12 Guiding Principles of Pastoral Ministry

MEDION DIGITAL CAMERA

In my last post, I described the “what” of pastoral ministry. This time around, I want to address the “how.” How does one faithfully fulfill the calling to shepherd God’s people with the gospel of Christ?

But first, one word about why this matters. I don’t usually write about being a pastor. That is because pastors as such are not my target audience; there are many far wiser and more experienced shepherds who are far more qualified than I am to advise other pastors on how to fulfill their calling. My purpose in writing is to help Christians in general grow in Christ.

That said, understanding what pastoral ministry is all about is important for all believers, because all believers are called to a life under the care of pastors in the context of the local church. Knowing what the Bible says about pastors will help you shape your expectations of your current pastors and evaluate potential pastors when you are looking for a new church or considering a new pastor for your current church. And seeing the challenges and temptations that accompany ministry will help you care for and pray for the shepherds God has set over you, so that you may reap the full benefits of their joyful service (Hebrews 13:17).

So, guided by Scripture and with an eye to the needs of the church today, here are 12 principles that guide my approach to pastoral ministry.

1. I am called to proclaim God’s word, not my own. Whether preaching on a Sunday morning, leading a Bible study, or counseling a struggling believer, my message must be thoroughly shaped by the word of God. I believe that the best way to ensure this in my public preaching is to derive both the message and structure of each sermon from a particular passage of Scripture. As a general rule, I prefer to preach sequentially through an entire book of Scripture so that my hearers receive not my favorite topics, but the full scope of the word of God. For this to be true, I must first be continually shaped by Scripture myself. (1 Cor 2:1-5; 2 Tim 3:14-4:5)

2. Pastoral ministry is only one part of a life dedicated to Christ. Before I am a pastor, I am a Christian. My most fundamental calling is to know and glorify God in Christ, not to perform pastoral tasks. This calling includes ministry to my own family and the community at large as well as receiving God’s blessings. I may not allow the demands of the pastorate to crowd out these other facets of my life as a follower of Christ. (Col 4:17; 1 Tim 3:5)

3. I am called to humble and unreserved dependence. This is Christ’s ministry, not mine. Apart from him I can do nothing, but he is able to do infinitely more than all I can ask or think through the power of his Spirit. The knowledge of my weakness should humble me and drive me to my knees, while the knowledge of his sufficiency should give me such confidence and faith that I serve in ways that can only succeed if he is present in power. (John 15:4-5; 2 Cor 4:7; Eph 3:20-21)

4. Pastoral ministry is a shared responsibility. The pattern of the New Testament church is to have a team of elders who work together as peers in the pastoral oversight of the flock under their care. I must recognize that my fellow pastors (including full-time, part-time and unpaid pastor-elders) share equally in the same God-given calling and authority that has been given to me. We are thus accountable to one another, to the congregation as a whole, and to Christ, the Chief Shepherd. (Mark 10:42-45; Acts 14:23; 20:17; Phil 1:1)

5. I am called to do the work of a pastor, not of the whole church. The role of a pastor is to equip the church for the work of ministry, not to do ministry in place of the church. I have not received all the gifts of the Spirit, and I am neither called nor equipped to do the work of the entire body. I must therefore resist the temptation to try to do everything myself and refuse the expectations of others that I usurp the tasks of others to the neglect of my own proper work. Instead, I must invite and seek out other people who are gifted to perform particular kinds of service to the body, while I persist in equipping the whole body with the gospel motivation and biblical worldview that will enable each part to fulfill its God-given function. (Acts 6:1-4; Rom 12:3-8; 1 Cor 12:14-30;  Eph 4:7-16)

6. Our congregation is only one piece of the Church of Christ. Though God has given me the responsibility of serving a particular congregation, I must never forget that he has many more children outside our walls, both locally and globally. His purposes do not begin and end with our membership roster. Other gospel-affirming churches are not competitors, but partners in the same mission. We should thus be on the lookout for ways in which we can individually and corporately love, serve and commune with our brothers and sisters around town and around the world. (Rom 15:7-8, 25-27; 1 Cor 1:2; 14:33, 36; 2 Cor 1:1; Eph 6:18)

