Friday, January 28, 2011

The Unique Greatness of Our God (Part Four)

For decades, economists have been debating whether it is better to macro-manage or micro-manage a nation's economy. There are arguments on each side about whether those with their hands on the controls of the economy—like the Federal Reserve Chairman or the Treasury Secretary—should fiddle with the larger elements of our financial system (the money supply and interest rates), or if they should tinker with smaller elements (such as narrow sectors of the economy or even individual industries). Many of us would prefer them to keep their hands in their pockets altogether!

The Bible, however, tells us that, far from being the unconcerned and inattentive Creator that the Deists envisioned, God is a micro-manager of His universe. Jesus, who knows the Father best, says of Him: "Are not two sparrows sold for a copper coin? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father's will" (Matthew 10:29). Many of us have read over this astounding statement and not considered what it implies.

How many sparrows are there in the world? There are just 35 different species of true sparrows or Old World sparrows in the world, and many other species—mostly finches—are similar to them. But no one really knows how many of them there are; they are estimated to number in the multiple billions. Some individual flocks are thought to contain as many as 20 million birds! Nobody takes care of sparrows as God does! He keeps track of each one and either causes or passes on each bird's death. Men do not have minds with the ability to keep track of such "insignificant" details, but God does—and He does not consider such information trivial.

By the way, this answers the old philosophical question: "If a tree falls in a forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" The answer is "yes" because God hears it just as He knows every sparrow that falls to the ground.

And we think that He sometimes ignores us! As Jesus goes on to say, "Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows" (Matthew 10:31). This is classic understatement. God has called each of us to be His very son or daughter and to rule with Him over the universe for eternity, and we think that He fails to keep track of us? Unlike His care of sparrows, He does not just cause or pass on our deaths—He causes or passes on everything we do and that is done to us. We have no valid reason to doubt His watchful care over us.

Jesus informs us in Matthew 10:30 that "the very hairs of your head are all numbered." This, too, is flooring! Have we ever wondered how many hairs are on our heads? Encyclopedia Britannica found a hair expert to estimate it: "On a human head, the average total number of hairs is between 100,000 and 150,000." For those of us who are losing ours, the figure is, of course, much lower, but many others with full heads of hair more than make up the deficit. To be conservative, we can say that the average head holds 120,000 hairs.

If we are to believe Scripture, God has numbered them all. We should add in the fact that the average person loses about 70 hairs each day. Some fall out, some break, and new ones are replacing them all the time. So not only does God have our hairs numbered, He is also aware of the plus or minus 70 hairs we lose every day.

Since Jesus is speaking to His disciples in this passage, we will discount everybody else in the world except His elect. Let us assume that there are 50,000 truly called and converted disciples of Jesus Christ on earth right now. How many hairs does God have to keep track of on His disciples' heads? Six billion plus or minus 3.5 million! Our God is truly beyond comprehension.

At this point, we are probably feeling rather small in comparison to God, and we should feel insignificant and unworthy in His presence. It is vital for us to see the incredible difference between God and us, for only when we see Him in this proper perspective can we truly say that we know the true God and truly appreciate Him and His care for us. If we are not seeing ourselves as a little speck of inconsequentiality in comparison to Him, we are not getting the right picture. He is everything; we are nothing. Unless we do not realize and acknowledge this, we have too much pride. We are puffing ourselves up (see I Corinthians 4:18; 5:2).

Because they really do not know the true God, the people of this world have a much greater problem understanding God than we do. Even if they know bits and pieces about Him, they really cannot appreciate Him and His awesome works. An article titled "Lost: Our Sense of Awe" by Tom Schaefer, who writes on religion and ethics, appeared in The Charlotte Observer on May 6, 1996. It makes interesting reading:
The sense of awe and mystery that could drop believers to their knees is mostly absent.

. . . Today, many believers have homogenized the Holy One. They conceive of God in ways that don't require their humble obedience or patient trust in adversity. That way, their spiritual digestive systems aren't upset. . . .

First, we have lost the sense of awe.

As science filled the void of knowledge once understood to be the domain of the divine, . . . God was pushed further into the corner. "Before long, God was put out of work altogether by the growing confidence that all things would eventually be explained through refinement in scientific theory," says [Donald] McCullough [President of San Francisco Theological Seminary].

