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God Is Not a Formula
Long, long ago, our planet was shrouded in darkness. It was a mysterious chaos, a completely unordered mass of raw material. There were no plants, no seasons, no dry land, no light. “Formless and void,” Scripture describes it. Shapeless and empty. Confused and meaningless. Deep and dark. Desperately lifeless.
But a Spirit brooded over the deep. As a wind caressed the waters, he blew away the darkness and hovered over the surface of chaos, contemplating his design and breathing the Breath of meaning into the emptiness.2 The Hebrew word means “to hover, to move, to brood.”3 His movement was a mission of fertility, and soon this formless mass exploded in creativity. The shapeless raw material became beautiful.
Not long after, God formed the shape of a man out of the dust of the ground. Genesis says he breathed his own Breath into this lifeless being; face-to-face and mouth to mouth, the divine Spirit awakened humanity–the pinnacle of creation. The first sensation this new creature felt was the warm Breath of a creative God; the first thing he saw was God’s face. His surroundings were already lush with life and fruit, stunning in beauty, and perfectly suited to sustain the created order. The Master had painted, sculpted, written, and orchestrated wonder and majesty into his work. The Breath that hovered, the Wind of God, was powerful, perfect, and extremely imaginative.4
Adam didn’t rise up into life to see a blueprint, to hear an explanation, or to find a matrix of complex codes. He awoke to find pictures and sounds and scents and tastes, to feel the warmth of the Breath and the cool of the breeze, and to have those sensations laid out in a progression of time so he could witness the interplay of creation. This Spirit that brooded had not painted by numbers or followed an instruction manual. God thought “outside the box” in everything he did. He didn’t even have a box to think outside of.
God thought “outside the box” in everything he did.
The first couple, we are told, had been made in the image of God–the God whose Spirit hovered and breathed. They had been entrusted with a taste of the Creator’s creativity, blessed with a reflection of his imagination. They would have the ability to create using the tools and raw materials God had given them, and there would be almost no limit to the ways they could express themselves.
Why did God create people in his image? Over the course of Scripture, the answer becomes obvious. We were made in the image of God in order to relate to him. We each have a mind, a will, emotions, a voice, facial expressions, gestures–everything we need to communicate at a personal level. And, because the One we relate to is highly imaginative, we have the ability to do it creatively.
But human potential took a nasty fall when the first couple gave in to temptation, and we know the tragic result. The God who made them came to them in the Garden–in “the cool of the day,” most translations say, though it’s literally “the Breath of the evening,” in the Spirit who had hovered and exhaled life into the chaos–and they hid. They had no urge to communicate, to relate to their Creator as they were designed to do. Expression turned inward as they suppressed themselves in hiding.
Creativity took an ugly turn after that. We read of the son of a murderer who became the father of “all those who play the lyre and pipe.” Another son of the same murderer was the father of those who forge bronze and iron.5 And for millennia, the creative breath of humanity sang music to false gods, crafted hand-carved idols, and designed offensive atrocities like the tower of Babel in an attempt to become divine. Human ingenuity and expression didn’t cease; it just got really, really twisted.
Human ingenuity and expression didn’t cease; it just got really, really twisted.
We get a glimpse of restoration much later when God led his people out of Egypt and into the wilderness. He gave specific instructions to Moses for making the ark of the covenant and the other articles of worship to be used in the tabernacle. And for only the second time since time began, the God of Israel filled a human being directly with his Spirit–that fertile Wind of creativity that once hovered over the deep. Who was it? An artist. Bezalel, or Btsal’el, meaning “under the shadow of God.” His name is derived from a root word that implies not just shade, but a shadow that hovers.
God breathed into Bezalel and (by implication) Oholiab, skilled craftsmen, so they could make a work of art.6 The New Testament tells us that this work of art–actually a collection of works of art, as the tabernacle included multiple elements–was a copy and shadow of heavenly things.7 It is exhibit A in the argument that God values physical expressions of invisible realities. Many centuries later, he would incarnate his Son–not just an expression of the invisible, but an embodiment of the eternal One. But the tabernacle in the wilderness reflected the courts of heaven and pointed to the coming of the Son. God commissioned this work of art because inward truths are to be expressed outwardly.
That’s a major statement from the Lord of a now dark and defiled creation. Centuries, even millennia, had passed since the last time he breathed into humanity at the dawning of creation, when a mound of dust was filled with life. Now, at the moment when a covenant of worship was established with a chosen people, he breathed again. Two wood- and metalworkers were gifted with divine creativity. They would craft a highly symbolic picture that would point to redemption, a re-genesis, a new humanity free to express itself to its Creator. Once again, this time spiritually, chaos was being called to order.
