Don’t miss part 1 of the interview, in which J.D. Greear talks about how being a missionary to a fundamentalist Muslim country made him reexamine his understanding of God, and what finally helped him realize the glory and bigness of God.
What are the symptoms of a church that is worshiping a small God?
What you get is that God becomes a way to make sense of your life. He becomes a means that you can use to have a happy and balanced life. God sits in the margins of your life. Church services end up feeling like pep rallies about God’s plan for you, as opposed to moments that take you into the presence of a God who is not big, but bigger than all the words we use to say “big.” He is beautiful, glorious and holy. We speak of him so glibly, talk about being in his presence in such a flippant way. God, we just want to see your face! I’m not so sure—sinners seeing the face of God would die.
We’re Americans. We’re can-do people. We love to have books for “dummies” and have them on every subject, including Christianity for Dummies. There’s even a book out there called God for Dummies. But there’s a dimension of faith that is not at all practical. It’s just the fear of God. You come before him and he defies words, he defies explanations. So many times in the Bible, God did not respond to doubts with a pep talk, he simply gave them a vision of who he is. And that revelation is better than the explanation of what he’s doing or the exhortation of what we need to do.
So how can leaders have that vision and pass it to their community?
One good diagnostic question to consider is: Do I have a wonder in the presence of God? Is our worship grounded in a healthy fear—a humility in light of how great the creator God must be? We need to honestly ask ourselves those questions. There’s no technique that we can use to get the largeness of God back in front of everybody. It’s really going to be a wonder that captivates our soul that comes from meditating on creation, spending time with Jesus in the Gospels, and it all contributes to a wonder that comes out when you’re preaching.
In the 1950s, there was an argument that sounds remarkably contemporary. Many pastors believed that good sermons had to be packed with doctrine, explanations that would leave people with a page full of notes. Others, forerunners of the church-growth movement, advocated for preachers to err on the side of relevance. But Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said that the answer was neither: The goal of a lecture is to leave with a page full of notes; the goal of a motivational speech is to leave with a page full of action steps; the goal of a sermon is to leave worshipping. There has to be a time where the pen goes down and the eyes go upward. You stop saying, “Oh my God, look at what I have to do for you,” and start saying, “Look at what you’ve done for me.” There’s a sense of wonder that ought to take place. A pastor ought to lead people to that. Yes, there are practical applications, but most of all we just have to stand amazed. That can lead us to a place where we are able to live with unanswered questions and tensions, and most of all to lead us to cling to Jesus, who is God given to us.
I feel like our world is crying out for that vision of God. Because we’ve given them pat answers. We’ve given them four ways Christianity can be more practical in their lives. We’ve given them apologetics answers. But none of that stuff is helpful until the soul has been captivated by wonder at whoever created us and the world we live in—the God that was behind the scandal and the mystery that was Jesus himself.
You want to see churches full of mystics, don’t you?
[Laughs] Yeah, depending on how you define mystics. Maybe a little more mystical would help!
Let me give you another story. I was with a Muslim one time who was very interested in the teachings of Jesus. She wanted to follow Jesus but got stuck on the Trinity. Didn’t know what to do with it. Couldn’t get past it. I finally asked her, “What if Jesus himself appeared and did something to prove he was Jesus. What if, after you were convinced it was him, he said, “I’m not going to explain the Trinity because your mind couldn’t understand it; I’m just going to tell you that it is true. You’ll have to trust me.” Would you follow Jesus then?” “Of course,” she said. Well, that’s kind of the question here too. The question is not whether we can understand all of it; it’s whether Jesus is who he says he is.
When it comes to how we preach and teach, a lot of times we reduce God to something that simply makes sense and exists to make life better. But Jesus was a scandal and a mystery. He left so much unanswered. Remember the ascension? It says that some believed and some doubted. And Jesus is floating in the air. Why did they doubt? Because the reality of who he was was so different than what they had expected.
In the book you share Spurgeon’s analogy of doubt as a raised foot—it can step forward or backward. So is doubt a necessary process for people to move away from their small God?
Usually. Everyone’s faith journey is different, but for most people doubt is part of it. We grow up thinking everything makes sense. Then life happens.
Life happens and we can’t understand why God didn’t show up the way that we wanted him to show up. That’s when you really have to wrestle. Is Jesus who he said he is? Am I able to stand humble before a God that I may not be able to explain?
I know this sounds counterintuitive, but does that mean that encouraging the right kind of doubt is actually a pastoral skill?
Then how do we reclaim that? Pastors are formed to think of their work as encouraging faith. How do we engage and work with doubt as a pastoral tool?
Well, we can look to Jesus for this. I think of the time that he taught regarding a tower that fell and killed a group of people. He used questions to force his audience to an uncomfortable confession that the dead were not especially wicked or being punished for something. He introduced doubt to blow up one of their common conceptions of how life worked. He took apart an overly simplistic view.
