Chapter 2: GOD
Why God may not be who you think he is. Why we have the universe backwards. Why this is good news.
Heading east from El Paso, we drove three hours across the flat, dead West Texas desert, into the middle of another planet. It was a sun-scorched, two lane highway, with sometimes more dirt on the highway than road. Big groups of tumbleweeds would appear from the sides of the highway, making my dad swerve sometimes. Just as we started wondering where the next gas station was, mountains rose out of the horizon. Within a few minutes we were gaining altitude and seeing trees.
We pulled into Ft. Davis, TX. It’s the kind of West Texas town that should only exist in your imagination. There’s a restored hotel built in 1884, a cafe with a genuine soda fountain (complete with counter and bar stools), and friendly folks who are always ready to swap stories. It’s hours and hours from any major city (and then a few hours after that). We stopped for a burger, then kept driving past the town, up into the mountains.
Fifteen miles up into the Davis Mountains, we arrived at the McDonald Observatory.
I know we saw a presentation at the Visitor Center, which I’m sure was great, but I don’t remember that at all. I know we received an informative presentation about the size of the universe, the makeup of stars, and the composition of the galaxy, but I don’t remember that either. I’m sure we drove back and stayed somewhere after visiting the observatory, that I had a pillow and sheets, but I don’t remember any of that.
All I remember is looking up into the night sky.
I was undone.
There were stars, yes, but not just a lot of stars. They were so clear, as if they were just out of reach. I could see the Milky Way stretching from one horizon to the other in a thick dusty band. As the sun’s last rays faded, more and more stars quietly exploded into the dark blue like fireworks and froze. One astronomer pointed out a galaxy, what looked like a smudge in your vision, that you could see with your naked eye. I felt dizzy thinking that all I was seeing was just one of countless views from countless galaxies in the galaxy. Then we looked through telescopes—at planets, at nebulae, at star clusters. In every direction, more stars, more wonder.
When I try to put into words what I felt as a kid staring up at the sky with my mouth open, only one word describes what I felt.
I felt like the weight of all the stars was weighing down on my shoulders, like it was overwhelming me with its size and scope, like my brain was shorting out.
Even as a kid I was smart enough to make the connection: If there is a God, he can’t be a small God. The universe is gigantic, huge, and mind-bogglingly big. If there was a God who made this, he had to be bigger.
And looking back I think that’s what overwhelmed me. The sky overhead, the galaxies I could see with my naked eye shouted out: Someone made this.
Before we can explore the gospel, we must understand the God of the gospel. The story starts with God. If our view of God, is wrong our view of everything else will be wrong: If we pray, who exactly are we praying to? If we reject the idea of God, what idea are we rejecting exactly? If we shrug our shoulders and think God isn’t worth thinking about, why is that exactly?
The gospel hinges on what the Bible says about God, it hinges on having an accurate picture of God. So, let’s allow ourselves to drop our preconceived ideas and look at a few of the most critical things the Bible says about God.
The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In them he has set a tent for the sun (Psalm 19:1-4 ESV)
In Scripture God is described as “glorious.” At its most basic form, glory means “honor” or “excellent reputation.” Some theologians see God’s “glory” as a summary attribute of God’s character, meaning that it “sums up” something of all of God’s beauty and majesty and power. To declare the “glory of God” means to declare something of the immense weight of God.
Glory is a hard concept for us to grasp but it’s essential to understanding the God of the gospel. One of the problems with our self-made religions is that they give us a God that is far too small. Often we think of God simply as a really, really powerful being just like us. Sort of like a superhero. Or like a powerful wizard. Or a genie.
But when your picture of God doesn’t line up with the true picture of God laid out in the Bible, your gospel gets warped. You start imagining you can keep God in a box you take out on Sunday mornings, then put him back into for the rest of the week. You think you can sort of trick God into doing things, like a hero in a fairy tale who tricks Rumpelstiltskin into revealing his name.
Isaiah 40:12-15 says this about God:
Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand and marked off the heavens with a span, enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure and weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance? Who has measured the Spirit of the Lord, or what man shows him his counsel? Whom did he consult, and who made him understand? Who taught him the path of justice, and taught him knowledge, and showed him the way of understanding? Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as the dust on the scales; behold, he takes up the coastlands like fine dust.
Think about what this means for our view of God. All the oceans on the earth to him are like the handful of water you use to clean a stain off your shirt. He marks off the entire immense space of the universe (stars, galaxies, black holes, galaxy clusters, etc.) with the span of space between his thumb and pinky finger. He picks up Mt. Everest and Mt. Kilimanjaro and all the rest and flicks them up on a scale. When he created the universe, he didn’t need help, he didn’t consult Albert Einstein about relativity, and he didn’t need a class on nuclear physics. He takes the combined nations of the world and even the power of their armies––from the phalanxes of Greek soldiers to the cavalries of Roman Empire to the navy of Great Britain to the nuclear arms of the United States––and when he puts them on a scale they’re like the dust you accumulate from leaving it in the pantry too long.
The reality is that if the God of the Bible exists he defines your entire existence.
Think about that for a second.
So much of our religious stuff is about how to fit God into our personal world. But what if we’ve got it wrong? What if God doesn’t live in our universe? What if we live in his?
We get it wrong when we turn to the Bible and are primarily wondering how the Bible can help us, what it can do to help us be good parents or be more successful.
The Bible starts with a beautifully offensive statement: “In the beginning, God...” (Gen 1:1).
Did you catch that? The Bible starts with God. It is, fundamentally, a story about God. The Bible is not mainly a story about you. It is about the one who created you. The Bible is about the one who created, well, everything.
Colossians 1:16-17 says, “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” This about covers it. He created everything on the planet, and in space, and invisible dark matter kind of stuff we haven’t even discovered yet. The “rulers” and “authorities” language probably refers here to the Jewish order of angels or spiritual powers, meaning that, yes, God has all the invisible spiritual stuff covered too.
