*RANT ALERT* God in a Bottle

December 29, 2009

It pains me to say this. I love my brothers who genuinely share the love and hope we have in Christ. I believe in Spiritual gifts, I believe in speaking in tongues, and I believe that the wind moves wherever it blows.

But I cannot believe in God the genie. Some may accuse me of putting God in a box. The greater danger is putting Him in a bottle. I do not believe that when we dim the lights, start playing loud music, start straining our emotions, that God will show up. I cannot believe in speaking in pseudo-tongues where it is not a real language, where it does not glorify God nor edifies the Church, but only glorifies oneself. I cannot believe in formulaic ways to make the Spirit show up as if He is some equation. I cannot believe that one moment you’re singing happy praise songs, and the next moment with a snap of a finger you’re crying your heart out. Would we trust someone who acted that way towards us? Certainly there are times of rejoicing and times of repentance. But what is actually making us happy and sad? The joy in the Lord and conviction of our sins? Or just the happy and sad melodies and the room lighting and the sound of other people around us sniffling?

I cannot believe in this because I’ve been there. I’ve seen it. I’ve grown up in a first generation Korean church, and I know what it entails. It is living off of emotional highs, from retreat, revivals, and prayer nights. There are limits of it. I’ve seen my peers who have genuinely cried their hearts out at high school retreats stop coming out to church in college. It’s because they never knew God. They never knew grace and only used these retreats as psychological release from their guilt, as if their penitent tears and not the blood of Christ was actually washing their sins.

Mysticism is by definition uncertain, undefinable. “Let that which cannot be spoken of be passed over in silence.” And church history proves the necessity of fresh renewal and injection of awe for God’s unspeakable attributes. The trouble is when we rely on mysticism and emotions more than we rely on the sureness of the word. For then, objective truth comes under the whim of subjective experience. For then, the revelation remains open, and the gnostic gospels, Islam and Bahai have a valid claim to be these further words from God. Apostle Peter, who has seen Jesus transfigured and resurrected, says that we have that which is even more sure than our experiences – we have the Word.

It would be bad to fall off the right side of the donkey, to get back on, and to fall off the left side just to compensate. I am not saying every part of our faith needs to be rationalized, nor that we should lobotomize the part of ourselves that feel emotions. But we must recognize what is actually making us joyful or sad. Is it the gospel or just the environment? Everything you do, even the things you feel, goes through your mind first, however brief it may be. “About the only thing a man can do without thinking about it is to fall down.” For the sacred duty of worship, how much more should our minds be engaged! And if our minds are engaged, then how much more should our emotions be inflamed as well!

One defense I have heard (and that I remember using myself as well) was the case of this old Korean lady (hal-mon-ee) who hears the Gospel for the first time and accepts it with her heart. Is her faith any less valuable because she does not have the intellectual capacity to think about and study the Word? The answer is no, it’s not less valuable. but the reason isn’t that our intellect is unimportant to our faith, but rather because she herself has used all of her intellect that has been given her. The poor widow was commended for what she gave out of what she had, not the amount she gave. So then, for you, if you have a capacity to understand the Gospel in a deeper way, do you think it’s really God glorifying to waste it? How different is that from the rich man who gives only a small portion of his wealth? As for emotions, there are people who are very unemotional. But the same principle applies here. A person who is never moved emotionally feels a twinge of conviction, and a person who is always emotional cries in service. Who has surrendered more of themselves to God?

I’ve been to a U2 concert where agnostics and atheists have a spiritual experience. I’ve heard a German colleague speak of a soccer match in hushed reverent tone that is usually reserved for something sacred. If we reduce a worship service into merely a emotional experience, then a concert goer or a soccer fanatic has just as much a valid claim to the same experience as a Christian does. Surely we must recognize that these are instances of ‘spirit’ of the crowd, and not the spirit of God. Surely we must recognize that when the Spirit comes, it will not look the same as these.

This is not about ‘idolizing Theology’. This is by definition impossible. Theology means to know God. You can’t idolize knowing God. You may think that you can idolize yourself for knowing God, but that would only show that you don’t really know God in the first place. What you can do is idolize others who know theology, which is dangerous. What is far more dangerous, and harder to detect, is idolizing yourself for not idolizing theology. For that is self-justification. That is you loving yourself as you are. The sense of superiority that this supposed coterie is accused of cannot actually logically exist. The only perception of it comes from where all asymmetrical rivalries come from – the sin of self-inferiority, which is sometimes mistaken as humility. But true humility isn’t born out of weakness, but rather strength. You can not kneel if you’re not standing up.

It’s funny to think that we can put God in a bottle. It’s utterly amazing to hear sermons without the gospel, when it is the one thing in the entire world that is ultimately unavoidable. It’s like being in love. you see your lover’s eyes in the glimmering ocean, and her hair in the grass of the field. It’s amazing that some sermons that are supposedly about Christ can leave Him out and tip-toe around Him when even the nature speaks of God’s invisible qualities.

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