So God commissioned these two artists, and flesh was again filled with divine Breath. The box they made, the ark of the covenant, also reflected the pattern: a spiritual reality expressed in created materials. This intersection of God and humanity would be a model of things to come. The mingling of minds and emotions between the eternal and the temporal, the Creator and created, would continue to produce pictures, symbols, sounds of worship, smells of sacrifice, graphic images in prophecies and parables, and much, much more. And none of it–absolutely none of it–would fit a formula.
A MULTIMEDIA GOD
God is not a formula. That should be obvious to us, though religious instincts have always tried to make him one. But if his varying modes of expression weren’t clear to us before the incarnation, they certainly should be now. God showed us plainly how he communicates.
Long ago, this Creator of the universe clothed himself in human flesh and walked our dusty roads. He also ate our food, wore our clothes, lived in our towns, talked to our ancestors, felt our emotions, and experienced all the pain our nervous systems can experience. He lived a thoroughly human life.
Long ago, this Creator of the universe clothed himself in human flesh and walked our dusty roads.
This wasn’t the first time our Creator communicated with us, of course. He spoke to our father Abraham in the form of physical messengers; he spoke to Moses in the form of a desert brush fire that didn’t destroy the brush; he showed his face in a daytime cloud and a nighttime fire; his voice thundered from a mountain; his angels sent audible instructions to his servants; and his Spirit, his Breath, inspired prophets, priests, and kings to preach, write, and sing.
But when he clothed himself in flesh and walked among us, his communication got much more tangible to a much larger audience. He gave us concrete examples. We can learn a lot from how the Godman expressed himself to others. His words and actions tell us much about how our Creator interacts with us.
One of the first things we learn about his communication style is that it was extremely varied. Take his healing of the blind, for example. On some occasions, he spoke words of power and authority, and the blind regained their sight.8 On other occasions, he simply touched them and they were healed.9 And sometimes he combined spit and dirt and the touch of his hands to restore sight.10 One such healing even included a bath in the pool of Siloam before blindness left.11 In this series of nearly identical issues, Jesus expressed himself differently almost every time. He did not relate to people using a formula.
In fact, almost nothing in Jesus’ ministry fit a formula. Sometimes he taught with straightforward preaching; other times he used obscure parables. He responded immediately to the faith of one Gentile12 and played really hard to get with another.13 On many occasions he was very vocal toward the authorities who opposed him,14 but at history’s most critical moment was absolutely silent toward them.15 He often waited for people to come to him before helping them; other times, he approached them even when they didn’t seem interested.
Throughout the pages of the Gospels, we see a Savior who is simultaneously accessible and elusive, public and private, vocal and silent, complex and simple, profound and plain, never likely to say exactly the same thing to the same people twice. And the ways he communicated ranged from the obvious, like straightforward speech, to the enigmatic, like drawing in the sand, cooking fish on the shore, prophesying in pictures, preaching in parables, cursing a fig tree, dipping his bread with a traitor, walking on water, calming a storm, being illuminated on a mountain, hearing a voice out of heaven, receiving a descending Dove, and eating a somber meal with eternal significance–to name but a few. None of these actions were just routines of the day, the activities that get us from one place to another and accomplish the tasks we need to get done. They were the first-century version of a multimedia event involving sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touch. They demonstrated a wide range of creative expression. If Jesus had written a book titled A Savior’s Guide to Effective Communication, it would have no conclusion. It would be open-ended, because he kept varying his style.
His Father has been no less creative throughout the centuries of human existence–and before, for that matter. We don’t know all the amazing creatures of heaven, though we’re given glimpses in Scripture of living beings with wings, four faces, multiple body shapes, and dazzling light or glorious colors. But we do know of the creativity of God’s visible creation: majestic mountains and waterfalls, unfathomable seas, breathtaking shorelines, colorful landscapes, intricate ecosystems, delicate flowers, elaborately designed insects, stunningly beautiful people, and so much more.
But those are just the visual aspects that seem most obvious to us. God has also filled this world with music-making creatures, roaring rapids, the angry thunder of a black sky, and the rhythmic waves of the sea, and he’s given us ears that can tune in to these aural wonders. He has created aromas both pleasant and repulsive–and with divinely orchestrated consistency, the pleasant scents lead us to beauty, and the repulsive ones warn of us danger. He has given us textures and temperatures that can make us feel warm and fuzzy, cold and lonely, tired and sore, loved and accepted, and overwhelmed with ecstasy. And the tastes…well, try visiting the array of ethnic restaurants in nearly every major city in the world, and you’ll never run out of wonderfully intriguing flavors to sample. The expressions of God in the physical world are uncountable.
