The God Who Pulls Me Down

5515490-lg.jpgI just met with my leadership team. I confessed to them that I’ve been having a really hard time preaching. I need to take a time of silence… from preaching that is. Every once in a while I feel like I’m being pulled deeper, deeper, deeper, into the unknown and the uncertain. It isn’t a pleasant experience. It is terrifying. It is painful. It is necessary. So when I’m gulping for familiar air and there’s none coming, that is not the time for me to stand before others and pretend I have something to say. So others from our church community are teaching for the next little while. There are plenty of capable and gifted people to do it. It’s good for us anyway.

One thing that Kathy, one of my leaders, said was that my teaching is not the kind that I should feel satisfaction from because there aren’t tangible, visible or immediate results. She said that my teaching challenges paradigms, and aren’t tidy little packages that lay out a life-plan for people. I always challenge paradigms, she said, and refuse to impose yet another paradigm on them for them to adopt. Everyone has to hear what is being challenged in their own lives and wrestle with it themselves. Thanks Kathy. The problem is: my own paradigm is being challenged, and I am struck dumb. I have nothing to say!

Here’s some of what I’m thinking about:

  1. Since the mind incessantly manufactures the god it wants to worship, then I am hopelessly idolatrous. As soon as my mind conceives of God, that is not God. There is something beyond which the mind cannot conceive.
  2. If God incarnated himself into Jesus the man, and that is then how God works, then he no longer abides in a position of sovereign power, but, like us, has taken on flesh, mortality, and is therefore in a position of willful powerlessness. This would seem to imply that there is no God up there or out there. Does this make me an atheist?
  3. If the above are true, then how we do church or manifest ourselves as a community must radically change. We must be transformed into a community that confesses and even embraces mystery and uncertainty and avoids propositions and conclusive statements. It must also acknowledge and exhibit its own weakness and mortality, as well as love the weakness of others. It would also seem that this community must celebrate life, the body, and all of creation, and do so creatively.

These are just some thoughts. The beautiful, contrasting and mysterious fine art photograph is the creation of my friend Howard Nowlan.

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  • Sounds like you made a wise decision for yourself. Always we must be willing to step back and look at our surroundings, our ambitions, our pysche, our desires, etc. Only by stopping occasionally can we move forward.

    I am not a minister so I do not have to wrestle with that part of things but overall I have many of the same questions, fears, doubts. I am interested in how you will move through this.

  • David, very interesting to hear how you’re dealing with this.

    On a separate, though related, note – I’m curious as to how you think the Trinity plays into the God up there vs. God down here thing. I agree wholeheartedly that we need to become a community that embraces mystery and lives with uncertainty.

  • WebMonk


    Not to make light of your concerns (and to perhaps affirm their seriousness) but those are some of the precise thoughts that the greatest Christian thinkers have wrestled with for the last 2000 years. To a certain extent, all of their answers come down to “At some level it is a mystery that we CANNOT understand or grasp.”

    They’ve disagreed over the precise points which are mystery and which are knowable, but ultimately they’ve all come down to “It’s beyond our ability to know.”

    1) You’re absolutely right – there is always more about God than we can know, so as soon as we think of something, we can be assured that we don’t know it all. That DOES NOT mean that what we know is wrong – just incomplete.

    2) Have fun with this one – the whole Trinity thing is a real headache. The Father, The Son, The Holy Spirit – all fully God and yet separate? The Son becomes Man, yet is still God? Was God incomplete while Christ was on earth? Analogies for all of these can be made, but each analogy falls short.

    3) This number is totally one’s own reasoning based on previous things, and so people will come to different opinions on how we should behave given some of the things from the first two points.

    Here’s my conclusion and I hope it is helpful. God has revealed certain aspects of Himself, and on these things we can rest with absolute certainty and maintain absolute statements. We’ll argue over how much God has revealed and what exactly He has revealed, but unless one rejects that God has given ANY solid revelation of himself, it is an argument over details – not an argument over the basic assurance that God has indeed revealed Himself.

    Once Christians come to grips with what God has revealed, we go forward with bold and sure proclamations – God is Holy and loves us, Man rejects God and will be forever separated from God, God has made a way for us to be reconciled to Himself, that one and only way is to (in thought and action) re-acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

    While the Church (the whole body of believers) should boldly proclaim things that are absolutely true, we must be VERY careful to not claim things as absolutes which are not truly absolute. The location of the dividing line is where we disagree, not that the dividing line exists.

