Your God Is Too Small
A few years ago J.K. Rowling, author of the best selling Harry Potter novels, delivered an amazing commencement speech at Harvard University. It is she described how seven years after graduating university her marriage had broken down and she found herself an unemployed, single parent living in poverty. She was, in her mind, an abject failure. But hitting rock bottom brought a clarity that changed her life. Here’s some of what she said in that speech:
“So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life…”
Ever feel like you’re not a good Christian? Maybe you attend corporate worship services, but on the inside you know your Christian journey is one failure after another.
Maybe you see failures in your family life: you find yourself frequently getting upset at your children, or your spouse, or your parents. Eventually you snap and out come the cruel words, which are followed by terrible feelings of dishonoring God once again.
Maybe you are on your computer or smart phone and before you really are aware you’ve clicked on a link that’s taken you to things you shouldn’t be looking at—another failure.
Maybe you are up against a situation in your life in which you are really worried and anxious, doubting that God is going to see you through like J.K. Rowling was—the Spirit challenges you that the attitude isn’t one that honors him—another failure.
Did you know, Rowling is a Christian. She attends a Church of Scotland congregation in Edinburgh. And at the end of her final installment in the Harry Potter series, she makes references to Christianity through the themes of life after death and resurrection. I’ve been to the little coffee shop in Edinburgh where she took her typewriter and wrote the first Potter book.
Anyway … maybe you identify with the Apostle Paul when he says: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Rom 7:15).
If you’ve often seen yourself in these ways, then there’s something here in our passage for you today. It’s often when we get to the bottom, when the inessential stuff is stripped away, when we see clearly and the journey from not knowing God, to knowing him in a profound way.
I’m not going to read you the entire psalm this morning at once. Rather, we’re going to read it in pieces as we go. But I hope that sometime before you sleep tonight that you’ll go back and read the whole psalm.
Let’s look at the psalm …
The Pilgrim’s Problem
There is a deep anguish in it.
Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD!
O Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my pleas for mercy!
Frustration, sadness, discombobulation, depression, exhaustion … they’re all running together. Have you ever been in that place?
Why has the pilgrim arrived here?
Well, there’s a cry for mercy here. But it’s not that he’s saying, “Uncle,” because his predicament has got him in a headlock. The next stanza of the song fills in the gap… the pleas of mercy are for his blunders, his sin.
If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities,
O Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness,
that you may be feared.
So, here’s a really uncomfortable question. But you didn’t come this today whitewash things, right? I hope you came with the hopes that service would move you upwards. So, the questions: Are you troubled by your sin?
It’s a fair questions. It’s also one that is offensive to many. Its 2019 after all; it’s a postmodern culture; there is no sin, there’s just different values, right? And all values are equally, right? It’s offense, narrow, and intolerant to talk about sin, right?
What I see in the modern American church is fear. You can talk about love and grace, but don’t talk about sin and failure—someone might leave. So, just talk about how people can be successful. Yeah, everyone is interested in that.
The problem is you can’t see love and grace unless you see your need for it. Unless you can come to the place in your soul where the words of the psalm are your words. In other words, we first have to encounter the Holy God who says, “Be holy as I am holy. I, myself, am the standard—not you!”
So when you encounter the Holy God you realize a couple of things:
(1) You awaken to the reality that you aren’t half as holy as you thought you were; there’s a cavernous gulf between yourself and God.
(2) You awaken to the reality of a deep internal desire for that gulf to be eliminated. You feel guilt or shame or remorse and you want that feeling removed.
So when you encounter the Holy God … It’s not business as usual. You get stopped in your tracks, you’re unable to continue in the journey as through all is hunky-dory. You awaken to need.
Isaiah’s encounter with God lays this out. He had a vision of the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his response was this:
“Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips” (Isa 6:5). He’s a goner. There’s a gulf. There’s tension. There’s uneasiness. Businesses isn’t as usual and he can’t fix it. He’s awakened to need.
If God was simply just; if God was simply fair; if God simply kept a record of our failures and sin, we’d have no loving connection to him. That’s the pilgrim’s problem.
The Pilgrim’s Response
So, how do you respond when you find yourself face-to-face with your failures?
There are a couple of common responses that folks have.
- Some say, “Yeah, nope. Not my bad.” Or, “Well, maybe I made a mistake, but I’m still better than Dan.” Or you hear, “We all fail sometime; it’s okay—I’m average.” Or, even better, “I sinned, but what do you expect? Did you see the situation God put me in?”
