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God in a Box

This article was originally written in response to interviews and discussions on the popular book, The Shack, so our first purpose is to examine how the phase is used by its author, William Young.  We will then examine some of the ways that both liberals and conservatives erect barriers around God, and the precautions we must observe.

Written Sept 2008.

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There’s a popular slogan in the business world these days.  Managers and employees are encouraged to “think outside the box”, that is to think differently, creatively, unconventionally from a new perspective unbound by existing policies.  This type of thinking requires an openness to seeing and doing things differently, exploring new ideas, and being willing to act on them.

In recent years, this marketing slogan has found its way into the church, with both positive and negative results.  On the plus side, it encourages new ideas regarding the various forms (or methods) that we use to spread the Gospel to the lost; however, on the negative side, many churches implement these ideas at the expense of compromising the teaching of sound Biblical doctrine.

We’ll actually expound on this slogan as it relates to the church in another article in this series, but I mention it here because our subject slogan, “God in a Box”, derives from and is closely related to it.  Both slogans are used by liberal theologians and churches to either water down or downright falsify the Gospel message and other doctrines fundamental to Christianity.  This might occur due to making a message more “seeker-friendly” or to justify a heretical interpretation of Scripture in order to support immoral lifestyles.  In some cases, it may simply be due to a lack of doctrinal knowledge or a misinterpretation of Scripture.  In any case, these errors can be very destructive to the Christian faith.

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The Shack and other Modern Religious Media

Mr Young’s book, which is particularly esteemed by the emergent church and other liberal movements, contains a subtle undertone of hostility toward the orthodox teaching of the Bible and the Church.  It’s obvious from comments within the books and from various interviews that the author intends to change our perception of God.  He wants us to leave behind our “religious pre-conditioning”.  Incidentally, to Mr Young, only beliefs which we’ve learned from the Bible and teachings of the Church are considered “pre-conditions” or “pre-conceived notions”, while other beliefs consistent with his own (some of which are biblical, some are not) are considered to be free thinking, or thinking outside the box.  In reality, Mr Young seeks to replace the “pre-conceived notions” of his readers with those of his own.

In the book, he urges readers to think “outside of the box” in regards to God and his Word.  He writes:

“In seminary he [Mack, the main character] had been taught that God had completely stopped any overt communication with moderns, preferring to have them only listen to and follow sacred Scripture, properly interpreted, of course.  God’s voice has been reduced to paper, and even that paper had to be moderated and deciphered by the proper authorities and intellects.  It seemed that direct communication with God was something exclusively for the ancients and uncivilized, while the educated Westerners’ access to God was mediated and controlled by the intelligentsia.  Nobody wanted God in a box, just a book.  Especially an expensive one bound in leather with gilt edges, or was that guilt edges?” (p65-66).

In the excerpt above, Mr Young asserts, that anyone holding up the Bible as the supreme and infallible source of God’s revelation, including His primary source of revelation as illuminated by the Holy Spirit, are guilty of confining “God in a box” or a “book”.  He argues that we are limiting God by believing that God is true to His Word.  This argument is usually made by liberals in order to justify beliefs about God that may be contrary to Scripture.  By appealing to the unsound logic that any person in disagreement is putting “God in a box”, a person can basically allege any belief about God to be correct.  Regarding the way God the Father is portrayed in the Shack, a reviewer writes “the point is to attempt to shock us out of whatever preconceived notions of God we may have.  If you don’t like the way Young has chosen to represent God in this story, that’s okay.  But what is your conception of God?  Is it working for you?  Okay then.”  Unfortunately, this reviewer reflects the belief held by much of modern society that your conception of God should not be evaluated on whether or not it is true, but whether or not it works for you.

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Who is Putting God in a Box?

So, who is actually putting God in a box? The truth is that we all often put God in a box.  The God of The Shack has been put in a box void of holiness, justice, and righteous wrath.  Another religious best-seller, Wild at Heart, goes the opposite direction by emphasizing these attributes and minimizing God’s love and mercy.  We’ll discuss other ways that God is put in a box later in this article.

It is also true that, in a sense, God puts Himself in a box, the box that He always remains true to His own Nature and Being.  He has revealed Himself to us through creation, history, the prophets and apostles, and in the highest authority, His Son Jesus (Heb 1:1).  His direct words to us today are recorded in Holy Scripture, so all other means of revelation must be compared and filtered through that of the Bible.  It is very important that we understand that this box of self-revelation limits God only by those things which conflict with His revelation.  We must not assume that God has revealed all of Himself to us.  Our finite mind can’t begin to understand the depths of an infinite God (Isa 55:8,9, Rom 11:33-36).  His revelation to us is sufficient, but is certainly not complete.  Moses writes The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Dt 29:29).

