Instruction Manual gods and Why Theology Matters

instruction-manualWith a four- and a one- year old in my house, I do a fair amount of assembling plastic toys. In my experience there are two types of people when it comes to putting together toys or furniture: There are those who just get started and only look at the instructions as they go, and there are those who pick up the instructions first and go step by step. I am the latter. I don’t have enough mechanical sense to put something together on intuition. So I want instructions. I want the precise way to put it together because I know I will screw it up otherwise. The instructions make me feel safe.

I think there are times when we want the Bible or God’s will to be this way. We assume the exact step by step instructions will be given if we flip to the right page on the Bible. Or we assume God’s will is going to float into our lap with a parachute, wrapped in butcher paper. Unfortunately neither of these actually happen.

But even more unfortunate is that we often talk about the Bible or God’s will like they are instruction manuals. We assume if we just follow the right rules, and make the right decisions based on God’s will we will always have the outcomes we want. If I am good enough and do what God tells me, then I will get whatever I want out of life. We seek the safety of an instruction manual, are unwilling to take risks, and then often don’t know what to do when life doesn’t turn out our way.

We often approach this week’s Gospel passage that way as well. If I just bug God enough and don’t screw up, God will give me what I want. Quid pro quo – I do the right things and say the right prayers, God blesses me.

But God does not promise this. When Jesus says to ask, seek, and knock he says what we will receive is God. He doesn’t promise safety or stability. He doesn’t promise wealth or success. He promises God. When you seek God with all that you have, you will find God.

This isn’t a very hopeful promise if we have an instruction manual kind of God. If I have an instruction manual God then I need to have it all figured out, know all the right formulas, do all the right things. Getting it right is how I ask, seek, and knock. The hope is that if I do enough for God, God might do something for me. I can gain God’s attention by how righteous I am.

This is how gods function. But the entire Old Testament is filled with page after page of God trying to make sure God’s people know God does not function like other gods. God wants us to have a better vision of what a God looks like.

So in this passage, Jesus actually connects the promise of God’s presence to a particular view of God. Before he promises the presence of God, he makes sure we know what kind of a God we are getting. We have a loving parent God who wants good things for God’s children. As we see in Hosea, this goodness and mercy is not based upon how well we get it right or if we believe the right things. This is a God who is good and loving and wants what is best for God’s children.

This is why theology is so important. Our view of God matters.

If we believe God is a quick to smite, judgmental, rule-keeping, instruction manual God, we will become those kinds of people. When we see Christians who are railing on people who are “sinners” and evil, or are more concerned for correct doctrine than the are how they treat people, they have an instruction manual God. God expects you to have your stuff together, so I do too.

This is a bad view of God. We have a loving and good God who is for us. This God’s love is not contingent on performance. This God pursues us with all of God’s being. This God doesn’t give up. This God is worried about the kind of life God wants FOR us, not the kind of life God wants FROM us. This God is deeply invested in our choices, but does the best work when we fall short.

Our theology matters. When we have a view of a good God who is relentlessly pursuing us, then the promise of God’s presence is an amazing gift. When we have a picture of a God just waiting for us to screw up and throw lightning bolts, the promise of presence is scary. In that case, I would rather try to have it all figured out so I could get what I want.

So take some time this week to simply rest in a better view of God. Rest in the presence of a God who is for you and relentlessly pursues you.

6 thoughts on “Instruction Manual gods and Why Theology Matters

  1. Trevor thanks so much for writing this. I have so many questions and struggles with this that it is overwhelming sometimes. T\For me, theology is the Rubik’s Cube of faith I try to figure it out and then quickly screw things up worse than they were before. Ultimately I end up saying “forget this” and just go on about my business.

    One of the reasons that I no longer call myself a Christian is just simply because of the confusion that I have with the theology of belief. The Bible can be used to support all kinds of approaches and views of God, some hard and demanding, some kind and compassionate. This has really caused me to distrust the Bible as an ultimate source of answers. All these different views would contend to come from a loving perspective, but it doesn’t feel that way because everyone defines love by their own experience. Is it about acceptance, or holding people accountable until they reach a certain level of integrity. It would have all been so much simpler if the only scripture we had was Matthew 22:36-40.

    Really my idea of God is mostly based on who I hope he/she/it is. I do as many tend to and craft God in my own image, but really what other options do I have. One of the few things that I have read from C.S. Lewis that really stuck with me is that most Christians pray to whom they imagine God to be, rather than to who he really is. It made me realize how limited I am by my own understanding.

    If God exists then he HAS to transcend my own knowledge and understanding. I mean, for him to be the creator of time and space then he has to exist outside of those things, this idea alone causes my brain to cramp. I can’t know the unknowable so I strive for the things that I do know. I know how important it is to love my family, friends, and community and to be as gracious as I can with those relationships. I know how important truth and honesty is and what a rarity it is to find genuine people. I truly value these things as if they are part of an ingrained morality that is as natural to me as breathing in and out.

    So ultimately I seek truth and love, and even if I am not sure about who God is or if he even exists, wouldn’t he be the creator of these things that are so important to me. If the Bible is to be believed, He does describes himself as both truth and love. So am I not really seeking him, even if that is not how I perceive it in my mind?

    There is a peace that comes from knowing that there are things that are beyond my certainty. It frees me from having to fit them inside my box of understanding and allows me to focus on the things that I know to be true and important in my heart.

    Sorry for rambling so much, but I appreciate you guys creating a format that lets me feel safe about speaking my thoughts.

    • Thanks Phil! I’m glad it’s a safe place!

      I think a lot of the problem comes from how we approach the Bible. So many times we end up setting the bible on a pedestal and worship it as god. So we have made it to where to question anything in the bible or doctrine or theology is to reject god completely. We make an acceptance of doctrine or the bible a prerequisite for knowing God. Doctrines and the bible are supposed to help us understand and encounter God. When we make them prerequisites we have missed the point.

      I think you have a great point about a God who claims to be both truth and love. This is the root of everything I believe about God. I truly believe that no matter what your religious affiliation when you experience truth and love you are experiencing God. The search for truth and love is always the search for God.

      The reason I call myself a Christian is because I believe Jesus fully reveals who God is. I try to follow Jesus because I believe when I want more truth and love I look to him for how to get it.

      For me, this also means Jesus is the lens we should use for the bible. We need to make all of our views of God line up with Jesus. If it doesn’t line up with Jesus then we need to rethink it.

      I think you hit the beauty of it all though: it is beyond our understanding. We can’t ever really know. So I choose to believe we have a God who is the source of all truth and love and start there. Theology is simply trying to understand as best as possible who god is. And if done right, this leads to more truth love and acceptance.

      Hope that is all coherent. Been sick for a couple of days. I’d love to talk more about it though. This kind of stuff is what I am most passionate about.

    • Trevor pretty much said all that I was going to say, Phil, so I won’t repeat it here. The one thing I will say (and you’ve heard me say this to you before) is that while we still may come up with different answers or opinions, I am so appreciative of your honesty and questions. I wish most people would approach the Bible as honestly as you seem to and feel comfortable questioning both it and themselves. If we all did this, we could have much better conversations and appreciate each other so much more.

      I love you and your heart, bro. Thanks for reading and talking with us here.

      • Thanks man, I miss you guys. I always feel better after I can process these thoughts and there just aren’t that many opportunities to do so. Sacred Margins has really meant a lot to me, it helps me stay connected and realize that there is a lot of common ground to stand on.

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