In George MacDonald's The Baron's Apprenticeship, Pastor Thomas Wingfold gives Barbara advice on how to witness to her friend, Richard:
"Now, Miss Wylder, don't try to convince the young man of anything by argument. If you succeeded, it would do no good. Opinion is all that can result from argument, and opinion concerning God--even right opinion--is of little value when it comes to knowing God. The god Richard denies is a being that can never exist. Talk to Richard, not of opinion, but of the God you love--the beautiful, the strong, the true, the patient, the forgiving, the loving. Let him feel God through your enthusiasm for him. You can't prove to him that there is a God. A god who could be proved could not be worth proving. Make his thoughts dwell on a God worth having. Wake the notion of God such as will draw him to wish there were such a God. Many religious people will tell you God is different from what I say. 'God is just!' said a carping theologian to me the other day. 'Yes!,' I answered, 'and he cannot be pleased that you should call that justice which is injustice, and attribute it to him!' There are many who must die in ignorance of their heavenly father's character, because they will not of their own selves judge what is right."
Man, there's a lot here! I can do an entire series on this quote alone. But here are some reactions:
1. I like the way that George MacDonald's advice on witnessing focuses completely on God. It's not, "Look how good and happy I am, and you can be just like me if you say the sinner's prayer!" Or "you should believe in Christ because otherwise he was a liar or a lunatic," which is one of the many bad arguments that Christian "apologists" like to use. We don't even see, "If you get hit by a car tonight, where will you spend eternity: heaven or hell?" (I'm emphasizing a word here, and it's not "God"). None of that! According to Wingfold, witnessing should be all about God and his character!
2. That brings me to my next question: How do I see God? I've been doing a series on that in my discussion of Deepak Chopra's How to Know God. To be honest, I disagree with myself on this issue. I'll admit that part of me views God as loving. After all, I talk to him every day, which demonstrates some belief that he cares enough to listen to me. Also, I find things like love and humility and kindness and generosity and selflessness in the Bible. If God commands us to abide by these characteristics, then he must have them himself.
But there's a part of me that doubts God's love. How can a loving God send so many people to hell, just because they didn't say the sinner's prayer before they died? Am I even sure that I'll enter the good afterlife, since there are many biblical passages that present living a good life as evidence for salvation (e.g., I John 2:3-4, 9-11)? Is my life good enough? And how can I be sure that God will bless me, when there are so many people who suffer?
And so I technically believe in God's love, but there are things that can cause me to second-guess that. What can I say about the God I carry around with me each and every day? He's a mixed bag! I pray to him with the hope that he'll listen to me and bless me. But I don't know if I'm obedient enough to have his approval.
3. Overall, George MacDonald is experiential when it comes to knowing God. I realize that his disciple, C.S. Lewis, took a more apologetic route in books like Mere Christianity and Miracles, in which he tried to present arguments that Christianity is true (including the "Lord, liar, lunatic" one I mentioned above). But MacDonald tends to shy away from this sort of approach, even though he often presents good debates between his Christian and non-Christian characters. For MacDonald, you find God when you seek him, and that discovery occurs within the realm of personal experience.
Part of me resonates with MacDonald's approach. I hear arguments all the time against God and the Bible, but they don't really phase me anymore. It's not that I have answers for them. It's just that my faith doesn't rest so much on having the right argument in a given situation. Sure, I'll present arguments if I have them, as I did when I discussed Jesus' resurrection with atheist Steven Carr. But a huge part of me agrees with one of my relatives, who said she believed in God because she wishes it to be true.
Atheists would laugh this off as wishful thinking, which may indicate that a "just have faith" approach won't bring them to Christianity. But, look, I'm not responsible for them! Each person must decide for himself whether or not he'll seek God. I can't force an atheist to do so. If other Christians embrace apologetics as their ministry, then I encourage them to go for it! Christian apologetics don't always convince me, mind you, but, if someone can make them work, my response is "Great!" All I'm saying is that I'm going to hold onto my faith regardless of anyone who argues against it. If people don't like that, tough! It's my personal relationship with God, and no one can take it away from me (at least not without my consent).
On the other hand, one thing that totally gets on my nerves is how many Christians view blind faith as a virtue! I've heard numerous Christians say, "You can't prove God's existence, because then it wouldn't be faith," as they pat themselves on the back like they're communicating a brilliant insight. What's so great about believing in something without any proof at all? Granted, I feel that's all we have a lot of the time, but I don't view blind faith as a virtue. There are times when I'd like some evidence that the God I worship is real, for that would give me a lot more hope than I currently have. At the same time, it would also make me accountable to someone, and I don't really want that. There's comfort and discomfort in my theistic agnosticism! But, then again, I can't say that my image of God is the same as George MacDonald's. Maybe if it were, I'd earnestly desire for God to exist!
4. "God is loving, but God is also just." I've heard Christians use this phrase in two ways: as an evangelism gimmick, and as a scare tactic. In the former, the aim is to show the non-believer that God punishes sin, which means that he must accept Christ's sacrifice on his behalf. After he does so, I guess God isn't just anymore! God already punished Christ on the sinner's behalf, so the sinner can now see God as loving (not just).
But there are churches that view God as still just, even after the sinner embraces Jesus. Preachers use the "God is just" line to get Christians to stop sinning, or to do what the preachers think they should be doing. You wonder why I walk around wondering where I stand with God? Because I don't know whether God is loving or just in his relationship with me. Churches like to present a schizophrenic God. I admit that George MacDonald doesn't account for the Scriptures that contradict his position (as far as I can see), but at least he merges God's love with God's justice. For him, God punishes sin to lead us to himself, not to get his jollies while we're receiving our due!
5. Wingfold says that people should "judge for themselves what is right," a quotation from Luke 12:57. In what I'm about to say, I'll probably bury myself in my debate with Jake under "Natural" in Romans 1:26-27. But that's a risk I'll have to take!
I feel that there are Christians who present God as a complete monster, and they expect us to accept their picture just because it coincides with Scriptural proof-texts. Never mind what our reason or our sense of morality tells us! If the Bible says that God chose a select few for heaven while consigning the vast bulk of humanity to eternal torment in hell, then we're just supposed to accept that, no questions asked!
But the Bible tells us to judge for ourselves what is right. God told Israel, "Let us reason together" (Isaiah 1:18), showing that the "Sit down, shut up, and accept!" approach is not always how God handles things. In several of his parables, Jesus appeals to the reason and moral sense of his listeners, as he invites them to arrive at the correct answer themselves. On some occasions, even Jesus' enemies come up with the right responses to his questions, even though they condemn themselves in the process (Matthew 21:41)! There are times when God actually works with our reason and our sense of morality. He doesn't necessarily expect us to ditch these things so we can accept a monstrous picture of himself.
At the same time, I believe we should be open. Maybe the unpalatable parts of Scripture actually correspond to our reason and our sense of morality, but we don't know how at this present time. Some may have insight into how this is so, but many of us have our own sets of blinders that inhibit us from seeing certain possibilities. I may complain about Bible study groups, but one good thing about them is that I get to hear different perspectives from my own, and that helps me to see things that I may not have previously seen.
I'll stop here. Hope you enjoyed this post. Have a nice day!
15 minutes ago