7. We should prioritize church multiplication. I am called to pursue the growth of the church of Christ, not necessarily the numerical growth of our particular congregation. In fact, a church that is faithfully sending out its people to plant new churches and carry the gospel to the nations may remain relatively small. Often such growth through multiplication of distinct congregations rather than accumulation of members under one roof may actually be better for the long-term health of the church. Instead of holding on to the growth God gives us, we should rejoice to become least and last by giving our growth away in gratitude to Christ who gave up everything for us. (Mark 10:41-45; John 3:22-30; Phil 1:12-18; 1 John 4:9-11)

8. I am called to serve joyfully, not for selfish gain. Shepherding God’s people is a privilege, not a means to power, wealth or esteem. My motive for service must always be the joy of seeing Christ glorified in the salvation and growth of his people, not my own self-interest and advancement. (1 Tim 3:3; 1 Pet 5:2)

9. I must seek Christ’s approval, not man’s. While I desire to serve God’s people, he alone is my Master. Whatever others may think of my performance, what matters is whether my ministry is pleasing in his eyes. I must always define success in ministry in terms of faithfulness to his call. (1 Cor 4:1-5; 2 Tim 4:1-8)

10. Pastoral ministry is about caring for and equipping people, not performing tasks and building programs. My goal is not simply to complete my assigned tasks; I want to make the biggest possible impact for Christ in the lives of the people around me. The structures, systems and services of our church can thus never be an end in themselves; they exist for people, not the other way around. We must constantly evaluate our habits, structures and culture to ensure we are genuinely meeting the needs (though not necessarily the wants) of those we are called to serve. (Mat 7:21-23; 23:23; Mark 2:23-27; 1 Cor 9:19-22)

11. I am called to work diligently for the growth of the church. If I truly desire to make the maximum possible impact on the church and the community, I must labor faithfully and wisely in the strength God provides. I will need the discipline to persist in the tasks before me, the discernment to plan, strategize and prioritize in light of the big picture, and the wisdom that begins with the fear of the Lord. We must sow and water diligently, but he alone gives the growth. (Acts 20:34-35; 1 Cor 3:5-9; 9:24-27; Col 1:24-29; 2 Tim 4:1-5)

12. Pastoral ministry entails suffering and sacrifice, but leads to joy. The life of a pastor is not an easy one, but it is eternally rewarding. I should expect to face demonic opposition, rejection by the world, betrayal, disappointment, temptation and all kinds of challenges. As I carry the word of Christ to those who need to hear it, I must not be surprised to find that my experience reflects the pattern of the Chief Shepherd, who suffered and died before entering into glory. So I am called to endure hardship for the sake of the joy of serving my Master, looking forward to the day when I will hear him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” (Mat 10:5-42; 25:21; Acts 20:28-32; Jam 3; 1 Pet 5:1-11)

Image credit: Jesper Noer, http://www.freeimages.com/photo/prayer-1497680

Advertisements

A Philosophy of Pastoral Ministry

old-bible-1246026

I feel called by God to serve him in pastoral ministry. So, over the past several years, I’ve spent a lot of time learning about and reflecting on the natural and purpose of ministry within the local church. Based on Scripture and guided by the helpful insights of those who’ve gone before me, here is what I think a pastor is supposed to do and be.

The Context of Pastoral Ministry

Pastoral ministry takes place within the particular divinely-appointed context of the church. A pastor does not minister in isolation; rather, he serves as one member of the body of Christ. Pastoral ministry thus cannot be understood apart from a clear grasp of the identity and mission of the church. I like to summarize this as follows:

  • the church is the new community of God’s redeemed people established in Christ Jesus and expressed in individual congregations which are all bound together in the unity of the Spirit;
  • this community exists to experience, express and extend to all people the amazing grace of Christ our Savior in the power of the Holy Spirit for the glory of God.

The work of a pastor takes place in the context of this new community and is directed to fulfilling this divine mission. Of course, this is true of every believer. We are all called to use our gifts to build up the body of Christ and make disciples. A pastor is just as loved and called by God as all his brothers and sisters – no more, and no less. Nevertheless, though a pastor is no more valuable to God, pastoral ministry does have a unique and crucial strategic role in enabling the church as a whole to fulfill its mission.

1 Cor 12; 1 Pet 2:9; Gen 12:2-3; Eph 2:6-10; 19-22; 3:10; Mat 28:18-20

The Purpose of Pastoral Ministry

Pastors are given by the Holy Spirit to equip particular congregations with the gospel of Jesus Christ for the growth of God’s church both in numbers and in maturity. A faithful pastor thus works and prays for more people to know Christ, and for people to know Christ more. These two aspects of growth naturally go together, for as God’s people see and know more of Christ and his saving work for them, their joy in their salvation will overflow into loving and effective witness to that salvation. The pastor’s continual task will thus be to proclaim the good news that God has responded to our sin and rebellion by graciously sending his Son into the world to become one of us, suffer and die in our place, and rise again so that all who trust in him may have peace with God and eternal life in his glorious kingdom.

