The Naked Church – Chapter Nine
The Naked Church – Chapter – 9. God in a box
My people have exchanged their Glory
for worthless idols.
The Naked Church – Chapter Nine – The dust of the battle still hung in the air, mingled with the smoke and smell of burning sacrifices. Overturned tables littered the temple court. Doves fluttered through its columns. Coins could still be heard rolling across the stone floor, and people were still scurrying to find them.
In the middle stood Jesus examining the damage. The merchants pressed toward him, demanding an account for the sacrilege. “What gives you the right…?”
“Destroy this temple and I will raise it up in three days.” He was calm but resolute. The merchants surely snarled in confused anger. It wasn’t enough that he had just destroyed their commerce in the temple; now he wanted to destroy the whole building! If they doubted before that he was mad, they did so no longer.
“How can you raise up in three days what took 46 years to build?” The suggestion so angered them that three years later they raised it at his trial and taunted him with it as he died. John tells us that the temple Jesus spoke of raising up was his own body, which he did three days after he was crucified.
But his words of destruction were still directed at the physical building in which he stood. For the temple was more than just a misused place of worship; it was the heart of a theological system unworthy of the new covenant which Jesus had come to inaugurate.
The temple represented God in a box, neatly packaged and removed from the mainstream of human experience. This is not what God intended when he gave Moses plans for the tabernacle. He wanted them to know that he lived among his people. Jesus now wanted them to know that God had come to live in them.
So he challenged them to destroy the temple—if not the building itself, then at least what it had come to convey. His warning dare not escape us, for it seems that we all find God easier to live with if we try to box him in a tidy package.
[We] have always bound God to temples, festivals and ceremony. Evil priests found power in controlling the All-powerful. And frightened people were happier not bumping into an arbitrary God unawares. But even when fraud and fear were not motives, people believed that the limitless had found limits and therefore was approachable.
The Naked Church – Chapter Nine – It happens so easily. We seek God so desperately when we need something from him, but conveniently exclude him when pursuing our own ambitions or common sense. We want him nearby, at church or in our private devotions, so we can get to him when we need him, but we don’t want him lording over every area of our lives.
We also try to hide from God’s transcendent nature beneath our definitions and rules. God in a box is systematic theology at its worst. We use our knowledge of him to limit his greatness, confident that we know what to expect from him in any situation. Our rules of conduct are so carefully reasoned out that we can follow them, never needing to touch him or hear his voice.
Though such things make for a safe religion, they rob it of its vitality. Much of today’s Christianity has become exactly that: external rituals and codes of conduct “having a form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Timothy 3:5). The outside of our lives may look wonderful, but inside we are empty. When we need God’s power we try to draw it from him but find ourselves unable to do so.
A spiritual person is not one who can memorize theological facts, conduct his life with flawless ethics, or busy himself with church programs. A spiritual person is one who has learned how to walk in the Spirit, following his voice and being a vessel of God’s character and power.
God in a box is religion without God’s presence, without spirituality. It is people moving by works for God instead of God moving through his people. It is idolatry of the first order.
Idolatry in a Scientific Age
Their idols are silver and gold, made by the hands of men. They have mouths but cannot speak, eyes, but they cannot see. Those who make them will become like them, and so will all who trust in them. Ancient cultures were filled with idols, and these words from Psalm 115 depict three characteristics of them. First, they were manufactured by people. They had no power or virtue because they were only a fabrication of the culture, with qualities and rules to fit their needs. Those cultures that carried little guilt had benevolent gods which only needed an occasional festival to keep them happy. Cultures ravaged by guilt needed something more painful to appease their inner pain, so they introduced blood sacrifices. Idolatry allowed people to construct their own religion.
Second, they were lifeless, not able to speak or do anything practical to help their followers.
Finally, even though idols were inherently powerless, worshiping them did change the worshiper. People become like the idols they worship. If their gods were demanding, the people became demanding. In this case their gods were blind and deaf idols, and likewise Israel had become deaf to God.
It’s difficult to find similar idols today. Some say we make idols of our homes, cars, and TV’s, but I don’t think so. The Israelites had tents, camels, and other kinds of recreation, but this was not called idolatry. Even when someone coveted gold and silver, it wasn’t called idolatry, but greed.
