The Heights of Heaven: Can We Really Know God?

“As the heavens are higher than the earth,” says the Lord, “so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts [higher] than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9).  How can human minds comprehend an infinite God?  Isaiah’s writing only emphasizes the virtually immeasurable distance between God and His creation.  David sings of “One who sits enthroned on high,” a God “who stoops down to look on the heavens and the earth” (Psalm 113:5-6).

In the face of such distance and such difference, God seems completely unknowable.  There’s little wonder that for the last century or so, our culture has insisted that “God” can be nothing more than the invention of our culture—a projection of human imaginings and a quest toward wish fulfillment.  And if that is indeed the case, then who are we to decide whose religion is truly right or wrong?  More to the point, how can God’s people be so confident that the God of Christianity is true?

IMMANENCE VS. TRANSCENDENCE

The questions we’re asking revolve around a prominent theme in Christian study.  The questions contrast what we might call God’s immanence and God’s transcendence.  Don’t let the words throw you.  For God to be “transcendent” means He is above and beyond creation; He exceeds the limits of human understanding.

But we also affirm that God is “immanent,” meaning He chooses to reveal Himself to us in specific ways.  So while Isaiah records that God’s thoughts surpass our own, He also tells us that God has chosen to speak to His people so that we might understand Him:

10 “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10-11)

We call the study of God “theology.”  At its simplest, the word theology comes from the Greek words theos (meaning “God”) and logos (meaning “word” or—in common usage—“study of”).  Theology is the study of God.  We might say that theology is the story we tell about God and His relationship to all creation.  When we study God Himself, we call this “theology proper,” referring more specifically to the story we tell about God and His nature and character.  Why “story,” you ask?  Because it’s not enough to treat God as a set of disconnected pieces, nor should we consider God’s character traits outside the realm of His activity.  Like a story we must understand how the pieces of information about God can be organized into a meaningful picture of who He is and what He is up to.

SPIRITUAL KNOWING

There is a temptation, of course, to play by society’s rules when it comes to “doing” theology.  Theology becomes reduced to a set of principled arguments.  If the modern world denied the relevance of God, then surely it must be up to the Church to “prove” the reality of God.

The thing is, I don’t know that God can be “proven”—at least not in our modern sense—nor does He need to be.

To the Church in Corinth, Paul makes an extended argument about the capacity for God to reveal Himself in ways that defy our usual appeals to human wisdom:

6 Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. 7 But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9 But, as it is written,

“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the heart of man imagined,
what God has prepared for those who love him”—

10 these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 11 For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God.13 And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.

14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15 The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. 16 “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:6-16)

Do you understand what Paul is trying to argue here?  Paul’s audience was made up of people who’d come to organize their faith around their favorite pastors and public speakers.  But Paul was saying we should not anchor our faith in the cleverness of human arguments nor in the charisma of our pastors.  What, then?  Paul tells us that it is God’s Spirit that enables us to know God personally.  The knowledge of God comes from none other than God Himself.  This is why Jesus Himself taught a religious leader named Nicodemus that God’s Spirit, like the wind, “blows wherever [He] pleases” (John 3:8).  There is something deeply surprising—nay, truly miraculous—about the regenerative knowledge of God that can only come from God Himself.

A GOD WHO KNOWS US

As strange as this sounds, God indeed chooses to reveal Himself in this unique way to people, and cultivate faith in ways that can only register surprise.  John Shore, writing for the Huffington Post, tells of how he moved from being a “rabid anti-Christian” to becoming a convert through a surprising encounter he had with God in the course of a workday:

“…one day I was sitting at my desk at work…when this feeling started coming over me that in about four seconds had my undivided attention….I wasn’t the great, honorable person I started out to be, that I’d meant to become –that I actually thought I was. I was just another guy so busy thinking he’s constructing the perfect home that he doesn’t realize how long ago he stopped using a level….The worst part was that, accompanying that less-than-peachy view of myself, was the very real knowledge that I was never, ever, ever going to change….I wasn’t going to get better. I wasn’t going to become stronger, or wiser, or smarter, or more honorable. It just wasn’t going to happen….

So I’m kneeling there, blinded by my sad, stupid little fate, when, from up and off to my left, I hear a disembodied voice say something:…“Isn’t this what Jesus is for?”…

And do you know what I knew at that moment—what instantly imprinted itself upon me? That the story of Jesus is historically true. That it happened. That God, desiring above all else to show the people he’d created that he loved them, became a human, and came to earth, and sacrificed himself, and in every way did every thing he possibly could to show people exactly how deeply and terribly he loves them….It wasn’t, like, wisdom at all. I wasn’t suddenly filled with the Mind of God, or anything like that. My soul didn’t light up. Angels didn’t sing for me…All that had changed was that I was now sure that the story of Christ, about which I had always scoffed (if I ever thought of it at all), was true.”

