Thursday, March 02, 2023

Valley and Peak

On September 9, 1939, The Telegraph reported that a woman from London, England named Frances Fripps was accidentally struck by a local bus. Taken to Middlesex hospital, Miss Fripps awoke to find someone bending over her bed. To her utter astonishment, she recognized her visitor as none other than the Queen of England, there for a surprise tour of the hospital.

“They told me I had been trying to knock down a bus,” gasped Miss Fripps, “and now I find you here, your Majesty. What a day!”

What a day indeed.

But how does a story like that become news? After all, traffic accidents are nothing, hospitals are rather unpleasant places, and visits are routine. Moreover, Miss Fripps was nobody special: in fact, The Glasgow Herald, which reported the same story, even got her name wrong, calling her “Miss Cripps”. This may well have been the only remarkable event in this lady’s whole life; so far as we know she never became newsworthy again.

So what was so special here?

It’s the combination of the high and the lowly. It’s the unexpected spectacle of a monarch tending bed. And in this paradox the thing that is really engaging is the excellence of the Queen’s person — and the kindness of her taking thought for some apparent nobody.

Worshiper’s Amnesia

All this is, of course, a pale metaphor for God’s dealings with us. That one so high should be so vitally involved with the mundane particulars of our lives is a truly great and astonishing thing. It ought to make us burst forth in worship and gratitude at every minute we think of it. But thinking of it is sometimes not so easy. The God of the Universe, the Most High, the Holy One, the King of All Creation is vitally involved with us: the distance that thought crosses makes our heads spin.

And so we forget. Perhaps we still remember God’s goodness to us, his practical care and provision — after all, that is something from which we benefit every minute of every day — but we soon let go of the realization of just how magnificently great he is, how high above us, how vast in knowledge and how unspeakably holy. All of that is to us just so mind-boggling we can take it only in short doses.

At high altitudes, our imagination runs out of oxygen. So we descend to the plain and stay there, though there we can only get a foreshortened perspective on the height of the mountain. But the spirit of awe and worship is really inspired only by the contemplation of the vast, vertiginous distance between valley and peak.

Vocab Lesson

I’m going to risk introducing you to two big, fat words: not because I want to show off like some frat boy invited to the pulpit for his first time, but because these two words are so very useful — so very, very important — that I really think every Christian needs them on hand all the time.

So here we go: two definitions:

Firstly, “Immanence”. Immanence means the many ways in which God can be said to be present with us, involved in this world and acting in relation to his creation. It’s about the ways in which God is close to us, engaged with our lives and beneficial to our lives, both practically and spiritually. Immanence means his mercy and patience, his grace to us, his salvation for us, his provision to us, his watching over us, and so on. We are all very blessed that God is immanent — that he is, in a very real sense, “Immanuel, God with us”.

Alright. Now, its opposite is “Transcendence”. It means the many ways in which God is simply above us, better than we can fathom and greater than we can possibly imagine even in our wildest thoughts. It means his “otherness”, his distance in both character and quality from human beings and from everything in the created world. It has to do with the vast magnitude of his wisdom and knowledge, the immeasurable greatness of his power and — above all — with his ineffable holiness. Transcendence is bespoken by the mystery of his triune nature, his eternal existence and his ultimate righteousness, by which he shall one day judge all things and reconcile them to his nature.

The Necessity of Both

Immanence warms our gratitude and makes us worship with thanks … but transcendence leaves us agog, slack-jawed in wonderment, and makes us worship by tipping our minds over the precipice of his unfathomable greatness.

But here’s the thing: Both are essential to worship. Forget one, and the other one soon goes away too. To forget the immanence of God is to view him as a great but distant unknown “out there”, the cold and alien “god” of the Deists: and that which is far from us is easily forgotten. But to forget his transcendence is to reduce him to a “pal”, a cosmic Santa Claus who provides us with benefits but inspires far too little in the way of respect and awe: and such familiarity all too easily breeds contempt, or at least lightness and levity unfitting to God.

Cases in Point

C.S. Lewis famously said that God is “not a tame lion”. That is, to have to do with him (immanently) is to be brought into contact with danger of confrontation with absolute holiness (transcendence). This is the sense in which we “fear” God: not the terror of judgment but the burning awareness of just how close we were to that, and a present realization of what sort of awe and reverence is due to one who burns with righteousness and truth, but who, in his immeasurable kindness, has condescended to reach down and rescue us.

When Isaiah realized the transcendent greatness of God, he cried out in despair, “Woe is me.” And God in his infinite forgiveness took away his sin. But we must not forget that it was done with a hot coal. And we must not forget that that coal burned with such fierce heat that even a holy angel could only take it with tongs. So much for a flippant attitude to God.

Two-Handed Worship

Great worshipers always keep one hand on immanence and one on transcendence. Look at Solomon, for example. He is about to build the temple, an ultimate act of human worship, a definitive declaration of Israel’s status as the blessed nation, and Jerusalem as the earthly location of the name of the one true God. So he declares:

“Behold, I am about to build a house for the name of the Lord my God, dedicating it to Him, to burn fragrant incense before Him and to set out the showbread continually, and to offer burnt offerings morning and evening … The house which I am about to build will be great, for greater is our God than all the gods.”