This response minimizes the sin, excuses it, justifies it, denies it, tries to forgot it, then blames others for it, including the Lord. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us,” the Apostle John reminds us (1 John 1:8).
- Now, others say, “I see my failures, so I’m going to make amends. I’m going to double down and do good; donate my time, talent, and treasure; read my Bible more, pray more, and try harder not to sin anymore. I’ll be a better Christian tomorrow.”
This response holds the pilgrim can high jump sin. All you need is more effort. Here’s the problem with that: Success brings pride, and failure brings self-pity. And pride and pity are too sides of the same coin, called “stuck on self.”
- Still other say, “I’ve failed… again! Nothing can be done to get back to where I was. Why bother with this God stuff, it just makes me feel bad.”
This response gives up and starts a long journey in the other direction.
I had a friend like this. He was disappointed in himself. He was disappointed in God. He’d paid his dues, he thought. He’d gone to seminary and supported missionaries. But when is sin didn’t go away, he grew disillusioned with God. He assumed that he wasn’t married because he hadn’t succeeded in defeating his demons sufficiently enough to garner God’s blessing—so, discouraged and depressed, he dropped out.
Now, think about this… that in forgetting, dodging, working, and dropping out means that we do realize that there is a gulf between who we are and who we should be. But none of these ways of responding to the problem of sin work.
The pilgrim’s response in the psalm is to bring the problem to God, the only one with a remedy of the problem. Note vv. 4 and 5:
With you there is forgiveness,
that you may be feared [revered].
I wait for the LORD, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope. (Psa 130:4–5)
What does the pilgrim do about his sin? He goes to God and waits. Which means, he does nothing!
We live in an instant society. We want everything right now. We want good feelings right now. If God doesn’t cooperate with our timetable, we get antsy. We either try harder to twist his arm, or we take matters into our own hands to produce the feelings we want now.
“For many people, waiting is an awful desert between where they are and where they want to go” (Henri Nouwen). I want good feelings right now. I don’t want to wait. Yet waiting is a spiritual journey.
Waiting means living as though the moment is full, not empty. It’s our nature to think God will do “the real thing” somewhere else, at some other time, or for someone else. In “active waiting,” however, I trust that my moment is pregnant with possibility because God is ever at work. I stay where I am “… and live the situation out to the full in the belief that something hidden there will manifest itself….” (Nouwen). The focus is on the present. Believing something can happen there—and looking for that—waiting for that. This is trusting that God is still at work creating, redeeming, sanctifying and revealing himself.
And this is what I see the pilgrim in the psalm doing…
my soul waits for the Lord
more than watchmen for the morning,
more than watchmen for the morning. (Psa 130:6)
So, what we are finding here is that the pilgrim invests in the relationship with God. How is that done? By waiting. Because waiting means giving up all my necessarily futile attempts to control my world. It’s not being naïve, but it is trusting in a big God.
John 5 tells the story of a crippled man who had been waiting to be healed for 38 years. That’s a long time to wait. This man spent his whole life waiting for a miracle. He slept next to a pool where miracles regularly happened and waited for his moment of healing, but because he couldn’t move, someone else always pushed past him to get in the water first.
When you’ve been waiting for so long and everybody keeps pushing past you, it’s easy to lower your expectations and give up hope. When your blessing has been delayed for so long and your life has been defined by a particular problem, it can become your identity. Your fear of change can outgrow your hope to get well.
Jesus saw this man and understood what was happening in his heart, so He asked him, “Do you wish to get well?” (v.6) The man responded immediately, and in that moment, 38 long years of waiting came to an end. All those long years of waiting hadn’t moved his heart past the point of hope. He waited well, like the pilgrim in the psalm who is waiting specifically on the person of God, hoping in God’s Word: “I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, / and in his word I hope” (Psa 130:5).
What this means is that the resolution is a person. Not an event, not a feeling, but a person. Favorable events and conditions are wonderful. Good feelings are excellent. But you, God, you alone are life!” That’s why elsewhere in the psalms it says: “The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup” (Psa 16:5). A person—the Lord himself—is my portion!
The pilgrim’s need has produced a longing for God himself.
The Pilgrim’s Restoration
There is a quote that I found from the famous psychology Carl Jung, which I want to read to you. I think it really summarizes well where we’ve been up to this point of the message.
