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Can it possibly get any more uncertain than this? We so long for life to be better than it is. We wish the beauty and love and adventure would stay and that someone strong and kind would show us how to make the Arrows go away. We hope that God will be our hero. Of all the people in the universe, he could stop the Arrows and arrange for just a little more blessing in our lives. He can spin the earth, change the weather, topple governments, obliterate armies, and resurrect the dead. Is it too much to ask that he intervene in our story? But he often seems aloof, almost indifferent to our plight, so entirely out of our control. Would it be any worse if there were no God? If he didn't exist, at least we wouldn't get our hopes up. We could settle once and for all that we really are alone in the universe and get on with surviving as best we may.
So long as we imagine it is we who have to look for God, we must often lose heart. But it is the other way about-He is looking for us.
This is, in fact, how many professing Christians end up living: as practical agnostics. Perhaps God will come through, perhaps he won't, so I'll be hanged if I'll live as though he had to come through. I'll hedge my bets and if he does show up, so much the better. The simple word for this is godlessness. Like a lover who's been wronged, we guard our heart against future disappointment.
In my sophomore year in high school I (John) fell in love with a beautiful junior named Joy. Our first dates were romantic, exciting, and full of adventure. I gave her my heart. One dayseveral months into the relationship, I was trying in vain to thumb a ride home when I saw her car approaching. My heart leaped with anticipation, but Joy whizzed past in her convertible with another guy at the wheel. Adding insult to injury, she waved gaily as they rushed by. I felt the fool, which is what we often do when we feel betrayed. And I never gave her my heart again.
Everyone has been betrayed by someone, some more profoundly than others. Betrayal is a violation that strikes at the core of our being; to make ourselves vulnerable and entrust our well-being to another, only to be harmed by those on whom our hopes were set, is among the worst pain of human experience.
Sometimes the way God treats us feels like betrayal. We find ourselves in a dangerous world, unable to arrange for the water our thirsty souls so desperately need. Our rope won't take the bucket to the bottom of the well. We know God has the ability to draw water for us, but oftentimes he won't. We feel wronged. After all, doesn't Scripture say that if we have the power to do someone good, we should do it (Prov. 3:27)? So why doesn't God?
As I spoke with a friend about her painful life, how reckless and unpredictable God seems, she turned and with pleading eyes asked the question we are all asking somewhere deep within: "How can I trust a lover who is so wild?" Indeed, how do we not only trust him, but love him in return? There's only one possible answer: You could love him if you knew his heart was good. In the movie The Last of the Mohicans, brave Nathaniel has captured the heart of the beautiful Cora. With tremendous courage and cunning, he rescues her from an ambush set by the black-hearted Magua, leader of a warring tribe. Nathaniel leads Cora, her sister, and a few other survivors to a hidden cave behind a waterfall. Just when it appears they will escape and live happily ever after, Magua and his savages discover their hideout. Once captured, the women may be spared but the men will surely be executed. With no powder for their rifles, Nathaniel's only chance is to leap from the falls; by saving himself, he will live to rescue Cora another day. One of the other men calls him a coward, accusing him of foul and selfish motives. How is Cora feeling? What looks like abandonment may not be. Her only hope in the face of such wildness lies in the goodness of Nathaniel's heart. At this point, it's all she has to go on. It's all we often have to go on too.
Does God have a good heart? In the last chapter Brent spoke of God as the Author of the story, which is how most people see him if they see him at all. And, as Hamlet said, there's the rub. When we think of God as Author, the Grand Chess Player, the Mind Behind It All, we doubt his heart. As Melville said, "The reason the mass of men fear God and at bottom dislike him is because they rather distrust his heart, and fancy him all brain, like a watch." Do you relate to the author when reading a novel or watching a film? Caught up in the action, do you even think about the author? We identify with the characters in the story precisely because they are in the story. They face life as we do, on the ground, and their struggles win our sympathy because they are our struggles also. We love the hero because he is one of us, and yet somehow rises above the fray to be better and wiser and more loving as we hope one day we might prove to be.
