In the 60s, one of the big images in the church was the notion that people tried and were trying to put God in a box. The idea was, by our nature, we like neat and simple explanations for things – all things, including inexplicable things like God. People want to feel secure, to understand the way of the world, get a handle on things, and be assured that life is not out of our control. What the theologians said back then was of course we would never succeed in putting God in a nice, neat box. All we could do in the end is put ourselves in the box and blind ourselves by refusing to see God beyond our four little walls.
We still suffer from the same problem.
There are probably as many ways to experience God as there are people on the planet. The problem, of course, is when we generalize our experience and make it the truth of “This is God.”
Many people see or experience God in nature. God certainly is accessible in creation. But many of these people are effectively animists, even if they cling to the name, Christian. “I don’t need church,” they say. “God is in the forest. God is in the sunset.” Unfortunately, many go on to say, “You don’t need church either. This is God. I know who God is.” And sadly, they believe it.
Many see God in people: in the little children, in the poor, in themselves. God is in the innocent and needy, certainly, but that should lead no one to the conclusion that “I am God. You are God. We are all God.” That is sometimes the result of that experience. At other times, it becomes a divisive view of reality. For example, if God is in the poor, then he must not be in the rich. Think about it. At its worst, it becomes cultish. God is in me and maybe my approved few little people, but that’s it. None of these conclusions are warranted, but people will turn their experience of God into, “I know who God is. This is God.” And sadly, they believe it.
Many people do experience God in church, but even there we must be careful. In the 60s we deleted the Old Testament God of wrath image which in fact used to drive people out of the church. People used to believe that God was vengeful and judgmental. Yet that image has not entirely gone away. To this day many young people resent and rebel against a God who in their minds is like a super-parent, constantly looking over their shoulder and demanding moral perfection. Needless to say, these are not good God boxes.
On the other hand, for many in the church, all they have heard and can accept is where the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. Rather than super-parent, God is like a kindly grandparent, eager to indulge us with all sorts of blessings without any effort to grow or change on our part required. God is love, they say, and for many the truth is more like Love is God. God as a person is virtually non-existent and Love: happy-happy, joy-joy is deified in his place.
We are a sorry lot when we take our experience of God and say, “I know what God is. God is this.”
Now, if your mind is still open, if you have not shut the lid on the God box in which you live, the truth of the matter is we can know nothing at all about God except what he has revealed to us. You might say, but that is what I believe. God has revealed himself to me in my experience; in nature, in people, in church. True, but the point is that is not all of it. Don’t close the lid yet because God is still revealing himself, and beyond your own, limited, personal experience, there are more certain ways to understand the words, “This is God.”
Those who live in Jesus Christ have received the Holy Spirit. That Spirit has promised to lead us into ALL truth, as long as we don’t close the lid. Experience is good, but we have another witness. There is a series of book penned over two thousand years which report to be eyewitness testimony about God. They claim to have recorded God’s self-revelation through all of those years up to and including the time when he came and took on our flesh and blood and was born on Christmas day.
John Calvin called those books the story about God and ourselves. Read them. Study them. Learn them if you really want to know who God is. And when you are finished, confess with me that even with these helps, In so many ways, God remains beyond our understanding. We cannot see the end from the beginning. God can.
What we glimpse may be true, but we must always remember it is only a glimpse. We have no reason but our own ego and desire to put God in a box to say, “I know what God is. This is God.” Instead, I suggest we try to keep our boxes open, even if that is not always the most comfortable way to live. And when someone tries to tell you, “This is God,” remind them that in this world there will always be more things we have not seen than things we have seen. They may not like you for pointing that out, but it is the truth.