Great indeed. A constant reminder of God’s presence, mercy and love for Israel, his immanence. But Solomon does not stop there. He adds:

“But who is able to build a house for Him, for the heavens and the highest heavens cannot contain Him? So who am I, that I should build a house for Him, except to burn incense before Him?”

Great question, a question raised by the realization of God’s transcendence. This house, however glorious it may turn out to be, will be no more than a tangential location to the excessive greatness and glory of the One it represents. Solomon’s heart explodes in wonder.

Only people who keep this two-handed grasp on God’s immanence and transcendence can hope to worship him as he deserves.

So this makes an urgent concern out of what has recently been said by theologian Bruce Ware. He writes:

“Contemporary Christian culture is marked by a ‘rush’ to the divine immanence. That is, when we are thinking and talking about God, we tend to default almost always to talking about God’s love, grace, mercy, kindness, compassion, goodness, presence, attentiveness, and watch care, but we do so by bypassing almost altogether God’s glorious and eternal transcendence.”

As a result, says Ware, “We don’t rightly know even the true nature of the love of God that we have rushed to embrace, because of lofty views of self and diminished views of God. In this connection, he backs his view with references to two other beloved theologians: first, to David Wells, who has had a similar insight:

“It is one of the defining marks of Our Time that God is now weightless. I do not mean by this that he is ethereal but rather that he has become unimportant. He rests upon the world so inconsequentially as not to be noticeable.”

Then he also refers to the earlier observations of A.W. Tozer, who bluntly characterized the modern concept of God as “so low, so ignoble as to be utterly unworthy of thinking, worshiping men”, on the one hand, and on the other, “so decadent as to be beneath the dignity of the Most High God”.

Are We There?

Harsh words, if true. And I think they are. First, modern worshipers lost the perception of God’s transcendence because it just seemed so hard to keep thinking about, and they justified their swapping it off in favor of a more concentrated focus on immanence, on all the blessings and benefits of having God near to us. But the consequence was that they lost both: they no longer had a sense of how high and great God is, and because of that they lost any sense that in being involved with them he was really doing anyone any great favors.

Ultimately, how different is this really from the position of the wicked men of Romans 1:21, of whom it could truly be said, “They did not honor him as God or give thanks.” For these modern worshipers were Christians who could not remember who God is, and thus were not even capable of forming appropriate thanks. And all this was achieved in the name of making God more “real”, more “practical” and more “accessible”, so that we could feel him more “a part of our lives”. In losing touch with his true nature and greatness, we forgot that having him in our lives was anything very special.

The Cure

“O Lord my God”, we sing, “when I in awesome wonder ...” And then we break into “consider all the worlds Thy hands have made”, and we sing about “stars” and “rolling thunder”, and “power throughout the universe displayed”.

One of the things that made How Great Thou Art much loved is probably the rolling, booming tune. But it really wouldn’t be much use without the words. “Awesome wonder” is the right response when we consider all the distance between the eternal, invisible, all-holy God and ourselves, tiny creatures that we are, traveling around an obscure corner of a massive galaxy on a tiny ball of mud. That he could consider us at all should well inspire us to rhapsodies of glorification: “When I consider the heavens, the work of your hands, what is man that you are mindful of him, or the son of man, that you care for him?”

Worship resides in the distance between who God is and who we are. The greatness of the fact that God is with us is found in the contemplation that he is God! Were he not so high, his grace, mercy, love, provision and forgiveness would be nowhere so great as they are: were he not so transcendently great, his immanence would be far less of a marvel.

That someone is with us in our darkest valleys is good; but that he is the Lord of Glory is unspeakably wonderful. GOD is with us … who can be against us?

Being Practical

We must spend much more thought on the transcendence of God. We must think more of his holiness. We must esteem him much more highly if we are to see how truly blessed and loved we are, and by what amazing grace he has saved us both from our follies of today and ultimate separation from him and each other in eternity.

We can’t worship reverently or passionately unless we grasp equally both the immanence and transcendence of God.

1 comment :

  1. "That one so high should be so vitally involved with the mundane particulars of our lives is a truly great and astonishing thing."

    I understand where you are coming from and the awe that we should be capable off where it concerns God. However, I think people will differ naturally in their thought processes, emphasis, perception, understanding, ability to respond, etc. to the idea of God. To me it is much more natural to think of God in terms of a child-parent relationship and a friend-confidant one. I simply don't think of myself or others as having been put here were it not for God wanting the intimacy and feedback of such relationships much more than the one characterized by the chasm of finiteness and infinity. In other words I feel that God walks with us and adjusts his pace to accommodate his beloved creatures to the point where he is even part of us with the corresponding warmth and love. On my part this does not invite disrespect, indifference or lack of awe and I feel badly for those who react that way because they elect to ignore or even deny the reality of God.

    This therefore hinges on accepting the idea of God and unfortunately (and this might be cyclic throughout human history) nowadays that idea with its logical consequences is falling more and more out of favor. And, also unfortunately, that may eventually result in more or less severe parental midcourse corrections.