By Pastor David M. Choi
You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God. -Exodus 20:4-5
When making observations of a natural phenomenon, such as the law of gravity, scientists seek to understand the phenomenon as it presents itself to them. Anything else would be improper science, not to mention vastly irresponsible. That is, to base scientific conclusions on what we want them to be rather than on what they factually are we would call pseudoscience. And this holds true for how we come to know God.
In terms of the Christian faith, the specific activity by which we learn to think, speak, and reason about God correctly we call theology, and, as Karl Barth points out, theology, too, is a science in that it seeks to understand God as God presents Himself to us, which is why any conclusions drawn outside of these strict parameters directly results in pseudo-theology. Another word for that being idolatry.
The law of gravity and God, however, are clearly not the same things, that is, one is in nature, whereas the other is beyond nature, for God is spiritual and transcendent. Hence, we cannot reduce God down into a simple formula or mathematical equation. We must know Him through the manner in which He presents Himself to us, which is revelation, faith, and personal encounter.
In the Old Testament, we see that Israel was called to be a nation after God’s own heart, and God gives them the first commandment [i.e. to have no other gods besides Him] in order to help them live into that calling. Yet, God says if they are to truly know Him, namely, as the One who rescued them from Egyptian slavery, then it is also imperative that they do not confuse God for idols and created things. This is why the second commandment is given right after the first.
Over these last few months, my students and I have been walking through the gospel of Matthew for our morning Sunday school. In the gospel, we see that God has now presented Himself to the world most clearly in Christ. However, we observed that, despite that being the case, there are still many within Israel who cannot recognize that fact, that God now stands literally before them. When I asked the class why that is, one student raised her hand and answered with this: “Because they already have a picture of who God should be.” Exactly that.
We don’t miss out on God because He isn’t there. We miss out because we’ve already determined in our minds who God should be. We miss out because we refuse to accept the fact that God isn’t like us. We miss out because we can’t see past our puny imaginations. I’m using “we” in a general sense.
However, this is no time for Christians to all of a sudden get spiritually cocky because, unlike the crowd, “we know that Jesus is God.” Make no mistake, if we are not careful, Christians can actually be some of the worst idolaters. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once preached to his theological students at Finkenwalde: “There are many Christians who certainly bend their knees before the cross of Jesus Christ but who refuse and struggle against any affliction in their own lives. They think that they love the cross of Christ, but they hate the cross in their own lives. Thus in truth they also hate the cross of Jesus Christ; in truth they, who try to escape the cross by all means possible, are despisers of the cross.”
Indeed, many Christians like the eternal life He has to give, but they despise the fact that they are called to abandon everything for the sake of knowing and following him. Many like the fact that He promises certain blessings, but they despise the fact that they are called to die so that they can live. Which is why despite all claims to knowing Jesus many still don’t know Him.
I have always made it known to the people I care for that they are free to accept or reject Christ. As a pastor, I have no business or interest in coercing them into faith. It is a personal decision they must make. That is the free choice that God gives them, which we see Christ do in the gospels. But whatever their choice may be, and this is now a note for all Christians, it must be made upon the basis of who God presents Himself to be in Jesus Christ, and not upon the basis of the carved images we have of Him in our minds.
But here’s the other thing. The science of knowing Jesus is not a static enterprise. Knowing Jesus requires one to say, “Jesus, admittedly, I don’t always understand you. But even so, I trust you. Therefore, I obey you.” In other words, knowing Jesus and what He’s all about requires full obedience. If we want to know God, we must follow Christ. That is the second commandment for disciples. There is no other way. That is why it is a steep risk. But a risk worth taking. Why? Because it is better to live in the life-giving reality of uncertainty and risk, than in the illusion of cheap thrills, false certainty, and short comforts. So, may we know Him. May we know this Christ, who is abundantly more than all we can ask for or imagine [Eph. 3:20].
Prayer: Dear Jesus, thank you for showing me who God is. In your life, I see the Father’s heart for this world. In your death, I see the Father’s unwavering love for all. In your resurrection, I see spectacular hope for sinners like myself. I want to know You like this. So, please forgive me, Lord, for my idolatry and spiritual pride. Forgive me, Lord, for turning You into something You’re not. I desperately want to know You as the God beyond what I can imagine. So, give me the strength and courage to live a life of obedience. Though I don’t always understand You, I say to You again that I trust You, because You have given me Christ. Amen.