunity, etc. The idea is that the easy choice was God opening the door. But in Scripture God’s way is always the hard way, not the easy way.
    In addition, I have struggled with the God who is always distant. My evangelical friends are having mystic experiences of God telling them to do something, which amounts to them having an idea with a strong feeling and thinking that it is God “leading”. It is very frustrating, because I am more like the Psalmist who cries out wondering why my prayers are hitting a ceiling of brass.

  2. True for this former evangelical. One of the hardest things to get past was the complete lack of ‘fitting in’ once I decided to face up to the truth – that maybe it wasn’t God telling me this or that. Maybe He wasn’t waiting every morning to give me my marching orders for the day. Questioning God’s whereabouts in my life sent some scurrying away, muttering ‘backslider’ as they fled.

  3. wow thank you so much for this post. it gives me a great idea for a retreat to do with my students this fall. i have to say, i really really enjoy your blog. i do a lot of work with Spiritual formation and get a lot of great incite from your site. thank you for your faithfulness in the pursuit my dear friend

  4. dumb ox says:

    “We hold beliefs as a consolation
    A way to take us out of ourselves
    Meditation or medication
    A comfort, or a promised reward

    “Sometimes the spirit is too strong
    Or the flesh is too weak
    Sometimes the need is just too great
    For the solace we seek
    The suit of shining armor
    Becomes a keen and bloody sword

    “A refuge for the coming night
    A future of eternal light
    No one gets to their heaven without a fight”

    – From “Armor and Sword” by Neil Peart.
    http://www.rushisaband.com/lyrics.php?id=35

    I wonder if some of the desperate measures Christians embrace by exposing themselves to abusive leaders, churches, cults, or bizarre practices is all a way to avoid struggling with God. Because struggle is equated with failure, we avoid it at all cost. Those individuals who condemn you for struggling are afraid to admit that they struggle, too. As long as someone out there claims to have found the secret path to bliss (without trials or doubts), we relentlessly pursue it. If Jesus said the road is narrow, why do we keep looking for the exit to the interstate?

    “No distrust made him [Abraham] waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised” – Romans 4:20 (ESV).

  5. “If Jesus said the road is narrow, why do we keep looking for the exit to the interstate?”

    Love the quote dumb ox. I just added it to my favorite quotes on my facebook page.

  6. bob pinto says:

    The quote was:

    Ours is an age for “easy” this and that. Knowing God will never fit into the category of something called “easy.”
    ……………………………………….
    Here are a few quotes from the writing of Solzhenitsyn:

    Do not pursue what is illusory – property and position: all that is gained at the expense of your nerves decade after decade, and is confiscated in one fell night.

    Live with a steady superiority over life – don’t be afraid of misfortune, and do not yearn after happiness; it is, after all, the same: the bitter doesn’t last forever, and the sweet never fills the cup to overflowing.

    It is enough if you don’t freeze in the cold and if thirst and hunger don’t claw at your insides.
    If your back isn’t broken, if your feet can walk, if both arms can bend, if both eyes see, and if both ears hear, then whom should you envy?
    And why?
    Our envy of others devours us most of all.
    ”””””””””””””””””””””””””

    “If humanism were right in declaring that man is born to be happy, he would not be born to die. Since his body is doomed to die, his task on earth evidently must be of a more spiritual nature.
    It cannot [be] unrestrained enjoyment of everyday life.
    It cannot be the search for the best ways to obtain material goods and then cheerfully get the most out of them.
    It has to be the fulfillment of a permanent, earnest duty so that one’s life journey may become an experience of moral growth, so that one may leave life a better human being than one started it.
    ””””””””””””””””””””””””’

    In prison, both in solitary confinement and outside solitary too, a human being confronts his grief face to face.
    This grief is a mountain, but he has to find space inside himself for it, to familiarize himself with it, to digest it, and it him.
    This is the highest form of moral effort, which has always ennobled every human being.
    A duel with years and with walls constitutes moral work and a path upward (if you can climb it).

    And I say without hesitation: “Bless you, prison, for having been in my life!”…
    ===================================================

    Scott:

    Prayers bouncing off a brass ceiling might not be bad enough. What if they recochet and fly in your face in an almost mocking manner?

  7. Great thoughts. Sometimes the only signs of God in our lives are the crosses that we all bear. I find it a little disturbing when people confidently proclaim what the Spirit is telling them. I suppose some find it uplifting, but it makes me feel left out, that God doesn’t love me as much as either this bible thumper or mystic. God does treat people differently, but maybe some of them are just plain old mistaken.
    A psychiatrist once said: If someone says they speak to God it is prayer, but if that person says God is speaking to them, he’s a schizophrenic.

  8. Memphis Aggie says:

    It’s my understanding that the “dark night of the soul” is a very advanced spiritual state in that God only tests the strong with aridity. It’s the state where an individual can suffer terribly, like Job, but neither blame God nor loose faith, in the complete absence of consolation. St Faustina had one near the end, after a lifetime of very frequent visions and graces, there was a period of terrible physical pain and no overt spiritual consolation. It served to prove that she loved God and not His gifts.