Second, we are impatient with silence. We want—we expect—answers now. But the horrors of war, the tragedy of natural disasters, the frightening specter of disease leave many rejecting any sense of a beneficent providential deity. Too often we hear no reassuring voice, feel no strong arm lift us up.

Third, rampant individualism has infected our beliefs. God is shaped to fit our needs, to be no more than a foot taller than ourselves. "A God, who in any way threatens to lead us beyond our personal autonomy . . . will likely be reduced to a more manageable size."

. . . As McCullough notes: "We have fashioned gods to fit the contours of our desires and then bowed before them with religious abandon: the god-of-my-cause, god-of-my-understanding, god-of-my-experience, god-of-my-comfort, god-of-my-nation, god-of-my-success have been our particular favorites."

Only by rediscovering the holiness and majesty of God will we be able to face the sufferings and uncertainties of life with comforting hope.

And it must begin on our knees.
Humility—knowing our lowly place before God—is the key to grasping His true greatness. Next time, we will see in God's Word that mankind has little to brag about.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Unique Greatness of Our God (Part Three)

A description of God's greatness similar to Isaiah 40:26 is found in Psalm 147:4-5: "He counts the number of the stars; He calls them all by name. Great is our Lord, and mighty in power; His understanding is infinite." This is a truly incredible, mind-boggling, almost mind-numbing idea to think about—that God has numbered, counted, and named all the stars in the universe. Can we really grasp the enormity of this assertion?

Following through on this concept really expands the mind. When we gather all the information, it becomes clear that astronomers have no idea how many stars there are—although they have some widely varying estimates. Men have designated and numbered more than a billion space objects (not all of which are stars), and star charts and catalogs are available both as books and online, the largest compiled by the U.S. Naval Observatory. Recently, the journal Nature published an article in which researchers at Harvard and Yale give their reasons for increasing the estimate of the universe's stars to 300 sextillion. That is a three followed by 23 zeroes!

We will take this number of stars at face value. Remember that God not only made and numbered them all, but He also named them. It has been estimated that the average person can, with work, identify about 1,000 people by name, and in a great many people, that ability is quite stunted. Most people have trouble remembering five hundred names and their corresponding faces. In truth, we all have empty thimbles for brains in comparison to God!

Perhaps this will help to increase our awe for God. To begin, we will assume that fifty billion people eventually enter the Kingdom of God, becoming God-beings. After all the dust has settled, God says to them, "My sons and daughters, as part of your reward, I am giving you all an equal number of stars and planets to develop, beautify, and rule. Here are your stars!" What a tremendous gift! The question is, how many stars would He have given each of His children?

We once thought that we might be given one star or solar system. However, knowing what the present estimates are, the number of stars that we may one day receive from God can be intimidating! The number is stupefying: six trillion stars! This nearly unfathomable number does not even include the planets that orbit them! Contemplating such huge numbers, we can catch a glimpse of the vast amount of work that will be required to finish and beautify the universe.

If, when it all winds up, there are indeed fifty billion sons of God, how many galaxies will we each inherit? If we consider the Milky Way to be an average-sized galaxy, and the low-end estimate of its number of stars is 100 billion, then each child of God will govern sixty galaxies equal to the size of our own. And we are intimidated by the possibility of ruling a few cities during the Millennium? How about multiple galaxies? That is the vision God has in mind for us.

What about God's ability to plan future events? We know about His overall plan that He designed millennia ago to bring many sons to glory, but what about all the little details? When we plan for the future, our finite minds are bound to fail to account for myriads of minor details, possibilities, and unintended consequences of intervening events. Thus, our plans tend to be tentative and subject to frequent change as new information comes to our attention. Does God work that way? Or does He plot out all the little details and account for all the possibilities?

We can learn a bit about the intricate mind of God from Job 38:22-23, where God says to him, "Have you entered the treasury of snow, or have you seen the treasury of hail, which I have reserved for the time of trouble, for the day of battle and war?" This is the kind of God we worship—One who prepares reserves of snow and hail just in case He will need them in a time of trouble, such as a battle or other event that warrants such miraculous intervention.

