Your God Is Too Safe: Rediscovering the Wonder of a God You Can't Control

Your God Is Too Safe: Rediscovering the Wonder of a God You Can't Control

by Mark Buchanan

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Here's a thoughtful, probing exploration of why Christians get stuck in the place of complacency, dryness, and tedium — and how to move on to new levels of spiritual passion! Buchanan shows how the majority of Christians begin their spiritual journey with excitement and enthusiasm — only to get bogged down in a "borderland" — an in-between space


Here's a thoughtful, probing exploration of why Christians get stuck in the place of complacency, dryness, and tedium — and how to move on to new levels of spiritual passion! Buchanan shows how the majority of Christians begin their spiritual journey with excitement and enthusiasm — only to get bogged down in a "borderland" — an in-between space beyond the "old life" but short of the abundant, adventurous existence promised by Jesus. Citing Jonah, he examines the problem of "borderland living" — where doubt, disappointment, guilt, and wonderlessness keep people in a quagmire of mediocrity — then offers solutions ... effective ways to get unstuck and move into a bold, unpredictable, exhilarating walk with Christ. Inspired writing!

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Canadian pastor and first-time author Buchanan says that he "hit the ground running" when he first became a Christian. He got involved in a church, taught Sunday school and read his Bible regularly. Then things got rote. Buchanan was, in a word, "stuck." But he had friends who weren't stuck: the elderly widow who seemed full of spiritual joy, a multiple sclerosis patient with a broken body but a strong faith. So Buchanan set out to write a book that would explain why many Christians fail to progress spiritually and why only a few grow stronger in faith. He concludes that believers reach a plateau when they think God is too cuddly and (as the title suggests) safe. The literary conceit of this narrative is all too familiar in evangelical Christian books: the church is full of euphemism and afloat on pat answers, but this bold, new author is going to be refreshingly honest about how difficult his own faith walk has been. Buchanan may be honest, but the tactic is stale. Equally banal are Buchanan's tips for "breaking free": Don't boast about your good deeds. Read the Bible. Confess when you've sinned. Pray. Perhaps his only innovative advice is that Christians take up fasting, a biblical activity that has become increasingly popular among contemporary evangelicals. (Feb.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

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The Doubleday Religious Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt


Rediscovering the Wonder of a God You Can't Control

Multnomah Publishers

Copyright © 2001 Mark Buchanan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1576737748

Chapter One


A little town called Busia wedges up against the border between Kenya and Uganda. Busia has a scattering of ramshackle buildings, a nest of narrow, dusty streets. The air is hazy from the smoke of open fires. The streets are overcrowded with hawkers and money changers-as you walk, toothless or toothy men thrust at you bundles of money for exchange, soapstone dishes, wood carvings, beadwork, baskets. You must set your face like flint and walk steady, not too fast.

Busia is a place of crossing. It is, actually, a place of double crossing. You cannot take a car from one country to the other. You have to walk the dusty earth between them. You go through the Uganda customs-a wood hut that splices together two lengths of steel mesh fence crowned with coils of barbed wire. The man in the hut wants to know why you were in his country, why you're leaving it, what you're taking with you, what you're leaving behind. He frisks you. He'll take a bribe if you want to avoid all this. Then you step into a brick building with several men who shuffle and stamp papers. Put money in their palms-especially American-and you can speed things up here, too. You step out of the brick building, thinkingyou've made it, thinking you're in Kenya.

You're not. This, as I said, is a double crossing. Kenya has its own customs office, its own brick building with its own huddle of men shuffling and stamping papers. In between the two brick buildings-the Uganda one, the Kenya one-is a patch of ground. It's not large: maybe 100 yards wide, 300 yards long. It's borderland, no-man's-land, claimed or defended by neither country. All laws are suspended here. Shoot a man, rob him, beat him: The guards on either side would watch, stolid, unmoving.

There are two borders, then, two crossings to make. The Uganda one, the Kenya one. The two borders are testimony to an ancient blood feud between countries. They are brothers who refuse to speak to one another. And in between these two borders, this double crossing, is borderland.

It is strange and frightening to walk through here. There are no laws to restrain anyone from doing anything. Stranger still, the place is thronged with people-peddlers, hawkers, beggars. It's a carnival of the wayward and the waylaid. Why? Why would anyone choose to dwell here?

Why would anyone choose to be stuck?

Because, actually, it's safe. It's familiar. It's ground that can be staked out, marked off, well trod, packed down. It holds some things in and keeps some things out. It may take endurance to live there, but not much else: It's the endurance of inertia. Life there requires no discipline but falls into neat routines. It's domesticated lawlessness. It's chaotic, but predictable. Borderland might be dangerous, but even more, it's safe.

