(Note: this is a slightly edited version of a post first published in December 2013.)
When I was a child, long before I came to faith, I used to imagine God in one of two ways. Sometimes, I would think of Him as a disembodied, all-pervading force that was mainly benevolent, always mysterious and sometimes capricious. Other times, I saw Him as an old man up there in heaven, kindly enough if you caught Him in the right mood, but equally prone to crankiness if you didn’t.
You may have noticed that these two childish but still very prevalent views of God share a common thread: in both of them, God is distant and remote. We are down here and He is up there, and that’s just the way it is.
Now, if you’re a long-time believer, you might well scoff at these uninformed, immature pictures of God. But the truth is that images formed in childhood have tremendous power, and often continue to influence how we relate to God and each other throughout our lives.
Seeing God in these kinds of ways – detached and aloof – tends to force us into a certain posture towards Him. Prayer becomes either an attempt to shout loud enough to catch His ear or an effort to strike the right tone and say the right things to impress Him into giving us what we want. Salvation becomes a momentary event in which He reaches down and slides us across from the “lost” camp into the “saved” camp before returning to whatever He was occupied with before. And the Christian life becomes an ongoing process of trying to second-guess His moods, decipher His will and stay on His good side.
This may sound like a caricature, but I would submit that it is, in fact, a reasonably accurate portrait of how many of us go about our Christian lives much of the time.
In fact, this is largely how it has been ever since mankind found itself east of Eden after being locked out of the Garden: people trying to understand and appease God, all the while feeling that they were somehow grappling in the dark.
Of course, there were many times through the ages when God spoke, either through prophets or to individuals in dreams and visions. He gave the Law to the people of ancient Israel. He even intervened directly in human affairs through supernatural events of deliverance and healing. But it always seemed as though each of these occasions was a departure from the norm; God would break into our universe of time, space and matter, do what He needed to do, and retreat back into the cosmic shadows.
And so the human family has done its best to stumble its way through history, always wondering quite what God was up to, whether He was in a good mood, and just how much damage might be expected to occur if He wasn’t. People have tried to insure and protect themselves through various means – money, power, religion – but always with a nagging doubt as to whether their efforts were enough to stack the divine odds in their favour.
Then, two thousand years ago in a second-rate outpost of the Roman empire, something happened that would change the course of history and settle mankind’s lingering doubts and unanswered questions about God once and for all. God stepped out of eternity and into time, not for a temporary visit, but to make His home among us. We call it the incarnation. And the One who is God veiled in flesh bears the name foretold by the prophet Isaiah: Immanuel. Say it with me: God with us.
The eternal, immutable, unapproachable God – the One who must not be angered or upset, the One we must always strive to keep happy – defied all of humankind’s expectations by becoming one of us.
Suddenly, the distant, remote, aloof God who had only ever been glimpsed by a favoured few was revealed for all to see. And what did he look like? He looked like someone who healed the sick, had compassion on the poor and the oppressed, ate with prostitutes and tax collectors, and chose to share his life with uneducated peasants rather than religious experts. Most of all, he was no longer up there; He was down here, among us and beside us, in our streets and in our homes.
And so it is that these three words set apart the Christian God from every other deity man has ever conceived of: God with us.
Two thousand years later, have we even begun to grasp the significance of the God who is with us? How often do we still huff and puff and work ourselves into a religious frenzy in an effort to attract God’s attention and persuade Him to look upon us with favour? How much of our lives do we still spend worrying, deep down, that we cannot possibly be someone He would be interested in getting to know?
If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you’ll know that I come out very strongly against all forms of the prosperity gospel and all attempts to describe God as a divine vending machine who dispenses treats to those who jump through the right hoops and tick the right boxes. The reason I find that kind of behaviour so abhorrent is that it utterly denies and, ultimately, rejects the Incarnation, for it insists on still treating God as remote and fickle.
Think about it. I realise that Jesus himself taught that even earthly fathers know how to give good gifts to their children. But what kind of heavenly father would content himself with remaining cold and detached, occasionally dispensing a nugget of favour but preferring to keep His own company most of the time? That’s the kind of God that is purveyed by the peddlers of the prosperity gospel and all its variants.
God does not promise to always give us what we want, or to flash us a smile if we’ve been especially good. No, His covenant with us is worth much more than that: it is a covenant of presence. He is the God who is with us, through the good, the bad and the ugly, in sickness and in health, through the fire and in the midst of the storm. Not only did He make this promise, but He delivered on it when he came to Bethlehem as a baby. And now, He’s taken His promise one step further still. Not only is He by our side; He’s in us, by His spirit. We can never be alone, because He lives inside of us.
So for those who are still struggling under the burden of trying to keep a distant God happy, here’s my prayer: this Christmas, may your eyes and your heart be opened as never before to the astonishing reality of Immanuel, God with us.
[ Image: Charles Carper ]