The Weightlessness of God (In Today’s Church)
In 1941 C.S. Lewis wrote a brief but very important essay entitled “The Weight of Glory”. There is a play on words with his title, since the word ‘glory’ in Hebrew means weight or heaviness. In his essay he was writing about the glory each of us as divine image bearers carry.
“It may be possible for each of us to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour. The load, or weight, or burden, of my neighbour’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken.”
He wrote this to remind us that there “are no ‘ordinary’ people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.” But the glory I wish to address here is that of God, and the fact that for most believers today, he is really not that glorious or weighty at all. Indeed, we have managed to domesticate God, to dethrone God, and to bring him down to our level.
Many concerned Christian thinkers have pondered this issue and lamented the direction the church is heading today. Donald McCullough wrote about this in his The Trivialization of God (NavPress, 1995). He begins with these words: “Visit a church on Sunday morning – almost any will do . . . You will not likely find much awe and sense of mystery.”
Instead, “reverence and awe have been replaced by a yawn of familiarity”. He continues, “We prefer the illusion of a safer deity, and so we have pared God down to more manageable proportions.” Such a god, he says, “inspires no awe, of course, but neither does it threaten our security”.
A year earlier David Wells produced a significant critique entitled God in the Wasteland (Eerdmans, 1995). There he bemoaned the fact that the contemporary church has been “attempting to heal the church by tinkering with its structures, its services, its public face.”
Such superficial remedies remind one of Jeremiah’s words about Israel’s carnal leaders: “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious” (Jer. 8:11). Says Wells, these lightweight remedies are “clear evidence that … God himself is secondary to organization and image, that the church’s health lies in its flow charts, its convenience, and its offerings rather than in its inner life, its spiritual authenticity, the toughness of its moral intentions, its understanding of what it means to have God’s Word in this world.”
He correctly warns, “The fundamental problem in the evangelical world today is not inadequate technique, insufficient organization, or antiquated music, and those who want to squander the church’s resources bandaging these scratches will do nothing to stanch the flow of blood that is spilling from its true wounds. The fundamental problem in the evangelical world today is that God rests too inconsequentially upon the church. His truth is too distant, his grace is too ordinary, his judgment is too benign, his gospel is too easy, and his Christ is too common.”
Philip Graham Ryken, commenting on the above-mentioned passage in Jeremiah puts it this way: “More than anything else, failing to take God seriously is the problem with the contemporary church. We trivialize the holiness of God, so we end up with a trivial view of sin. We trivialize the majesty of God, so we end up with trivial worship. We trivialize the truth of God, so we end up with a trivial grasp of his Word. We trivialize the judgment of God, so we end up with a trivial appreciation for the atonement of Jesus Christ.”
The great English Anglican laywoman, Dorothy Sayers felt the same way back in 1949: “The people who hanged Christ never, to do them justice, accused Him of being a bore; on the contrary, they thought Him too dynamic to be safe. It has been left for later generations to muffle up that shattering personality and surround Him with an atmosphere of tedium. We have very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified Him ‘meek and mild,’ and recommended Him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies.”
Of course the Bible has many warnings about attempting to bring God down to our level, to domesticate him, to strip him of his majesty and holiness. One could cite any number of words from the Old Testament prophets on this for example. But let me finish by citing a more recent prophetic voice who warned repeatedly about all this.
A.W. Tozer never ceased to warn a wayward and apathetic church about these tendencies. He rightly offered these words of rebuke: “Left to ourselves we tend immediately to reduce God to manageable terms. We want to get Him where we can use Him, or at least know where He is when we need Him. We want a God we can in some measure control.”
Indeed, he penned an entire book on this theme. In one of his most important works, his 1961 The Knowledge of the Holy he hammered home the vital importance of recovering a vision of who this God is with whom we have to do. I encourage everyone to get this book and read it, and read it again, until its truths penetrate our hardened spirits.
Here are just a few choice quotes from this utterly important volume:
“The Church has surrendered her once lofty concept of God and has substituted for it one so low, so ignoble, as to be utterly unworthy of thinking, worshiping men. This she has not done deliberately, but little by little and without her knowledge; and her very unawareness only makes her situation all the more tragic. The low view of God entertained almost universally among Christians is the cause of a hundred lesser evils everywhere among us.”
“The decline of the knowledge of the holy has brought on our troubles. A rediscovery of the majesty of God will go a long way toward curing them. 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.”
“What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us. The history of mankind will probably show that no people has ever risen above its religion, and man’s spiritual history will positively demonstrate that no religion has ever been greater than its idea of God. Worship is pure or base as the worshiper entertains high or low thoughts of God.”
“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 heaviest obligation lying upon the Christian Church today is to purify and elevate her concept of God until it is once more worthy of Him – and of her. In all her prayers and labors this should have first place. We do the greatest service to the next generation of Christians by passing on to them undimmed and undiminished that noble concept of God which we received from our Hebrew and Christian fathers of generations past. This will prove of greater value to them than anything that art or science can devise.”
Absolutely. If the church hopes again to become a force for good in the world, and to be the salt and light it is called to be, it must rediscover who God is. And he is not the God of our own devising, but the holy, majestic and transcendent being who said, “This is what God the LORD says – he who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and all that comes out of it, who gives breath to its people, and life to those who walk on it: ‘I am the LORD; that is my name! I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols’” (Isaiah 42:5,8).