With this essay, I will stop introducing chapters of the book that will come out in the spring, When Did We Forget God? (Tyndale). The essays I’ve published here have been mostly critical in nature—it’s my inner prophet coming to the surface. Or maybe just my inner Scrooge. I have a couple more chapters analyzing the horizontal temptation in how we read the Bible and the small-groups movement, and the imaginative reader can probably guess what I might say in such chapters. Let’s just say the temptation to make our faith about ourselves and our feelings is with us always, even to the end of this moral, therapeutic, deist age.
But it would be irresponsible to not at least point some way forward, and the third part of the book attempts to do just that. But now that I’ve finished it, I realize I need to do a lot more reading and thinking about desire, and especially desire for God. So the third part is really just a few forays into a very complex topic.
This column will continue, but it will be more on an occasional basis. As I’ve been preparing these essays for online, I’ve been taking notes on topics that I have not addressed in the book but that might make for good reflections here. But I don’t think I’m smart enough to have something worth reading each and every week, so from this point on, this series will appear as the Lord inspires, or as hubris makes me think he’s doing so.
For now, here is a chapter from the third part of the book.
The writer of Proverbs says that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. The fear he refers to is a healthy reverence and awe. But there is another type of fear we have to wrestle with in our relationship with God. In terms of that fear, I’d put it like this: The fear of God is the beginning of longing for him.
I ended the last chapter noting that we do,in fact, long to know and love God at some deep level. We do desire God. In spite of all the ways we have forgotten him, that is, marginalized God in our flurry of horizontal activity, we still want God. This appears to contradict what I’ve been arguing. Not really.
I have drawn a stark contrast between the vertical and horizontal dimensions of faith to bring some clarity and urgency to the problem. Such stark contrast is hyperbole, using language in a dramatic way to drive home a point. But if I were to turn now and say all we have to do is make up our minds to start desiring God, I will have moved from hyperbole to fiction. Because it’s not that simple.
Deep down we desire God still, yes, despite all the focus on the horizontal. And yet the reason for the horizontal focus is not just that we have forgotten God—as if we just got distracted, like going to the store to buy milk, then filling the shopping cart but going home without what we came for. No, we have forgotten God because we deliberately try to erase him from our memory. That’s because sometimes God is like a bad dream that leaves us confused and anxious.
Just ask Abraham, who could not for his life figure out how God was going to produce a great nation from his aged loins.
Ask Moses, whose whole purpose in life was to lead the people into the Promised Land, only to be denied entry himself.
Ask David, who in many a psalm complained that the Lord did not hear him.
Ask Jeremiah, who was furious with God for prodding him to preach.
Ask Jesus, who felt as if God had forsaken him on the cross.
Every believer sooner or later knows it is a fearsome thing to fall into the hands of this God. Which is why any believer worth his or her salt is deeply ambivalent about God. Yes, we yearn to be ruled by Unfailing Wisdom—and yet we resent having to submit to anyone or anything. We crave intimacy with Pure Benevolence—but we fear the loss of independence. We resent the one we long for, and we are afraid of the One we desire. In short, we love God and we hate God.
We can make no progress in the spiritual life until we acknowledge this. If we think we really do love God simply, and all we need is a gentle reminder to put him back on the throne of our lives, we’re kidding ourselves. We’re living a fantasy faith. That is simply not the sordid and splendid reality of the human heart.