With this essay, I will stop introducing chapters of the book that will come out in the spring, When Did We Forget God? (Tyndale). The essays I’ve published here have been mostly critical in nature—it’s my inner prophet coming to the surface. Or maybe just my inner Scrooge. I have a couple more chapters analyzing the horizontal temptation in how we read the Bible and the small-groups movement, and the imaginative reader can probably guess what I might say in such chapters. Let’s just say the temptation to make our faith about ourselves and our feelings is with us always, even to the end of this moral, therapeutic, deist age.

But it would be irresponsible to not at least point some way forward, and the third part of the book attempts to do just that. But now that I’ve finished it, I realize I need to do a lot more reading and thinking about desire, and especially desire for God. So the third part is really just a few forays into a very complex topic.

This column will continue, but it will be more on an occasional basis. As I’ve been preparing these essays for online, I’ve been taking notes on topics that I have not addressed in the book but that might make for good reflections here. But I don’t think I’m smart enough to have something worth reading each and every week, so from this point on, this series will appear as the Lord inspires, or as hubris makes me think he’s doing so.

For now, here is a chapter from the third part of the book.

The Beginning of Desire

The writer of Proverbs says that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. The fear he refers to is a healthy reverence and awe. But there is another type of fear we have to wrestle with in our relationship with God. In terms of that fear, I’d put it like this: The fear of God is the beginning of longing for him.

I ended the last chapter noting that we do,in fact, long to know and love God at some deep level. We do desire God. In spite of all the ways we have forgotten him, that is, marginalized God in our flurry of horizontal activity, we still want God. This appears to contradict what I’ve been arguing. Not really.

If I were to turn now and say all we have to do is make up our minds to start desiring God, I will have moved from hyperbole to fiction.

I have drawn a stark contrast between the vertical and horizontal dimensions of faith to bring some clarity and urgency to the problem. Such stark contrast is hyperbole, using language in a dramatic way to drive home a point. But if I were to turn now and say all we have to do is make up our minds to start desiring God, I will have moved from hyperbole to fiction. Because it’s not that simple.

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Deep down we desire God still, yes, despite all the focus on the horizontal. And yet the reason for the horizontal focus is not just that we have forgotten God—as if we just got distracted, like going to the store to buy milk, then filling the shopping cart but going home without what we came for. No, we have forgotten God because we deliberately try to erase him from our memory. That’s because sometimes God is like a bad dream that leaves us confused and anxious.

It is crucial that we recognize this dimension of our relationship with God. If God doesn’t at times leave us confused and anxious, we have not yet met the living God.

Just ask Abraham, who could not for his life figure out how God was going to produce a great nation from his aged loins.

Ask Moses, whose whole purpose in life was to lead the people into the Promised Land, only to be denied entry himself.

Ask David, who in many a psalm complained that the Lord did not hear him.

Ask Jeremiah, who was furious with God for prodding him to preach.

Ask Jesus, who felt as if God had forsaken him on the cross.

Every believer sooner or later knows it is a fearsome thing to fall into the hands of this God. Which is why any believer worth his or her salt is deeply ambivalent about God. Yes, we yearn to be ruled by Unfailing Wisdom—and yet we resent having to submit to anyone or anything. We crave intimacy with Pure Benevolence—but we fear the loss of independence. We resent the one we long for, and we are afraid of the One we desire. In short, we love God and we hate God.

One reason we resent God and just as soon forget about him is that he refuses to come to us in the way we think we need him to come to us.

We can make no progress in the spiritual life until we acknowledge this. If we think we really do love God simply, and all we need is a gentle reminder to put him back on the throne of our lives, we’re kidding ourselves. We’re living a fantasy faith. That is simply not the sordid and splendid reality of the human heart.

One large reason we resent God and just as soon forget about him is that he refuses to come to us in the way we think we need him to come to us. We reason like this: God is magnificent and wondrous, who knows no limits; thus he will come to us in unmistakable splendor. Yet our prayers waft into the silent beyond. Worship feels like a mud puddle of words. We ask for healing and we end up paying medical bills. We long for love and file for divorce.

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Where is the God of miracle and wonder when we need him? He does not seem very dependable. And rather than look to him and be disappointed time and again, we decide to forget the vertical and focus on the horizontal. We’re sensible enough not to abandon Christian faith because in spite of our confusion we still believe it the way to eternal life. Just don’t ask us to take seriously the presence of God.

Maybe the glorious God shows up other people’s lives. Maybe back in the Bible days. Maybe once in our life a long, long time ago. But not today, not here, not in the foreseeable future.

The God of miracle and wonder, of course, is in large part a figment of our imagination. It’s the way we want God to be. It’s not the way he is day to day, eternity to eternity.

Oh yes, there are miracles and wonders in the Bible. To be sure, some have experienced the power and the glory of God today. No question about it. But these are not nearly as obvious as we sometimes think. Remember that many saw and heard the resurrected Lord right before their very eyes and ears, and yet they still doubted (Matt. 28:17).

We are wiser to think of miracle and wonder as God’s defibrillator. We are sometimes so dead to God we need an electric shock to the heart to wake us up. But after that, things return to normal, and God returns to his normal mode of address. Man does not live by divine defibrillator alone, for a life of miracle and wonder would kill us. Instead, God comes to us as silently and subtly as the steady beating of our hearts.

If the first step in desiring God is to recognize how much we resent his presence, the second step is to accept how, in fact, he has chosen to be with us. We have to know what it is we desire. If we desire miracles, we will never find God. If we desire God, we must give up miracles and look for him in the mundane.

In the human and inadequate words of the preacher.

In the confusing language and idioms of the Bible.

In the bread and wine of Communion.

In the water of baptism.

In the gathering or two or three come together for prayer.

In the everyday experience of mystery, of not knowing, of wonder, of the perplexing—of which life is chock full.

If we look for God in any place but the mundane, we will not find him, because it is there that he comes and dwells among us, full of grace and truth.

Mark Galli is editor in chief of Christianity Today.

The Elusive Presence
In this column, I reflect on American Christianity, but especially evangelical Christianity. I’ve been embedded in the movement for over five decades, so I should have something to say by now. And what I have to say about the movement is more or less what I have to say to myself, as I see in myself the same shortcomings and potential that I see in the movement at large. The title of the column, “The Elusive Presence,” is deliberately borrowed from The Elusive Presence: The Heart of Biblical Theology by Samuel Terrien, originally published in 1978. I read the book soon after it was published, but today I don’t consciously remember much from it except the title (though I suspect it has formed me in ways I remain unaware of). As this series goes on, the careful reader will understand why this is an apt title for the column.
Mark Galli
Mark Galli is former editor in chief of Christianity Today and author, most recently, of Karl Barth: An Introductory Biography for Evangelicals.
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