Not Safe, But Good

It stormed the other day in central Indiana. The clouds were layered in multiple shades of gray, ranging from off-white to nearly charcoal. It made me think of the picture at the top of this newly-redesigened blog, although today’s skies were much less dramatic than they were the day I took this photo (which, aside from the quote, is unretouched). The storms here can be much more violent than where I grew up, but the upside is how beautiful the clouds can be. Beautiful, but scary; kind of like God.

Which brings me to my favorite quote in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series – well, actually, I think it’s just about everyone’s favorite quote. When the Pevensie children first hear about Aslan, they are surprised to learn that he is a lion.

“Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he–quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”

“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver, “If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”

“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

– C. S. Lewis, The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe

Not safe. But good. The King. The sovereign Lord who is always good, even when He’s more than a little scary. We can trust Him completely, but we dare not presume that He is a pushover. For even though He is “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness” (Exodus 34:6; Psalm 103:8), He is still the Holy One, the righteous judge (Psalm 7:11; 2 Timothy 4:8), and “a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29).

I think one of the reasons God does not appear to be “safe” is that He’s far more concerned about our holiness than He is about our happiness, and our character is far more important to Him than our comfort. (I’m sure those phrases are not original with me, but I can’t dredge up the source from my middle-aged memory.) God is relentless in this regard; He’ll stop at nothing to shape us into the image of Christ. And that’s a scary thought, at least to me, because I’ve experienced a little of that relentlessness.

Every year our ministry runs a summer missions project for college students, and one year we decided the project theme would be “whatever it takes.” We soon learned that God would not let us teach something we could not live out. The sacrifices of time, effort and energy required to pull the project off that summer pushed us all to exhaustion. Knowing it was no coincidence, our team joke became, “Next year, our theme’s gonna be ‘peaceful, easy feeling’!”

It was definitely not a “safe” summer, but it was a good one. Lives were changed–the lives of our students, the lives of those who received Christ through their ministry, and the lives of those of us who taught, mentored, and administrated the project. Even though I was physically and mentally drained, probably more than I had ever been before, the reward of seeing God change us all was well worth the sacrifice.

Relentless. Beautiful, but scary. Not safe, but good.

This is our God.

Be Thou My Vision

In honor of St. Patrick, here is another of my favorite hymns. When this post originally went out on Friday, I unintentionally plagiarized, because I neglected to include the source of the following description! The Cyber Hymnal is a searchable online database of thousands of hymns, with lyrics, MIDI files, scores, pictures, history and more. I loved the story of Patrick at Slane Hill found on that website, so here (with correct attribution, this time!) is the entry for Be Thou My Vison from The Cyber Hymnal.

Words: Attributed to Dallan Forgaill, 8th Century (Rob tu mo bhoile, a Comdi cride); translated from ancient Irish to English by Mary E. Byrne, in Eri, Journal of the School of Irish Learning, 1905, and versed by Eleanor H. Hull, 1912, alt.

Music: Slane, of Irish folk origin. Slane Hill is about ten miles from Tara in County Meath. It was on Slane Hill around 433 AD that St. Patrick defied a royal edict by lighting candles on Easter Eve. High King Logaire of Tara had decreed that no one could light a fire before Logaire began the pagan spring festival by lighting a fire on Tara Hill. Logaire was so impressed by Patricks devotion that, despite his defiance (or perhaps because of it), he let him continue his missionary work. The rest is history.

Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart;
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art.
Thou my best Thought, by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.

Be Thou my Wisdom, and Thou my true Word;
I ever with Thee and Thou with me, Lord;
Thou my great Father, I Thy true son;
Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one.

Be Thou my battle Shield, Sword for the fight;
Be Thou my Dignity, Thou my Delight;
Thou my soul’s Shelter, Thou my high Tower:
Raise Thou me heavenward, O Power of my power.

Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise,
Thou mine Inheritance, now and always:
Thou and Thou only, first in my heart,
High King of Heaven, my Treasure Thou art.

High King of Heaven, my victory won,
May I reach Heaven’s joys, O bright Heaven’s Sun!
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
Still be my Vision, O Ruler of all.

