Go Ahead, Put God in a Box
Several months ago, in a deep conversation with friends over dinner, it was said that “you can’t put God in a box, but he will always come get in our boxes with us.” As I listened and reflected on what was being suggested, I began to make all kinds of connections with the nature of God and how He works in our lives. The statement not only rang true, but I sensed that it was also a really important idea.
It has been said, “You can’t put God in a box.” Of course! We can’t control God or determine how He is going to act. He will not be bound. At the same time, the reality is that our tendency is to do just that … to put God in a box of our own making. The walls of the box are made up of our limited understanding, our preconceived (often unaware to us) ideas, our expectations, and our misunderstandings. No matter how “mature” we believe we are or how schooled we are in theology, we will always have these tendencies. In one sense, we will always put God in a box.
And the beautiful reality is that God will always come and be with us in our boxes. To pretend that we could ever not have a box is a function of pride rather than reality. The only hope we have for the walls of our boxes to come down is experiencing the presence of God right where we are … in the middle of the messiness of expectations and preconceived ideas and limited understandings.
We often come to the erroneous conclusion that until we have the right and correct beliefs about God, we are unable to interact with Him. The reality is God relentlessly pursues us. He is always the initiator and we are the responders in the relationship. He comes to us! God can never be defined or contained by our limited, incomplete thoughts and yet, He will come to us in our lack of knowledge.
We can also think that we have to have our “act together” to be able to interact with God. Margaret Silf, in her Inner Compass, shares:
“God comes to us not where we should have been if we had made all the right choices in life; not where we could have been if we had taken every opportunity that God has offered us; not where we wish we were if we didn’t have to be in the place where we find ourselves; not where we think we are because our minds are out of sync with our hearts; not where other people think we are or think we ought to be when they are attending to their own agendas. God meets us where we really are.”
If we understood everything about God, it quite possible that it would shock us and terrify us and cause us to run for the hills. His thoughts are not our thoughts and His ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9). If we were to see Him, we would die from being exposed to the depths of His holiness (Exodus 33:20). So, he shows up like a Trojan horse. We think we’re relating to Him on one level but He comes disguised. It’s the disguise we make for Him and He comes to slowly remove the disguise. He doesn’t come this way to deceive us but because He wants to be with us, even if we misunderstand Him for long periods of time. He comes and gently creates the tension required for our growth in knowing and relating to Him.
In Mark 10:35-45, we observe an amazing example of this kind of relating. Two of Jesus’ disciples come to Him with expectations and are shockingly honest about it. They say, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” That’s quite a statement but certainly reflective of what is often going on in our hearts. At face value, it’s a prideful request, assuming that the God of the universe will do their will, their bidding. What does Jesus do? He meets them in that place as He responds with “What do you want me to do for you?” He is meeting them in their box. I can imagine that the disciples were thinking, “Yes! Here we go … all of our desires are going to come true!” However, Jesus turns their request upside down by asking them to think deeper about what they were asking. He doesn’t refuse to interact with them or ignore them but meets them in their box and begins to dismantle their preconceived ideas.
He initiates and comes to us even when we think we’re in charge and calling the shots. It’s deeply humbling to think about the humility of God to condescend toward us. When you see it and appreciate the depths of His love, it can lead us into a new way of relating … a way that can progressively knock down our walls and usher us into deeper and deeper intimacy with God.
So, why does He do this? Why doesn’t He wait for us and demand that we have things figured out before He comes to us? Quite simply, He is more concerned about being with us than being right. He desires to know us and love us in the particulars of our lives. He would rather us have something of Him than nothing of Him. And, He longs for more. That’s why He will come and patiently work in our lives. We are in our boxes and God meets us there. He expands the walls or even knocks them down as we experience God on His terms. It’s important to realize that He doesn’t come with expectations and demands, but with desire. When we begin to meet Him at this place, we see that our deepest desire is to do life with Him as well.
So, how do we respond? It begins with acknowledging that we have that tendency to put God in a box, and it moves forward in the following ways:
- Engaging a posture of humility.
If God meets us where we are, then ask the question: “where am I?” Acknowledge that your perspective is limited and that much of life is mystery. Part of putting God in a box is arrogantly thinking that we know and the naïve, yet common, desire to control. We frequently think that if we “know,” we can control. Consider: what am I trying to control? What are things that I want to believe I know but don’t or can’t? Notice places where you feel anxious or angry or tense. And then, “humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:6-7) Anthony deMello suggests:
“The fact is that you are surrounded by God and yet you don’t see God, because you ‘know’ about Him. The final barrier to the vision of God is our God concept. You miss God because you think you know. That’s the terrible thing about religion. That’s what the Gospels were saying – that religious people ‘knew,’ so they got rid of Jesus. The highest knowledge of God is to know God as unknowable.”
- Enacting the practice of letting go of expectations and preconceived ideas.
Here, we ask the question: “What are the expectations I have that I need to release?” Let me suggest three potential areas. First, we frequently come to God with a consumer mentality. We have a need and God can/should/will meet that need. We get trained to believe that every need should be fulfilled, yet Jesus says “blessed are the poor” (Matthew 5:3). It is our need that awakens us to true desire. When we can sit quietly and let go of “need,” we are in a place to relate to God as our King not simply as a genie who grants wishes. Second, we often come to God with an individualistic mentality. We define and look at life as though we are the center of universe. We can’t seem to help ourselves because it is so ingrained. Yet, we are encouraged over and over again to see “neighbor” as a fundamental part of our identity (“love your neighbor as yourself,” Matt 22). Ask God for His perspective of your neighbor so that you can let go of yours. Third, we come to God with a materialistic mindset. The material things of this world end up defining us and giving us a sense of meaning although we are encouraged that “life is more that food, and the body more than clothing” (Matt 6:25). A way that we can enact the practice of letting go is to sit with God in the nakedness of silence. Sit silently with God for 15-20 minutes (or more) and let go of each thought that enters your mind. Surrender each desire or compulsion to His care. It’s hard to do (at first) but it can become a way of life with God. The walls of our boxes are most often built by our own thoughts and preconceived ideas.
- Enlivening your passion to do life with Him.
Finally, we think through: “who am I, at my core? Why am I alive?” He meets us with desire, a desire to know us and be with us and do life with us. The root underneath every command of Scripture is this desire of His. And, every desire of our hearts is, at its depths, this very same desire: to do life with Him. Remind yourself daily, perhaps moment by moment, that this is who you truly are. You are a longing for God.
Finally, be patient. As A.W. Tozer reminds us: “God never hurries. There are no deadlines against which he must work. Only to know this is to quiet our spirits and relax our nerves.” With that quietness of spirit, move toward humility, letting go, and just being with Him. As we are with Him in the mystery of His glory and grace, the walls of our boxes fall down and God becomes much bigger and more glorious than we could ever imagine.