I remember serving on a young mens retreat where powerful truths of Scripture were taught such as repentance, new birth, and forgiving others. What vital topics to the Christian life! Then, at a key moment in the weekend, one of the leaders stood up and said, “More than anything, I just want you guys to remember to not put God in a box.”
Huh? I quickly cleaned out my ear, thinking I’d extract at least a pound of wax. No such luck. I had to have misheard that–of everything taught and experienced that weekend, that is what this leader wanted the young men to leave with? Not a humble heart or a godly renewing of the mind, but “don’t put God in a box”?
Don’t put God in a box. Whole websites, articles, and even books have been written under that tagline. That ever-catchy, spiritual-sounding one-liner seems to be the pinnacle of righteous understanding in the church today.
More harm than good
Despite how spiritual it sounds, this little catchphrase is actually damaging to the doctrine and integrity of the church. It often leads to unbiblical conclusions concerning the nature of God and has broadened the narrow path Christ spoke of.
At this point it is necessary to define what not putting God in a box means. Terms are everything. If our terms are not clear, then our perspective will not be, either. There are two possible definitions:
1) Don’t doubt that God is able to provide for your spiritual, emotional and physical needs. Don’t doubt that God is capable of doing big things or answering prayer. Don’t assume to always know how He will answer prayer or how He will provide. The full extent of the spiritual world goes beyond our mortal understanding.
2) Don’t conform God to one definition. Don’t limit who He is or how He works. He is bigger than any religion or book and we cannot be close-minded in regards to His attributes. He may be one thing to one person, but something else to another. God can reveal Himself in a variety of ways.
If your definition is Option 1, then fine. I would agree with you. Option 2, however, is nothing short of heresy. God, in this view, is not an established Person with specific characteristics, but a thing, a vague, all-encompassing spiritual force. Unfortunately, that is exactly what most professing Christians drift toward when saying “don’t put God in a box.”
Option 2 has led to the “God is too big for one religion” kind of statements you see on bumper stickers. It inevitably opens the door to multiple versions or perspectives of God. After all, why does there have to be one definition of God? Who’s to say He doesn’t reveal Himself in multiple ways to multiple people?
This would make God a schizophrenic with an obvious multiple-personality disorder and a knack for contradicting Himself. Although His fullness goes beyond human comprehension, that does not mean His nature cannot be laid out in black and white. Scripture says “the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” (Deuteronomy 6:4); one God, one nature, one truth. His attributes do not waver, alter with time, or vary for each person. God Himself declares, “I the Lord do not change” (Malachi 3:6) and “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14).
The church must understand that God puts Himself in a box. He has laid out qualities and characteristics about Himself that will never change and are not up for discussion. They are the very essence of His Being.
2 Timothy 2:13 says “He cannot disown Himself.” The word “disown” is the Greek word arneomai, meaning to deny oneself or to act entirely unlike oneself. In this passage we are reminded of the solid consistency of God’s nature; His nature is set in stone and He will not conduct Himself otherwise. He will always function within the scope of His set character.
The Emergent Church is a movement that has picked up steam in recent years, even gaining acceptance in many mainstream churches. There is great appeal to its message because of its heavy emphasis on love and acceptance; however, that message comes with a price. The Emergent Church’s bottom line is that the Gospel must be adapted to suit each generation and that even our perception of God must change with the times. They are often postmodern, afraid to label any particular doctrine or belief as true.
Perhaps no one is better than the Emergent Church at keeping God out of a box. Their flimsy, wishy-washy version of God has almost no definites attached. Rob Bell, perhaps the best known and one of the most controversial leaders of the movement, described it this way:
“The Christian faith is mysterious to the core. It is about things and beings that ultimately can’t be put into words. Language fails. And if we do definitively put God into words, we have at that very moment made God into something God is not” (Velvet Elvis, p. 32).
So God cannot be put into words? Then what on earth is the Bible? What does it mean that Jesus is the Word (John 1:1)? The Christian faith is not built on a vague foundation of shadows and mysteries; to the contrary, Scripture says the church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the chief cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:20). Jesus wasn’t an idea, He was a specific person. And the apostles didn’t teach mysticism, they taught specific doctrine concerning the person of God and how God works. The very core of our faith has been put into words by God Himself–the words of Scripture. Bell’s assessment should cause any Christian to gnash their teeth with sorrow and righteous indignation.
The idea that our faith–or worse, the nature of God Himself–is an unattainable mystery is in outright opposition to what Paul declared to the early church:
“For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man’s spirit within him? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. . .For who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct Him? But we have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:11-12, 16).