  • WebMonk

    Oh, I don’t know if you’ve studied the writings of some of the old geezers of Christendom, but they are well worth the study. Not that they always get it right, but they will make you think and will probably bring up things you’ve never thought of before or perhaps have never thought about from that angle. Augustine, Chrysostom, Luther, etc.

    There’s nothing that you and I will think that will be truly novel – rest assured that others have struggled with the same thoughts and doubts we struggle through.

  • If God incarnated himself into Jesus the man, and that is then how God works, then he no longer abides in a position of sovereign power, but, like us, has taken on flesh, mortality, and is therefore in a position of willful powerlessness. This would seem to imply that there is no God up there or out there. Does this make me an atheist?

    I am not sure how you got from Incarnation–to no God Up there—-to atheist. Or why the Incarnation is equivalent to willful powerlessness.

    Are you of the Jesus-only tradition?

  • No, that doesn’t make you an atheist. It does kind of put you into the Schleiermacher/panentheist/process-relational/open theist camp. Not a bad place to be, IMHO. Check out Brian Gerrish’s “A Prince of the Church” for a good concise overview of Schleiermacher, then maybe some Cobb or Schubert Ogden.

  • The rector at our old church takes a vacation every summer and spends some time at a monastery near Atlanta. It’s his time for quiet reflection and spiritual renewal.

    It sounds like you’re long overdue for a break. I hope this vacation from preaching gives you some time to rest, think, and refresh yourself. You’ll be in my prayers.

  • I think these questions makes you human. Contrary to popular belief, a human isn’t a bad thing to be.

    And, once again, you are a pastor that I would actually go back to church and listen to. I wish we could all be so lucky/blessed.

  • I have today finished a book that you may find of use in relation to some of the questions you have raised. ‘Why a suffering world makes sense’ by Chris Tiegreen certainly brought home a new paradigm for me – one I’d suspected for sometime, but needed clarified.
    I won’t give too much away, but it certainly made me realize why creation has been allowed to undergo the present bondage to suffering -very important, because I certainly agree that the fellowship we have is woven into us being inherently bodily and having a role to created order that is yet to be evidenced.

    Paul on occasion spoke in his letters of certain ‘mysteries’, and this is probably one of the deepest and most important – defining the ‘joy’ that was before Christ than enabled Him to become incarnate and endure the suffering that entailed.

    I hope and pray that you may indeed find the ‘deep breath’ of God as you reflect on this things.

    “The whole point of creation is that He intends to be all in all.
    In the Incarnation, God the Son takes a human body and soul and through that,
    the whole of nature, all the creaturely predicament, is taken into His own being,
    Thus ‘He came down from heaven’ can almost be transposed into ‘heaven drew up earth into it’. C S Lewis – Prayer: Letters to Malcolm.

    “The true work of the Spirit is the Salvation of the Flesh”. Irenaeus.

  • Beth

    A pastor who allows himself to be transparent and vulnerable is a good start to
    the community you talk about.

  • Or you might be a theologian.

  • Maybe Ingrid’s right. All that erotic art has interfered with your right thinking.


  • Asking where God stands in all of these doesn’t make one an atheist. We can get angry, mad and resentful to God but it won’t scratch the very nature of Him. We can not do worst thing that we can think of that can change God. He will always be the same God that loves us no matter what we are.

    Being honest on what we really are is the initial step for transformation.

  • Seriously, though, do you really consider that Christ remains in a position of willful powerlessness? I’d like to hear more from you on this. To my thinking (only semi-contaminated by erotic art), the resurrection was the culmination of that and the ultimate assertion of God’s power.

  • With all due respect for the questions you are wrestling with, I think that might be why Paul seemed to always come back to the basics: Christ and Him Crucified and relevantly loving your neighbor because of how grateful you are for Christ and Him Crucified.

    I find when I wrestle with similar questions or doubts that meditation on those two truths usually clear my mind and bring clarity to the issues.

    As a leader you are going to have evil forces working against you too so I’ll be praying that if that is what is happening that you’ll recognize it.

  • Some of what we struggle against, I think, is the liberal Protestant idolatry of faith=knowledge. The idea that if we just get our conceptions in line we’ll be okay is pretty much THE heresy for the modern Protestant church of all flavors (mine happens to be Lutheran).

    I’m feeling more and more that trust=faith and the more we struggle and allow ourselves to be vulnerable and honest, the more genuinely faithful (and faith-filled!) our congregations become. Problem is, there’s so much fear in being vulnerable and honest that it often gets stomped on the minute one person dares to make that move.

