Original Opinion Piece for August 7 (’14)
People have been domesticating their deities since Genesis 3. As someone said (I can’t remember who), “We are experts at normalizing God,” and we’ve been doing it forever. Do you serve a normal, unexceptional God, or someone more?
In the beginning, an untamable God spoke in power and brought forth a universe. He may have created the heavens and the earth, but shortly thereafter, in their biggest and most final exam, his creation, made to be like their Maker, normalized God. They believed he wasn’t really all he was cracked up to be, all he had revealed himself to be, or (and this is the crucial part) all they would need him to be. They needed something more; they weren’t getting what they thought they should. Instead, he was capricious—even a little vindictive. “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.” Oddly, none of this was in doubt except for the phrase, “…and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise.” That was the catch.
Wisdom didn’t really come from the tree. It came from obedience to the command of their dangerous God. Dangerous because he could kill both body and soul, “In the day that you eat of it, you shall surely die.” The Woman bought the Serpent’s premise, however, that God knew he was holding back what would make their life better. God, she believed, wasn’t all she had been taught. Eve and Adam both domesticated and normalized their covenant-Creator God precisely in forgetting how unlike them he really was. They may have been made in his image, but the image is a reflection. The substance of the really Real would put the image to shame. Even though they had physical presence with the Lord, they forgot themselves: both their true nature and God’s. John Calvin succinctly stated, “…True and sound wisdom consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, I.i).
Irony. They believed themselves wise and, in so doing, forgot wisdom comes by knowing you are unwise and utterly dependent on God to give you wisdom. They grabbed for it themselves from a fruit instead of going to the Fruit-Maker. They disbelieved God was serious. They put him in shackles. They normalized him. Have you?
Perhaps their presence with the Creator confused them as to his nature. Perhaps they thought they had a handle on him, but I doubt it. The text of Genesis 3 presents their sin as more deliberate and more knowledgeable, and the New Testament says that Adam was not deceived—he knew precisely what he was doing. Eve may have had the wool pulled over her eyes, but not Adam (1 Tim 2:14). Not the head of the race. For Adam, there could be no plea of temporary insanity. For Adam, God could be domesticated, normalized, de-throned.
C.S. Lewis captures this brilliantly in the Land of Narnia. Talking animals, mythical beasts—stuff that dreams are made of. They live in houses (animal houses, mind you), cook, have pots and pans, etc. They have the marks of domesticated civilization. Yet he captures their beastly nature as well: they may have the scent of domestication upon them, yet they are still dangerous. They fight in wars and battles; they act as spies; they murder and lie; they kill. It is not visitors to Narnia who bring the animals to their level of civilized behavior. It is the animals who invite the humans into their wild and powerful world. Lewis, a king of imagination, was teaching us something we all forget: this world is more dangerous than we think. The God who made it is most dangerous. Instead of bringing God into shackles, Lewis was inviting us to break free from the shackles we wear daily. The children of Narnia were learning the world is far greater, far more beautiful, mystical, and dangerous than they had ever believed. The contrast painted by Lewis is more potent because of who the children are: heirs to the Victorian etiquette and demolished mystique in which all mystery—all surprising childish whims of fancy—had been smoothed over and domesticated. Moreover, the children of the novels begin their journey escaping the dangerous Blitz of Nazi bombs. Still, what the children in Narnia receive is an education in how the world really is despite the veneer their culture painted over every tree and wild bush, joke and song, and despite the culturally conditioned nature of their own souls: they had forgotten how wild and dangerous they were to be. After all, for the Serpent in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were the danger. They were to destroy him. Satan sought to domesticate the Sons and Daughters of Adam, and he did it by convincing them to domesticate God. He made himself safe by rendering them harmless. They rendered themselves harmless by domesticating God.
There’s a line from a song by the Gorillaz. It perfectly captures how we consider God. “There’s a monkey in a jungle/watchin’ a vapor trail/caught up in the conflict/between his head and his tail.” That describes us too often. We domesticate God not with our intentions, but with our lack of intention. We curtail the glory of God not on purpose, but because we lack the “on-purpose” to worship him as he reveals himself. We get stuck chasing wind and tail. I don’t want to do that, and I don’t think you do either. While people may struggle with normalizing God in varying degrees, a God whom you have normalized is a God who has been brought low. The lower you bring him, the lower you stay; the lower you say, the less hope you can have that life will be put back together in a way Humpty could only dream. Put another way: he cannot raise your body if your focus is predominately on your body or on what you don’t have now. If your God has been domesticated in service to you, he is little more than cattle: he’s here to feed you, provide for you, but he is certainly not here for your holiness (Heb 12:3-17) and to elevate your existence beyond what you could ask or imagine (Eph 3:20-21). A normalized God cannot fulfill the common benediction given at the end of many worship services, “Now to him who is able to keep you faultless, and to present you before himself blameless and with great joy; to the only God our Savior, be all glory and power and honor before all time, now, and forever. Amen”
A domesticated god would never have such a dangerous plan of redemption that it involved the brutal murder of his own son for the redemption of absolute rebels. Any other god never could. No other god has.