We can also take comfort in the fact that God puts Himself in this box.  For example, it is revealed that God cannot lie (Titus 1:2, Heb 6:18).  If God is completely outside of a box, He could say, “This stuff about believing in Jesus saving you, and about working all things for the good of those that love Me… just kidding”.  If God does not put Himself in a box, we can have no assurances or understanding of Him.

The obvious question now becomes, since God puts Himself in a box, should we do likewise.  The answer is absolutely, positively NO!  God is God, and we are not.  Actually, we can’t put God in a box, since our box only exists within our own minds, not in reality.  God, along with his nature and character, exists completely independent from our thoughts and beliefs.  Therefore, we can only recognize God’s box of revelation, not affect it.

So, if our erroneous thinking doesn’t affect God’s self-imposed box, there can’t be much harm done, can there?  Wrong, and possibly dangerously wrong.  Our thoughts and beliefs control our actions.  Putting God in the "stern taskmaster void of mercy and grace" box can lead to legalism, attempting to earn our way into Heaven.  Contrarily, putting God in an “all love and no wrath” box such as in The Shack or a Joel Osteen sermon, can cause a person to think they can ignore sin and God will save them anyway.  It will be a tragedy to someday hear Jesus say, “Depart from me, I never knew you” (Mt 7:23).

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Common Ways of Putting God in a Box

As we’ve seen above and will repeat here, we don’t actually put God in a box in reality, so when we use the phrase in this article, we mean to put God in a Box within our own minds.

There are a number of methods that we use to put God in a Box.  Many of these are with the best of intentions, but we must be careful to allow God to speak for Himself.  The first way that we can put God in a box is by a misunderstanding of His revelation, most often involving the Scriptures.  A faulty understanding of certain Biblical doctrines can place limits on God where there should be none, or failing to recognize a limit that He has placed on Himself.  Even with a good understanding of the Scriptures, we can still create a box by overemphasizing one aspect of a doctrine over another aspect, or even one doctrine over another.  For example, the sovereignty of God and the free will of man exist in perfect harmony, but in our incomplete knowledge, we sometimes amplify one and minimize the other.  The same error can be made concerning the attributes of God, which also exist in perfect harmony.  As we noted above, The Shack minimizes or ignores God’s holiness, justice, and righteous wrath while Wild at Heart accentuates them at the expense of His love and mercy. 

Our theology should also be put into action.  In his letters, the Apostle Paul provides an equivalent emphasis on the theological and the practical so that we can understand who we are and what we should do, that is, to balance our position in Christ with our practice.  We can also get out of balance by attempting to separate the secular from the sacred.  The most prominent example of this that comes to mind is Nazi Germany.  Many German officers went to church on Sunday, and then sent Jews to the gas chambers on Monday.  They justified this by dividing their lives into two spheres, the sacred (dedicating themselves to the church on Sunday) and the secular (working for the state the remainder of the week).  An example closer to home is our twisted concept of separation of church and state.  The Israelites made no distinction between the two spheres (nor does the Bible), so neither should we.

Another error that we sometimes commit is to attribute the direct cause of a current event, such as a natural disaster or great fortune, to God’s wrath or blessing.  It is true that any event must either be caused or allowed by our sovereign God, but we must be cautious in attempting to guess His motives.  Events such as Hurricane Katrina hitting New Orleans may have been an act of judgment from God, or He may have just permitted it because we live in an imperfect world in which creation itself has been tarnished by man’s sin.  We simply do not know His reasons.  Many well-meaning preachers and teachers attempt to force the meaning of a selected Bible verse onto a current event for which it was not intended.  We must let the inspired Scripture speak for itself.

A final common mistake (often made in The Shack and by liberal theologians) is placing another mode of revelation, such as our own consciences, feelings or experiences, on equal or higher authority than the Holy Scriptures.

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How to Avoid Putting God in a Box

I personally don’t believe that fallen mankind can completely avoid putting God in a Box.  Due to our incomplete understanding of God, we’ll sometimes create a box even with the best of intentions.  We must study, worship and live our lives under the control of the Holy Spirit at all times.  Unfortunately, we all still have our old sin nature competing for dominance, so we’ll still give in on occasion.  As we continue to mature in the faith and yield to the Spirit, we’ll increasingly allow His Word to speak for itself, rather than relying on our own feelings and experiences to determine our knowledge and understanding of God.

Therefore, we must honestly study the Scriptures with much prayer for illumination by the Holy Spirit.  Draw out the true meaning of God’s revelation instead of reading our own biased cultural conditioned thoughts into them.  Make use of Biblically based pastors and teachers which God has ordained.  Then, we can discover the joy of properly understanding the box of the revelation of our truly awesome God.

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