His expression in spiritual matters is no less diverse, though we pick up on his voice and actions much less easily there. Even so, we can read about them in our Bibles if we haven’t experienced them ourselves. We’ve already mentioned the rainbow that made a promise to Noah, the burning bush, the thunderous voice, and the glory cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. Add to that the fire that fell from heaven on Elijah’s altar, the aroma of burnt sacrifices and incense in the tabernacle and temple, the blood and bitter herbs of the Passover, the sulfurous smell of judgment, the simple tastes of the supper portraying redemption, and on and on and on.
According to Scripture, God is vocal, visual, tactile, and in every other way sensory in his expression.
The obvious truth is that God, according to Scripture, is vocal, visual, tactile, and in every other way sensory in his expression. He is a creative communicator from Genesis to Revelation. That’s easy to see in events like the Exodus and the path to the Promised Land, the worship in the temple, and the cross and resurrection of Jesus, as well as in the graphically visual books of Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation. But the imaginativeness of God’s expression is discernible everywhere in Scripture, not to mention everywhere in our day-today routines, if we’re sensitive enough to notice. The libraries of the world couldn’t contain all the descriptions of his creativity, and we would never have time to read all those descriptions anyway. But why read about them in the first place? Look around. His personality has a pretty wide range.
AN EMOTIONAL GOD
Where does all this creativity come from? God didn’t just invent senses and a full range of emotions. He has them. We know this because he describes himself this way in Scripture. Clearly spelled out on the pages of your Bible is a God who loves passionately, burns with jealousy for those he loves, gets angry, hates all manner of sin, has deep compassion for his people, rejoices with singing, celebrates the return of his prodigals, and accomplishes his will with zeal. God’s description of himself conveys an intensity of feeling beyond compare.
That sounds too human for most people; it seems suspiciously like a God made in our own image. We don’t understand how he who is not surprised by anything can have swells of feeling that correspond with changing circumstances. He seems in Scripture to react to the events of history and the hearts of human beings. That portrayal makes him awfully vulnerable, not worthy of the omniscience and omnipotence Scripture ascribes to him elsewhere.
So we theologize these emotions out of God, telling ourselves that he describes himself this way so we can understand him on our terms. But if he is describing himself in emotional terms without actually feeling those emotions, he’s not helping us understand him; he’s guilty of false advertising. The God of truth is portraying himself in a way that isn’t true. That’s not possible.
No, God’s emotions are true and very real. Despite our theologies, the “human” aspects of God didn’t originate with us. God has humanlike senses and a full range of emotions not because we’ve made him in our image; we have God-like senses and emotions because he made us in his image. As humanistic students of religion, we’ve reversed the cause and effect, as though we were the beginning and God’s feelings were our invention. But finding similarity between the human and the divine isn’t as idolatrous as we often make it out to be. In the Bible, God makes the connection himself.
God’s creativity springs out of this truth. As a sentient, emotional being, he is very expressive. The diversity of symbols, signs, smells, sounds, and speech in the Bible are evidence of a Being who has to convey his feelings. We who are made in his image can understand that; we have an inner compulsion to express who we are and how we feel. And we exist in a world like ours because God has the same compulsion. Unexpressed emotions are unsatisfying emotions. They have to be let out.
God’s urge to share his feelings with us isn’t limited to the Bible. He did not stop conveying his thoughts to us when the canon closed. Are we really to believe that after the first century this expressive Deity, filled with passion, love, and resolve, was content to confine his communication to words on a printed page? Not a chance. He still speaks, and he’s still creative in the way he does it.
MONOCHROME TALK WITH A MULTICOLOR GOD
But this is a book about prayer, isn’t it? So why are we spending so much time on God’s communication with us rather than ours with him? For one thing, listening to God is a huge part of prayer. For another, if we don’t understand how he speaks, we can’t understand how he hears.