The Bible tells us of a few instances when these treasuries of snow and hail were or will be put to use. Notice the record of Exodus 9:22-24:
Then the LORD said to Moses, "Stretch out your hand toward heaven, that there may be hail in all the land of Egypt—on man, on beast, and on every herb of the field, throughout the land of Egypt." And Moses stretched out his rod toward heaven; and the LORD sent thunder and hail [making use of His treasury], and fire darted to the ground. And the LORD rained hail on the land of Egypt. So there was hail, and fire mingled with the hail, so very heavy that there was none like it in all the land of Egypt since it became a nation.
If we were God, we would probably say, "Quick! Moses just asked for hail. Let us go make some!" Our God, however, had this event planned long in advance, and He had the treasury of hail ready for a time of trouble as it was in Egypt when the children of Israel were about to be freed from slavery. God's mind plans far in advance; He does not just play things off the cuff.

God will make use of His treasury of hail again in the near future. Knowing Him, He has probably been stocking His hail hoard in recent years because He knows He will need it shortly, as Revelation 16:17, 20-21 prophesies:
Then the seventh angel poured out his bowl into the air. . . . Then every island fled away, and the mountains were not found. And great hail from heaven fell upon men, every hailstone about the weight of a talent. And men blasphemed God because of the plague of the hail, since that plague was exceedingly great.
Not only has He been stockpiling hail, God has been crafting extra-large hailstones for this occasion! John says that these hailstones will weigh about a talent. Translating that weight into its modern equivalent, these hailstones, which God has been saving for just a time as this, will weigh between 44 and 48 pounds apiece! Our God is a farsighted yet very detail-oriented God.

He is also a faithful Creator (I Peter 4:19), and this means that He is faithful to all of His creation. He also maintains it—and, in fact, one could say that this is what it means to be a faithful Creator. He has not only created us, the earth and the heavens, and all that is in them, but He also makes sure that they all continue. He will also ensure that man, especially, will reach his fullest potential and that His purpose will resolve as He intends. In turn, we have to have faith in Him because He is working out our salvation with us (Philippians 2:12-13).

He did not, as Deists suppose, make everything and then retire to some nice corner of the universe to sit and drink mint juleps for eternity. No, He is very involved. The author of Hebrews writes that God is "upholding all things by the word of His power" (Hebrews 1:3). He is very active in His creation—if He were not, according to the laws of nature, everything would degenerate very quickly. We can be thankful that God is on His throne.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Unique Greatness of Our God (Part Two)

What the apostle Paul writes in I Corinthians 2:6-11 tells us plainly that the human mind cannot truly grasp the greatness of God:

However, we speak wisdom among those who are mature, yet not the wisdom of this age, nor of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory, which none of the rulers of this age knew; for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But as it is written: "Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him." But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God. For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God.

In man's carnal state, he does not have what it takes to understand God or what He is working out among men. An unconverted mind can catch only a fleeting glimpse of the grandeur and greatness of God. Those who have God's Spirit are allowed a better view, a closer, more exact view of what God is, what He is doing in their lives, and what His purpose is. Yet, even this view has its limits. As Paul says elsewhere, we have been given only an earnest or down payment of the Spirit as a guarantee (II Corinthians 1:22; 5:5; see also Ephesians 1:14). We certainly do not know everything—in fact, only a fraction—about God.

The apostle writes of this in the context of agape love in I Corinthians 13:9-11: "For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. . . ." In comparison to God, that is how we speak, understand, and think, like children, and truly, to Him we are undeniably mere children. All of the things that we know about God and His purpose are similar to what toddlers know about adults and their plans. As the toddler is to the adult, so are adults to God—but the gap is exponentially greater.

Paul continues the comparison in I Corinthians 13:11-12: ". . . but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then [when we are perfected] face to face [that is, we will have full, personal knowledge; I John 3:2]. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known." So, just as God knows us inside and out now, we will then be able to know what He knows.