Eph 4:7-16; Rom 1:15-16; Col 1:5-6, 19-29; 2:6-7; Acts 6:1-7

Responsibilities of Pastoral Ministry

As a shepherd of the flock of God under the Lordship of Christ, the Chief Shepherd, every pastor is called to equip the church for gospel growth through some combination of the following tasks:

  • Feeding the flock. The first and most important function of a pastor is to supply the flock with the life-giving food of the word of God. He must be able and faithful to preach the whole counsel of God rather than the doctrines of men. Because Christ is the center of all of Scripture, all preaching must feature the proclamation of the gospel. Because the gospel message of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is what gives and sustains spiritual life, this focus on the gospel must extend beyond public teaching to permeate every facet of pastoral ministry. Whether leading, tending or guarding, a pastor should always be proclaiming the word of Christ in dependence on his Spirit.
  • Leading the flock. Together with the other elders, a pastor is responsible to exercise wise and faithful oversight of the flock under his care. First and foremost, this involves exercising spiritual leadership of the congregation by pointing them toward Christ through biblical teaching and godly living. In addition, a pastor must labor alongside the other elders to discern the Spirit’s leading on behalf of the congregation in setting direction and responding to challenges and opportunities facing the church. When such matters should be considered by the congregation as a whole, the elders are responsible to facilitate the process of seeking the mind of the Spirit and to assist their brothers and sisters in making wise and biblical decisions.
  • Tending the flock. A pastor should pay careful attention to the spiritual needs of the entire flock under his care. As pastors, the elders should work together to ensure that each member receives spiritual care and direction, whether through one of the elders or through another trustworthy, mature believer. They should both invite and seek out the hurting, broken, confused and guilty and minister to them according to their needs. In particular, they should pray for and anoint the sick in the expectation of God’s gracious healing power on behalf of his children.
  • Guarding the flock. A faithful pastor will be aware of and ready to face the dangers that threaten the flock. The pastors must confront and rebuke sin, both privately and (when necessary) publicly as they lead the congregation in loving and honest discipline. They must also correct errors and refute false teaching, so that the church will not be led away from the truth of Christ. Above all, they must constantly watch over the flock in prayer, calling upon God to guard and protect his people from every attack of the evil one.

Mark 4:14-20; Luke 24:25-27, 44-47; John 21:15-17; Acts 6:2-4; 20:17-35; 1 Tim 3:1-7; 5:17; 2 Tim 3:14-4:5; Tit 1:5-9; Heb 12:12-15; 13:17; Jam 5:14-16

 

Image credit: abcdz2000, http://www.freeimages.com/photo/old-bible-1246026

Christ is Born: A New Christmas Carol

CardFront2013--ColorAdjusted.jpg

I love Christmas carols. From standards like “Joy to the World” and “What Child Is This” to lesser-known carols such as “The Wexford Carol” or “The Holly and the Ivy,” I love singing and listening to the traditional songs that celebrate the birth of Jesus.

This is a carol that I wrote a couple of years ago. Though the words are new, I tried to give it a traditional feel (the tune is from and old English drinking song), and I drew heavily on Scripture (mostly Luke 2, but also Isaiah and the Psalms). My hope is that it will move you to sing, celebrate, and rejoice in the amazing news of the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ.2013-christ-is-born

P.S. This carol is free to download. You may reproduce, use, perform, or distribute it as much as you like, provided that you do not charge for such services or make any changes without permission.

Image Credit: Rebecca Adeney, © 2013. Used by permission.

Save

From Longing to Rejoicing: Devotional Readings for Advent & Christmastide

Updated 11/29/2017: Last Spring I introduced a Seasonal Family Devotional Bookmark as a helpful tool. It includes the readings for Advent & Christmastide as well as Lent & Eastertide.

Updated 2/28/2017: After some beta testing, I’ve slightly revised this devotional plan to make some of the readings shorter and more suitable for reading in a single sitting.