We are experts at normalizing God. As Joan Osborne sang, “What if God was one of us/just a slob like one of us/just a stranger on the bus trying to make his way home?” Too many have quit asking the “what if?” and simply say, “He is.”
We normalize God whenever we believe him aloof or when we think we have to put ourselves in time-out before approaching him. This is not what God says. He says we can approach him, but only through the means he’s given, for “No man comes to the Father but through [Jesus]” (John 14:6). You can whisper to Mother Mary all day long, but you don’t come to him through the Holy Mother; you only put another link in the chain of domestication between you and your Holy God. He is not aloof, withholding good (himself) from us like Eve believed. God is, as Paul said, not far from us, for in him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). Luther knew God was wild, yet the kind of wild where the zoo has us in the cage with the lion, and so he said, “Sin boldly.” Sin, knowing the lion is near, yet not devouring you for your sin. His appetite is satisfied by his Son. He wasn’t advocating licentiousness. He was advocating a bigger view of God than you could imagine—a God who sustains you even in the midst of your sin and therefore would never turn you away when you come to him after.
We think we really know him and have him “figured out.” Such belief normalizes him. This is Eve-Thinking. We can’t comprehend God; apprehend him, yes, but there is a difference. What kind of a God would forgive sin? Is this a God you could have dreamed? He says he would, and only he could, because of his holiness (Hos 11:1-9). I don’t understand this. An aloof understandable God wouldn’t do such things towards us, and we cannot comprehend a God who takes such actions. How can we domesticate a God who can play with the human heart and knows our thoughts (Ex 9:8-12; Ez 36:26-27; Mt 9:4)?
What kind of God is this?
We domesticate God when we believe he is manageable. Who would dare manage a God who draws leviathan out with a hook (Job 41:1)? Who stretches the expanse in the sky (Gen 1:6-8)? Who knows every hair of our rebellious heads, and doesn’t kill us where we stand (Lk 12:7)? He could, you know. And he would still be just (Rom 3:4).
We domesticate God when we refuse to listen to what he says. We do this far too often. We pick and choose what parts of the Bible we want. We tolerate preachers who preach only what they want to preach (we call it, “topical preaching,”). Have you ever considered how a steady diet of this lets both the preacher and the congregation avoid the tough, controversial, and uncomfortable parts of Scripture? Yet oddly, the dangerous God of the Scripture has given every verse for our benefit (2 Tim 3:16-17). Have you normalized God’s speech?
Whatever else you have done to God, we do—and you can—turn to him continually for forgiveness. We each struggle with the sins of Adam and Eve. We each must come to face this God.
We give thanks that he is most assuredly good, having provided a sacrifice in his Son to bring such rebels back to him (Rom 7:21-25). It is through him, not our own conceived methods, that we are received and summoned into the King’s presence (Rom 5:1-2). This wild God has made it possible to rejoice when we suffer because he doesn’t leave us to our domesticating selves, but pours his own wild love into our hearts (Rom 5:3-5) evicting death (2 Cor 5:17). He goes further than pouring love into our struggling hearts, for he promises that all sensory input is not as real as He, and one day we will be received by Him (Lk 22:19; Rev 21:1-22:7). Between the love we have now and the reality we will have then, he promises that God is still wild, but we are wild with him, sharing in his nature, and so can draw near to him in a wonderful, awe-filled fear. He will not devour us. He embraces us (Heb 10:19-39).
G.K. Chesterton once talked about the rigidity of civilization. He spoke of the home and family being the only wild place in a constricting, domesticated world. A man must be domesticated to walk about the world, go to work, the store, the post office. But not at home. At home, with family and children, a man can hold a broomstick and pretend to fly to the stars; pick up a stick and slay dragons under chairs and in closets; sit on the floor on all fours and bark like a dog. Any such behavior outside his home will end his life as he knows it and get him thrown into the sanitarium. At home, though, Man is free to be wild. He is free to be like God, the one he was made to reflect. The Scriptures call us back to the way we were meant to live: wild lives of faith, and paint a picture for us of a God who inspires and, more than this, makes possible a wild worship of him.
We do not serve an unexceptional, normalized God. We serve a wild, holy, wonderfully awesome God.