What a mind-expanding concept! When we are glorified at Christ's coming, we will be inundated with the intricate and expansive knowledge of God, and thankfully, we will have a spirit body and mind to be able to take it! What God knows is beyond all comprehension to man; it takes a God-being to store, comprehend, and utilize it. As Paul explains, our knowledge is only partial right now, obscured by a fog in which we see snatches of reality as the clouds drift past, but then we become engulfed by the fog again and fail to grasp all that God reveals.

Paul uses the metaphor of seeing in a mirror. The mirrors produced today—a piece of clear glass over a highly reflective mercury backing—create near-perfect reflections. We receive a precise image of what we look like when we look into one. Not so in New Testament times, when the common mirror was a piece of polished bronze or brass or some other metal. Chrome, which is highly reflective, was not available to them. Thus, the common mirror in those days produced only a dim reflection, probably good enough to comb one's hair, but a person had a difficult time seeing anything in detail.

This is what Paul is referring to. What we can comprehend of God is a dim reflection, foggy, dark, and obscured. Perhaps we can relate to this by looking at ourselves in a mirror that has been fogged by a hot shower. Until the humidity decreases, all we can see is a fuzzy-looking image staring out of the mirror. The reflection falls far short of the reality.

Isaiah 40—which contains a well-known challenge by God: "To whom then will you liken Me? Or to whom shall I be equal?" (verse 25)—continues this theme. A few earlier verses provide us something to ponder regarding how great God is: "O Zion, you who bring good tidings, get up into the high mountain; O Jerusalem, you who bring good tidings, lift up your voice with strength, lift it up, be not afraid; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Behold your God!'" (Isaiah 40:9). In a way, this series of essays is attempting to do just this. God continues:

Behold, the Lord GOD shall come with a strong hand, and His arm shall rule for Him; behold, His reward is with Him, and His work before Him. . . . Who has measured the waters in the hollow of His hand, measured heaven with a span and calculated the dust of the earth in a measure? Weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance? (Isaiah 40:10, 12)

How much water can a person hold in the palm of his hand? Less than a cup, perhaps a few tablespoons. God's hand, though, holds all of the water on the face of the earth! We humans are puny folk! A span is the width of a splayed hand, from thumb-tip to pinky-fingertip, roughly nine inches long. Yet, God measures the entire universe in the span of one hand! We have a big God! These verses tell us that He has a measuring cup that will hold all the dirt—all the matter—of the earth. He also owns a pair of scales that can weigh all the earth's hills and mountains.

We know that God is not gargantuan in actual size, for God made us in His image and likeness. He came as a normal-sized Man. We are to understand from this section's hyperbole that our God is so much greater than we are that He is without comparison. While it is difficult to convey in words how much greater God is, we can observe what He can do—and God is gigantic in His works! He has absolute power, and He can bring whatever He desires to pass.

Isaiah 40:13-14 show that He not only has absolute power, but He has unfathomable intelligence and wisdom. Nobody has taught Him or instructed Him how to create because He already knows everything. We, certainly, cannot tell Him anything. As Paul says in I Corinthians 1:25, even "the foolishness of God is wiser than men." So, if we ever imagine that we bring anything to the table, we should humbly reconsider!

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Unique Greatness of Our God (Part One)

The fifth commandment in Exodus 20:12 reads, "Honor your father and your mother that your days may be long upon the land which the LORD your God is giving you." A kind of New Testament spiritual parallel to this is found in Luke 11:2, the first verse in Luke's version of the so-called "Lord's Prayer." Jesus is instructing His disciples in how to pray: "So He said to them, ‘When you pray, say: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your name.'"

We all have or had physical fathers to honor, but as Christians, we sometimes fail to honor our far greater Father in heaven to the degree He justly deserves. Our spiritual Father is more important by far than our physical fathers because He is the One who not only provides for us and gives us so many blessings, but He is also the One who has called us out of this world and given us the opportunity to fulfill our incredible, eternal potential as His sons and daughters.

Jesus says that we are to hallow the name of our Father in heaven. The word is hagiazo in the Greek, and it means "to make holy," "to sanctify," or "to set apart." Another definition, however, perhaps applies better to our subject here: "to show a difference from the common." We all have our common, human fathers. They are all men—some better, some worse, but still human every one—yet we have only one Father who is truly holy. He comprises an entirely different category from our ordinary human fathers.