Twelve days from now, Christians around the world will begin taking the the four weeks leading up to Christmas to observe the season of Advent. The name “advent” comes from the Latin word for “coming” (adventus). Advent is thus traditionally a time of preparation for the coming of Christ, both as a re-enactment of the expectation of believers in the Old Testament and as an expression of our continued longing for Christ’s second and final coming.

I really love both the anticipation of Advent and the celebration of Christmastide. This year, I’ve designed a new Bible reading plan to guide our family’s observance of this special time of the year. We’ll walk through the grand gospel story of how God prepared the way for the coming of his Son, from the promises to the patriarchs to the deliverance of Israel to the visions of the prophets, culminating in the good news of the birth of Jesus Christ. Along the way we’ll be infusing the New Testament descriptions of Christ as Lion and Lamb, Prophet and Priest, Son of David and Seed of Abraham, with the richness of their original Old Testament significance.

If you’re familiar with the Jesse Tree, this is basically the same idea. The key difference is that I’ve planned these readings to reflect the historic distinction between Advent and Christmastide. As I’ve already mentioned, Advent is traditionally a advent-1430862time of preparation, while Christmas is a time of celebration. But this doesn’t mean that we need to cram the whole party into December 25. Christmas Day is actually just the beginning of the season of Christmastide, which runs for a full twelve days (yes, that’s where the song comes from) leading up to the feast of Epiphany on January 6, which is usually associated with the visit of the Wise Men. (In some cultures, Epiphany is known as “Three Kings’ Day.”)

Advent is about longing; Christmastide is about fulfillment. During Advent, our family chants, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” every evening when we light our advent wreath. In Christmastide, we give each other gifts and sing, “Joy to the World, the Lord is Come!”

I find this distinction really helpful for keeping my focus on Christ during the holiday season. While all the world around is caught up in a frenzy of sentimentality leading up to a big crash on December 26,  we get to experience the rising anticipation of Advent culminating in a full twelve days of feasting to savor and celebrate the good news that the Promised One has finally come to save us and reconcile us to God.

In this new Bible reading plan, the weekdays of Advent are spent tracing the high points of the Old Testament story, while the Sundays highlight visions of the final coming of Christ. Then we spend Christmastide soaking in the first few chapters of Matthew, Luke, and John. Because Advent begins on the fourth Sunday preceding Christmas, it varies in length from 22 to 28 days, so I’ve designed this plan to be able to expand and contract by including several optional readings. As it happens, this year we get the longest possible Advent, so we’ll get to do all 28 readings!

In my last post, I noted the importance of gaining an understanding of the main storyline of the Bible. This reading plan can be one way of building and reinforcing that foundational perspective on the overarching message of Scripture. That’s a big part of why I’m looking forward to leading my family through these readings year after year. Because the Bible is God’s word, I take seriously my calling to feed my kids on it directly every day. We read a chapter of the Bible together every evening after dinner; if we keep it up, each of our kids will have been through the whole Bible three or four times before they leave the house. But, while I love getting my kids into direct contact with all of Scripture, I don’t want them to lose the forest for the trees. Taking a break every year to review the big picture should help us all keep our bearings as we dig into God’s word together.

If you’d like to join us on this journey, you are more than welcome. You can use this plan for either family or personal devotions, and you can even use it at other times of the year if you’re so inclined. If you’re interested in checking it out and giving it a try (or using it as a springboard for creating your own plan), you can download it here.

I hope and pray that reading these passages builds your anticipation of Christ’s coming and joy in the good news that the Lord has come. Let every heart prepare him room!

Image credit: Veronica Moore, http://www.freeimages.com/photo/advent-1430862

Making Sense of the Bible (including the weird parts)

You need the Bible. If you’re a parent, your children need the Bible too. I’ve written before about the importance of personal and family devotions.

But let’s be honest: the Bible can sometimes be hard to understand. I mean, if you stick to easier parts (most of the New Testament), it’s not so bad. But try making sense of the dietary laws, genealogies, obscure prophecies, and ancient battle records that make up a significant chunk of the Old Testament.

bible-1417720Many Christians, of course, simply avoid those parts of the Bible. They have their favorite books (or maybe just their favorite verses) that they return to again and again. But in this way, they effectively deny that the hard parts are really God’s word. Others, convinced that they really ought to read every part of the Bible, dutifully grit their teeth and force their way through the Leviticus part of their read-through-the-Bible-in-a-year plan, thankful that they can mostly just pay attention to the New Testament and Psalms as they do so.