The question raised in this passage is, how can man know the thoughts of God? How can humans truly know who God is? Many in the modern church would answer this question, “We can’t!”
But that wasn’t the answer Paul gave. Paul said we can know the truths of the Father because God’s very Spirit has made them known. “God’s secret wisdom…has been hidden” in ages past “but God has revealed it to us by His Spirit” (1 Corinthians 2:7,10). On our own, humans cannot concoct an accurate idea of God’s nature. But that doesn’t mean He is unknown, because by the revelation of the Holy Spirit, through Scripture, God has revealed Himself. Through the work of Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we have a definitive, boxed-in revelation of who God is.
The box of Athens
Paul exemplified this same point when he went to the Greek city of Athens in Acts 17. The philosophical Greeks had constructed altars to dozens and dozens of deities, including one with the inscription: To an unknown god. They wanted to make sure no god was offended or left out, so they made an altar to appease anyone they may have forgotten. Upon seeing this, Paul stood up in the middle of the city and said: “So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you” (17:23). What followed was a mini-sermon in which Paul made known their “unknown” God by revealing the specific actions and workings of Jehovah.
The Greeks, like many today, saw God as something or someone that couldn’t be grasped and couldn’t be known. In fact, we’re told “All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas” (17:21). God wasn’t boxed in–He was free to be whatever their mind or emotions desired Him to be. The nature of God, or the gods, was always changing.
But Paul declared the opposite. Paul declared that God was known, that God was unchanging, and then he told them the particular attributes of God’s nature and dealings. The Athenians tried to keep God out of a box, but Paul put Him in one.
God will always be in some kind of box
The whole concept of not putting God in a box is self-refuting. If I reject one idea of God, then by definition I have categorized Him under another.
Let’s suppose I did not like the idea of God sending people to hell. To me, such an idea was conforming God to a certain criteria of injustice. So I made up my mind to believe that His love was bigger than hell and no soul will ever suffer eternal agony. Aha, I’ve successfully avoided putting God in a box!
But wait. Now, according to my invented doctrine, God cannot send people to hell because He is too loving for that sort of thing. Because of my interpretation of His character, I must acknowledge that there are certain things God will and will not do. I am forced to admit that even my “freed” version of God has limitations.
I would have taken Him out of one box–specifically, the Bible–and put Him into a brand new box of my own. Either way, God is boxed in. God will always be boxed in. We must decide if we want that box to be Holy Scripture, or our own sinful, inconsistent idealogies.
Same old deception
Keeping God out of a box is not a new idea. In fact, it goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden. God told Adam and Eve that if they ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, they would die. Those were His black-and-white words. The devil, however, twisted those words by saying, “You will surely not die! God knows that if you eat the fruit you will actually be like Him.”
Satan scoffed at Eve for believing such a narrow view of God and got her to accept a false “god” who was outside the box God had established for Himself. This “god” wouldn’t punish Eve–instead, she would be like Him. It’s almost as though the serpent said, “Come on, don’t put God in a box. Don’t conform the truth to such a narrow scope.”
But in the end God was true to His word. His nature was consistent. He told Adam and Eve what good and evil was, and He never wavered. He told them what His will was, and He stuck to it. He told them they would be punished for disobeying, and He followed through. He revealed who He was, what He desired, and how He would work. Then He did exactly what He said He would do, for He cannot disown or deny Himself.
Keeping God out of a box may not be a new idea, but it is still a deadly one.
Jesus: the boxed in truth of God’s nature
Jesus declared, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:23). Christ said the truth will be known by His followers; He gave a divine guarantee. The truth would not be a phantom hiding in the shadows, but a glorious revelation to be exclaimed from the rooftops (Matthew 10:27). He later went on to reveal “I am the way and truth and the life” (John 14:6). He is the embodiment of God’s truth; the mysteries and complexities of God are made known in Him.
Christ also went on to say, “If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know Him and have seen Him” (John 14:7). If we know Jesus, we know the Father. It’s beautifully simple. The character, functions, thoughts, attributes, commands and desires of God have indeed been made know through His Son. And His Son, “the Word” (John 1:1), is revealed throughout all Scripture. The Bible is one big revelation of Christ’s nature (Luke 24:27,44), and by knowing the nature of Christ, we know the nature of God.
Those who say “don’t put God in a box” seem to forget that God puts Himself in a box; specifically, a box-shaped book called the Bible.