Knowing God vs. Knowing About God

One of the concepts that spoke to me in J. I Packer’s Knowing God is that knowing God – having an intimate relationship with Him – is not the ssame thing as simply knowing about God. Since my temperament leans strongly toward thinking and analyzing, I need to be reminded of this truth.

…interest in theology, and knowledge about God, and the capacity to think clearly and talk well on Christian themes, is not at all the same thing as knowing Him. We may know as much about God as Calvin knew – indeed, if we study his works diligently, sooner or later we shall – and yet all the time (unlike Calvin, may I say) we may hardly know God at all…The question is not whether we are good at theology, or “balanced” (horrible, self-conscious word!) in our approach to problems of Christian living; the question is, can we say, simply, honestly, not because we feel that as evangelicals we ought to, but because it is plain matter of fact, that we have known God, and that because we have known God the unpleasantness we have had, or the pleasantness we have not had, through being Christians does not matter to us? If we really knew God, this is what we would be saying, and if we are not saying it, that is a sign that we need to face ourselves more sharply with the difference between knowing God and merely knowing about Him.

– J. I Packer, Knowing God

But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ?the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.

– Philippians 3:7-9 (NIV)

God Beyond Our Conception

I love theology – I love reading about it, talking about it, buying books about it (even if I haven’t read them all yet!), and studying about it. But you don’t have to look into theology for very long before you realize that there are some controversies that will never be resolved, and there are some things we will never be able to figure out about God. He has revealed much about Himself in His word, but but He hasn’t revealed everything about Himself. He’s given us all we need to know, but certainly not all we want to know. I’m sure one reason He did that is so we would have to trust Him more. But I also think one of the reasons is that our finite human minds are simply too limited to understand some of what we’d like to understand about God. I think this quote by Novatian expresses it well:

Here, and in all our meditations upon the qualities and content of God, we pass beyond our power of fit conception, nor can human eloquence put forth a power commensurate with His greatness. At the contemplation and utterance of His majesty all eloquence is rightly dumb, all mental effort is feeble. For God is greater than mind itself. His greatness cannot be conceived. Nay, could we conceive of His greatness He would be less than the human mind which could form the conception. He is greater than all language, and no statement can express Him. Indeed, if any statement could express Him, He would be less than human speech which could by such statement comprehend and gather up all that He is. All our thoughts about Him will be less than He, and our loftiest utterances will be trivialities in comparison with Him.

– Novatian (c.200-c.258)
(as quoted in A. W. Tozer’s The Knowledge of the Holy)

"For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
       neither are your ways my ways,"
       declares the LORD.

"As the heavens are higher than the earth,
       so are my ways higher than your ways
       and my thoughts than your thoughts."

- Isaiah 55:8-9 (NIV)

A Right Conception of God

I firmly believe that there is an inseparable connection between right doctrine and right practice — or in the theological terms one of my pastors uses, orthodoxy and orthopraxy. One of the biggest examples of this in my own life was during one period when I was particularly defensive, angry, critical, and unforgiving. While I’m sure I was NOT very pleasant to be around, the real problem was not my attitude or behavior toward my coworkers. Those were only symptoms of a much deeper issue: my theology. I completely misunderstood God’s grace, and as a result I could neither accept it from God nor extend it to others.

I love how A. W. Tozer expresses this link between right thinking and right living in his book, The Knowledge of the Holy. In the first chapter, he says this:

A right conception of God is basic not only to systematic theology but to practical Christian living as well. It is to worship what the foundation is to the temple; where it is inadequate or out of plumb the whole structure must sooner or later collapse. I believe there is scarcely an error in doctrine or a failure in applying Christian ethics that cannot be traced finally to imperfect and ignoble thoughts about God.

The real kicker is this quote from the Preface:

It is impossible to keep our moral practices sound and our inward attitudes right while our idea of God is erroneous or inadequate. If we would bring back spiritual power to our lives, we must begin to think of God more nearly as He is.

When I learned that lesson about God’s grace, the result was more than just smooth relationships with my coworkers. It was, as Tozer puts it, “spiritual power.” I began to see God use me in ways I had never seen before, ways that I knew had nothing to do with my abilities, because my abilities hadn’t changed. I had simply begun, in Tozer’s words, “to think of God more nearly as He is”, and God did the rest.

His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.

– 2 Peter 1:3 (NIV)

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