Every other field of study represents a subject that you can master.  If I study biology, it’s because of my intent to master the study of life.  If I study psychology, it’s because of my desire to master the knowledge of the human soul.  If I study mathematics, it’s because of an attempt to master a particular skill set.  But theology isn’t a subject we can ever master; to study theology is to allow God to master us. 

I pray that’s true of each of us throughout this series.

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Why celebrate anything? (Isaiah 55:1)

Ya know, sometimes we’re just desperate for an excuse to eat cake.  If you visit timeanddate.com, you’ll quickly learn that there’s basically a holiday for almost every day of the calendar year.  Some are celebrated by select religions; others are observed only within certain states.  But nationally, we have a variety of holidays that, well…kinda make you want to lie down for a while.  We can name just a few:

  • Talk like a pirate day (September 19)
  • National hairball awareness day (April 29)
  • Don’t cry over spilled milk day (February 11)
  • Bad poetry day (August 18)
  • National corn dog day (March 22)
  • Festival of sleep day (January 3)
  • Peculiar people day (January 10)
  • Take your plants for a walk day (July 27)

There’s apparently also an “eat what you want day” on May 11, though I think we can all agree that this day is basically every major holiday.

We celebrate, we relish the transformation from mere homo sapiens to homo ludens—humans at play.  We gather to celebrate holidays, birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, baby showers, retirement—even funerals can be at least something of a bittersweet celebration.

We could say it in reverse: how many people celebrate privately?  Isn’t there something to the old saying: “The more the merrier?”  There’s an energy, a liveliness that we experience when a group of people gather to share joy.  And that’s just it, isn’t it?  Try to capture joy all for yourself, and it sinks to the floor like a Mylar balloon.  Joy finds levity when it is shared, when it is nurtured in the presence of others.

In a recent piece for the Wall Street Journal, Alain de Botton notes that an increasing number of non-religious people are making a beeline for the doors of traditional churches.  Why?  Because they recognize that something happens in a spiritual community that can’t happen anywhere else.  He notes that this makes religious communities vastly different from, say, a restaurant:

“The large number of people who patronize restaurants suggests that they are refuges from anonymity and coldness, but in fact they have no systematic mechanism for introducing patrons to one another…Patrons tend to leave restaurants much as they entered them, the experience having merely reaffirmed existing tribal divisions. Like so many institutions in the modern city (libraries, nightclubs, coffee shops), restaurants know full well how to bring people into the same space, but they lack any means of encouraging them to make meaningful contact with one another once they are there.” (Alain de Botton, “Religion for Everyone,” The Wall Street Journal, February 18, 2012)

His point comes down to this: we may share an experience with others, but these experiences fail to nourish the soul-level cravings in the same way as traditional religion.

A celebration, it seems, is only as powerful as what it celebrates.  Throughout the Hebrew scriptures, God’s coming kingdom is described as (among other symbols) something of a banquet—a party, if you will. One of my favorite passages on this subject comes from the lips of Isaiah, one of God’s messengers some seven centuries before the birth of Jesus:

“Come, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price. (Isaiah 55:1)

In a very real sense, the gospel is the greatest party invitation of all.  And unlike the various (and occasionally bizarre!) celebrations of this present world, God’s kingdom offers a way of satisfying our greatest desires in ways no other experience can duplicate.

Free Gift (Isaiah 55)

Has this ever happened to you?  You need something.  You go shopping.  But once you enter the store, you realize you can’t afford anything they sell.

I can remember a few years ago I needed a pair of dress shoes.  So I found myself entering a shoe store at the local outlet mall.  At the door, I was greeted by a pair of grandmotherly-types who welcomed me to the otherwise-empty store, and handed me a piece of butterscotch candy to enjoy while I perused their wares.  But as I did so, I discovered two things: (1) I thought all their shoes were weird (tassels? People like tassels?) and (2) the cheapest pair they sold started at around $75 or so—though most were significantly more.  So there I was.  No intention—or financial means—to make a purchase, trying to avoid eye contact with the pair of salesladies, grinning ear to ear as they watched their sole customer enjoy their butterscotch candy, seemingly unaware that he was fake shopping so as not to appear ungrateful.

It was awkward.

And the truth is, I can’t help but wonder if that’s how a lot of people feel about church.  I mean, there’s no shortage of churches handing out butterscotch candy, is there?  I’ve lived in Dallas—the nightmarish capital of the evangelical world—so I’ve seen some of the absurdity that abounds.  Gyms.  Ferris wheels.  Some churches have even given away things ranging from gasoline to electronics.  At tax season, some churches even offer shredding services, sure to cater to those ranging from savvy professionals to corrupt bureaucrats.

