When God Becomes Small

May 22nd, 2014

We wake up one morning, restless about where we are in life, dissatisfied with ourselves. We wonder where we can go from here, what more we can do to satisfy our longings or get more out of life. Our dissatisfaction may be rooted in a salary we think is too small, a home we think too humble, a marriage not as fulfilling as we had hoped—or something else we imagine is the cause of our discontent.

What accounts for this? Why do we want to be more than we are and have more than we have? Why this craving to be better than the next person, in one way or another—more respected, better looking, more successful, more prosperous, more ethical, more holy, more talented, more honoured, more erudite, or more ‘together’? What are we really grasping after here. And why?

I suspect that on some level what we seek is significance, a recognition of our worth and acknowledgement that our life has value. No one wants to be a lesser person or, far worse, a nobody. The obsession with more tempts us every direction we turn.

How Jesus sees it

If we study the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, we are shocked to learn that he gives no positive acknowledgement of such attainment as markers of genuine significance. Quite the contrary: he warns us against our deceptive seduction. Wealth easily distracts the mind and consumes the heart. Success tempts us sorely to think more highly of ourselves than we ought, positioning us for a fall. The adulation of fans and admirers tricks us into a dangerous lack of self-awareness. The drive to succeed and be admired as a church leader cloaks an arrogance no less deplorable for the religious language and coating.

If we study the life of Jesus, we are shocked by his disdain of wealth, status, adulation, and fame. He’s born dirt poor and chooses to stay that way. He spends his time almost exclusively with the poor and marginalised; people of status have to impose upon Jesus, or make an appointment with him during off hours, or arrest him in order to have a conversation. When people, after seeing his messianic charisma and miraculous power, try to get him to lead a rebellion against the Roman occupiers, he slips away. He orders people not to publicise his works and increase his fame. He remains in the relative obscurity of Palestine for almost his entire life. And frankly, he shows little or no deference for people in high positions, secular or religious; in fact, what he says about them usually brings them down a few notches.

If we want to take Jesus seriously, we must come to terms with his opposition to our obsession with more and bigger claims.

A mindset of scarcity

The overriding assumption supporting this drive to the top, to have more and to be better than others, is the mindset of scarcity. It is a mindset that assumes there is never enough for everyone, and we always need more. There is never enough food, never enough money, never enough resources to make us secure, never enough positions of prominence, never enough respect to go around. If there is not enough to go around, I will probably want what you have.

Holding tight to a ‘never enough’ worldview means believing, down deep, that neither God nor anyone else will provide for your needs. Never enough breeds suspicion and fear. We grasp for power and position or we give up to our helplessness. When buying into the mindset of scarcity, we remove ourselves from its opposite: the abundance of grace. By letting go of such desperation, we open ourselves to the possibility of discovering a gracious God we can trust, a God who cares for us and is there for us. The world Jesus invites us to enter is the world of small things.

Down to Earth

The active vocational lives [my wife] Keitha and I pursued kept us busy advancing [The Salvation Army’s] mission and addressing personnel and administrative matters associated with it. In our retirement, we have more time and energy to be attentive to small things. We have come to realise that the small things really are the big things—they are the profound and cherished. We are convinced that the contribution any of us makes to the lives of other people has much more to do with small graces and personal attentiveness than with large accomplishments and professional advancement.

If the small things actually are the most lasting and meaningful, why, then, are we continually impressed by those who achieve high positions, enormous power and influence, or large-scale recognition? I believe our attraction to more and bigger is fed by our fear—our fear of being left behind in the competition we wrongfully see life to be. Our fear of not having enough and therefore always needing more, and more, and more. Our fear of not being loved or liked unless we measure up, or build up, or climb up. Our fear of each other. Our fear of God, if we believe in him.

Fear is the subtle and unrecognised demon that drives us to doubt our adequacy and distrust our relationships. It lures us to find worth in what we accomplish rather than in who we are.

Fear is the enemy of relationships. Nothing is more hurtful than not being valued by another person. Trusting relationships then become more difficult because we fear hurt and rejection. Intimacy is now a threat. As we become increasingly uncomfortable in our small world of relationships, we see the larger world as a viable escape from intimacy, and larger pursuits as alternative sources of affirmation. The lonely person often becomes the driven person.

Surprisingly, one of the biggest barriers to human intimacy is a distorted view of God.

The great, inaccessible God

Let me introduce you to my childhood religion. In my earliest years I saw God as kind of cosmic father figure. He was not mean or cruel, but he did live a long way away, and he did have rules I was supposed to live by. For the most part, I did live by them, and when I didn’t, my main punishment was guilt.