God is also not just a powerful being who was Big-Banged into existence alongside the universe. He was before everything. He is absolutely greater than the universe we see. He doesn’t play by the universe’s rules, he made the rules.
Not only did he create it all, the book of Colossians says he is actively, currently, presently holding everything together (Colossians 1:17). That means that if you’re reading these words, God is keeping your hand from spontaneously flying apart as you turn the page, that he’s keeping your retinas attached to your eyeballs, and that he’s keeping the electricity flying around in your brain under control so you don’t accidentally electrocute yourself with your own mind.
This distinction is utterly crucial for understanding the gospel: We are creatures, God is creator. If you don’t get that everything else will be warped.
In a vision of the prophet Isaiah we see a profoundly uncomfortable aspect of who God is. It’s beautiful and abstract, but terrifying to us: “In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!’” (Isaiah 6:1-3).
Ancient Hebrew didn’t have capital letters or italics or underlining or any of the things we normally use to really emphasize an idea. Instead, to underline an idea they’d repeat it. If there was a normal sized pit they’d call it a “pit” but if it was unusually large and deep it was a “pit pit”. This double repetition was used sparingly. So, to call God “holy holy holy” meant that these heavenly creatures were shouting God’s superlative holiness to an infinite degree. God is more than holy or holy, holy, he is holy holy holy.
Keep in mind who is shouting this to God. These are creatures that would make any of us fall to our knees in fear. They’re terrifying and powerful. But they’re the ones covering themselves because they’re unworthy in the presence of someone even more glorious and holy than themselves.
Holiness isn’t an easy concept to grasp. Theologian Wayne Grudem defines it this way: “God’s holiness means that he is separated from sin and devoted to seeking his own honor.” There is a “separateness” to God that has profound implications.
First, this points out that there is a relational quality there in that there is something that he’s utterly apart from: sin and evil. We are so used to swimming in a sea of little evils that it’s hard for us to imagine what a complete opposition to any evil of any kind would be like. God is utterly and completely untainted and untouched by sin.
Second, this shows that there is also a moral quality here in that God is simply morally excellent and praiseworthy. God is uncorrupted and incorruptible. There has never been a moment God has had a sliver of sin or evil in his being. We chuckle at the legend of young George Washington who couldn’t lie about chopping down the cherry tree, but God has not, will not, and cannot lie (Titus 1:2). All that is good and just and right he is, and he is in perfect abundance.
One of the most common and popular conceptions of God among the nominally religious is that God is just a kindly old grandfather in the sky. This grandpa God wags his finger at sin but winks at us when we’re walking away. He wants us to keep away from the “bigger” sins like genocide but who isn’t okay with a little lust? Or a little envy of our neighbors iPod? Or a little hatred for our one-upping co-worker?
Utter moral perfection. That is who God is. That is what God demands.
There was a common song in the Old Testament from the people of God. They sang it when they recovered the ark and brought it to Jerusalem (1 Chronicles 16:34), when they placed the ark in the temple (2 Chronicles 7:3), and when they rebuilt the altar after it was destroyed (Ezra 3:11). These were times when the people saw and sensed the greatness of God, yes, but also his goodness. Here’s the song: “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!” (Ps 118:29).
This is the amazing truth about the God of the gospel: He is as infinitely good as he is infinite. He is as eternally loving as he is eternal. Once we begin to grasp the big-ness of God, we are surprised to learn that as unthinkably big as God is, he is also that unthinkably good.
In Psalm 23, perhaps the most famous Psalm of all, we see God pictured in his goodness as a shepherd who is caring for his sheep: “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake.” In verses 1-3 we see that this God provides abundantly for us. He knows what we need and gives it to us generously. He restores our very souls in the way we most long to be restored.
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” In verse 4 God doesn’t move away from his people when there is danger to them or evil around them. Instead, God stays with us. He’s strong enough to protect us. We feel safe with him knowing he will not leave us.
“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.” In verses 5-6 we see that God gives us so much good that it “overflows.” An ancient symbol of blessing and abundance was oil running over in abundance. We personally experience God’s goodness running over our heads. In fact, because God is with us, mercy and goodness themselves are our shadows forever and will never leave us either. This is the kind of God who doesn’t just visit us but desires to bring us to dwell with him forever.
This is exactly what we see revealed about God throughout the Old Testament. He comes to people like Abraham and generously offers them good things. He rescues his people from Egypt and protects them and brings them to a place of abundance. He is with them through the darkest times, even when those dark times are caused by their own repeated failures. He is a good shepherd. He can defend us, rescue us, sustain us, bless us.
When we see the God of the Bible described clearly, our response is that we long to dwell with him forever.
Rebuilding Our View of God
In Spain a few years ago, a portrait of Jesus on a church wall was fading. In a misguided attempt to help, a local woman drew all over the face to “repair” it. Unfortunately, the result was that a soft portrait of Jesus turned into a monkey faced man with black slits for eyes and a beard that wrapped around his face like a bonnet. I’m sure this woman was trying to help, but her “help” only made the original portrait more difficult to see.
I think our view of God is something like that. The Bible lays out who God is but along the way our portrait of God is more informed by our life experiences, our thoughts, our feelings, our assumptions, the advice of others. Before long the picture of God in our minds bears little resemblance to the God of the Bible. Before long the God we’re praying to is not the God of the Bible. Or the God we’re angry at, isn't the God of the Bible either. Our view of God is in constant need of being rediscovered and reset.
God is bigger, more glorious, more holy, and more good than I can possibly imagine. It should not surprise us then that he’s the author of the good news that changed the world. But first, we’re about to hear some bad news. Brace yourself.