Near But Not In My Pocket

Feb 25, 2010 |Joshua Harris

Sitting in the coffee shop, I watch people flash their mirror faces as they pass by the windows. And that got me thinking about theology.  

There's this coffee shop about 10 minutes from my house where I spend a fair amount of time. I'll go there to study or work on a sermon. I usually sit at the table in the far right-hand corner, the one next to the electric outlet. If I stay long enough, the smell of roasted coffee beans soaks into my clothes. The aroma smells good while I'm there, but for some reason after I leave, I smell like I've been chain-smoking. My wife can always tell if I've been at the coffee shop all day. When I come home, she will kiss me and say, "Hey, smoker." That always makes me smile.

One side of the coffee shop is lined with big windows that look out on a sidewalk. When I sit facing the wall of windows, I find it entertaining to watch people as they walk by, because almost every person uses the windows as a mirror. Those on the outside have to purposely focus their eyes to see inside, where the lighting is low. It's much easier just to look at their own reflections.

If you've ever watched people look at themselves in a mirror, you know how amusing this can be. I've noticed that women give themselves the once-over very quickly. Their eyes dart up and down in a millisecond. A lot of them do this funny pouty thing with their mouths. Or they purse their lips like a lipstick model. Then they tug on some part of their clothing and move on. Men are different. Some lift their heads and straighten their backs. Others tilt their heads down and narrow their eyes as if they're James Dean.

I've learned that everyone has a mirror face — that facial expression we put on when we check ourselves out in a mirror. It's the way we think we look most attractive. So we smile in a certain way or arch our eyebrows or suck in our cheeks or cock our heads. The funny thing about a mirror face is that it looks ridiculous to other people. If we walked around wearing our mirror face, our friends would laugh at us, and strangers would think we had some kind of rock-star complex.

Sitting in the coffee shop, I watch people flash their mirror faces as they pass by the windows. I find it funny that they forget people like me are inside looking out at them. They see only themselves.

* * *

People's mirror faces got me thinking about theology. But let me back up first. The study of theology encompasses many different subjects: God's church, God's plan of salvation, God's work in us to make us like Jesus, to name a few. But when we focus on God himself — who he is and what he is like — we're touching the heart of theology. In fact, the doctrine of God is called theology proper, because that's what the word theology means: the study of God.

In this chapter, we're launching into an examination of key Christian beliefs. And I think the doctrine of God, or theology proper, is a good place for us to start, because what we think about God — what we understand about his character and his attributes — shapes our understanding of every other doctrine and even life itself.

There's nothing more important than rightly knowing God and thinking true thoughts about him. But there's also nothing I find more difficult. And that's not for the reason you might assume.

You would think the hardest thing about studying the doctrine of God is that God is so immense it's impossible for our limited minds to comprehend him. And in one sense this is true. Because God is infinite and we are limited, finite creatures, we can never have a complete knowledge about him. God is incomprehensible. He is great beyond all bounds. But while we can't know God exhaustively, we can know him truly. That is only possible because God has revealed truths about himself. And while these are deep truths and God's greatness surpasses all human measurements, what God has revealed about himself in his Word is truth we can grasp.

What makes it difficult for us to see the truth about God, I think, isn't his overwhelming immensity but our overwhelming self-centeredness. Looking past ourselves is a lot harder to do than most of us realize. Many have never tried.

In this way we're a lot like the people walking past the windows of the coffee shop. Instead of looking through the window of God's self-revelation and seeing him, we find it easier to admire our own reflection or to place on him the constraints of our own existence. We judge him by our standards of justice, fairness, power, and mercy. We even measure his greatness by our own ideals of greatness.

The ironic thing about these moments is that we often think we're seeing God. We think we know something about what he is like. But we're seeing mostly a reflection — a God who looks a lot like us. A God imagined in our own image.

* * *

What do I see when I look past my own reflection? In the Bible — the primary place God reveals himself — I behold a God who is utterly and wonderfully different from me.

I am created. God is creator. I am made. God is the one who made all things, who "created the heavens and the earth" (Genesis 1:1). He spoke and created the world out of nothing.

I have a beginning. I was conceived in my mother's womb in the year 1974. Before that I didn't exist. God is eternal. God has no beginning and no end. He exists outside of time and space. Psalm 90:2 says, "Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God."

I am dependent. I need air to breathe, water to drink, food to eat, or my body dies. God is self-existent. He does not rely on anything outside of himself. He has life in himself and draws his unending energy from himself. God "does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything" (Acts 17:24-25).

I am limited in space. I can be in only one place at one time. God is omnipresent. He is everywhere always present. "God is spirit" and not limited by space (John 4:24). God says of himself, "Am I a God at hand, declares the Lord, and not a God far away? Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? declares the Lord. Do I not fill heaven and earth? declares the Lord" (Jeremiah 23:23-24).

I am limited in power. There are limits to how fast I can run. How much weight I can lift. How high I can jump. God is almighty. He is omnipotent — possessing all power. Nothing is too hard for him (Jeremiah 32:17). He can do all things, and no purpose of his can be thwarted (Job 42:2).

I am limited in knowledge. My knowledge of any subject is at best partial. No matter how much I study, it is still incomplete. I can know only what I observe, read, or am told by someone else. And my mind can forget some or all that I've learned. God is all-knowing. He is omniscient — he has full knowledge of all things past, present, and future. Job 37:16 tells us that God is "perfect in knowledge." And Hebrews 4:13 says, "And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account."

God isn't a bigger, better version of me. "It is not just that we exist and God has always existed," writes Wayne Grudem, "it is also that God necessarily exists in an infinitely better, stronger, more excellent way. The difference between God's being and ours is more than the difference between the sun and a candle, more than the difference between the ocean and a raindrop, more than the difference between the arctic ice cap and a snowflake, more than the difference between the universe and the room we are sitting in: God's being is qualitatively different."

The qualitative difference of God, his "otherliness" revealed in his divine attributes, is summed up in the word holy. In Isaiah's vision of God on his throne, the angels covered their eyes and feet before God and cried, "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!" (Isaiah 6:3).

I used to think of God's holiness only in terms of moral purity. But R.C. Sproul taught me that holiness primarily speaks of God being separate from his creation in his perfection and power. God's holiness means that he is transcendent — that he exceeds all limitations. That God is holy means that he is above us and beyond us.

"When the Bible calls God holy," writes Sproul, "it means primarily that God is transcendentally separate. He is so far above and beyond us that He seems almost totally foreign to us."

Excerpted from chapter 3 of Dug Down Deep by Joshua Harris Copyright © 2010 by Joshua Harris. Excerpted by permission of Multnomah Books, a division of Random House, Inc.


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