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Holy God, Lowly God

The majority of America is Christian and yet Christians in America are largely uninvolved in their world. Why?

Some have even come to resemble Pharisees more than the Good Samaritan. Some don’t see a problem with it. I’ve even heard recent comments by well-known Christians that the Pharisees weren’t so bad, we’ve just vilified them, and they were really a pretty good lot overall, not deserving of being so maligned and misunderstood.

It’s true, Jesus didn’t say all of them were vipers. Yet it’s a dangerous group to belong to. When you put personal holiness before obedience to the Great Commission, you’re treading some familiar and dangerous ground. A report from cultural analysis company, The Barna Group, shows people’s faith doesn’t make as much of as difference as might be expected–especially among born again Christians. While Evangelicals’ faith is most clearly evident in their behavior, overall, Christians are not living their faith.

”Jesus taught that Christians would be recognizable by their distinctive behavior – specifically, by the way they love others and how their lives reflect their spiritual values and beliefs (i.e., the “fruit” of their transformation). Based on a national survey that related people’s faith and 19 lifestyle activities that might be expected to be affected by faith views, the results of the survey caused George Barna, the Directing Leader of The Barna Group, to note that many Christians are hard-pressed to convert their beliefs into action. ‘The ultimate aim of belief in Jesus is not simply to possess divergent theological ideas but to become a transformed person. These statistics highlight the fact that millions of people who rely on Jesus Christ for their eternal destiny have problems translating their religious beliefs into action beyond Sunday mornings.’”

Apparently, it isn’t just an isolated problem. And it isn’t just how you interpret the data or which denomination you happen to be in. While there are significant differences among those who hold a more orthodox view and those who are simply “washed in the blood” at a Campus Crusade rally, one of the difficulties we might point out is an inaccurate view of God. Many of us have a warped or incomplete view of who God is. It could be argued that none of us can “know God” because we can’t begin to understand all the paradoxical facets and mystery He encompasses. But there are some things we can know, some things he has given us from the secret places. It’s these things that we should strive after to understand in all their complex beauty. It’s these things I’m hoping we can discuss and continue to challenge each other.

Don Miller, in his book, Blue Like Jazz, talks about setting up a booth on the Reed college campus in Oregon, known for its extreme liberal, atheistic humanism, and offering “confessions.” Only he isn’t taking, he’s giving. He tells of the spiritual release and blessing he received by giving out apologies for the atrocities done in Jesus’ name throughout the ages. He’s taken it upon himself to transform the perception of Jesus in the culture. That’s a revolutionary act: using the truth as a weapon of love against those who have been causing damage in their wrong-headedness. We need more people willing to repair the damage caused by self-proclaimed Christians who promote “dogmatic, backwards, anti-intellectual, bigoted, racist, sexist, and simplistic notions.”

And rather than focusing on the distance we have to go, sometimes it’s good to focus on the great opportunities we have to share the gift we enjoy this season. It’s an honor and a privilege we truly can’t deserve. That we lost men are still of inestimable value in His eyes, considered by Him as worth His sacrifices and attempts at reconciliation, is cause for celebration.

On Friday, trying to finish a quick entry about enjoying the true reason for Christmas, I said God considered us worthy of His love and concern. That comment sparked some debate. My point wasn’t to say we deserve anything God offers us, but that He considers us worth the sacrifice of His Son. Relevantgirl said it wonderfully in her comment and I agree. There’s a problem with disrespect in the church today. I fear I may have allowed some of that to seep into my thinking if I could make such a statement and not hear the inaccuracy in it. In my effort to point to the purpose of Christmas, I ended up suggesting that God has no problem accepting us in our evil and fallen state. I didn’t intend that. The fact is, God has a problem with evil. If He didn’t we wouldn’t need to celebrate Christmas. God is holy, and in His holiness, He requires holiness. That unattainable for us without His assistance. Yet Christmas is the time when God came down to repair the separation man had devised in His fallen state.

And still, I maintain that it is a profound mystery that God would be humble. The notion that God’s name could not be uttered for fear of sullying it, that it should be only written in code and with different ink and a different pen, thereby resisting the temptation to think of Him as less high than He truly is, was a grandiose notion that did damage by keeping the original scribes from realizing the love with which God created them. They couldn’t fathom a God who sought relationship with them. The damage that follows from such thinking is a works-based, law-bound, grace-less faith, wrapped up in empty ritual and self-flagellating practices that have nothing to do with the freedom and true humility Jesus came to bring. It’s good to remember that the legalistic notions the original religious leaders perpetrated were what Jesus came to destroy.

