Nothing is as dangerous as encountering the true and living God. Why? Because meeting God redefines everything we call normal and commands us to seek first his kingdom (Matthew 6:33). This is why God’s messengers speak these words of assurance again and again in the Bible: “Fear not.” The righteous, holy, all-powerful God, maker of heaven and earth, is no one’s peer. “Is there any god besides me? There is no other rock; I know not one.” (Isaiah 44:8)
God cannot be tamed. God alone lives in perfect and uninhibited freedom. God is and will be God. There is no other. The witness of all who have had the closest and most personal encounters with God— from Abraham to Peter, from David to Paul, from Sarah to Mary—agree; encountering God means you will never be the same. This is the greatest (and best) danger of worship.
One day, a man came to my office looking for help in making sense of the nightly conversations about Christianity he was having with his newly converted wife. He made it clear he was very busy, very successful, and didn’t really have much time for this—just some bullet points, now, please. It would have been easy for me to hand him some books or pamphlets. And while those can be good, instead I said, “I can see you are a busy and successful person, so I don’t think what you’re asking for is a good idea.” Frustrated, he asked why. “Because,” I explained, “if I were to give you some bullet points, and you were to really understand them, they would have such a significant way of working into your life that it could really mess things up. You would have to rethink the meaning of success, of time, of family, of everything really. I don’t think you want to do that, do you?”
“No,” he said.
“Exactly,” I replied.
“Well, at least I don’t think so,” he stammered. “Maybe that’s what we need to talk about ?rst.”
Christians confess that they would desire an encounter with God. But the church’s avoidance of this kind of transformation, underscored by its avoidance of daring encounters with God, suggests that we choose to live something other than what we confess. We say we offer God our whole lives, but our practice (the evidence of worship that matters most) shows that we don’t really want God to do what we ask—to take us, mold us, fill us, use us.
Over the years, I have had a lot of contact with parents of college students. For some Christian parents, sending their child off to Berkeley is a mixed blessing, a point of pride as well as anxiety. Many have prayed for years that their children would grow up to do God’s will. Their children come to Berkeley, study hard, do well academically, and grow significantly as Christian disciples. Ironically, though, when these highly gifted and well-educated sons or daughters decide to take their degrees and move into urban neighborhoods as servants of Jesus Christ or pursue long-term international missions as a vocation, some parents react with anything from anger to depression. They prayed for their children to follow Jesus Christ, but they really wanted that to happen in a mainstream, worldly successful professional life. They want it both ways. They say they want God to be Lord in their children’s lives, but only as long as God leads in the ways they, as parents, want.
The same dichotomy exists in the midst of contemporary discussions and practices of worship. We change things, we say, in order to encounter God. But it easily dissolves into something far less. For example, many important developments are occurring in American churches, especially in our practices of community worship. Contemporary worship services, and more recently emergent worship, have been one of the most pervasive changes over the past decade or longer. The changes re?ect a hunger for a more living spirituality, often measured by a deeper integration of our emotional lives with our experience of church and God. In the wake of the various worship emphases, the church has been left with “the worship wars.” Not exactly an encouraging epithet! Battles over worship have turned us away from engaging God and toward simply arguing with each other.
We have been made for relationship with God. Therefore, it is not surprising that we long to meet and know God. But the God we seek is the God we want, not the God who is. We fashion a god who blesses without obligation, who lets us feel his presence without living his life, who stands with us and never against us, who gives us what we want, when we want it. We worship a god of consumer satisfaction, hoping the talismans of guitars and candles or organs and liturgy will put us in touch with God as we want him to be.
The real danger of encountering the living God is like the difference between the gentle wind of our imaginations and the whirlwind of God’s unmatched power and authority. Both involve air in motion, but the two experiences are in no way the same. Of course, God can meet us either way, or in some other way entirely, but what we need is to meet God. For that, there is no management, no technique, no assurances of control. Without encountering God in worship, we easily forget doing justice and loving kindness, or if we remember, they become mere tasks rather than the very substance of life.
Ben was a very successful man. His professional life flourished. His family life was challenging, as a parent of several teenagers. For him, Christian faith was a distant and disconnected reality. But he began to have conversations about it with his wife and later with me. One Sunday, I was surprised but pleased to see him in the worship service. As he approached me at the door afterward, his eyes began to fill with tears. He explained that while visiting Washington, D.C., for a professional conference, he had gone to visit the National Cathedral. He slipped into an empty side chapel and sat down for some quiet time and reflection. There, unexpected and unsought, God’s Spirit simply came upon him. Ben became a new person. The awe and wonder of grace and truth beyond his own mind, his own questions, his own needs, simply met him and changed him. It was as though his life was utterly redefined, and it has been ever since.
Yahweh alone is God. He is mystery. Awe. Wonder. Glory. Power. Love. Majesty. Instead of being awed by the incarnation, the divine concentrated in human form, we have allowed ourselves a presumptuous familiarity toward God. When God asks Job, “Where were you?” the point is to underscore the otherness of Yahweh. We are called to live with awe and reverence, “to walk humbly with [our] God.” (Micah 6:8)
John Calvin proposed that God spoke “baby talk” for our sake. Even so, it is the baby talk of the One who “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1) Annie Dillard recognizes God’s singular power when she writes,
On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, making up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ hats and straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.
If we are committed to protecting who and what we are now, then our greatest need and greatest danger will be in meeting God. Of course, this is also our only hope. This is the wake-up call we may not want, but it alone leads us to new life. Becoming new will complicate our lives. Whether in the power of the whirlwind or in the still small voice of the Spirit, meeting God is no small incident.