When we don’t understand the creativity of God’s expression or the emotional fount from which it springs, our prayers get reduced to the spiritual equivalent of a long-distance telephone conversation. We close off our eyes, ears, noses, mouths, and nerve endings from the constant flow of thoughts and feelings coming to us from our Creator. Instead, we define his mode of communication in terms of quasi-monastic spirituality, or whatever other preconceived principles of piety our minds have constructed. We’re like someone who sits in a symphony hall wearing earphones, because we’re sure that if God speaks, it’s going to be through the channels we’ve already tuned to, or like someone who visits the art museum and spends most of the time reading the guidebook rather than viewing the masterpieces. God becomes a monophonic recording or a black-and-white exhibit, and while we listen for words and watch for signs, he gushes with the full majesty of his imagination. In the process, we miss a lot.
How we perceive God will dictate how we communicate with him.
How we perceive God will dictate how we communicate with him. That’s why it’s important to recognize the multifaceted ways he has expressed himself to (and through) his creation, including us. Before we can pray the way we were meant to, we have to understand the way he communicates. We have to get a glimpse of the Technicolor, surround-sound God who comes to us in total sensory experience. Only then can our prayers connect clearly with the One who made us.
LOST IN LEVITICUS
Pick up any used Bible–even one pored over by a long-faithful saint–and you’ll probably find groups of pages less worn than the others. The cleanest pages will likely begin near the end of Exodus and extend through most of Deuteronomy.
It’s no mystery why even earnest Bible students skim over this section of Scripture. It’s a labyrinth of obscure prescriptions for rituals and righteousness. It speaks of precise measurements and materials for a tabernacle no longer used; of seemingly endless sacrifices for more occasions than we’ll ever encounter; of unpleasant specifics on sores and bodily fluids; and of unspeakable immoral behaviors, unfamiliar dietary restrictions, and inapplicable military censuses. We may begin Genesis with zeal, but zeal turns to determined obedience soon after Exodus 20.
I remember many attempts as a teenager and young adult to read the Bible all the way through. I always began where one should begin, which means I got a good grasp of creation, the patriarchs, and Cecil B. DeMille’s most famous script. But the Law beyond the Ten Commandments always boggled my mind.
It’s not that I didn’t want to understand. I just couldn’t. By the time I got into the warp and woof of leprous garments, I was hopelessly lost. I was far removed from the cultural context, and any commentary I found was much too weighty for a guy reared in a sound-bite generation. This portion of God’s Word remained inaccessible. Forever inaccessible, it seemed.
But several years ago, I recommitted to reading through all of God’s Word again and again. Biographies of spiritual giants of bygone eras reminded me that the Bible was much more understandable in pre-television times. Why? Because understanding the Bible is a matter of spending time in it–reading it, meditating on it, soaking it in, even picturing the events and imagining yourself an eyewitness to them. A fifteen-minute time slot between the sitcom and the baseball game may be enough to catch up on the headlines, but it’s not enough to learn the mind of God.
Understanding the Bible is a matter of spending time in it.
So I decided to learn, not by studying word by word, but by imagining thought by thought and event by event. I followed the example of an old missionary I’d read about who spent much time in the Word. He would read each book seven times before moving on. He felt that seven readings was the minimum number by which he could expect to begin to grasp it.
I didn’t imitate him exactly, but I followed the principle. And, amazingly, here’s what I found: I still didn’t understand Leviticus.
Not the outcome you expected, is it? And though it sounds terribly anticlimactic, I kept reading, and a funny thing happened on the way to the Promised Land.
Sometime during a reread of that strange legal document, I began to smell the smell of sacrifice. The vision of a constant stream of blood flowing from the altar began to impact me. The aroma of incense, the sound of bleating, and the hazy air rising from burning flesh filled my disturbed heart. The busy rituals of preparation seemed to say to me over and over again that there once was a vast, tragic rift between me and my God, and there are two things I can never, ever take casually: my sin and his holiness.
The winds of the wilderness and its annoying dust came to symbolize elements of my current environment. The stress of Israel’s constant moving yet never arriving explained a lot to me about the human experience. I began to identify with the wandering; it became my story, and the God who guided the wandering with that mysterious cloud and pillar of fire became my God in a new way. He suddenly seemed more frightening yet more familiar, majestic yet merciful, transcendent yet intensely personal, just as he should have seemed all along.
I also came face-to-face with the trauma of fallenness and the crisis of God’s presence. I began to understand the weight of this human condition, the drastic distance we had driven ourselves from that pleasant walk in the first Garden. I was reminded that God doesn’t just say of our rebellion: “That’s okay, I’ll take care of it.” It’s a much bigger deal than that.