    I have no confidence that I could pass such a test myself, but it is a worthy goal. Imagine being free of all fear and anxiety about everything fully confident in God even while enduring great personal pain like the martyrs. That’s liberty.

    Most of us will, at some hopefully distant point at the end of a long fruitful life, suffer before death. Perhaps by then, if I should be so fortunate, I could die gracefully without fear praising God and provide a good example for my children.

  9. I wonder if the “absentness” of God is more of our “adult mind” when it comes to God. Jesus seemed to make a big deal about children inheriting the Kingdom … about children seeing the Father. Maybe in our “adult thinking” approach to spirituality, we lose Him? At least, I’ve noticed this in my own life. The more adult-like I am, the less I see or find Him. The more like a child I become, the more I see Him everywhere.

    Perhaps the “narrow road” is a road that only children look for? Maybe adults are looking for the freeway?

  10. Memphis Aggie says:

    Nice thought Brandon. I’ll speculate a bit with you on the point. I think children trust more easily and more completely and are more comfortable accepting guidance without knowing all the details. Dad pops ’em in the car seat for a trip to the store or grandpa’s 7 hours away and they uncritically and cheerfully accept it sleeping peacefully within minutes.

  11. Once again, a very thought provoking and timely post.
    I am so sick of those who live without doubt or anxiety.
    I used to think that the very confident folks about knowing God or God’s will etc, etc had something that I lacked.
    the truth is they lack something that I have.
    A brain.

  12. I agree with Rob. I grew up in a fundamentalist background and my parents were missionaries for many years. I used to think there was something wrong with me, since I didn’t have what others seemed to have.

    I now see that the vast majority of people in churches think they get it but really don’t. Then there is a minority of people like myself who know they don’t get it but want more. Then there is an even smaller minority (a few percent) who really do get it.

    It hurts being in the second group. I accept the uncertainty of it, but it’s hard to soldier on. I still believe (very much so) but there is no joy without God’s presence.

  13. Just a couple of thoughts. Following God may not always be easy, in fact it rarely is in a real sense, but neither is it rocket science. I like the analogy that Memphis Aggie used about the child riding in the car with dad to grandpa’s house. The child did no work, absolutely none of the hard stuff, yet still arrived at the destination because he place his trust in his father to get him there and did what his father asked him to do.
    Sometimes when God gives us a task to do, it is really that easy. We do what He tells us, and He does the rest.
    I have heard testimonies from people who have experienced this and I have lived it in small ways myself. We knew that God had called us to move to South Dakota from Arkansas. That was not an easy step to make, but in obedience we learned more about God’s faithfulness in a matter of months than I had learned about Him in over 20 years. I will admit to being rather Gideon like in that it took a bunch of confirmation to give me the confidence to move forward. And since God had been kind enough to help me with my faith to move, I found there were times that the only thing I had to hold onto was His promise that we were in the place He wanted us to be. Now I wouldn’t have classified any of these things as easy for me to do, but I am sure that God had no trouble with any of it.
    I think Brandon has a point. Maybe we get so busy trying to help God out that we can miss Him at work.

  14. Memphis Aggie says:

    Responding to the Trevin Wax post of the Yancey/Barth quote. While it’s true that God is free to respond to us or to ignore us, God has already declared His intention to seek reconciliation with us (dependent on our repentance) and has bound Himself (by His own will) to covenants. As He is all good , and unchanging, His word is better than any contract. For example we are assured that the world will not end in flood as He promised Noah. Surely God is still capable of ending the world in flood if He cared to but His word binds Him, by His own choice. Likewise I believe that Christ’s saving promise is bound to His body and blood, when received in faith.

    He did this to assure us that, unlike us, His love does not waver and will not fail. So while it’s true that, for any personal grace or consolation we may seek above salvation, the gift is entirely up to Him and will be answered as He likes it when and if He likes it, we also know quite a bit about His nature. He is very generous, and if we make a worthy prayer (not any easy thing to define) He is likely to answer it. However, His gifts are often not what we thought we wanted, but rather they are what we actually needed. In my own experience that often means that my personal trials and even my failures were often the best thing for me. Although it only becomes clear to me much later (sometimes years later).

    I don’t like the way that quote makes God sound capricious like some mythical Greek god. We know the nature of God is love and when (not if) we suffer and can not see His face He has not abandoned us. Even Christ felt alone on the cross in His last moments, how can I, an ordinary sinner, expect better? The only reason we may not loose sight of Him in life is if He judges that too difficult a test for us. Not that we won’t have difficult tests that we can fail, but that we have only those tests which we can (not will) pass.

    So sure God is free (CS Lewis about Aslan “is not a tame lion”) to do as He will, but His nature is stable and dependable.