Our idols have to meet the same criterion as theirs: lifeless entities of our own devising that change us by our trust in them. To find our idols today, we need to assess the difference between our cultures. Idols made of stone and precious metals were spawned in an age of superstition when everyone accepted the idea that events were controlled by unseen spiritual forces. Western culture, with the rise of scientific thought, no longer accepts this idea.
Robert Jastrow, a science laureate, explains how science has become the basis of religion in our age. “The principal element of that religion [science], or ‘faith,’ is a belief that everything that happens in the world has a scientific explanation, for every effect there is a cause. It is not a supernatural cause, but one physics can explain and understand.”
The Naked Church – Chapter Nine – Our culture bows at the altar of physics, so you could expect our idols not to be gods of stone but principles of thought. Though their philosophies differ, most people are convinced that if they live their lives a certain way, definable results will follow. The primary focus is on human effort. Even Christianity has not escaped this adverse effect of rationalism. It has lowered our view of the transcendent God and made us less dependent on his power working in our lives. We can change ourselves by understanding the right principles, we can heal ourselves through medical technology.
But even science warns us that such philosophical views push
science further than it claims to go. Jastrow warns us against
accepting scientific conclusions without question: “There is no
proof [that physics can explain everything]. In fact, I think there
are questions in science that are beyond our reach at this time.”
Nonetheless our laws of cause-and-effect have produced the idols of our age. They are our false religions, putting people’s confidence in their own abilities. We will not take time to examine the false religions of this age. Any that leave out the one true God are obviously wrong. Our greater danger comes from those idols that retain allegiance to the God of the ages but distort his real nature. Cloaked in Christian terminology, they trick people into thinking they serve God when it is only a god of their own creation, shaped by their own desires and needs.
That’s what the Pharisees faced at the temple and that’s what we risk today. We, like them, can easily cower from seeing God as he really is, preferring to think of him as we want him to be, predictable and controllable.
I doubt that any of us are untouched by the temptation to limit God’s moving in our life. To help us find out how this is so, let’s look at a few popular idols that line the shelves of our intellects today. These are what we must destroy if we are going to let God freely live within us.
The ritual box. God is a distant presence who only wants to be honored by patterned worship and lifestyles. Days and years consist of religious observance, but, like the idol-worshipers of old, we expect him neither to speak nor to actively come to aid us. Since his presence is not the object of our worship, we often end up using our religious observances for our own gain, like the Pharisees fasting to be seen of men rather than heard by God. Who of us in praying publicly hasn’t thought more about the people listening than the God whom we’re addressing?
The fairy godmother box. God exists for our pleasure. Whenever we have a need we can run to him, expecting him to wave his hand and make everything better. This kind of god always hears our concern but is rarely listened to for his concerns. He might ask something of us that we don’t want to do, and that’s not what fairy godmothers are for; they exist only to give us what we want.
The Burger King box. God will do it our way. We treat his truth like a smorgasbord, thinking ourselves free to go through the line and pick out which parts we want, and to ignore what is distasteful. This is consumerism at its worst because it makes truth relative to our own desires. It can only result in our deception. Flannery O’Connor was right: “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.”
The Naked Church – Chapter Nine – The generic box. Make God’s life cheap enough to fit the masses. Some churches today compete for attendance by making Christianity as watered down as possible: Come to church, put a little money in the offering plate, and be as good as you can. It’s no wonder that people in such churches never discover a meaningful walk with the Lord of glory that can transform their lives.
The self-help box. Ben Franklin may not have invented this box, but he certainly popularized it: “God helps those who help themselves.” Our ingenuity and hard work can make good things happen for us. Robert Schuller seems to agree: “You can be anything you want to be, you can go anywhere if you are willing to dream big and work hard.” You are the master of your own destiny; God only helps out as a silent partner.
The formula box. This box is the most evident result of scientific thought on theology: We serve God by obeying principles. If we’ll do steps one, two, and three, God responds in a predetermined fashion. Consequently we have six steps to a more vital prayer life, five steps to deal with anger, four steps to lead someone to Jesus. But this results in legalism and reduces our actions to mere incantations, with our hope in our own performance.