The Author lies behind, beyond. His omniscience and omnipotence may be what create the drama, but they are also what separate us from him. Power and knowledge don't qualify for heart. Indeed, the worst sort of villain is the kind who executes his plans with cold and calculated precision. He is detached; he has no heart. If we picture God as the mastermind behind the story-calling the shots while we, like Job, endure the calamities-we can't help but feel at times what C. S. Lewis was bold enough to put words to: "We're the rats in the cosmic laboratory." Sure, he may have our good in mind, but that still makes him the "vivisectionist"-the experimenter.
We root for the hero and heroine, even come to love them, because they are living in the drama. They feel the heartache, they suffer loss and summon courage and shed their own blood in their struggles against evil. What if? Just what if we saw God not as Author, the cosmic mastermind behind all human experience, but as the central character in the larger story? What could we learn about his heart?
I worked as an actor in Los Angeles for a number of years. In the theater, when you're preparing to act a part, you want to "get into the skin" of your character, to discover his motives. What makes him tick? Why does he do the things he does? Every human action has a motive behind it. Nathaniel jumps from the waterfall, leaving Cora behind. Why? He lives to fight another day. Why does he live to fight again? Beneath simple motives lie deeper purposes. What is it that drives this hero throughout the course of his life? His love for Cora. Here might be the key to our dilemma: The Scriptures are written from the perspective that God is the hero of the story. Let's revisit the drama with the view of God as lead actor. What is his motive? How does life affect him?The Larger Story
Act I: His Eternal Heart
All good fairy tales begin with "Once upon a time," and so it is with the truest fairy tale of all. In the beginning, which is to say, once upon a time, is used twice in the Scriptures. There is the first verse of Genesis, of course, but we cannot start there because when the curtain goes up on Genesis chapter 1, it is actually going up on later events, the human story. We're after God's story, the drama from his perspective, so we would do better to start with the opening lines from the gospel of John, which take us back even farther to the once upon a time before time: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning."
The story that is the Sacred Romance begins not with God alone, the Author at his desk, but God in relationship, intimacy beyond our wildest imagination, heroic intimacy. The Trinity is at the center of the universe; perfect relationship is the heart of all reality. Think of your best moments of love or friendship or creative partnership, the best times with family or friends around the dinner table, your richest conversations, the acts of simple kindness that sometimes seem like the only things that make life worth living. Like the shimmer of sunlight on a lake, these are reflections of the love that flows among the Trinity. We long for intimacy because we are made in the image of perfect intimacy. Still, what we don't have and may never have known is often a more powerful reminder of what ought to be.
Our story begins with the hero in love. As Buechner reminds us, "God does not need the Creation in order to have something to love because within himself love happens."
And yet, what kind of love? There are selfish forms of love, relationships that create closed systems, impenetrable to outsiders. Real love creates a generous openness. Have you ever been so caught up in something that you just had to share it? When you are walking alone in the woods, something takes your breath away-a sunset, a waterfall, the simple song of a bird-and you think, If only my beloved were here. The best things in life were meant to be shared. That is why married lovers want to increase their joy by having children. And so it is with God. "Father," Jesus says, "I want those you gave me to be with me, right where I am. I want them to be one heart and mind with us" (John 17). Overflowing with the generosity that comes from the abundance of real love, he creates us to share in the joy of this heroic intimacy. One early mystic says we were created out of the laughter of the Trinity.
Sunday afternoons were my favorite days during summers on my grandfather's ranch. That's when we'd go "visiting," calling on second cousins, great aunts, adopted friends, and other relatives at their farms. I remember having a warm, settled feeling as I sat on the porch and listened to the older folks remembering the shared stories of their lives. My sense of security grew from an awareness that all this had been going on before me, that though I was part of it, I wasn't responsible for it. It didn't depend on me. You've heard that children care more that their parents love each other than that they love them and this is the reason why. It's the assurance that there is something grand and good going on that doesn't rest on your shoulders, something that doesn't even culminate in you, but rather invites you up into it.
And so it is with God's story. Before any of our complex and sometimes overwhelming smaller stories began, there was something wonderful already going on: Once upon a time, were Father, Son, and Holy Spirit-the kind of home we've been looking for all our life. From the beginning, we know that God is a lover at heart, from all eternity.
