Too many Christians, I’m afraid, have the disaffected God of the Greek philosophers in mind when they pray or plan their day. The Greek versions of God are mainly about power—about having control over everything—rather than about his forming and sustaining relationships with a treasured creation.
But let’s be clear from the outset that I don’t know many Christians who think their vision of God has anything to do with the divinities of Plato or Aristotle. For most of us that’s certainly not the case, given that almost no one today knows or cares what the Greeks believed. Yet to be unaware of the unhappy theological tributaries that once poured into Western Christianity doesn’t mean that by simply forgetting about these muddied sources our river is now somehow pristine.
So what is it about the true and living God that we need to know more than anything else—in order to test the purity of the water in which we swim today?
Is God, for instance, mainly concerned to remind us that he’s in charge, as the Greeks would have it—with ultimate power over everything, past, present, and future?
No. Focusing on that reality is a bit like telling children each morning, “Don’t forget to breathe—you’ll need your oxygen!” Of course God is all-powerful: he made and sustains everything in the creation! So while the Bible offers brief notices that other “gods” are only pretenders and that Yahweh alone is the true God and sole ruler of all that is, the main thrust of the Bible runs elsewhere. On the matter of power, God is fully secure about his eternal standing; and so are those who know him well. I will also note, mischievously, that many people who want to represent God as his prophets, priests, and pastors today may be prone themselves to be fixated on God’s power as they rule others by attributing God’s power to their own ministry ambitions.
In another option, is God mainly concerned with his own glory—with some superabundant need for huge crowds of created beings to tell him how wonderful he is?
Once again, that’s not what the Bible tells us. Aristotle, in his Metaphysics, gives us a God who can only think about himself; but the Bible portrays a God whose glory is displayed in a self-giving love that pours out of the Triune heart. In John 17, for instance, we discover that Jesus spoke of glory as the environment he shared with the Father before the creation, and as a place he wants to share with all of us who believe in him. It was a glory given by the Father to the Son because, as Jesus put it, “you loved me.” So it boggles the mind to think that a God whose glory consists in the selfless giving of love is mainly driven by self-concerned glory-seeking. Of course for all who know and love him we find joy in expressing our delight in his glory. Glory is the offspring of love: the flower, not the root.
What we do find in the Bible is a passionate God. He is the God who has always existed in the bond of love, so much so that John labels that bond as “love” (e.g. “God is love” in 1 John 4:8 & 16). In the eternal past, before the creation, what was God up to? In the glimpses we have from places like John 17 the Father was spending his time in devotion to the Son, and the Son was reciprocating that devotion to the Father; and (drawing from 1 Corinthians 2) the Spirit supported and sustained this shared mutual delight. It was and still is a love story. By our creation we were invited to the party.
Now, back to the Greek philosophers. Aristotle defined goodness as the stable center found midway between the extremes of human passions. God, however, calls for passion in the Bible: for our selfless love for him that reciprocates his prior love for us. He made us so that love rules every heart in every activity. With love as his motive for our creation and the aim of our calling, God then presses all of us to commit to either loving him or to hating him. There is no neutral middle!
So let’s enjoy our passionate God by being more and more passionate in our devotion while our philosophical neighbors grimace as they obey the disaffected deity of their own making. For us who embrace the biblical God let’s join in David’s passion: “O, taste and see, the LORD is good!”