Here’s the problem: you enjoy those services for so long, until you start to realize what the cost really is.  Soon you begin to hear about what God expects from you, and if the gospel is absent what you’re left with is a pile of moralistic demands.  If you’re good, you hear, God will love you. 

If I’m good?  Well, in today’s evangelical culture that means not just abstaining from the big sins like pornography and Disney movies,  but also paying the cost that comes from Christian culture.  Christian radio, Christian films, Christian music, Christian coffeehouses, Christian schools, Christian gyms (yes; those exist)—and once you join a small group (usually with a name like JUICE or VOLT or TRANCE or something) you’d better get working on your Christian lingo, ranging from “quiet time” to “guarding your heart,” after which you pray for something called “traveling mercies” even though you live two blocks away.

And I think that a lot of people come, enjoy the butterscotch, but they end up fake-shopping because they don’t want to shatter the smiles of the people that brought them in the door.  But deep down, it’s hard to really “buy in” to the culture of the church when you feel like there’s nothing in your pocket that allows you to afford it.

Enter the gospel.

SAVED BY GRACE

Remember that Isaiah is talking about what life would look like if God reigned completely—on earth as it is in heaven, so to speak.  And, as we already noted, this is what life will look like in the new heavens and the new earth.

I love this passage, because what better way to illustrate the free gift of God’s grace:

“Hey, all who are thirsty, come to the water! You who have no money, come! Buy and eat! Come! Buy wine and milk without money and without cost!  2 Why pay money for something that will not nourish you? Why spend your hard-earned money on something that will not satisfy? Listen carefully to me and eat what is nourishing! Enjoy fine food!  3 Pay attention and come to me! Listen, so you can live! Then I will make an unconditional covenantal promise to you, just like the reliable covenantal promises I made to David.  4 Look, I made him a witness to nations, a ruler and commander of nations.”  5 Look, you will summon nations you did not previously know; nations that did not previously know you will run to you, because of the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he bestows honor on you. (Isaiah 55:1-5)

Grace.  It’s an incredible gift.  Isaiah didn’t even have the full picture in his day.  When we pause to consider the way Christ’s blood paid the debt of sin, we easily see how the gospel leads to great joy.  I experience God’s blessing not because I could “afford” it, but because it was secured for me through the blood of Jesus.

TRANSFORMED BY GRACE

But, you might object, surely God doesn’t just want us to remain as we are.  Surely he wants us to worship him with pure hearts and not stained garments.  And you’re right.  The problem is, we often think that means working really hard.

Martin Luther, the great sixteenth-century reformer, once compared the Christian life to building a house.  We allow Jesus to lay the foundation; then we wait for Moses to come finish the job.  In other words, people see Jesus as the ticket “in.”  Once we’re “saved,” we rely on God’s Laws to make us better.  But if we are saved by grace alone, how can we be transformed except through grace?

6 Seek the LORD while he makes himself available; call to him while he is nearby!  7 The wicked need to abandon their lifestyle and sinful people their plans. They should return to the LORD, and he will show mercy to them, and to their God, for he will freely forgive them.  8 “Indeed, my plans are not like your plans, and my deeds are not like your deeds,  9 for just as the sky is higher than the earth, so my deeds are superior to your deeds and my plans superior to your plans.  10 The rain and snow fall from the sky and do not return, but instead water the earth and make it produce and yield crops, and provide seed for the planter and food for those who must eat.  11 In the same way, the promise that I make does not return to me, having accomplished nothing. No, it is realized as I desire and is fulfilled as I intend.”  12 Indeed you will go out with joy; you will be led along in peace; the mountains and hills will give a joyful shout before you, and all the trees in the field will clap their hands.  13 Evergreens will grow in place of thorn bushes, firs will grow in place of nettles; they will be a monument to the LORD, a permanent reminder that will remain.

Everything here is described as a joyous song.   Even the trees clap their hands.  Isaiah says that the distance between us and God is the same as the distance between the earth and heaven itself.  And that’s why the gospel is so beautiful.  No one can reach that far.  The gospel says that God comes down to us in the person of Jesus.

So what does this have to do with our sanctification—that is, with the process by which we are made into Christ’s likeness?  Everything.  Because it means that if I labor to obey God out of a need for his acceptance, then I either feel frustrated when I fail, or arrogantly self-righteous when I succeed.  But if I trust in God’s gracious power through His Spirit, then I can experience joy as He brings me ever closer to His side, and ever shapes me into someone who resembles His character.