Act II: His Heart Betrayed
There was another scene before ours. In Act II, there came angels. We're not given a great deal of insight into the life of angels, but we do know that God opened his heart and home to a heavenly host before us. And for the most part, they seem thrilled to be a part of things. Scripture never shows us a bored angel. Quite the contrary. We also know there was a cosmic divorce, a betrayal in the heart of the universe. Satan, then named Lucifer, turned on his Maker. He rose up against his sovereign Lord, and with him legions upon legions of angels. There was war in heaven. In Paradise Lost, John Milton wrestled with the heights of poetic imagery to capture the drama of this scene:
How shall I relate
To human sense th' invisible exploits
Of warring spirits? how, without remorse,
The ruin of so many, glorious once
And perfect while they stood.
He tells the story of a majestic heavenly banquet thrown by the Father in honor of the Son. The first member of the Trinity, generous of heart, freely gives center stage to the second member of the Trinity. Satan is unable to endure the glory bestowed on Jesus. Satan is jealous for himself and this kind always ends in murder. Believing that he should have center stage, Satan draws a multitude of angels into battle against the throne of God:
Arms on armor clashing brayed
Horrible discord; dire was the noise
Of conflict; overhead the dismal hiss
Of fiery darts in flaming volleys flew
So under fiery cope together rushed
Both battles main with ruinous assault
And inextinguishable rage. All heaven
Resounded; and, had earth been then, all earth
Had to her centre shook.
Deeds of eternal fame were done,
But infinite; for wide was spread
That war, and various; sometimes on firm ground
A standing fight; then, soaring on main wing
Tormented all the air; and all air seemed then
Conflicting fire. Long time in even scale
The battle hung, till Satan
No equal, ranging through the dire attack
Of fighting seraphim confused, at length
Saw where the sword of Michael smote, and felled
Squadrons at once; with huge two-handed sway.
At the approach of Satan, the great archangel Michael "from his warlike toil surceased," turning to confront the betrayer of their heaven:
Author of evil, unknown till thy revolt . . .
How hast thou disturbed
Heaven's blessed peace, and unto Nature brought
Misery, uncreated till the crime
Of thy rebellion. How hast thou instilled
Thy malice into thousands, once upright
And faithful, now proved false . . .
Heaven casts thee out.
Satan mounted his rebellion through the power of one idea: God doesn't have a good heart. Though it seems almost incomprehensible, he deceived a multitude of the heavenly host by sowing the seed of doubt in their minds that God was somehow holding out on them. After the insurrection is squelched, that question lingers in the universe like smoke from a forest fire. Sure, God won, but it took force to do it. Power isn't the same thing as goodness. As the lead actor in the story, God seems generous and self-giving, but perhaps he's just big. Maybe his motive is simply to be in charge. At the end of Act II, our hero's heart has been called into question.
Act III: His Heart on Trial
When the curtain goes up on the story of humanity, we see God in a flurry of breathtaking dramatic actions that we rather blandly call "creation." Remember, we're looking for the motives of his heart. Why is he doing all this? We know he already had the perfect relationship and that he has suffered a betrayal in the heart of heaven simply for the offense of sharing it. Now we see him preparing to woo our hearts with a world that is beautiful and funny and full of adventure. Don't rush ahead to the Fall. Stay here a moment and feel God's happiness with it all. Yosemite and Yellowstone and Maui and the Alps; mangoes and blackberries and cabernet grapes; horses and hummingbirds and rainbow trout. "The morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy" (Job 38:7 niv).
God creates man and woman and sets them in Paradise. How long had he been planning this? Are we merely the replacement for the angels he lost, the first date he can find on the rebound? The first chapter of Ephesians gives a look into God's motives here:
Long before he laid down earth's foundations, he had us in mind, had settled on us as the focus of his love, to be made whole and holy by his love. Long, long ago he decided to adopt us into his family through Jesus Christ. (What pleasure he took in planning this!) He wanted us to enter into the celebration of his lavish gift-giving by the hand of his beloved Son. . . . Long before we first heard of Christ and got our hopes up, he had his eye on us, had designs on us for glorious living. (The Message)
God begins our courtship with a surprise. Taking the blindfold off, he turns us around and reveals his handmade wedding present. "Here," he says. "It's yours. Enjoy yourselves. Do you like it? Take it for a spin." A lavish gift indeed. What's he up to? Flowers, chocolates, exotic vacations, dinners at the finest restaurants-any person would feel pursued. But what are his intentions? Surprisingly, we see in the first glimpse of God's wildness the goodness of his heart-he gives us our freedom. In order for a true romance to occur, we had to be free to reject him. In Disappointment with God, Philip Yancey reminds us that the powers of the Author aren't sufficient to win our hearts.