    I’ll be praying for you – pray for lil’ ol’ stomped on me, if you would. 🙂

  • I think point number one makes you closer to an atheist than your second point. What I have found is, athiest really means that one doesn’t believe in the conventional Christian definition of God. This term is more about being an “other’ than technical definitions. In ancient Greece if you didn’t believe in the Greek gods you were considered an atheist and Christians were often seen as atheists.

    There is a really funny blog called Russell’s Teapot and he has this cartoon on the Mysterious Ways Clause. (Not everyone finds this blog funny.)

    It kind of covers all the paradoxial “advanced” teachings of the Bible like the Trinity. I think at some point it becomes rather obvious that some of these things we consider mysterious are simply nonsense.

    For example, the trinity was basically developed so we could still consider Christianty monotheistic and have Jesus as God. And yet there are books and debates and all kinds of energy both past and present put into this doctrinal debate. My question is, “What would we have with an understanding of the trinity that we don’t have now?” “Is this really one of the most spiritually advanced ideas about God to come down the pipe?”

    In my opinion your point one is far more insightful to the human condition and mystery than all the debates, analysis, and theological gymnastics around the trinity.

    Like Sam Harris, I never considered myself an atheist until I was labelled as one. I am considered an atheist because I don’t believe in a god that is defined by the Bible or anything else. And since I can’t define God, then I don’t believe in god, gods, or otherwise. Because as your point one discovers, it becomes idolatry as soon as I say I believe in God. Because how would I know unless I had created an image of God in my mind?

    Oh the Mysterious Ways Clause comes in handy again. 🙂

  • barrenmind -spot on about the difference between us (changeable) and God who is not.
    His care and mercy toward us remain whatever our current feeling.

    scott – yes, it’s an easy mistake to make. Good to have somewhere like this which at least encourages us to a measure (within internet confines) of honesty.

    Richard – Having spent sometime over the years working with people in various schisms (J W’s, Mormons and so on) it’s amazing how much Biblical material they have to skirt around to define a monotheism which negates ‘God’ to include Christ and the Holy Spirit. This ‘mystery’ certainly existed in various strands of Jewish understanding prior to the Incarnation, so I would argue that the concept of the Trinity is implicit in the Biblical revelation of God, starting (quite explicitly) from Genesis 1:26 onwards.
    It’s pretty clear in Acts that the Greeks were actually the ‘atheists’ (godless) in this sense – though “religious,” Paul proclaims to them the ‘unknown God’ whom they had acknowledged, all be it in ignorance (Acts 17).

  • Jeff Roach

    Great thoughts, David! It sounds like you are feeling unsettled right now but, as you know, growth does not occur in the comfort zone.

    Don’t be quick to find a label for yourself. I gave up looking for a label a while ago and have been label-less for a few years. Labels serve others, not you.

    Keep thinking out loud…

  • Chris

    #2 seems to have struck a chord. At the risk of being repetitive,(I don’t have the mental energy to read all the comments) I contend that Jesus spoke to “the Father” as if a separate being while in the flesh. Therefore, it would seem He can be both at once in the same way that He is in us at all times, whether we want Him there or not. Up, down, inside, or out, He presses on us and comes near when we ask Him.(even though we can’t always feel it). Again, I’ll share another George MacDonald quote that seems appropriate;

    “Of all teachings, that which presents a far and distant God is the nearest to absurdity. Either there is none, or He is nearer to every one of us than our own consciousness of self”.

  • Chris

    One more thought. This one has been buzzing in my head during the SOL tiff and also in light of the Mother Teresa’s struggles being made public. It seems that the life of a Christian of plagued with struggle and doubts. There are those who contend that questions and thoughts like these and a struggle with things of the flesh make for a weak Christian. Again, this is absurdity. From my perspective(I could be wrong, of course) if a Christian says they are not struggling with temptation or belief, than one of two things is at work. Either they are lying or the enemy no longer sees them as a threat. Just a thought……..

  • Fred

    The problem with the concept of “conceiving God=idolatry” is that God REVEALS himself to us and he WANTS to be known by us.

  • Fred

    “If God incarnated himself into Jesus the man, and that is then how God works, then he no longer abides in a position of sovereign power, but, like us, has taken on flesh, mortality, and is therefore in a position of willful powerlessness. This would seem to imply that there is no God up there or out there. Does this make me an atheist?”

    That’s a strange conclusion that does not follow.

    God the man was in the Garden praying for the Father’s will to be done. To whom was he praying? Did the Father have a will, a desire?

  • As has already been pointed out by others, your ponderings have been shared by Christian thinkers throughout history. Tillich described God as “being itself” — and was accused by some of being an atheist for that description.