Borderland is a political and geographical reality. But it's also a metaphor. There is a blood feud that divides Christ's domain from the world's, and a cross marks the crossing. Salvation is stepping over the boundary from our old life, the old land: freedom from its rule, its laws, its gods. It's coming home from the far country. But sanctification is the journey into the new land: learning to dwell gladly in the Father's house.

It's a way of life that's hard to learn. The shape of the new land is, first, cruciform. It's dangerous, difficult terrain. There are feasts, yes, but also graveyards, badlands, boot camps. It calls us to a constant dying. Borderland seems safer, a land of exile when the homeland is war torn. So we refine an aptitude for lingering, malingering: for borderland dwelling. For standing out in the muddy field, as smoke mixes with twilight, and refusing to come join the Father though He pleads with us.

This book is about moving off the borderland. But it is also about mapping the borderland, naming its contents and discontents, tracing its contours, cataloguing its life forms and its deadliness. It's an attempt to try to understand the borderland's lure and its hold. Because often, very often, our experience of Christ and our life in Christ is a stunted, wizened-up thing. It doesn't live up to the rhetoric. It's like hearing music muted through water, kissing through canvas. It hardly seems worth the effort.

We don't want to go back. But neither are we particularly motivated to go forward. We're stuck on borderland. On the day my brother was baptized, several years ago now, a man came up to him, a stalwart member of the church, and said that he had been waiting for twenty-eight years for God to do something with his life. And he was still waiting. Twenty-eight years. Twenty-eight years on borderland. I don't know that man, but I have the grim certainty that were I to track him down, I would find him still waiting.

But this-this inner deadness, this spiritual sleepwalking, this chronic stuckness-happens all the time and all around us. We know it, and often, in desperate attempts to ward it off or drive it away, we grope for immunities, remedies.

We go to Bible college, hoping that will inoculate us against spiritual languor, will create in us robust faith. But many theological schools and Bible colleges are built on borderlands. There is the danger in such places that we will learn much about God and at the same time grow distant from God; we will study the intricacies of doctrine, but lose passion; we will become eloquent at God talk, but cease talking to God.

We go to church, we sing, we pray, we listen to the Word read and preached. Maybe we take notes. Maybe we even lead some of it. And maybe our slow hearts burn within us. But walking away-just strolling to our car in the church parking lot, fifty-seven steps away-the conviction, "He's alive!" dribbles down like water held in the hand. Monday morning, it's still hard to get out of bed.

* * *

I'm seeking to understand the weariness that spreads itself over and soaks its way through so much of modern Christian living. I'm trying to diagnose the spiritual chronic fatigue syndrome in our churches. I'm seeking to comprehend our temptation to sleep when we are called to pray, to wield swords when we should bear crosses, to go shopping when we should be fighting, to either boast or gripe about what is sheer gift, to be loose-lipped with others' secrets and tight-lipped about God's Good News. I'm attempting to document the story, so varied yet so monotonous, about missing the grace of God. I'm setting out to tell, sympathetically but also ruthlessly, about our faintheartedness, and halfheartedness, and fickle-heartedness. I'm writing about life on the borderland.

There is a dreadfulness about God. This is seldom said. It is where I want to begin. We often cherish a pious delusion about ourselves: that we truly desire God and that all that's lacking to pursue deepest intimacy with Him is adequate skill, sufficient knowledge, proper motivation. But is that so? I've lived with myself long enough and been among God's people long enough to know that our hearts are as slow as much as burning, that we have a fondness for parades and masquerades of holy living, but little appetite for the real thing. Down in our bones, mingled with our blood, silent and potent as instinct, is a dread of God. Part of our essence is a longing to flee. There is a fear of God, the Proverbs tells us, that is the beginning of wisdom, the threshold for knowing God. But that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about something more primal: a deep down craven terror, a black hole of unknowing.

We know that we should desire intimacy with God. The better and saner part of us does. But there is in each of us a dark impulse toward separation, a love of distance. We want to see God, not face-to-face, but in rough silhouette, to hear, not the thunder of His shout or the sweetness of His whisper, but only rumors of Him, faint and faraway echoes.

The story of Moses and the people of Israel is instructive. After God delivers the tablets of the Law at Sinai into Moses' hands, the people witness the storm-stirring powers of God:

When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, "Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die." (Exodus 20:18-19)

This is primal fear. The voice of God, the presence of God, holds not comfort but terror. We fear God the way we fear tigers and tyrants, cyclones and cyclopses: a power swift and capricious. So we want it muffled, mediated, caged. We settle for-no, demand-echoes, rumors, shadows. We long for hearsay about God, but do not ourselves want to hear God say anything. We want priests or envoys, some kind of go-between: someone else to handle the fire, to risk death or deforming or deafening in the encounter with the living God. This perhaps is the secret agenda of most pulpit committees: to find someone who will keep God afar, make God safe. Speak to us yourself, and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us....