Power can do everything but the most important thing: it cannot control love. . . . In a concentration camp, the guards possess almost unlimited power. By applying force, they can make you renounce your God, curse your family, work without pay, eat human excrement, kill and then bury your closest friend or even your own mother. All this is within their power. Only one thing is not: they cannot force you to love them. This fact may help explain why God sometimes seems shy to use his power. He created us to love him, but his most impressive displays of miracle-the kind we may secretly long for-do nothing to foster that love. As Douglas John Hall has put it, "God's problem is not that God is not able to do certain things. God's problem is that God loves. Love complicates the life of God as it complicates every life."
The wildness of giving us freedom is even more staggering when we remember that God has already paid dearly for giving freedom to the angels. But because of his grand heart he goes ahead and takes the risk, an enormous, colossal risk. The reason he didn't make puppets is because he wanted lovers. Remember, he's inviting us up into a romance. Freedom is part of the explanation for the problem of evil. God is the author of some storms directly; but he is the author of the possibility of all storms in giving us freedom. And we opened Pandora's box.
Can you imagine if on your honeymoon one of you sneaked off for a rendezvous with a perfect stranger? Adam and Eve kicked off the honeymoon by sleeping with the enemy. Then comes one of the most poignant verses in all Scripture. "What is this you have done?" (Gen. 3:13). You can almost hear the shock, the pain of betrayal in God's voice. The fall of Adam and Eve mustn't be pictured as a crime like theft, but as a betrayal of love. In love God creates us for love and we give him the back of our hand. Why? Satan gets us to side with him by sowing the seed of doubt in our first parents' minds: "God's heart really isn't good. He's holding out on you. You've got to take things into your own hands." And Paradise was lost.
Yet there was something about the heart of God that the angels and our first parents had not yet seen. Here, at the lowest point in our relationship, God announces his intention never to abandon us but to seek us out and win us back. "I will come for you." Grace introduces a new element of God's heart. Up till this point we knew he was rich, famous, influential, even generous. Behind all that can still can hide a heart that is less than good. Grace removes all doubt.
And then the long story of God's pursuit of humanity begins. Satan wanted center stage: He wanted to be the main character, he wanted to be the point. His plan now is to ruin the Sacred Romance, to get us all caught up in our own little sociodramas by telling us that we are the point. You can see how humanity goes along with this. Cain murders Abel; Lamech threatens to murder everyone else. Humanity grows worse and worse until God says in pain, "I'm sorry I ever made them." But he doesn't give up. First with Noah, then Abraham, then Israel, we see God pursuing a people whose hearts will be for him, with whom he can share the joy of the larger story. But their faithfulness lasts about as long as the morning dew.
How is God feeling by this point? As a person in the story, what is his heart experience? When we reach the prophets, we get a glimpse at what it feels like to be God. Reading the prophets, says Yancey, is like hearing a lovers' quarrel through the apartment wall. Eavesdrop on the argument and catch a glimpse of his heart:
I long to be gracious to you. You are precious and honored in my sight, because I love you. But you-come here, you . . . you . . . offspring of adulterers. You have made your bed on a high and lofty hill, forsaking me, you uncovered your bed, you climbed into it and opened it wide. You have been false to me. Yet . . . I will take delight in you, as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will I rejoice over you. (From Isaiah)
I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved me. . . . What fault did you find in me that you strayed so far from me? You are a swift she-camel running here and there, sniffing the wind in her craving-in her heat who can restrain her? Should I not punish them for this? Should I not avenge myself? I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with lovingkindness. What have I done to make you hate me so much? (From Jeremiah)
I will answer you according to your idols [your false lovers] in order to recapture your heart. (From Ezekiel)
Return to me and I will return to you. Yet you have said harsh things about me. You have said, "There's no pay-off in this relationship. It's not worth loving God." (From Malachi)
After this, four hundred years of silence. God doesn't call and when we do he won't answer the phone. You can almost imagine him nursing his wounds, wondering where it all went wrong. And then an idea comes to him. Here is Kierkegaard's version of the story:
Suppose there was a king who loved a humble maiden. The king was like no other king. Every statesman trembled before his power. No one dared breathe a word against him, for he had the strength to crush all opponents. And yet this mighty king was melted by love for a humble maiden. How could he declare his love for her? In an odd sort of way, his kingliness tied his hands. If he brought her to the palace and crowned her head with jewels and clothed her body in royal robes, she would surely not resist-no one dared resist him. But would she love him?
