Stop Apologizing for God
When I got my hands on the new ESV Reader’s Bible, I opened first to Ezekiel. I’m not sure why, except I’d long neglected this book, and it seemed like a good one simply to read straight through, unhampered by headings and chapter and verse numbers.
When I came to the end of Ezekiel, I started over. And then I read it a third time.
Each time I was more struck by the rawness of the book. The prophetic books (like the prophets themselves) are jagged. Ezekiel is abrasive. The images of God are forceful, even when they are sometimes too incredible for the human imagination to picture. Some scenes seem like something out of a sci-fi movie. Other scenes are unvarnished street theater. At all times the book startles with symbolism and heartbroken laments, weighing the reader down under the weight of God’s holy transcendence, almost to the point where we will shatter. And then, in the turn of a moment, God’s steadfast love draws close and promises to dwell with his people, even to dwell inside his people.
I finish Ezekiel a third time, my mind still swirling, look over at my stack of new books fresh off the printing press from Christian publishers, page through a few of them, but nowhere find a glimpse of the God of Ezekiel I had only a moment beheld.
Except for one. There’s one title that reads differently. Yawning at Tigers: You Can’t Tame God, So Stop Trying is a book written by Drew Dyck, the managing editor of Leadership Journal. It’s a book that reclaims the awesome God of Ezekiel.
Good — But Not Domesticated
As Dyck’s title indicates, the living God of the universe is untamable. He’s good, but he isn’t safe. Try to subdue him, and you might lose an arm, or worse.
The living God of the Old Testament roars like a lion (Isaiah 31:4; Jeremiah 25:30; Hosea 11:10; Joel 3:16; Amos 1:2).
The living God of the New Testament is the Lion of Judah (Revelation 5:5).
As Michael Horton says, “Nobody today seems to think that God is dangerous. And that is itself a dangerous oversight.”
It’s dangerous because before we yawn at God, we must first replace the majestic, holy, awesome Tiger of Scripture with a domesticated kitten, conformed to the standards of the world, measured by the yardstick of political correctness. Who wants a God who roars, who threatens, who judges? Why not rather fashion a god in our taste — a friendly god we can pet, leash, and export for popular appeal?
Perhaps it was the flavor of Ezekiel that prepared me for it, but Yawning at Tigers is exactly what the Christian publishing industry needs, a humble but prophetic book pointing out the folly of Christians who have grown bored with the god they invented — who displays no wrath, has lost its majestic holiness, would never call for blood, and who has been sanded over smooth — a god you’d never find in the pages of Ezekiel, a god perfectly tame and safe.
Dyck knows better. Our worship and our lives and our holiness and our joy demands that we worship a God we dare never trifle with. To know we are truly loved, Isaiah 6 must bring us down to the floor on our knees before the majesty of God.
People only yawn at God because we have replaced the majestic Tiger of the Bible with a friendly god we can pet.
Dyck writes, “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” (39).
He is not like us, and assuming he should be like us discloses our terrible ignorance (Psalm 50:21). “We are tempted to project our humanity onto God,” Dyck explained in a recent interview. “We assume that God’s wrath is akin to us throwing a childish fit. Of course, God’s wrath, as explained in the Bible, is a perfect and holy wrath, different from our sinful anger as night is from day. So when God kills someone in the Bible, we can’t accept that, because we imagine how wrong it would be for us to kill someone. But we fail to account for the fact that God has every right to take a life, because he gave it in the first place. As a culture we work hard to establish parity, equality among people, and that is very good, but then we project that toward the heavens and say: God, you have to play by the same rules we do.”
He doesn’t. God is God: he makes decisions on his own initiative and without explaining them all to us (Romans 9:20). When we confine God within parameters, we don’t limit God, but we do undercut our own spiritual life and mission in five ways.
1. Boredom with God Will Cost Us Our Worship
The reality, the tragedy, is that we all yawn at God at some point in time. “Our spiritual lives just become sort of routine, lackadaisical, and we go through the motions,” Dyck says. “We don’t stop ever to think: ‘The God we worship is the God of Isaiah 6, high and lifted up, the God before whom people fell as though dead.’ We need to be reminded of the dramatic majesty of God so we do not get lackadaisical before this great and holy God.
“The cruel irony of choosing God’s love over his holiness is that we end up losing both. If we are not talking about the great and majestic God “who dwells in unapproachable light,” then his love loses meaning (1 Timothy 6:16). We need to maintain his holiness in order to truly appreciate the magnitude of his love.” These knotted truths — God’s holiness and his love — find their most profound union at the cross of our Savior.
Bottom line, if we lose the magnificence of God’s holiness, we lose our worship.
2. Boredom with God Will Cost Us Our Purity
Once we yawn at the thrice holy Tiger, we’re likely to embrace a squishy sex ethic. Apathy that shrugs at fornication or homosexual practice is a diss on God’s glory. Without God’s transcendent holiness, personal holiness gets fuzzy fast.
“If we don’t see God as holy, if we only see him as loving and accepting, we will engage in all sorts of behaviors that we think we can get away with, because God is not really that serious about sin. He is more into acceptance and tolerating our behavior.”