This isn’t how it is supposed to be. After all, Paul was talking about the Old Testament when he said that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and is profitable for teaching, correcting, reproving, and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). All Scripture – not just the parts modern, western Christians find interesting – is not only inspired, but directly beneficial for our daily living. Even Leviticus.

The key to profiting from the reading of each part of Scripture is learning to see how it all connects to the whole. As we see the big picture – the central point and main themes – we can begin to work out how particular details that seem strange and irrelevant connect to the gospel, and thus to our own lives.

Because, as it turns out, the gospel of Jesus is the unifying center of the Bible. He is the goal of every passage from Genesis to Revelation. In fact, he says so himself: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:39-40). “And he said to them, ‘O foolish ones and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the prophets he interpreted for them the things concerning himself in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:25-27).

Too, often, we approach the Bible as if it were centered on us. This not surprisingly makes much of the Old Testament seem irrelevant and out of place. But when we approach Scripture as the story of Jesus, we begin to see how things fit together. We see how the events and people of the Old Testament are part of the process of how God brought us salvation through Christ. We see how particular elements of the biblical story foreshadow and reflect the great story at their center. We see why the authors of the New Testament keep bringing in the imagery and categories of the Old Testament to explain the Christ who has finally come.

This switch doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, reading the whole Bible as one great story centered on Jesus is a skill that cannot be mastered in a lifetime. But there are some good tools to help you get started on your way. For adults, God’s Big Picture by Vaughn Roberts is an excellent and approachable road map that charts the major thoroughfares of the Bible’s message. For children and their parents, David Helm’s Big Picture Story Bible is the best guide I know.

But, of course, these are supplementary tools. There is no substitute for sitting down day after day with God’s great story about Jesus.

Image Credit: zizzy0104, http://www.freeimages.com/photo/bible-1417720

VOTE FOR JESUS

70128-012_flag_and_sunlight

Unfortunately, Jesus Christ will not be on the ballot in my state. Or yours. But that shouldn’t stop us from voting for him.

Let me clarify: I’m not advocating writing in “Jesus Christ” on your ballot for President of the United States. For one thing, Jesus definitely wasn’t born as an American citizen, so he doesn’t meet the constitutional requirements. Far more importantly, it would be an insult to offer such a comparatively paltry and insignificant position to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

No, when I say that we should vote for Jesus, I mean it in the same sense as when someone says that we should work for Jesus or use our free time for Jesus or steward our resources for Jesus or do everything we do for Jesus. Because Jesus is Lord, we are called to devote every activity and all our energies to serve and honor him. Our political activities are no exception.

If you are a Christian, your first loyalty is not to an earthly nation, but to Christ and his kingdom. “But our citizenship is in heaven, from where we eagerly await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20). This does not mean that we should renounce all loyalty to the nation in which God has placed us; rather, we should promote and pray for the peace of this earthly city (Jeremiah 29:7), even as we recognize that it is not our ultimate home (Hebrews 13:14). After all, the apostle Paul was quite willing to submit to civil authorities and exercise his rights as a Roman citizen (Acts 22:22-29; 25:10-11). But his goal in doing so was to advance the kingdom of Christ. In the same way, we should utilize the rights we have as citizens of a democratic republic to speak and vote for the glory of Christ, not ultimately to advance our own interests or the interests or any other party or group.

I’m not going to tell you which candidate you should vote for this November. While few practicing Christians are thrilled with the options available to us this year, serious arguments have been put forward for a number of different voting strategies. While I have my own ideas about what is the best and wisest course, my concern is that, whoever you vote for, you vote for Jesus.

Here are a few suggestions on how we might do that.

1. Distinguish between proximate and ultimate goals. Though political action can and should be a means of serving Christ, our ultimate purpose and calling is not to politics, but to Christ. We must never mistake the means for the end. All too often Christians have acted as if Jesus had taught that the greatest commandment was to overturn Roe v. Wade, or as if his great commission to his disciples was to go into all the world and end violence against women. These surely are worthy and important goals, but they are not identical with loving God and neighbor and winning disciples for Christ. Whenever we treat such secondary ends as our ultimate purpose, we are guilty of idolatry. And in service to our idol, we may find ourselves sacrificing all other worthy goals, including our first order goals of worshiping God, loving our neighbor, and bearing witness to the gospel. No political power or legislative victory – not even gaining the whole world – is worth losing our souls (Mark 8:36).