Jesus was in the picture, too, and whereas he seemed much more accessible than the cosmic father figure, I saw him as a kind of harmless, gentle person who walked around a storybook Palestine and said nice things to nice people (especially children) and sometimes harsh things to deserving, sinful people. I was able to identify with the nice people, so long as I didn’t slip up and commit some kind of transgression. When I did slip up, I knew how to work the system as I had been taught. I brought my feelings of guilt to Jesus, who somehow then made things right again with the heavenly Father.

There were two things about it all, however, that satisfied neither my heart nor my mind as I matured during the teen years. One was my sense of the remoteness and inaccessibility of God. Why was there so much distance between us? Was God’s ‘greatness’ so great that he was always beyond me? A distant God is a God to be either feared or doubted.

"The world Jesus invites us to enter is the world of small things."

Why would we hold to this view of an invariable God, a God who does not change his mind, a God whose greatness makes him inaccessible? Ironically, this gives us a way to control God, or so we think. Having boxed him into his state of unchangeableness, we think we can predict him. We say God is consistent, so we can figure him out (Lord, just show me the rules, and I’ll live by them). Or we say he is remote, so we can ignore him (the Lord won’t notice; he doesn’t really care how I live); or we may even dismiss him (God is only a projection of our minds, a desperate attempt to fill the gap of our knowledge and answer questions we don’t yet have good answers to). This unmoved God is not someone you would spend time with—we would think to stay clear of him, which is, in fact, what most do.

A questionable greatness

God is the victim of the questionable greatness we have ascribed to him. Indeed, God is great, but I fear we have missed his true greatness, and in so doing we have distorted and sometimes undermined the stunning truth of the Christian gospel. God is not great because he is high above us or remote from us, he is great because he is the Creator who constantly and compassionately takes the risk of interacting with his creation.

The apostle Paul makes the claim that God ‘isn’t far away from us’ (Acts 17:16-28), and that God’s greatness is not measured by how different he is from us. His emphasis is quite the opposite: we are God’s offspring. We are created in his image, and Paul is fond of calling us God’s children. These words assume the intimacy between parents and children, where both a capacity for likeness and the possibility of learning the family’s way of life are assumed.

My childhood faith gave me a God of questionable greatness. I felt his remoteness. I was a speck of dust within the whole scheme of things. What I learned as the years progressed was that God was as close to me as the significant persons in my life. In fact, he often loved me, spoke to me and fought with me through them.

But for many, who see God as remote and inaccessible, they decide he must be made present in some form or another. They conceive of him in ways that make sense to them, and then worship the god they have fashioned to assure themselves. Left to our own human devices, we make him in our image, reversing the truth of who we humans are. God is shrunk into this lesser god who matches our tastes and sanctifies our ambitions.

There are many lesser gods, but they all share this in common: we do not serve them. They serve us.

The God who makes himself small

Two woodcuts by Fritz Eichenberg hang on the wall of my study. One pictures Jesus standing in a breadline seeking food along with homeless people. The other has him sitting at a meal table inside a homeless shelter, and the title is ‘The Lord’s Supper’.

Eichenberg captures the Christian gospel’s surprise: God has not only entered our world, he has come in lowliness. He has focused his attention on all the human race, and particularly on those who are most ignored—the marginalised, the poor, the mistreated, the ‘inferiors’, the human leftovers that do not fit in secure social structures. ‘So much for a God too great or too far!’ laughs the gospel. Something strange is taking place here, a paradox of divinity, a God acting un-Godlike to help us grasp who he really is. He is a lover going out of his way and travelling a long way to find his beloved.

The incarnation, God’s entry into our world in the flesh and blood of the man Jesus, sets the stage for an overthrow of the stereotype of a totally removed God. Such a God, devoid of distance, is not some new or made-over God. He is the God who has always been deeply affected by our lives and has always suffered for our sins. Again and again the Old Testament gives witness to his anger and hurt over how those he loves ignore, betray and humiliate him. Some of the prophets, and especially Hosea, portray him as a lover who longingly searches for the beloved who has spurned him. The New Testament does not introduce us to a now-different God who decides to suffer over his lost family. It invites us to see God for who he really is and has been all along. The difference is that his heartbreak now becomes the broken heart of Jesus.

God invites us to find our way to him in the flesh and blood of Jesus, a man who walked among us and is still doing so in the Spirit. He invites us to meet him in the small, common, ordinary ways he chooses to reveal himself. He touches our lives by his closeness, and there we find his true greatness.

Abridged with permission from When God Becomes Small by Phil Needham
Copyright © 2014 by Abingdon Press. Order information below.

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