As a pastor, I do it by a set-up to a point or a message that simply focuses on honest questions. For some of my sermons, if you listened to certain portions, it would sound like a skeptic was preaching it. When I’m talking that way, I see two types of looks on people’s faces: either a little fear or discomfort, or people nodding their heads because I am asking what they’re honestly thinking. Rather than skimming over questions, we need to deal in a real way with the questions that are present in our souls. I try to be honest about my own doubts and questions. I frequently resonate with the many passages in the Bible that seem to say, “I don’t know, but I trust God is who he says he is.”
You’ve said that there’s not a simple recipe or single technique for inculcating a sense of our big God. How do pastors encourage the kind of humility that allows these kinds of organic processes to work?
For pastors, it starts with honesty. Many of us pastors are scared to talk about our doubts, our own lack of felt passion for God or how difficult the Christian life is for us. We can feel like our people need us to be some kind of spiritual superhero. We want to be their rock of faith.
But we’re not supposed to be their rock of faith. Jesus is. We are supposed to be fellow travelers. It’s OK and good for us to share the natural humility of having questions too. There’s faith in that. And that resonates with people.
I’d even extend that into how we study the Bible. We need to bring our own honest questions to the Bible. What is God doing? Why is what he does so strange? This is one of the reasons I put so much emphasis on preaching parts of the Bible that are often skipped because they aren’t your typical “four ways to live” passages. Books like the Minor Prophets for example, feature questions that are hard and personal, yet end with the wonder of God. If our preaching is limited to “three principles for generosity,” say, then we’re not going to press into those parts of the Bible.
Everything we need for a clear vision of our big God has been given to us in the Bible. As we commit to journey through it, we find that our wonderful, mind-defying God is making himself known on every page.
I’m not talking about stodgy, take-three-weeks-to-parse-half-a-verse preaching. But getting into the whole Bible speaks to real people with real questions.
What’s the missional impact of reclaiming a vision for our big God? What does all this mean for outward ministry?
A lot of mission and ministry in Western culture is hopelessly American. I’m an American through and through, but it’s too neat and tidy. It’s too convenient. Within the larger context of having faith and confidence in Jesus—acknowledging that there are real and reasonable reasons for Christian faith—it still points us to a God that does something Americans hate. He bewilders us.
One of Einstein’s friends supposedly said that the reason the great scientist was never attracted to church was that when Einstein looked into the universe, he caught a glimpse of the magnificence of whatever was behind all of it. It was a power that was, for lack of a better word, wonderful. But when he went into church? They didn’t talk about God that way. It was ritualistic. It was all pragmatic. And Einstein had more reverence for the God of the galaxies than they did for their God of the Bible.
I would hope that would never be true of today’s preachers. My hope is that we unite the wonder that lies behind encountering the work of the Creator with reverence for how we talk about him—and our honest questions about him. To get to that wonder, we have to let attempts at control and thorough explanation fall away. What we need to know is what the apostles knew: that Jesus is who he said he was.
How does that flow into church life?
There needs to be genuine wonder in worship, preaching and all the facets of church life. There needs to be centrality given to the Bible, while acknowledging its mystery and the fact that it is an enigmatic book. It has to be approached with a sense of wonder. But it is the center of our preaching and teaching. In that sense, I’m an old-school Bible guy—I want to know the Word and teach the Word.
The mystery of the gospel itself needs to characterize us. It is the greatest demonstration of the power and love of God, but if there was ever a time where it looked like God was absent or had lost control, it was when Jesus died on the cross. Yet, it was when he was doing his greatest salvation work. Even when we can’t grasp what’s going on, he is at work.
So, what struggle lies at the heart of our small-God fixation?
The fact that we all like to reimagine God on our own terms.
It’s easy to think in terms of “my Jesus,” but we don’t get our own Jesus. There is a real Jesus. We like to reduce God to something we can explain, something that makes sense, that doesn’t offend, that goes along with our lifestyle. At first, that kind of deified version of ourselves is very satisfying. We have a God who gives us what we want, from explanation to affirmation. But in the end we find that kind of God can’t sustain real faith or incite real passion.
Think back to Exodus. The second commandment was not to make any graven images. That’s different from the first commandment, which was not to have another god. The second commandment was about taking the real God and reshaping him, visualizing him according to your liking. And of course, this is the first commandment they broke—visualizing God as a golden calf. That led them to an absolute failure of faith.
In most churches, including “good,” “evangelical,” “conservative” churches, we have a lot of people who are reshaping God, thinking that their version of him is better. But the real God has offended people in every generation, going all the way back to the book of Genesis. He has always defied explanation. And if your God is not contradicting or offending you, he’s not the real God. The idea that our generation has suddenly gotten everything right about him is a dead end. We have to let God be who he is. “I am who I am,” he said to Moses.
And “I Am Who I Am” does not mean “I am who you want me to be.”
Read more at OutreachMagazine.com/JD-Greear ».
Paul J. Pastor is editor-at-large of Outreach. His most recent book is The Listening Day: Meditations on the Way (Volume Two). He lives in Oregon.