2. Be honest about the weaknesses and sins of your own side. Admitting that your chosen candidate has major character flaws is not necessarily the best strategy for winning an election. But no election is worth sacrificing our integrity and undermining our moral credibility. We may honestly believe that a candidate is the least bad choice without condoning or minimizing the heinousness of their behavior. While this applies to every candidate – for all have sinned – the recent revelations of Donald Trump’s boasts of having sexually assaulted women with impunity are a particularly stark test of his supporters’ willingness to maintain moral credibility at the expense of political expedience. A few have managed both to support their candidate and to condemn his behavior. Many have not.

3. Treat those who disagree – especially other Christians – with love and respect. It is all too easy to condemn and despise people who express support for a candidate whom we regard as a danger to our society. But we should recognize that those who choose differently from us may not be ill-intentioned, even if they are sorely mistaken. It may be short-sighted to support a boastful and abusive demagogue because he has promised to appoint pro-life judges. It may be foolish to support a politician with a profoundly secularist agenda because at least she is wrong “within normal parameters.” It may be unrealistic to expend one’s vote on an independent candidate who has almost no chance of winning. It may be irresponsible to abstain from voting altogether. But, fraught as this particular election is, we must remember that voting is always a prudential choice between imperfect options. We should give those who choose differently from ourselves the benefit of the doubt. Even when it seems clear that a Facebook friend or public figure is acting out of idolatry or dishonesty, we should deal gently with their errors and hope and pray for their repentance (2 Timothy 2:24-26). Let us not wait until after the election to begin the work of healing and reconciliation in our fractured society.

4. Remember that we have other tools in our toolbox. While preserving and increasing the good in our society is a worthy and godly goal, choosing a president is not the only means we have for effecting social change. Take the pro-life movement. Overturning Roe v. Wade is an important goal, but there is so much more we can do to protect the unborn beyond the political arena. Indeed, unless we reduce the demand for abortion by fostering a culture of life (and making having a baby less of a social and financial burden), there will still be abortions, regardless of their legality. Whoever occupies the White House, we can support crisis pregnancy ministries, encourage generous benefits for new mothers, and seriously consider letting our own lives be disrupted by adopting or fostering children whose biological parents have been unable or unwilling to care for them. Similarly, there is so much we can do in our own churches and communities to welcome refugees, foster racial reconciliation, and prevent violence against women, no matter what policies our elected officials enact. Our votes are only one means for pursuing these goals for the glory of God.

5. Rejoice in hope. If you’re like me, you’ve experienced your fair share of anxiety surrounding the outcome of this election. The likelihood of a good outcome seems so remote that it is all too easy to slip into discouragement and despair. Our nation and society seem to be spiraling out of control, and there is so little we can do to stop its destructive course.

In times like these, I need to remember that Jesus is not worried. Our nation is not out of his control; he’s got the whole world in his hands. His kingdom is not shaken, and his throne is secure. Unlike the presidential candidates who fawn and flatter, he does not depend on our vote. We may offer it to him, then, as an act of love and trust, rejoicing to know that he is still working all things for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).

Image Credit: By VigilancePrime at English Wikipedia, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9017276

Who is this “God” person, anyway?

god2-sistine_chapel

If you asked the average American on the street (or perhaps on the couch, the more natural habitat of the American) what God looks like, they would probably say a dude with a white robe, a white beard, and long white hair. It’s the stock image of God found in every corner of our culture, from The Simpsons to Existential Comics to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (pictured).

Unfortunately, this picture is profoundly misleading.

Now, granted, there is some biblical basis for this imagery; the prophet Daniel, for instance, said that the “Ancient of days” of his vision was dressed in “clothing … as white as snow,” and that “the hair of his head was white like wool” (Daniel 7:9). On the other hand, the Bible consistently warns against taking such imagery literally and forbids making any images of God (e.g. Exodus 20:4-6; Deuteronomy 4:15-20). This is because making a physical object to represent God presents him as finite, local, comprehensible, controllable. And God is none of those things. The problem is not so much an inaccurate view of God’s hairstyle as a fundamental category error about the kind of entity God is.

We tend to imagine God as a kind of superhero – basically like us, but with superpowers. This Superhero God can do all kinds of amazing, miraculous things, altering the physical world at will. But Superhero God’s powers, however great, are not essential to his being in any way. He can interfere with the world or not, as he chooses, or even, as in the movie Bruce Almighty, hand them over to someone else – a familiar superhero trope. In this view, being “God” is more of a job than an identity. Sure, it’s a really important job; as Jim Carrey’s character discovered, someone with unlimited power needs unlimited wisdom to know how to use his power for the good of everyone. (As Peter Parker might say, “With great power comes great responsibility.”) But the most this does is make Superhero God the caretaker of the universe. He is not its Sovereign or Lord, and we naturally rebel against the notion that must obey such a being just because he is more powerful than we are.