The “God-told-me-to” box. Popular among charismatics, this box allows us to pursue our own ambitions by stamping them with God’s endorsement. It’s amazing how many people today God has called to be rich and famous, and how few he has called to self-sacrificing ministry!
All of these boxes compromise God’s transcendence over our lives. So why do they each have their adherents? They each allow us to live in the illusion that we are in control. Notice that each one asserts that our actions control God’s response. Though they are based on old covenant approaches to law and appeasement, they can motivate people to action. Fear, guilt and greed can compel people to make significant temporal changes, but they will not bring about relationship, nor will they endear God to work on our behalf.
The Naked Church – Chapter Nine – These boxes are designed to “sell” to the masses, offering quick results for the insecure and strong of will. Those they seem to help are maimed spiritually, for they never learn to trust God, to hear his voice, to submit their lives to his ways and find true life. Instead, they become like the god they worship—full of empty promises, legalistic demands, and lifeless words.
The Temple of the Living God
Even though we’ve added all these new God-boxes, to a large extent we’ve kept the old one too. Though I’ve not yet seen a church building with a “holy of holies,” we still talk of our church facilities as “the house of God.” Often we impute a reverence to the sanctuary itself, somehow believing that God visits this place especially. Sunday school literature still applies the familiar “I was glad when they said unto me, ‘Let us go into the house of the Lord’ “ as an admonition to church attendance.
When it comes to church buildings—often mistakenly called “houses of God”—whatever critical faculties we have are further blunted by a sacramental mentality which says expensive buildings are justified because they are dedicated to religious purposes or “God’s glory.” Surely God deserves the best! We forget that God does not live in temples made with hands… The community of God’s people is the temple of God, not our fine structures of glass and concrete… little sanctuaries where we wall off God from the world.
I suspect that our preoccupation with building expensive facilities for God’s glory may be less a matter of theology than it is an excuse for opulence. Either way, the glorious truth is that God does not live between glass and concrete, and we would do well to stop pretending that he does.
He lives inside people, and our attention must be directed at making them the temple of God—vessels prepared for his presence and walking worthy of the God who inhabits them. Imagine what would happen if we gave as much attention to individual lives as we give to our buildings—how much healing and discipleship would result, how much transformation!
Do you see why Jesus was so passionate that morning at the temple? If he couldn’t break the mentality of God-in-a-box, he couldn’t inhabit their lives, which is exactly what he wanted to do. This is true spirituality, the transcendent God living in us, involved in our affairs and leading us to an abundant life in his love.
How does that prospect look to you? If it’s anything less than the most exciting opportunity that has ever been offered to you, then you do not understand who God is and what he wants to do in you.
The thought of being a temple of the Lord, Paul said, makes everything else in this life look like the rubbish it is. His ultimate passion was to know Jesus in the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings. Who in his right mind would not want to live every moment to the will of God Haven’t we had enough time to prove that our own ambitions, while perhaps carrying some temporal benefit, are nonetheless destroying us?
Instead of pushing God away from us into our own boxes, let us welcome him with open arms. His desires for us are “immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20).
Who’s in the Box Anyway?
Before we leave this discussion, let’s take one last look at our God-boxes. Do we really think that the God of the Ages could be encased in a box of anyone’s making? Of course not!
He is God, after all. What building can contain him? What principle can fully define him? What deception can thrust him out of our lives? How foolish we are to ever think so! When we create a box to wall ourselves off from the living God, just who really ends up inside? We do. We cannot contain God, nor should we want to. We can only limit his moving in our lives by refusing to honor him as God.
And that, I think, is what hell will be. It is the final box where the wicked can wall themselves away from God. C. S. Lewis said, “I willingly believe that the damned are, in a sense, successful rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside.”
Believe me, you need no protection from God! Yes, he is awesome and powerful, and certainly that can be threatening.
The Naked Church – Chapter Nine – But he is not an unknown power, for he has demonstrated his love to us in Jesus, by sacrificing his life so we could be saved. How can we ever doubt the intentions of a God who loves us that much?