    God is above all human words or understanding, yet human words or understanding are all we have. I am thankful that there are so many words and images to describe God: potter, shepherd, king, Father, a widow searching for a lost coin… the list goes on and on and on. Any one of these by itself is clearly inadequate. Yet put together, I think they’re pretty good.

    Finally, I have at times shared my questions & struggles from the pulpit, as long as I felt it was appropriate to do so. (I don’t think I’d ever admit to wondering if I was an atheist, at least not during a sermon.) The first time, I wasn’t sure how the congregation would respond to a sermon that was more questions than answers. At the end of the service, I had a person come up to me and say, “Thank you! The questions you asked are the same ones I’ve been asking for years, but I never said them out loud, because I didn’t know it was OK to do so.” It’s good to ask questions, and it’s good to let people know that.

  • randy

    David, all I can say is, have no fear. Where ever your mental, emotional, or, (as much as I hate to use the word), spiritual, journey takes you, have no fear.
    Cherish every revelation, discouragement, disappointment, epiphany, and doubt.
    You don’t “have to be” anywhere, except on the journey with the rest of us. That, my friend, is required of you.

  • David,
    You hit the nail on the head in your first point: “Since the mind incessantly manufactures the god it wants to worship” – this is what faith is all about; it’s all in your head. Gods are created in the image of man, to explain the inexplicable, to hold the hand of the child persona, to anthropomorphise some abstract concept, to be the father figure that we instinctively need as children and some of us cannot let go. Others outgrow the need for gods.

  • Abundant Blessings

    First of all, “Recovering” above mentioned that you, in your position, can expect to be tempted strongly in your faith, and I believe that is absolutely true. I think that is something we should all remember as we go through periods of difficulty.

    Chris also mentioned Mother Teresa’s struggle above, which is the very first thing I thought of after reading your post. I found it inspiring to know that she, too, struggled off and on with these things, but she kept moving forward in faith.

    I struggle with understanding the Trinity relationship, too, as I think many people do. I believe that God and God-as-Jesus could certainly co-exist, as the human body is not a “trap” to hold God in. I believe He presented Himself in this way to try to make clear what He was really all about and what His real message was, in a physical way that we could comprehend. I believe the Holy Spirit is his way of continuing this dialogue by being with us every minute of every day, although some days it seems so hard to feel He is there.

    One thing I have always found odd is to pray “through Jesus”. Why do we pray through Jesus if he IS God? We are praying through him to get to him??? Put that one on the list:)

    To me, atheism has always seemed like the easy way out. I think there are a number of atheists who believe they may be intellectually superior in not believing these “myths”, but I believe it takes a lot more to believe in faith and continue seeking the truth. It’s a process without end. I think it is supposed to be.

    I think it’s wonderful that you are a “naked pastor” who is not afraid to show his vulnerability. You keep growing that way, along with the people around you. I think a lot of congregations would benefit from a pastor who is not afraid to say “I’m not sure about that either, but we’ll keep the faith and keep seeking the Truth together”.

  • “Abundant Blessings” said:

    “To me, atheism has always seemed like the easy way out. I think there are a number of atheists who believe they may be intellectually superior in not believing these “myths”, but I believe it takes a lot more to believe in faith and continue seeking the truth.”

    I’m interested in this tantalisingly incomplete statement. You said “it takes a lot more to believe in faith” – a lot more of what, exactly?

    You also said atheism is the easy way out – out of what?

  • here’s to saying nothing when you have nothing to say. it’s a good way to nurture yourself through this time. i’ll be thinking about you.

    (faith just told me it was really nice that you guys brought her flowers, made her feel special).

  • “Christ and Him Crucified and relevantly loving your neighbor because of how grateful you are for Christ and Him Crucified.”
    yeh, that almost says it all…
    “…keep the faith and keep seeking the Truth together”.
    and that about says the rest.
    you’re a good man david…
    had to lead worship once infront of 20,000 just when i was wrestling with these same sorts of questions… after confessing to friends and wrestling some more, i went through with it, knowing all i could give was what i had… then for a while took a backseat in all things church. if i’d had to preach (god help them!) i would have pulled out i think… unless the theme had been ‘doubt and the confessional’!
    i hope the break brings you fresh air to breathe…
    am with you in spirit, though many miles away… you have become a friend.

  • lor

    why would Jesus as Human submitting his will to the Father lead you to believe that there is no God up there?

    The very definition of human powerlessness is a recognition that I am called to turn my will and my life over to the care of God, who loves me. And that we live for His purpose in our lives rather than to pursue what we think we want or need.