It needs to be said that this notion of God is very different from the one taught by historic, biblical Christianity. The God of the Bible is not merely the most powerful being in the universe; he is the foundation on which the universe depends for its existence. This does not merely mean that God existed before the universe and got it going; rather, it is only by the will and power of God that any particle of the universe continues to exist.

This version of God appears throughout the Christian Bible. So we find the prophet Isaiah declaring that it is God’s power that keeps the stars appearing night after night after night (Isaiah 40:26). In the final heavenly vision of Revelation, God is declared worthy of worship because he both created and sustains “all things” (Revelation 4:11). And then there is the Apostle Paul, who defines God as the one “in whom we live and move and have our being” in a speech to the religious police in Greece (Acts 17:28) and as the one who “works all things according to the counsel of his will” in a letter to believers in Asia Minor (Ephesians 1:11). Even more emphatically, he declares that “in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). This is paralleled by the statement in Hebrews 1:3 that God’s Son “upholds the universe by the word of his power.”

The God of the Bible does not stand apart from the world, observing and occasionally interfering. He upholds it, sustains it, contains it. If he were to step aside or let go or allow his mind to wander, the universe would cease to exist. We need God for each moment of our continued existence. But God does not need us. He existed in eternal joy before creating the world, and he will one day bring this world to an end.

Of old you laid the foundation of the earth,

and the heavens are the work of your hands.

They will perish, but you will remain;

they will all wear out like a garment.

You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away,

but you are the same, and your years have no end. (Psalm 102:25-27)

Classic Christian theology thus includes in the definition of God the fact that he is “necessary,” while all other being is contingent upon him. This is not pantheism; creation is real and distinct from God. But it cannot exist apart from him, any more than a shadow can exist without something solid.

Set against this biblical backdrop, the Superhero God flexing his muscles on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is a ridiculously inadequate caricature. God is not like a man. He has no limitations, no weaknesses, no needs. He is the foundation on which all our contingent existence rests. The idea of God taking a break or handing over the management of the universe to someone else has all the absurdity of Elmer Fudd picking up the planks of the bridge he is walking across until he realizes his unsupported predicament and plummets to his doom.

Every moment is a gift from God. He not only planned it and created the laws and processes that would lead to it, but his direct action sustains and continues what his direct action began. Every move you make, every breath you take, every particle of your being is the outflow of the gracious power of a merciful and unfathomable Sustainer.

This is the answer to our objections to the biblical picture of God’s commands and judgments. When we think of God as just a more powerful version of ourselves, it is only natural that we would view his attempts to tell us what to do as arrogant bullying. Who does he think he is? Why doesn’t he mind his own business? But when we recognize the true nature of God, we cannot escape the conclusion that we are and must be his business if we are to be anything at all.

Asking God to leave us alone is like complaining that the air keeps pushing its way into our lungs or that the earth keeps holding us up. If God left us to our own devices, he would consign us to instant annihilation. And the miracle is that he does not. Even as we ignore him, deny him, reject his commands, misuse his gifts, abuse and harm his good creations, and mock his love, it is his long-suffering and merciful will that makes it possible for us to do so.

But there is more. God not only endures our rebellion and continually provides us with the existence we continually use to reject him; he offers us forgiveness and restoration to fellowship with him by taking the consequences of our sin on himself, dying on the cross in our place. And, as with all of God’s actions toward us, this incredible sacrifice was prompted not by necessity, but by love. The God who does not need us still wants us. The necessity which we reject in vain invites us to embrace him willingly and find in him an eternal and unquenchable source of life and joy.

Have you not known? Have you not heard?

The Lord is the everlasting God,

the Creator of the ends of the earth.

He does not grow tired or weary,

and his understanding no one can fathom.

He gives strength to the weary,

and increases the power of the weak.

Even youths grow tired and weary,

and young men stumble and fall,

but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.

They will soar on wings like eagles;

they will run and not grow weary,

they will walk and not be faint. (Isaiah 40:28-31)

 

Image Credit: Michelangelo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AGod2-Sistine_Chapel.png)