Some years ago I came across a book entitled Your God is Too Small by J. B. Phillips. He was convinced that many of us are limited in our growth as disciples because we have ideas about God that are simply too small. We think that the God we serve is not big enough to meet the challenges of modern life, leaving us disheartened and frustrated. Is he right? Is your God too small?
Let’s look at a test case: the story of Israel in the wilderness in Exodus 16. These people have just experienced the greatest deliverance imaginable. Slaves in Egypt, brutally oppressed, they’ve been set free on the night of the Passover, when the Lord kills the firstborn of all the Egyptians and spares the Israelites because they were shielded by the blood of the Passover lamb. Next, backed up against the Red Sea, with angry Pharaoh and his powerful army closing in, they first walk through the sea on dry ground, then watch as the sea closed over the Egyptians, killing them all. What kind of a God could do this? Not a small one!
Before you know it, these same people are again in dire need: out in the desert with no food. Having seen the awesome power of the Lord, they gather for a prayer meeting and, with hearts of faith, call him to meet their need, right? Wrong. They grumble, complain, and romanticize their experience as slaves. Why? Their God is too small. They seem to understand God as someone who serves them, not someone they serve. Their grumbling is really a way of saying that they know how to run the universe better than God. The result of this functional idolatry is anxiety, despair, revisionist history, and complaining.
Of course we would never do this, right? We would never find ourselves on a nice vacation and still find reasons to complain, would we? We would never find ourselves complaining or worrying about things like paying the bills or the cost of tuition or retirement. Sadly, I find myself in these places constantly. By some unseen law, I find myself serving a God who seems to shrink while I sleep and become smaller day by day. I know God can’t really shrink, but my view of him can, and does.
How can we restore our minds and hearts to a view of God that is worthy of him? How can we come face-to-face with God who is incomprehensible; that is, greater than we can imagine, unfathomably rich and wise and knowledgeable? How can we tear down the fences we build around a God we want to control and come to serve the God who is rightly called, Lord?
There are many tools the Spirit uses to us to help with this and today I want to focus on this one: the hard passages of Scripture. As we’ve worked our way through Romans 9-11 in our sermon series, Transforming Grace, we struggled through some of the most difficult passages in Scripture. Election, hardening of heart, mercy on some and not others; these are difficult sayings. Yet, we’ve also seen that God keeps his promises. In the end, before Jesus returns, there will be a vast multitude of Jewish and Gentile people who have turned with saving faith to Jesus Christ, just as God promised Abraham 4,000 years ago.
Who turns out to be the hero of this story? Not the Gentiles, who are without excuse because they refused to honor or give thanks to God despite what they could know of him in creation. Not the Jews, who looked for righteousness through their law-keeping. The hero of this story is the magnificent, saving, promise-keeping, covenant-making God who “shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ dies for us.” (Romans 5:8).
Romans 9-11 pushes us to ask: Will I make my worship of God depend upon God answering all my questions? Am I a worshiper or a skeptic? A worshiper or a critic? How we answer these questions will determine whether our view of God is getting smaller or bigger. We do well to worship God based on what we know and see clearly (e.g. the person and work of Jesus Christ), not based on what we don’t know (e.g. whatever we fear in the future: grades, retirement, unresolved conflict, etc.).
When we’ve pressed as far as we can to understand God and can go no farther, we can stop there and doubt, or criticize, or we can kneel in worship. Worship is the marvelous example set for us by the apostle Paul at the end of Romans 11. Here is his closing hymn from The Message.
Have you ever come on anything quite like this extravagant generosity of God, this deep, deep wisdom? It’s way over our heads. We’ll never figure it out.
Is there anyone around who can explain God?
Anyone smart enough to tell him what to do?
Anyone who has done him such a huge favor
that God has to ask his advice?
Everything comes from him;
Everything happens through him;
Everything ends up in him.
Always glory! Always praise!
Yes. Yes. Yes.
Whether we experience gain or loss today, may we be found singing to our great God when the evening comes.