Leader, have you Normalized God?

When you hear someone say, “God,” it evokes many images and thoughts. Yet for a Christian leader, without a clear biblical understanding of God, leadership lacks power. Recently I read the newly released book, Yawning at Tigers: You Can’t Tame God, So Stop Trying (Thomas Nelson) by Drew Dyck, managing editor of Leadership Journal. It is a beautiful written, thought provoking book about how God beckons us to see Him afresh. I highly recommend it for anyone, especially leaders. I asked Drew to write a guest post about the book and I’ve included it here.

There are no experts on God

Not me. Not you. Not your pastor or the theology professor with two PhDs.

Merriam-Webster defines an expert as “one with the special skill or knowledge representing mastery of a particular subject.”

Have you ever met someone who possesses “mastery” on the topic of God?

Me neither.

While we know enough about God to receive salvation and enter into a relationship with him, our knowledge of him is still far from complete. Our intelligence is too small, our language too limited. When it comes to God, we’re all beginners. Yet this very realization—that we cannot fully understand God—is crucial to even beginning to understand him.

The early church father Gregory of Nyssa compared contemplating God’s nature to standing at the edge of a sheer cliff with no foothold. He wrote:

 The soul . . . becomes dizzy and perplexed and returns once again to what is natural to it, content now to merely know this about the Transcendent, that it is completely different from the nature of the things which the soul knows.

We might assume knowing God simply includes getting all our facts about him straight. But maybe the first step is vertigo, a holy disorientation. Perhaps only once we’ve been shocked out of our normal way of processing reality—categorizing it, mastering it—can we hope to gain even a glimpse of God’s awesome power and beauty. Even C. S. Lewis, arguably the most brilliant Christian of the last century, speculated that “half our great theological and metaphysical problems” would be too confused to even have answers. “How many hours are in a mile? Is yellow square or round? Probably half the questions we ask . . . are like that.”

Our attempts to describe God stretch the limits of human language. The best descriptions seem to veer toward the superlative and abstract. Theologians describe God as the ground of all being, the uncaused first cause, the overwhelming mystery.

How could we possibly hope to comprehend such a Being? Our brains are too puny, our resources too limited. The moment we think we have God figured out is the instant of our greatest confusion.

As the Dominican priest Victor White wrote:

So soon as we become satisfied with any picture of God, we are in danger of idolatry: of mistaking the comprehensible image for the reality, of losing the numinous, the mystery, the transcendent majesty of God. So soon as, consciously or unconsciously, we suppose we have grasped God, he must elude us, for he is always beyond the furthermost advance we make in knowledge about him.

Don’t get me wrong. We can feel God’s presence and receive his love. We can know him, but that’s only possible because, in a stunning display of mercy, he chose to reveal himself to us in ways we could understand. However, possessing this modicum of knowledge should never be confused with comprehensive understanding. Ultimately, when it comes to God, we’re like ants crawling across an iPad: in touch with something we only faintly understand.

Literary critic Jonathan Culler defined poetry as “the making strange of language.” What does he means by “making strange”? Simply that, in poems, words draw attention to themselves. With other kinds of reading (an instruction manual, for instance) words serve merely to convey information. But in poetry words become the stars. They don’t disappear behind their meaning. Instead, through literary devices such as meter, rhyme, repetition, and structure, poetry “foregrounds language itself: makes it strange, thrusts it at you—Look! I’m language!”

The Bible does the same thing for God. It thrusts God at you, saying, “Look! This is God!” It makes God strange. Not strange in a bad way but in the most basic sense of the word—unfamiliar, other, outside the range of our knowing.

Unfortunately, in our efforts to make the Bible interesting and relevant, we try to normalize God. We become experts at taking something lofty, so unfathomable and incomprehensible, and dragging it down to the lowest shelf. We fail to account for the fact that God is neither completely knowable nor remotely manageable.

This habit is not confined to the pews. Those of us who lead can be the worst. Preaching professor John Koessler writes of the tendency for preachers to “normalize the outrageous in Scripture.” There’s a temptation to flatten out the divine portrayals in the Bible to make God more palatable to our audience. We’re in desperate need of leaders who will resist this temptation and teach the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27), holiness included.

Here’s the beautiful irony: making God strange actually enables us to know him more. Once we have marveled at his magnitude and mystery we are able to achieve the deep intimacy that grows out of a true appreciation for who God is. Instead of treating him as an equal, we approach him with reverent awe. Only when we’ve been wonderstruck by his majesty can we be overwhelmed by his love.

This post was excerpted from Yawning at Tigers: You Can’t Tame God, So Stop Trying (Thomas Nelson). For more information visit yawningattigers.com

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