    And that’s just what Jesus did in Gethsemane. Honestly prayed for God to take that cup, and then subnitted himself to God’s will anyway. Jesus as Human teaches me that God loves us and wanted to fully know the human existence in every way, shape and form – pain, anger, grief, temptation, love – right up to the moment he felt ‘forsaken’ and thereby understood what it meant to be separated from God.

    my powerlessness and His willingness to grab on to me and not let go comfirms His existence in my eyes

  • There is, obvously, a lot of advice getting thrown your way. Tell me to go blow if you want – I’m okay with that. But I think we need to look at what you’ve said for a moment…

    “As soon as my mind conceives of God, that is not God.”… Tao aside, I suspect that one cannot ‘conceive’ God anymore than one can form an adequate conception of love – these are things that must be experienced to be known.

    “is therefore in a position of willful powerlessness”… Simply put, this is not so. Being powerless and sheathing one’s power – well, those are two different things, aren’t they? The implications about God you draw from this is subsequently, well… more than a little askew.

    “We must be transformed into a community that confesses and even embraces mystery”… Your third proposition – in it’s entirety, is both very true and very well said. I agree whole-heartedly. It’s just that this proposition is a non-sequitur as per points 1 and 2. It’s true regardless of either of those proposition (or any other, for that matter)

    At the risk of parachuting in and offering all kinds of unasked for advice, let me say that I’ve seen this sort of thing before. I know a man who closeted himself in scripture and prayer, pursuing God with an almost unheard of intensity of thought. As a result, however, he actually isolated himself from the rest of his community – got way too deep inside his own head – and ended up formulating complex doctirnes that simply didn’t stand up to even the most rudimentary examination. I think your idea of taking a break from preaching is a sound one, (not to mention brave) but I’m not sure that a time of silence and meditation is equaly wise. Maybe it’s time for a vacation. This “gulping for familiar air” you describe… maybe it’s time to come up to the surface for awhile.

    Have you had an extended vacation lately? I mean a real vacation – one that’s long enough and far enough away that you actually stop thinking about work for awhile.

  • Matt

    wow, this is a ripper. really rocked my boat, and got me thinking!

    fantastic stuff… rock on, David.

  • ttm

    I’ve been thinking about what you’ve written, David. Mulling it over. Thinking about the implications. Wondering about the source. No big epiphanies–just thoughts of my own.

    As to point 1, I agree with you that “There is something beyond which the mind cannot conceive.” Just because humans don’t have the ability to know something completely doesn’t mean they don’t know it all.

    For example (It is an inadequate example, as are all examples, when we are talking about the complexity of God with human words.), I may think I know someone based upon their words, behaviors, body language, etc. But do we ever really know the fullness and depth of a person? I will probably never know my loved ones as they know themselves, but that incomplete knowledge of the whole does not negate the bits of knowledge made real here and there. I still conceptualize people and say I know them based on my conclusions. I don’t believe that we “manufacture” God. But I do think that we attempt to understand God through our minds which truly cannot conceive Him in His totality.

    As to point 2, I can’t make the same leap you’ve made from Jesus on Earth=No God or Powerless God. I think rhymes with kerouac is one to something with the idea of “sheathing one’s power.” I Corinthians 9:19-23 speaks of Paul becoming “all things to all men.” The passage mentions the Jews, those under the law, those having no law, and the weak. It’s not that Paul literally changes himself into those things–he can’t; he is human. But he does intellectually and soulfully enter into the perspectives of those people in order to frame the gospel in a way that they will understand and receive. I doubt that during those moments anyone would have said he was NOT Paul. Instead they would have recognized that he was temporarily setting aside his own perspective to empathetically help others.

    I think this is what God did in becoming Christ. I think He became human in order to completely empathize with humanity and through doing so, reframe our perspectives. But being God He IS able to transform completely–physically, emotionally, intellectually. He became human. When I think about God, as Christ, I cannot imagine that He abandoned His God-ness. He could never be NOT God. He is still God–even when human. Still sovereign in the sense of supporting the universe; but for those moments as a human, intentionally his sheathing His power.

    As to point 3, I believe that you are spot on whether points 1 and 2 hold true or not.
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. This place has become a place of iron sharpening iron for me. I appreciate that in this place no one is thrown away for dullness.

  • Thought provoking post – will email a response.

  • Daisy

    WOW. Im not even going to pretend that I can contribute as greatly to this discussion as the rest of you have. However, with regard to the trinity and prayer (some one brought it up), this is how my husband attempted to simplify it for me: we pray to God the Father, in the name of God the Son (Jesus) and in the power of God the Holy Spirit.