April 10, 2011

Reclaiming the Wonder

Two old friends met who hadn't seen one another since high school graduation. One had left to study science and the other had gone to study theology. The theologian asked his friend, "What did you learn in university?" The scientist replied, "I learned that God is dead. What about you?" And the theologian said "I learned how to kill him."

Since coming to university to study the Word of God, I have observed a dangerous struggle in my own heart and the hearts of others. I call it the "Science of Religion". It's a trap that is very easy to fall into at Christian universities and seminaries. Science of religion is when Christians become so preoccupied with the minutia of studying Scripture that they lose sight of the Author who wrote it.

I once heard a pastor talk about this experience. He had devoted his life to the study of God. When a loved one died he naturally turned to the Bible for comfort. He said, "But I didn't find any comfort in the Word of God. I didn't see his love, or mercy, or acceptance. I didn't see hope. I opened my Bible and saw doctrines and debates, methods and hermeneutics and interpretations. I looked for God but could not find him." I have never forgotten that story, and I have seen its truth in the lives of Christians. We think we can completely define and explain God. We stretch him out on the sterile, white table of theology and dissect him. As Tim Keller says, "God becomes a concept instead of a reality." He becomes a thing and not a person.

The Scripture is central to our entire faith. It is more than a history book, more than a guide to moral conduct, more than a self esteem booster. Its words are holy, inspired, and lead us along the path of eternal life. But we should never confuse the study of God’s word with having an actual relationship with him. You know the problem. It is very easy to sit down and read the Bible without ever encountering the Almighty One who wrote it. It is easy to delve into the book of Truth without allowing the Truth to delve deeply into our own hearts.

I encountered this once while debating with a friend about various doctrines. We faced off like two gladiators in a Colosseum, knowing the only way out was to cut the other down. And like the amateurs we were, assumed we alone had the answers to questions that have raged for centuries. There was one difference between us though. I was right. She was wrong. I felt it my responsibility to beat her in the face with my beliefs until she accepted them. Halfway through explaining my answer to life, the universe, and everything, I realized something crucial. I was more concerned with being right than I was with loving her. The danger with all arguments is allowing pride to get in the way of compassion. Now truth is important, and we should strive for it, defend it, and die for it. But truth has a name, and that is Jesus Christ, not Mark Zellner.

The first three verses of 1 Corinthians 8 say, “You think that everyone should agree with your perfect knowledge. While knowledge may make us feel important, it is love that really builds up the church. Anyone who claims to know all the answers doesn’t really know very much. But the person who loves God is the one God knows and cares for.” Paul is writing to the church about the old meat-offered-to idols debate. Before he spends the next whole chapter discussing it, he prefaces with the statement that unity through love is what honors the King.

I find it very upsetting that I can discuss the Word of God with people for hours on end and never learn a thing about their relationship with him. When debating theology, the goal is never to be right for the sake of being right, but to be right for the sake of knowing God. A friend of mine once said, you read a love letter to understand the person who wrote it, not just to understand what they wrote. We should never encounter the Bible without encountering the God of the Bible.

I believe the problem lies in our loss of wonder at the person of Yahweh and the truth of the gospel. Ronald Rolheiser has some stinging insight on this in his book The Shattered Lantern. This is a rather lengthy excerpt from chapter one, but I have included it all because it is highly significant.

Most often He is not experienced as a living person to whom we actually talk, from whom we seek ultimate consolation and comfort, and to whom we relate person to person, friend to friend, lover to lover, child to parent. Rather God is experienced and related to as a religion, a church, a moral philosophy, a guide for private virtue, an imperative for justice, or a nostalgia for propriety. For most of us, belief in God resembles the following: God is religion and religion represents a way of monogamous marriage; no lying, cheating or swearing, democratic principles, proper aesthetics, and being nice to each other. God, then, is more of a moral and intellectual principle than a person, and our commitment to this principle runs the gamut from fiery passion, by which people are willing to die for a cause, to a vague nostalgia, in which God and religion are given the same kind of status as the royal family in England-namely, the symbolic anchor of a certain way of life, but hardly important to its day-to-day functioning. It is not that this is bad, it is just that there is little evidence in it that anyone is actually all that interested in God. We are interested in virtue, justice, a proper way of life, and perhaps even in building communities for worship, support, and justice. But, in the end, moral philosophies, human instinct, and a not-so-disguised self-interest are more important in motivating these activities than are love and gratitude stemming from a personal relationship with a living God. God is not only often absent in our marketplaces, he is frequently absent from our religious activities and religious fervor as well.

