I’ve been rereading J.B. Phillip’s Your God is Too Small: A Guide for Believers and Skeptics Alike this past week. It has been a terrific accompaniment to the lectionary readings that have revealed the immensity of our Abba Father, such a variety of His nature revealed in the Psalter, in Job, in John’s Gospel and in Acts this week.
And too, the book has reminded me of the role theology plays in our walk with God. That is, how we each came to know and believe in Him and where we settled in with that belief so that the Spirit either animates our lives or sits inside of us like a reference book unopened – just as I imagined the Israelites Paul and Barnabas encountered in today’s verses from Acts.
Phillip’s purpose for the book is to help the reader, “find a meaningful constructive God,” and begins by listing and describing common inadequate conceptions of God (theology) held by Christians and non-Christians, alike; a list he titles, Unreal Gods, little gods which infest human minds which thus limit a person’s capacity to see what God is truly like and what His purposes are.
Today’s second reading from the Psalter conjured one of the unreal gods’ Phillips describes, at this verse:
Psalm 32: 6 Therefore let all who are faithful
offer prayer to you;
at a time of distress,* the rush of mighty waters
shall not reach them.
7 You are a hiding-place for me;
you preserve me from trouble;
you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.
Here is what Phillip’s writes about the hiding-place God, what he names ‘Heavenly Bosom’, an inadequate idea of God which is all too common with certain people – the god in whose bosom we can hide ‘till the storm of life be past.” Phillips opens his comments by quoting the well known Wesley hymn, Jesus Lover of my soul:
Jesu, Lover of my soul,
Let me to Thy bosom fly,
While the nearer waters roll
While the tempest still is high
Hide me, O my Saviour,
Till the storm of life be past;
Safe into the haven guide,
O receive my soul at last.
Here, if the words are taken at their face value, is sheer escapism, a deliberate desire to be hidden safe away until the storm and stress of life is over…although this “God of escape” is quite common the true Christian course is set in a very different direction. No one would accuse its Founder of immaturity in insight, thought, teaching or conduct and the history of the Christian Church provides thousands of examples of timid half-developed personalities who have not only found in their faith what the psychologists call integration but have had to cope with difficulty and dangers in a way that makes any give of ‘escapism’ plainly ridiculous.
Those who are actually, though unconsciously, looking for a father- or -mother substitute can, by constant practice, readily imagine just such a convenient and comfortable god. They may call him “Jesus” and even write nice little hymns about him, but he is not the Jesus of the Gospels, who certainly would have discouraged any sentimental flying to His bosom and often told men to go out and do most difficult and arduous things. His understanding and sympathy were always at the disposal of those who needed Him, yet the general impression of His personality in the Gospels is of One who was leading men on to fuller understanding and maturity. So far from encouraging them to escape life He came to bring, in His own words, “life more abundant,” (side note: this is from today’s Gospel, ironically) and in the end He left His followers to carry out a task that might have daunted the stoutest heart. Original Christianity had certainly no taint of escapism.
But those who try to maintain this particular inadequate god today by perpetuating the comfortable protection of early childhood do, probably unknowingly, do a good deal of harm. Here are examples:
- They prevent themselves from growing up. So long as they imagine that God is saying, “Come unto Me” when He is really saying “go out in My Name,” they are preventing themselves from ever putting on spiritual muscle, or developing the right sort of independence – quite apart from the fact that they achieve very little for the cause to which they believe they are devoted.
- By infecting others with the ‘to-Thy-bosom-fly” type of piety they may easily encourage those with a tendency that way to remain childish and evade responsibility.
- By providing the critics with living examples of ‘escapism’ they are responsible for a misrepresentation of the genuine Faith, which repels the psychologically mature who, naturally enough, have no wish to embrace a sentimental Jesus.
- By ‘retiring hurt’ instead of fighting on, they prevent the implications of the Christian message from touching whole tracts of human life and activity which badly need redeeming.
There’s more – so much more. But for today, what I hear the Spirit saying is Come unto Me not to escape, but to ground and fortify. I hear the Spirit saying, keep at it – pay heed to where I, God your Abba Father, am leading you, as unexpected and contradictory and challenging as this season in your life has been. I don’t want you trying to escape the life I have ordained for you, but to embrace it and live it authentically, by My hand and trust that where I have lead and lead you, you are to go in My Name. And there you will find life and life abundant.
Though the whisper came at the Psalter with the reminder of all the small theologies that bind up our Abba Father to actually work in our lives, it was in the Gospel that I heard the Spirit loud and clear:
John 10:10…I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.