She would say she loved him, of course, but would she truly? Or would she live with him in fear, nursing a private grief for the life she had left behind? Would she be happy at his side? How could he know? If he rode to her forest cottage in his royal carriage, with an armed escort waving bright banners, that too would overwhelm her. He did not want a cringing subject. He wanted a lover, an equal. He wanted her to forget that he was a king and she a humble maiden and to let shared love cross the gulf between them. For it is only in love that the unequal can be made equal. (as quoted in Disappointment with God)
The king clothes himself as a beggar and renounces his throne in order to win her hand. The Incarnation, the life and the death of Jesus, answers once and for all the question, "What is God's heart toward me?" This is why Paul says in Romans 5, "Look here, at the Cross. Here is the demonstration of God's heart. At the point of our deepest betrayal, when we had run our farthest from him and gotten so lost in the woods we could never find our way home, God came and died to rescue us." We don't have to wait for the Incarnation to see God as a character in the story and learn something of his motives. But after the Incarnation there can be no doubt.
There is so much more to say. Jesus left to prepare our place in heaven; the Spirit has come to empower us to continue the invasion of the kingdom, which is primarily about freeing the hearts of others to live in the love of God. There is so much in our own heart that remains to be released. Our enemy has not given up yet and his target is also our heart. And what of Act IV, the coming adventures of heaven? All that is for the chapters ahead. Let's stop here and try to bring this into focus.
What is God like? Is his heart good? We know he is the initiator from first to last. As Simon Tugwell reminds, God is the one pursuing us:
So long as we imagine that it is we who have to look for God, we must often lose heart. But it is the other way about; He is looking for us. And so we can afford to recognize that very often we are not looking for God; far from it, we are in full flight from him, in high rebellion against him. And He knows that and has taken it into account. He has followed us into our own darkness; there where we thought finally to escape him, we run straight into his arms. So we do not have to erect a false piety for ourselves, to give us the hope of salvation. Our hope is in his determination to save us, and he will not give in. (Prayer)
When we feel that life is finally up to us it becomes suffocating. When we are the main character, the world is so small there's barely room to move. It frees our souls to have something going on before us that involves us, had us in mind, yet doesn't depend on us or culminate in us, but invites us up into something larger. And what about the Romance and the Arrows? It wasn't supposed to be like this. Once upon a time we lived in a garden; we lived in the place for which we were made. There were no Arrows, only beauty. Our relationships weren't tainted with fear, guardedness, manipulation, quid pro quo. Our work was rewarding; we received more than we gave. There is beauty, and we so long for it to last; we were made for the Garden. But now there is affliction also, and that is because we live East of Eden. The Arrows seem like the truest part of life, but they are not. The heart of the universe is still perfect love.
Finally, if we try to relate to God primarily as Author, we will go mad or despair-pretty much the same thing. I just can't imagine the characters of a novel affecting the author that much. He may like them, hate them, be intrigued with mapping out their development, but they don't impact him the way the people in his real life do. He doesn't live with them as flesh-and-blood lovers. But when we see God as the Hero of the story and consider what he wants for us, we know one thing for certain: We affect him. We impact the members of the Trinity as truly as they do each other.
It is only when we see God as the Hero of the larger story that we come to know his heart is good.
Where does that leave us? What is our role in the cosmic drama? Are we bit players, added for dramatic tension, color, comic relief? Neil Anderson has written that while "The most important belief we possess is true knowledge of who God is. . . . The second most important belief is who we are as children of God." In the next chapter, we'll explore our role in the story.