Christianity also teaches that we cannot transform ourselves, at least not in a manner sufficient to satisfy a perfect God. We must allow Him into our lives – no, we must make Him master of our lives – so that He can do that work within us. But this is a slow process and the question I left open in the last post is why this must be so. Why can’t we simply decide to “love God” and throw off on our own the shackles of sinfulness?
I submit that the answer to that question also lies within our nature. We are imperfect, limited beings seeking to approach a perfect, holy God. We need simply look around us to see why this must be a slow, progressive process, and not one that can be accomplished quickly. Consider for a moment the way we learn. We do not possess instincts like the lower animals. We can’t, without first being taught and much practice, jump onto a narrow ledge and remain perfectly balanced, the way a cat does. We cannot “download” into our minds a program from a computer and have instantaneous and complete knowledge of a subject. Instead, the progress toward any goal is a slow and laborious one.
Amazing progress is of course possible. Think for a moment about being thrust into the cockpit of a modern airliner on final approach. You would see a jumble of displays and readouts, light and dials and gauges, all perfectly arranged and providing a steady stream of information. You might even recognize a few, and their significance, if you took the time to focus on a particular instrument. But even with the pilot standing nearby ready to explain, you would be unable to make sense of the whole. She, of course, sees everything with clarity, effortlessly scanning the readouts and able to respond with the precision needed to bring thousands of tons of metal floating softly back to earth.
Or think of a surgeon conducting open-heart surgery. You’ve seen pictures, no doubt, of the body’s interior, but peering in over his shoulder, you would see a mass of flesh, and tissue and blood. The idea that you could precisely introduce an instrument into the mix and leave the patient the better for it is laughable. Yet the surgeon can do precisely that. His experience allows him to see with clarity what looks to you like chaos.
What we can derive from this is that we are slow and progressive in our ability to learn. It takes considerable time, and repetition and effort, to achieve the mastery that the pilot or the surgeon demonstrates. They take years to reach their respective goals, and they can no more will themselves to be masters of their craft on day one than we can step off a building and float safely to earth.
Applying this observation to God is of course different. God is a not a plane or a body; he is not something for us to master or manipulate. What is He? The Bible says he is “love,” and most religions, if they don’t exactly agree, would at least agree that He is ultimate goodness. And where do we first begin to development a facility for love? We do that within the context of relationships. We move from infancy to adulthood, and as we do so, we move from “takers” of love and affection to mature adults with the capacity to give. In its highest form – agape love – we express the capacity to love without condition and without expectation for return. We express love for the sake of love. This too is a lengthy process. Like the surgeon or the pilot, we do not simply decide to love others and live out that decision perfectly. The road is marked by many obstacles and many ups and downs.
Marriage has been rightly seen as the best vehicle for fully developing this capacity because it involves focusing our “love” wholly upon the other. It’s no wonder then that the standard wedding vow contains the promises that sound so strange to our modern ears – to love, honor and respect someone in sickness… in bad times…when things are at their worse? Really? Why would anyone choose to persist in loving someone who can give nothing of the original “bargain” back? And then children are brought into the equation, and for the first time we understand what love also entails – a sense of devotion and vulnerability that we could never quite understand if we haven’t experienced it ourselves.
This is all fine and good, the skeptic might respond. But God could have shortcut this whole process, couldn’t He? He could have made us instantly ready for all these things, so He remains at fault for the current mess we are in.
I hope the above examples lead you to the same conclusion as they lead me. Flying a plane is difficult, as is surgery. Loving a spouse or a difficult child also takes time, effort and practice. But God is not a mere person or a skill to master. He is ultimate perfection. Gaze up into the night sky or into the recesses of the living cell, and marvel for a moment at the extreme intelligence and power that He encompasses. We are closer to the ant, or the amoeba, than we are to Him. Multiply the difficulty of mastering a skill, or fully loving another person, not by a million or a billion or a gazillion – but by infinity. That is the task that awaits any human being with the audacity to think that he can relate to God as an equal.
Of course God must do the work. There can be no other way. And the process of relating to perfection - of someday interacting with ultimate and perfect goodness - is a slow and progressive one. But despite His immense power, He does not force our hand. In the end, He respects our freedom by allowing us the choice of whether to let Him in to start the process.