Does that not smack of contemporary Christianity, stinging all the more because it rings true within our own lives? Have you allowed the Bread of Life to go stale? Have you let the Living Water stagnate in your heart? For God to be fully known, it is not enough to simply believe in him, or even to obey him. He must be experienced. He must become a personal reality rather than a distant possibility.

How can we escape the trap of the science of religion? How can we be sure that we have a personal relationship with an intimately personal being, not just a text study? Rest easy in this one essential fact: God’s existence does not depend on your certainty of him. God's reality does not require your belief, anymore than your existence depends upon my knowledge of you. You will have days when the very breath of heaven seems to stir within your soul and you know that you have experienced the reality of God. You will have sleepless nights when your faith seems as hollow as the darkness, and you cannot feel God at all. You wonder if the sky is empty. Yet faith runs deeper than your own certainty, and extends beyond the limits of your emotions and imagination. Faith is the essence of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.

For Yahweh to be known as a friend and not an impersonal icon, you must first focus on one thing: Seek his face through the Scripture. While the I AM reveals himself in numerous ways, using the Spirit of Truth to impart guidance, he cannot be known apart from his Word. This is something altogether different from the idea I presented earlier. Do not approach the Bible as a dead thing, stretched out on an autopsy table, to be examined with all the tools of man’s vainglorious wisdom. Approach The Living Word with full consciousness of the Being who spoke it. Study the sacred writing to know the holy Writer. Never, ever, ever, approach it with any other attitude.

We are promised in James 4 that if we draw near to God, he will draw near to us. This is conjoined with repentance from sin. We cannot turn towards something without first turning away from something else. Then, it is simply your responsibility to ask. Ask Adonai to make himself known to you. Ask, and he will not refuse. The Bible is full of references to the responsiveness of God to those who seek him.

“Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”

“Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.” (This verse is often used in reference to salvation, but the words in this passage are actually spoken to Christians, not unbelievers.)

Abraham was described as a friend of God. David, a man after God’s heart, declares in the Psalms a deep and personal knowing of God. Noah walked with God. It is encouraging to note that the God they served and loved is the exact same being you seek to know. Furthermore, these men were not incredible humans; rather, they were incredibly human.

You see, it is not your responsibility alone. If your ability and capacity to know God rested solely on your own efforts, you would never have a prayer of a chance. The good news is that Jehovah yearns to know you on a deeply intimate level. Any desire in your heart to know him is actually a response of his desire to know you!

Be still. This is another important step in coming to know Yeshua. As Father Rolheiser mentions in The Shattered Lantern, our lives are often so focused on secular realms that we never allow God to be present within them. In order for God to be felt in every place of our lives, it is necessary at times draw away. When you observe the sacred text, where is it that God’s people most frequently encounter him? Abraham wrestled God alone in the night. Moses encountered God alone on a mountain. Jesus constantly drew away for times to talk with his Father. Stillness and solitude allow the troubled waters of the heart to calm enough that we can behold God in their reflection.

Finally, reclaim the wonder. Don’t become so overly familiar with Scripture that it loses its magnificence. The stories within it are glorious! Reclaim the wonder. Pray that God would fill your heart with the awe of a child. Let him make your heart tender with the refreshing goodness of his Spirit. Never get over the incredible opportunity you have to know the Master. Never get over the cross.

For further reflection:
• Take a moment to listen to this hymn, Be Still, sung by Aled. Let it focus your thoughts on worship.


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Joshua said...

Wow, what an eye-opening article. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this subject. It is so true in my own life from time to time in that, as you said, studying God's word can lead you away from what is of most importance, which is having that relationship with Him. Thanks for the insight. I can't wait to read more.

In Christ,
Joshua :)

Mark Zellner said...

Thank you for reading this Josh! I whole lot of heart went into writing this one, so I'm glad you enjoyed it! You might also like A Letter to Dad and my story The King's Banquet (which I haven't posted yet)