Let's not be afraid to admit it. We all do it. Without it, we simply have no practical means by which to approach God.
What am I referring to? We all put God in a box!
It is an overused metaphor, but in the book Blowing the Lid Off the God-Box: Opening up to a Limitless Faith, Pastor Anne Robertson breathes new life into it by turning it upside down. Often, those who refer to our tendency to place God-in-a-box warn their listeners to refrain from this practice altogether. But this is naïve and misguided. We all do it. We all have to do it or God remains an empty term, void of meaning and unable to guide any sustainable practice. Anne encourages us to admit we have a God-box. But she then challenges us to make sure we never close the lid!
The reason we possess a God-box is in order to have a relationship with the transcendent God who defies comprehension. Anne writes,
Boxes... We all have them, and in some sense we all need them, since Scripture tells us again and again that we can't stand in the full, unbounded presence of God and live. I don't think those statements represent God's desire to keep us distant or to do us harm. I think we can't stand in God's fill presence for the same reason we can't look directly into the sun or hope to get a cup of water by holding a glass under the fullness of Niagara Falls. (9)
God is "without beginning and without end, something without boundaries, something infinitely bigger than me" (11). Consequently, "[b]oxes are necessary, just as we need special equipment to view a solar eclipse" (10). She continues,
I want to be careful not to condemn the box itself. If God were only unknowable mystery, we'd have something very different from Christian faith. It is, in fact, part of the Christian gospel to say that God will actually come and inhabit our box. Whether it was the glory of God descending on the tabernacle in the wilderness or the Word becoming flesh in Jesus Christ, there is strong biblical evidence that God will accept the limitations of the boxes we create. (10)
Anne's acceptance of the need for a God-box keeps her from creating another kind of box - the kind some create by assuming that our inability to know God comprehensively implies that we can't know God at all. Anne wisely rejects this: "[I]f I condemned boxes completely, I'd have created a box for God that confines God to not being confined" (10).
By admitting we have a God-box, and by intentionally leaving the lid open, we can prevent our box from becoming an idol.
The box itself isn't an idol. The box is the image we have of who God is and how we relate to God, constructed and filled over the years of our religious experience. While having the box is useful, good, and necessary, closing the box and trying to limit God's freedom to work in ways that are beyond our understanding and experience is what constitutes idolatry. (7)
The challenge is not in possessing a God-box - we all have one. Our challenge is that we must keep from closing the lid to our God-box.
Even as we celebrate our own particular experience of God, we must remain open to the fact that God is larger than any human experience or understanding. In the metaphor of this book, we must struggle to keep the lid off of our God-box, trusting that our understanding and experience of God are true but limited. To close the lid, to say that nothing more can be said or known about God than what we already have affirmed, is pride at its beginning and idolatry at its end. (x)
We are tempted to keep God manageable. We want to control and contain God: "We're much more at ease when we know exactly what God thinks about every issue, when we know exactly how God will act in every circumstance, and when we can find the foolproof formula for getting into heaven and going to hell" (xii).
But, in humility and respect, we must remain open to correction and improvement. God is bigger than our box. The purpose of having one is that we might know and love God, not that we might judge and condemn others.
When we become closed to aspects of God that we don't understand or to experiences of God that aren't our own, we create the fiction that we know all there is to know of God and God's ways. Our limited experience and expression then become the standard by which all others are measured and the truth by which all others are judged. (x)
Ultimately, Jesus is the reason we must not close our God-box: "But if there's one thing that was true about Jesus from the day of his birth to the day of his ascension into heaven, it was that you could expect the unexpected from him" (xi).
And Christians believe that this same Jesus is alive and well, moving among us to bring us to new depths of love, compassion, and justice.
That is, however, the central proclamation of the Christian faith: Jesus is alive. We serve a living God. A dynamic God. An unexpected God. The God of the Bible is vast beyond our comprehension. Everything that any human being can say or think about God is, at the very best, incomplete. God is too big to fit in our brain, as amazing an organ as it is. As much as we might like to, we're not going to figure God out completely. Not now, not ever. (xiii)
She continues, "Jesus is still in the business of doing the unexpected. That doesn't have to be a frightening message. "Be not afraid. The angels were fond of saying. This is the God who loves you. God has delightful surprises in store for us, if we will allow it" (xiv).
Both liberals and conservatives are guilty of closing the lid on their God-box. Intolerance and judgmentalism are not the sole domain of either the right or the left. If we are to grow in our faith, respect other people, and strive together for unity, we must follow Anne's advice: "Leave room for your own errors in judgment, and leave room for sincerity of faith in those who have decided differently. Or as the saying goes, 'Make your words sweet; you might have to eat them'" (79).
Anne's short book is a provocative, compelling, and satisfying reflection on what it means to keep the lid of our God-box open in many various aspects of congregational life. I wholeheartedly recommend this book. If this doesn't blow the lid off your God-box, then nothing will!
Quotes excerpted from Blowing the Lid Off the God-Box: Opening up to a Limitless Faith by Anne Robertson
© Richard J. Vincent, 2009