While it’s true a low view of God can keep us from appropriate reverence, too “high” a view of God, or maybe I should say “emphasizing God’s holiness over his love,” causes distance, removal, separation, and suffering from the very one who created us for oneness with Him. If God could not stoop to us in His great mercy, grace, and love we could never hope to find anything but suffering and torment. At its worst, this mindset binds Christians in a “woe-is-me” mentality and prevents the exercising of our talents, cutting off the beauty and Truth His followers are instructed to share.

I’m no theologian, and I don’t give these views with any recommendation that you make them yours. But I think the answer comes in seeking both God’s grace and His holiness, His love and His law. I have spent nights “delighting” in God’s law, analyzing it, turning it over in the light like a finely carved diamond, letting it reflect the ineffable beauty of His orderly creation. But if I stayed there, I’d only be half revolutionized.

He is holy, and yet check out what else: Isaiah 57:15. “For this is what the high and lofty one says—he who lives forever, whose name is holy: ‘I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble and to revive the heart of the contrite.”

He is above us, but He is not removed and He is not distant. He does consider you worth His concern and love. When Jesus came as a man, he knelt and washed his disciples feet to teach them how to be true leaders. When Peter protested—“No. You will never wash my feet,” Jesus said, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” Think of that. Unless you accept the humility of God and follow His example of servant leadership, you can’t be called a follower of Christ.

“Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart and you will find rest for your souls,” Matt. 11:29.

“God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble,” 1 Peter 5.

Of course, we must not forget that we are lowly created to understand only in part: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law,” Deuteronomy 29:29.

My point here is that holding too high a view of God’s holiness does damage when elevated above His grace and love. I relate it to the fundamental balance between the order in the universe and the “deep order” observable in randomness. The seeming chaos within our orderly universe is not truly chaotic. While no one can predict how a cloud will form, if we could understand all the influences acting on that water vapor, we would see the “deep order.” That we cannot see the order does not mean it is disorderly. What truly expanded my mind to accept Christianity was grasping how intricate and complex the universe really is. I have greater respect for God’s magnificence when I consider the paradox of “chaos,” the complex randomness from which the deep order emerges, much more than I do from simply appreciating Newton’s laws alone. Linear structures and physical principles are great. But without an understanding of cyclical and fractal structures, I couldn’t appreciate nearly as much.

To me, this “deep order” in randomness reflects God’s grace and holiness. Holiness might be seen as the order we use to describe God’s nature. God is holy. Newton applied rules and laws to explain the universe’s properties. The universe is orderly. But without an understanding of the order beyond what those laws can account for, it is impossible to explain the deep order, just as holiness is insufficient to explain God’s humility. Newton’s universe is a high and lofty concept to try to appreciate. But if I think that God made His laws to provide a framework for appreciating the deeper mystery of His love and grace, I begin to see how truly deserving of praise He is. Even though I understand Newton’s physics, everything about the universe remains a mystery to me. Even though I understand God’s holiness, everything about Him remains a complete mystery as well. It’s only in realizing the divine paradox of a deeper order within the seeming randomness that my wonder at His nature is given life.

I’ve rambled on long enough. I guess I never really put all that into words before, but I like it. I hope it makes sense. If not, just leave a comment and I’ll try to explain. :) Thanks to Becky for her insightful and challenging comments. I appreciate you and your concern. I’ve been sharpened by you. And to Sally, your eloquent comments are a testament to your sharp mind. Thank you, both.

4 Responses to “Holy God, Lowly God”

  1. I think the distinction you’re exploring is between God’s immanence and transcendence. Many of us react against the low view of God in the subculture by emphasizing God’s otherness to the exclusion of all else. So it’s completely appropriate at the time of year when we celebrate the Incarnation to meditate on God’s nearness to us.

  2. Becky says:

    You’ve expressed some profound truths here. I really appreciate your willingness to grapple with this subject. Well said.

  3. Mick says:

    You’re right, Mark. I knew you’d be able to point out the proper landmarks.
    Maybe what I’m looking for in CBA is a culture that speaks of the full God, His immanent transcendence and His transcendent immanence.
    What exactly would that look like?

  4. Becky says:

    That’s exactly what I want to write–what I hope I am writing. It’s certainly what I believe.
    Maybe it’s in our beliefs that it starts–with simple steps, like your blog, where we can reminded each other of Who God is and why it’s important that we reflect Him accurately.

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