Despite being made in God's image, our physical fathers are nonetheless created beings, full of flaws and deficiencies. As a father myself, I count myself among those full of flaws and deficiencies. Yet, we have a heavenly Father who is vastly different and uncommon—a great Father who is so much more and better than any man, any father, no matter how great he may be.

Even so, we should not focus exclusively on God as a father. Instead, we need to consider the wider concept that we have a God who is different from the common because this relates to how we view God in general in our everyday lives—in our everyday relationship with Him—because He is not just a father.

Of course, that is how He is introduced to us by Jesus Christ, one of whose purposes in coming as a man was to reveal the Father (John 1:18). However, just as a human dad engages in more than parenting, "Father" is just one of God's hats, so to speak. One's father is a father, certainly, but he may also be a carpenter, a plumber, a salesman, a butcher, baker, or candlestick maker. He may also be a hunter or a fisherman, and he may be a ballplayer, a golfer, a tennis player, a card player, or a sailor. He might like to tinker on cars, or he could be a skeet shooter. He may be a poet, a playwright, a stamp collector, a gardener, a model railroader, or a woodcrafter. He may fly planes for a living and skydive occasionally. Throughout a long life, he may do a few or many of these things.

For the same reason, God is not a one-dimensional figure either. He is not just a wonderful Father, but He is also Designer, Creator, Life-giver, Law-giver, Provider, and Supreme Judge. He is sovereign over all there is. He gives, reveals, works out prophecy, answers prayers, and heals sickness. He works in world events, in church events, and in individual lives, calling, forgiving, granting repentance, justifying, sanctifying, and ultimately glorifying. One may have never thought of Him in this way, but He is undoubtedly the universe's supreme geologist, biologist, botanist, chemist, physicist, mathematician, linguist, historian, writer, and author—among multitudes of other areas of expertise.

When we look at God as though He has only one job or is interested in only one narrow aspect of life, we lose sight of how wonderful He is, how expansive His mind is, how talented He is, and how intelligent, creative, and powerful He is. We have a truly exalted and almighty God who will not be pigeon-holed into one little niche that we have labeled and defined as "God." He is so much more! His mind is so majestic and His power so wonderful that our little minds cannot grasp their magnitude, but we must do our best to understand as much of His greatness as we can so that we can truly know Him, what He is, and what He does.

As limited, self-focused human beings, we have a huge problem with this. The primary reason for this is that all we know revolves around profoundly inadequate human traits, strengths, perspectives, and standards, all of which are physical, finite, and tinged with the corruption of human nature. We make the mistake of comparing everything with ourselves or with the common, average person, and sometimes even the "best" person (see II Corinthians 10:12).

If we are trying to improve ourselves, we oftentimes set as a standard another person who is doing what we want to be able to do, and then we work toward rising to his level of competence. With God, however, we cannot do that; He is not comparable to any man (Isaiah 40:18; 46:5). Yet, making such comparisons is the only way we know how to gauge our spiritual progress, and thus we gain some idea of it by taking an unblinkered look at man and then comparing him to God. This is actually hard to do. Our minds can only grasp but a thin sliver of what God is and does. We are just so earthbound, tied to what we see and know, which is almost entirely material, terminal, and tainted by sin.

God says of this comparison: "For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways," says the LORD. "For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts" (Isaiah 55:8-9). There is indeed a great gulf between Him and us. We are stuck here on earth, and we think almost exclusively on earthly things. God's thoughts, though, are always in the heavens, as it were, concentrated on spiritual things. To give us some measure of understanding, that is how He describes the vast difference between Himself and us. It appears to be an unbridgeable gap.

When we go outside in the dark of night and gaze into the sky, we can see thousands of stars wheeling about the heavens, and we know that astronomers tell us that each star is many light-years away. If He can create something so far away to give us light here on earth, then He must be a great God. In this way, we catch a glimpse of how far superior to us God is. Even so, that physical comparison does not really do Him justice, for there is also a spiritual chasm between God and us that is light-years wide and light-years deep. In our carnal state, this chasm cannot be overcome. Only through the work of God who became a Man, Jesus Christ, is there any hope of seeing God as He really is (I John 3:2).