“That I feed the hungry, that I forgive an insult, that I love my enemy in the name of Christ—all these are undoubtedly great virtues. What I do unto the least of my brethren, that I do unto Christ. But what if I should discover that the least among them all, the poorest of all the beggars, the most impudent of all the offenders, the very enemy himself—that these are within me, and that I myself stand in need of the alms of my own kindness—that I myself am the enemy who must be loved—what then? As a rule, the Christian’s attitude is then reversed; there is no longer any question of love or long-suffering; we say to the brother within us “Raca,” and condemn and rage against ourselves. We hide it from the world; we refuse to admit ever having met this least among the lowly in ourselves” (Memories, Dreams, Reflections).
Self-condemnation, hiding, denying, etc. … Why do Christians, let alone non-Christians, go to that place? Because we do not yet know God, trust him enough to wait in hope on him. He’s not a big enough God for us.
Now, did you catch where the psalm says hope is found, it says, “in his word I hope” (Psa 130:5). In his Word!
I want you to see something. The beginning of the Gospel of John opens with these words: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1, 14).
What that is saying is that the Jesus the Son of God is the eternal Word of God. In other words, Hope is a person!
Remember the parable of the prodigal son? Do you know“prodigal” means? It means “wastefully extravagant”? The youngest son got his inheritance and like a dolt blew it on wastefully extravagant living. But the young son isn’t the focus of the parable. The father is. And it’s the father who is the prodigal. It’s the father who is wastefully extravagant in the way he pours out his love on his wayward son.
Our God is the prodigal Father. He’s holy, yes, but he loves extravagantly, giving his Son as an atonement for us (John 3:16). Therefore, we’ve been redeemed at a great cost.
Now, look at the last stanza in Psalm 130.
Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
for with the Lord is unfailing love
and with him is full redemption.
He himself will redeem Israel
from all their sins. (Psa 130:7–8).
Why can we hope? Because there’s steadfast love, mercy. The word in Hebrew is actually ḥesed, which is a untranslatable. The best translation of ḥesed I’ve ever come across is this: “When the One from whom I have the right to expect nothing gives me everything.” That’s loving-kidness, that’s steadfast love, that a reason for hope! When that’s true, we can wait on the Lord because he’s a big God.
There is no need to minimize, excuse, justify, or deny our sin. And we don’t need to make new and clever commitments to try harder—trying harder never changed anyone’s heart anyway. All of those solutions only illustrate that your God is too small.
We need only to do one thing: To simply realize how great the ḥesed of God is. Which means we need only do nothing! To put it differently, we need to realize how big Jesus is. Realizing this in ever deeper ways is what the Christian journey is all about.
The Apostle Paul said something that when I first discovered it I was blown away. It radically changed my understanding of Christianity.
Paul was a Hebrew of Hebrews. He trained under the best Jewish theologians, He was perhaps the youngest member of the Jewish Sanhedrin. But that Jesus reached his heart and set him as a missionary and church planter to evangelize the Gentiles. He knew Jesus, he loved Jesus, took beating for Jesus. Paul was zealous for Jesus.
Now, it might come as surprise to you to hear that Paul didn’t see himself as someone who was becoming more sinless as he continued in his journey with God. His self-appraisal is astounding.
Writing to the Corinthians in AD 55, he says: “I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (1 Cor 15:9).
To the Ephesians about five years later, he refers to himself as “the very least of all the saints” (Eph. 3:8).
Then, near the end of his life, he writes to his young protege, Timothy, saying: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief” (1 Tim 1:15).
That is quite a progression in his self-awareness. He began as “Mr. Proud Pharisee” and moved all the way to the rank of “Chief of Sinners.”
But what Paul is really saying is this. “The more I journeyed with God, the more clearly I see that I am one who is greatly in need of God, in need of his ḥesed, his mercy, his steadfast love.” Paul saw the gap between God’s holiness and himself, but as he saw this gap he also saw how big Jesus was for him. As Paul decreased, Jesus increased.
This is the upward bound journey of the soul. Awakening ever more to the magnitude of God’s mercy and love, as we see it directly up against our own need for it.
Paul saw it so much that he wrote to the Galatians: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20).
That’s good stuff!
I pray that that’s how we would see Jesus, that he would be that big for us. Because I think we were made to be in relationship with a big God.