I’ve come to see that the problem—my lack of faith, my passionless heart, and my struggle to surrender—came from a fundamental deficiency in my vision of God. The God I imagined in my heart was not the same God who reveals himself through the Scriptures. I had traded the true God for a much smaller version.
I hadn’t done this intentionally. I didn’t have an idol shrine set up in my basement, nor was I cutting out sections of the New Testament like Thomas Jefferson famously did. I acknowledged the truthfulness of every sentence of Scripture. But in my heart I assumed the God behind it all was only a slightly bigger, slightly smarter, slightly better version of me. I thought he would act in ways I could comprehend and easily follow. When I couldn’t, it made me wonder if he existed at all.
I am, in part, the product of a Christian culture that has fostered and promoted a small, domesticated view of God. The Western Christianity in which I have been immersed focuses on the practicality of faith. We present God as the best way to a happy and prosperous life. We show how God is the best explanation for unanswered questions and the best means to the life we desire. Our worship services seem more like pep rallies accompanied by practical tips for living than encounters with the living God who stands beyond time and whose presence is indescribably glorious. These shallow glimpses of God are fine as long as our faith remains untested, but they are utterly insufficient in the midst of serious questioning or intense suffering.
Ironically, our “diminished” God feels, for a while, easier to believe in. He acts in ways we can understand, explain, predict, and even control. He rarely offends us, so we are not embarrassed to talk about him with our friends. He helps us find our meaning and purpose. We think everyone should give him a try.
But in the end such a God cannot sustain faith. He cannot account for the complexities of creation or the mysteries of suffering. He’ll never incite passion, devotion, or worship. He’s too small. “A god small enough to be understood,” the British philosopher Evelyn Underhill observed, will never be “big enough to be worshipped.”
Furthermore, my small view of God kept me from grasping how wicked my sin against him actually was and what an act of mercy it was for him to save me. I confessed, of course, that I was a sinner in need of grace, but I didn’t sense, deep in my heart, my desperate need for mercy. I raged against the concept of hell because I didn’t think I really deserved it—and if I didn’t really deserve it, why did anyone else? So, like the Pharisees who scoffed at the forgiven prostitute weeping with love at Jesus’s feet, I didn’t love God that much because—like them—deep down I didn’t think I had been forgiven of that much (Luke 7:47).
Finally, because I thought of God as only a slightly bigger, slightly smarter version of me, I couldn’t accept that he might do things in ways I wouldn’t expect. Thus, I had a hard time believing that the love demonstrated at the cross was reflective of who he really was. If he really was loving, I surmised, there wouldn’t be Syrian refugees. His love at the cross didn’t move me because his magnificence in the heavens hadn’t humbled me.
The book of Proverbs says that the fear of God is the “beginning of knowledge” (Prov 1:7). That means that without a trembling awe before God’s majesty, we’ll never develop the ability to know him, much less love him. In other words, if we want to think properly about God, we must first stand properly humbled before him. The posture of humility is a prerequisite for faith. Until we have a sense of his magnitude, we won’t even be able to ask the right questions of him, much less receive his answers.
True worship is intimacy grounded in awe. Awe, which Solomon says must come first, stands silent before the awesomeness of God’s majesty. Only then can worship move to intimacy, which grows out of embracing how close this infinite God has brought himself to us in the cross. Only the two together, in the right order, lead to biblical faith. Only the two together will yield the emotion that fulfills the Great Commandment and fuel the passion that pursues the Great Commission.
As Tim Keller says, “If our prayer life discerns God only as lofty, it will be cold and fearful; if it discerns God only as a spirit of love, it will be sentimental.”3 However, when we behold God as he really is—the Creator greater than the cosmos and the Savior of the cross—we become trusting, passionate, confident, zealous worshipers.
J. D. Greear and David Jeremiah, Not God Enough: Why Your Small God Leads to Big Problems (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018).
We have just released a new Bible Study based on J.D. Greear’s newest book, Not God Enough. These lessons are available on Amazon, as well as a part of my Good Questions Have Groups Talking Subscription Service. Like Netflix for Bible Lessons, one low subscription gives you access to all our lessons–thousands of them. For a medium-sized church, lessons are as little as $10 per teacher per year.