Our first post in this series on Paul Young's Lies We Believe About God summarized the excellent foreword written by C. Baxter Kruger, whose book The Great Dance we discussed last month as well. Today, I'll cover Young's introduction and opening chapters, which set forth the first two lies.
Few of us go through anything quite so dramatic as the Apostle Paul experienced on the road to Damascus, when, after a blinding flash of light and a few words spoken by the Lord, he realized that much of what he thought about God and himself was dead wrong. But if you have ever come to realize that beliefs once held with great conviction were in fact mistaken--as I have!--you'll identify with what Young reveals of himself in his introduction.
"This book is not a presentation of certainty," writes Young, who was raised in the Western Evangelical Protestant tradition. "None of the examinations of 'lies' results in a final or absolute view on a subject...Each chapter refers to a statement I once believed and from which I have transitioned...If there is one man in Scripture with whom I most identify, it is the man born blind. My journey has been one of learning how to see...Because of [this journey], I am a better husband, father, son, friend, and human being. If my words don't bring clarification, hopefully my life does."
Our understanding of Scripture and theories about God are only meaningful to the extent that they help us to better follow Jesus, and Young is a man who walks his talk. I'm not entirely in agreement with everything he writes, just as I don't walk lockstep with George MacDonald; but I find much in common between the two, and with my own thinking. I have primarily attended Reformed churches for the past five years, even though I differ with Reformed theology on a number of significant points; nonetheless, I've learned from the pastors in those churches, and find the tension between their understanding of Scripture and my own to be helpful in testing and refining my thinking. So, what Young writes toward the end of his introduction resonates with me:
"I would ask that you allow the words of this book to be both a friend and an adversary...Our prescriptions must be tested in order that we might have eyes to see and ears to hear...Dialogue ought not to be an exercise in domination or certainty; rather, it is the respect due relationship. We all need new ways to see. I know I do.
"Again, this book is laid out as a series of essays exploring interconnected concepts that I propose are lies--lies that I once believed, lies that continue to affect many of us...I offer these essays as ideas and questions to ponder, with the hope that our inner eyes will be touched and that we will more clearly see the goodness and relentless affection of God and who we are within that encompassing embrace."
Chapters One and Two: The First Two Lies
The first two chapters are a good example of the way Young's ideas are interconnected.
Chapter One: "God loves us, but doesn't like us."
Young presents a compelling story of his visit to a woman's prison on a freezing winter day in Alberta, Canada, not far from where he grew up, and muses on a matter inspired by a question from one of the prisoners:
"Even those who don't believe that God exists are desperate to know that love does and that love knows who we are. More, we are driven from within to take the risk to ask of someone of Someone, Do you find anything in me that is lovable, that is enough, that is worthy of being loved?
"...In the religious subculture in which I was raised, we all knew that God is love. We said it and sang it all the time, until it didn't mean that much. It was simply the way that God is. It is like the grandchild who says, 'But you have to love me. You're my gramps.'
"...So, I've made a habit of rephrasing the line 'God loves you,' and instead of making it about God, I make it about the object of God's relentless affection--us. So throughout The Shack, Papa would say, 'I am especially fond of her or him.' There is a world of difference between saying 'I love you,' which is about me, and saying 'I am especially fond of you,' which is about you...the latter somehow pierces the disquiet of our souls and says, 'Yes, I know you love me, but do you know me and do you like me?...is there anything about me that is worth loving?'"
Young is on to something important here--this is a question that most of us have asked at some point, whether of a parent or lover or of God Himself. But when I first read this brief chapter, I came away puzzled; it wasn't so clear to me that there is a "world of difference" between "I love you" and "I am especially fond of you." And how can we really know that "God loves us but doesn't like us" is a lie?
To understand Young's reasoning, we need to consider Chapter Two: "God is good. I am not."
"Many of us," Young writes, "believe that God sees us all as failures, wretches who are utterly depraved...We think, When I hate myself, am I not simply agreeing with God?"
This is often how I come away from some of the writings of Calvinists like Reformed icon Jonathan Edwards, who imagines God seeing fallen humans as loathsome worms fit only for eternal torment in hell. But, Young asks, "Is this how God sees me?" If you think of yourself as worthless, or parents and teachers call you that, does God agree with them?
I'm in accord with those who view the Calvinist doctrine of Utter Depravity as inconsistent with Scripture (overall; of course one can pick and choose isolated verses that can appear to support virtually any argument, some of which are positively blasphemous). "The truth is that we have inherent value because we are made in the image of God," Young writes. "Blind, not depraved, is our condition. Remember, God cannot become anything that is evil or inherently bad...and God became human." This is a profound point, upon which other writers have elaborated in contemplating the mystery of the incarnation. Jesus was fully man and fully God. If man, at his core, is inherently depraved, but Jesus was not inherently depraved, it is meaningless to say that He was (and is!) fully man.
One guidepost for me is that Jesus emphasized that we can gain insight into the nature of God by considering earthly fathers; if we are often pretty decent--even loving!--to our children, imagine how God is to His! Note that Jesus did not say, "God's Fatherhood is mysterious, utterly unlike our own." Any doctrine is suspect that imagines God regarding His children--by which I mean, all humans, all of whom He knit in their mothers' wombs, all of whom were created and are sustained through Christ--in a way that we cannot imagine thinking of our own.
"God doesn't have a low view of humanity, because God knows the truth about us. God is not fooled by all the lies we have told ourselves and each other. Jesus is the truth about who we are--fully human, fully alive. Deeper than all the hurt and broken bits and pieces is a 'very good' creation, and we were created in the image and likeness of God..."
God is love, and in love created us in His image. The fall defaced but did not obliterate that image; at our core is something beautiful, something worthy of His love, something of which, as Young would say, He is especially fond.
So: is this some "I'm OK, You're OK" philosophy, that suggests that God is satisfied with us as we are, that there is no need to repent, pick up our cross, and follow Him? No, that is not Paul Young's thinking at all; God loves us too much to let us live in blindness. George MacDonald put it like this: God is easy to please, but hard to satisfy. Our destiny is to be one with our Triune God; the Lord will never be satisfied until every blind eye sees with perfect clarity.
In the final two posts, we'll consider several more chapters in Young's thought-provoking book, Lies We Believe About God.