In every heart remains a deep-seated desire to stand in the presence of a holy and transcendent God.
God’s holy transcendence not only protects us from laziness in our ethics; it also empowers us for personal change. “I think a lot of people out there have tried a lot of different things to change themselves. They have consumed every self-help book that has come along to find the secret. They have prayed a formulaic prayer. Ultimately, of course, it doesn’t work. What I would like to say to those people is: What if what’s missing from your life are the deep things of God? What if only a ravishing vision of God’s holiness and love will ultimately make the difference in your life?”
3. Boredom with God Will Cost Us Our Mission
The transcendence of God fuels our mission. This is right out of Isaiah 6, too. “Although initially Isaiah is overwhelmed and terrified and unable to even speak, he ends by saying, ‘Here I am! Send me’ (Isaiah 6:8). He has this new willingness to accomplish God’s mission because he has seen a great and holy God. And I think it is the same with us. When we see God for who he really is, fulfilling his mission in the world is no longer a dreaded duty. It becomes a delight. We are energized to do his mission.
“As unpopular or uncomfortable as it might be to speak of a dangerous God, it is crucial we do so,” he reiterates in the book. “Not only because we need an accurate view of God. And not merely because we wish to reap the incredible rewards promised to those who fear the Lord. Seeing God as dangerous is essential to how we live. As children of our Father in heaven, we, too, are called to be dangerous. I’m not talking about being violent or destructive. But like God, we should be dangerous to evil and injustice, a holy threat to anything that preys on the innocent, crushes the powerless, and enslaves people to sin” (60).
If our God is not dangerous, how will we prove dangerous to sin and evil? Our mission is at stake.
4. Boredom with God Will Cost Us Our Place in God’s Global Work
Once our boredom with God costs us our worship and our missional energy, it will then cost us our place in God’s global work. Knowing Dyck studies trends in the church, is he optimistic or pessimistic about whether the church in America can recover the transcendence of God?
“I would say I am not optimistic, but I am hopeful.”
He explains why in three concurrent trends.
First, the bad news. In America, 34% of people under 30 now claim “no religion,” a three-fold increase from just a few decades ago.
“If there is a silver lining, I think that we will see a smaller, more committed core of Christians emerging. We are seeing the death of nominalism, name-only-Christianity in North America. Being a Christian is just no longer what you do to be a good American. There’s no social pressure to go to church. It is perfectly acceptable to mow the lawn and drink martinis instead. And so I think we are going to see a smaller, purer core.”
What if only a ravishing vision of God’s holiness and love will ultimately make the difference in your life?
He ends with the most encouraging trend. “In the global church we are seeing a fluorescence of faith that we haven’t seen since the book of Acts. In China, some have predicted that within 20 years, 1-in-3 people could be Christians. In Africa, where 100 years ago 10% of Africans identified as Christians, today it’s 54%. In South America, whole cities are being swept with revival. God is on the move. Jesus promised he would build his church, and the gates of hell wouldn’t stand (Matthew 16:18). The 1990s marked the greatest gathering of people into the church in the history of the church.”
When it comes to proclaiming God as he has revealed himself in Scripture, the American church may be getting left in the dust.
5. Boredom with God Will Cost Us Our Relevance
Finally, as Dyck sees the fruit of gospel ministry internationally, and sees new opportunities around the globe and here at home, he is less interested in trying to correct the ceaseless stream of manufactured caricatures in domesticated gods being fashioned in America and Britain.
“I’m done apologizing for God,” he says. “Every few months an atheist writes a book accusing God of being mean, and somehow simultaneously nonexistent. Then we spill gallons of ink in response trying to defend God’s actions. I’m not trying to bash on apologists, because I think what they do is crucial. My beef is that after we get through explaining away every passage in the Bible where God seems mean, he comes off as hapless or misunderstood.
“I would rather just say: Hey, listen. God is dangerous. That is the way the Bible portrays him. You don’t have to like it. You can deny his existence. You can pet him if you like — just don’t expect your arm back. I’m done trying to explain God’s dangerous qualities away, because some of it isn’t explainable, and because at some level we must simply accept the way he has chosen to reveal himself.”
The Relevance of Transcendence
Putting God behind the cage of political correctness isn’t going to happen. The attempt itself will prove to be the death of our worship, our gospel, our mission, and our holiness. In the end we make ourselves trivial.
People grow bored with the god they invent, a perfectly tame and safe god, a god you never find in Scripture.
“I think in every heart there remains a deep-seated desire to stand in the presence of a holy and transcendent God,” Dyck says. “People are thirsty for transcendence. They need to hear about a holy God. And even if they deny that they are sinful, I think deep down they know that they are — they know they need the grace and mercy of a holy God.”
God is not a kitten. He’s a tiger. He’s good, but he’s not tame. He is the God we find in Ezekiel. If we choose to live in denial, our worship will weaken, our standards of purity will diminish, our mission will skid to a halt, our message will be hollowed out, and our part in God’s global work will become more and more trivial.
Cultural irrelevance may not be the worst consequence of yawning at God, but it’s certainly one of them.