Most of all, I found my appreciation deepening for the One who fulfilled this Law, the One who became Israel on our behalf and forever completed this cumbersome covenant. The fact that God cared enough to set up a system for people to relate to him in truth and learn of his holiness–however complicated that system might be–excited me nearly as much as the fact that he satisfied the system himself in our stead. He told us the complex secret for relating to him and then became the complex secret himself, which allowed us to relate to him simply as a Person. He handles the complexity, and we desperately trust him for that. I love that kind of law.
No, I still don’t understand all there is to know about Leviticus–or any other part of God’s Word, for that matter–and I probably never will, no matter how many commentaries I read. But I feel its weight. I’m certain that every measurement, every material, and every sacrifice is highly symbolic of eternal truths in heavenly places,16 somehow pointing to the ministry and the cross of Christ. I suspect that some of the Law is perceptible only to the ancient Hebrew mind, and I’m pretty sure that parts of it make sense only in the high courts of heaven.17 We’ll be given further insight into those parts one day when we’re allowed to walk the halls of those courts. For now, some legal and Levitical issues remain shrouded in mystery.
I’m okay with that. God never asked my finite little brain to master eternal realities by intellectually dissecting and explaining them. He’d rather I embrace him than decipher him. In a radical departure from my past tendencies, I’m now comfortable with his omniscience and my lack of it. I don’t have to explain everything.
God would rather I embrace him than decipher him.
All I know is that somehow as I repeatedly read those mysterious sections of Scripture–and not simply read them, but incorporated into the reading all the sights and smells and sounds implied therein–Leviticus and its obscure companion books came alive. I saw illustrations that have stuck with me. Suddenly, the wisdom of the God of Israel was more profound and majestic than I thought. The depth of the Old Testament shed light on the New. The plan of salvation grew more mysterious and yet more simple. The grace of our Savior became more precious and more worthy of my worship. And certain pages of my Bible are much more worn than they used to be.
To me, this experiment proved that God’s communication is more of a spiritual sensory experience than a cognitive process. The alternative to my approach to Leviticus would have been to study the text for syntax and semantics and glean intellectual ideas about the nature of God–something akin to reading a biography of Leonardo da Vinci and describing his personality. But what do we really know about Leonardo if we haven’t seen his work? Not much, or at least not much that would actually help us feel a connection with him. Descriptions aren’t very personal.
God could have just spoken descriptively of himself rather than being a character in the biographies of his people. He could have given us Scriptures that list an eightfold path or a twelve-step process or a legal code independent of historical context. And we could have come up with our rules and principles from that even more easily than we have from Scripture as it really is.
But clearly God prefers to interact with us at a more personal level. And like any person, he has a multitude of media at his disposal. I found in Leviticus and beyond that his Word was more than his words, that there were snapshots, scents, and soundtracks imbedded in those pages. The Bible, history, circumstances, nature, and the community of faith can become sensory experiences.
When I lived overseas, I did everything I could to immerse myself in the culture. I studied the language, ate at places few tourists had ever seen, bought clothes at local shops, and adopted gestures and postures that fitted the environment. Why? Because in all my training and preparation, two principles had been drilled into me: (1) effective communication travels through common bonds, and (2) immersion is the key to establishing common bonds.
When “the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us,”18 God immersed himself in our culture. He spoke our language. But the common bond doesn’t end there; we are given new life so we can become citizens of heaven rather than citizens of a fallen world. He adapted to our culture in order to bring us into his. In a sense, the purpose of Scripture is to immerse us in the culture of God, and the Breath that he blows into the redeemed establishes our new citizenship. We become God-filled humans as dramatically as the dust of Eden became a God-filled human.
In a sense, the purpose of Scripture is to immerse us in the culture of God.
As people filled with the Breath of God, we need to learn his language. We need to let ourselves be stretched into the customs and values of heaven, and we can communicate only by expressing a common bond with the Creator. And the only way to do that is to learn that our old formulas don’t translate into this new environment. In fact, when it comes to creative expression, none do.
God is not a formula, and I’m glad. An unimaginative builder never would have made the world we live in or hovered over its chaos and rearranged it for beauty. He never would have shaped a pile of dust for a multitextured, multidimensional relationship and breathed the warm Breath of life into it. He would have made a mechanical world, filled it with androids, and set it all in motion. Any variation from programming would be called a problem, not a nice surprise.
Instead, God picked up a heavenly palette and painted this universe in its colors. He sculpted living beings, some of them in his own image, and the Wind of heaven animated them. And for that to mean something–for living beings to be able to relate to him–we had to reflect his personality. We had to be designed for creativity.
From the Trade Paperback edition.