Why are we like that? There is no easy explanation. Part of it, an obvious and large part, has to do with God's holiness and our unholiness. In Exodus 33 we are told that God shows Moses His glory, but Moses must hide in the cleft of a rock and is only allowed a glimpse of the Lord's back because if he sees God's face he will die. We too have an instinctual knowledge of our unworthiness and cower in the rocks as God's glory, in a whirlwind, flashes by. Or we are like Adam and Eve, who, in the shamefulness of their sin, hid from God as He came walking through the Garden in the cool of the day.

But there is something else, something more-or less. Jesus said He would not entrust Himself to man because He knew all men and knew what was in them (John 2:25). He knows our drowsy indifference to matters of highest importance, our rabid passion for matters that are trivial. He knows we get angrier at missing a bus or being delayed on a runway than we do at crimes of genocide. He knows we rejoice more in winning a game of pinochle than we do in the news that the hungry are fed, the lost are found. So Jesus doesn't entrust Himself to us.

But we return in kind. We don't entrust ourselves to Jesus. Because we half-know what's in the Man. Jesus is not fickle, but He's unpredictable. God is on the loose through Him. We don't mind the magician's tricks-water into wine, bread crumbs and fish bones into banquet, lame men into dancers, mute ones into minstrels-but these field marshal commands of His-"Follow Me!"-we can do without.

Follow You? I don't think so. Follow You where? Have You made hotel arrangements? Did You purchase cancellation and travel insurance? What am I to wear? No, Jesus. I'm going to sit right here between worlds. I'm going to live here on borderland until You come up with a better offer.

Until it's safe.

So here we sit, whiling our days away in this flat, empty place of in-betweenness.

Most Christians I know are stuck. We feel caught in jobs we barely endure and often despise, in relationships that plunder us and baffle us and deepen rather than remove our aloneness, in activities that are soul wizening in their triviality and yet insatiably addictive. We squander jewels and hoard baubles. We experience harrowing emotions over mere trifles and can barely muster a dull ache over matters of shattering tragedy. We feel we've no time and no energy for the things that we know matter deeply, even eternally, but waste much time in silly and stultifying diversions: We are impatient with our child's longing to spend ten minutes with us at bedtime, but then fritter away an hour in idle telephone chatter or two hours watching the latest studio-produced inanity on video. We gossip, even though we've made repeated resolves not to. We envy, resent, judge, avenge, sulk, and overeat. We read People magazine -maybe even Playboy-and FutureShop flyers, but not our Bible much. We feel that everyone else has more money, longer vacations, newer cars, nicer clothes, and fewer things going wrong with their hot water tanks, automobiles, and children than we do.

We wonder where the freedom is for which Christ set us free. And this secret fear haunts us: Is everyone else fulfilled, and I'm the only one who's not? Or even worse: Is no one fulfilled, and we are all just playing out a charade that we are?

Meet, for example, James. James has an amazing gift with music. He can play nearly anything-strings, woodwinds, horns, percussion. Music soaks his bones and spills out of his ever agile hands, his rich and supple throat. He can dazzle and delight, even mesmerize. Yet he also has a real passion to lead people into God's presence-Jesus must become greater, James must become less.

But James also struggles with self-bullying and self-pity. No one, he thinks, really understands me. No one really appreciates me. They snatch up what I give and never say thank you, and if they speak it's only to complain about what I did wrong. It's never enough, or it's always too much; it's overdone or it's underdone. That man who doesn't sing is obviously disapproving. That woman who walked out halfway through is obviously protesting. And why should anyone thank me anyhow? I'm useless, inept, worthless. Who am I kidding thinking I have something to offer anyone? That other musician over there can render these songs with more subtlety and integrity and beauty than I ever could. It must be nice being him.

And so it goes.

Or meet Daphne. Daphne is attractive, intelligent, articulate. She is artistic, poetic, funny, fun, compassionate. She paints exquisite pictures. She has a sweet voice and a sweet way. People are easily drawn to her, and not just because of her beauty. She is charming without a hint of coyness.


Excerpted from YOUR GOD IS TOO SAFE by MARK BUCHANAN Copyright © 2001 by Mark Buchanan
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

Mark Buchanan is a pastor and freelance writer/editor who lives with his wife, Cheryl, and three children on the west coast of Canada. Educated at the University of British Columbia and Regent University, he has been published in numerous periodicals, including Christianity Today and Books and Culture.

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