The Best Christian Book I Have Ever Read
Some of you will remember that Mike wrote several blog posts on his book earlier in the year. To my shame, I’ll admit that they didn’t make much of an impression at the time. Perhaps this is because excerpts never quite give the flavour of a book; maybe it’s because they are limited in their power through lack of context; I suspect I also read blogs (quickly skimming) and books (carefully reflecting) in different ways, which means that it’s hard to get the best out of a book when it’s in blog form. Anyway: I didn’t buy the book because Mike wrote for us here, and as yet I haven’t even met him, so this isn’t one of those “buy this book because I like the man” reviews. I just kept seeing it endorsed and raved about by people whose word I trust - Tim Challies, The Gospel Coalition, Jeremy Begbie, Tim Chester, Terry Virgo - so eventually I gave in and bought it. It’s about God, after all. What harm could it do?
The beauty of The Good God is that it’s searchingly deep, rich, theologically profound and provocative, at the same time as being witty, creative, amusing, readable and short (112 pages). One moment, as I read it, I’d be thinking that the theological training courses I run need significant overhaul in the light of what I was reading; the next, I’d be crying out in worship, because I’d encountered God in a beautiful, joyful place. Rachel and I shared the book for a month, and there were days when we spent more time discussing who was going to get Reeves than who was going to get the car. Both of us now realise, in fact, that our concepts of God were sub-biblical, and were in need of radical adjustment. Which is bad news if you’re a theologian, writer and teacher who talks about God all the time - and equally bad news if you’re a full time mother for whom joy in God is a daily essential.
My head was turned upside down, and my heart deeply stirred, by the first two pages.
There are two very different ways or approaches to thinking about God. The first way is like a slippery, sloping, cliff-top goat-path. On a stormy, moonless night. During an earthquake. It is the path of trying to work God out by our own brainpower. I look around at the world and sense it must have all come from somewhere. Someone or something caused it to be, and that someone I will call God. God, then, is the one who brings everything else into existence but who is not himself brought into being by anything. He is the uncaused cause. That is who he is. God is, essentially, The Creator, The One in Charge.
It all sounds very reasonable and unobjectionable, but if I do start there, with that as my basic view of God, I will find every inch of my Christianity covered and wasted by the nastiest toxic fallout. First of all, if God’s very identity is to be The Creator, The Ruler, then he needs a creation to rule in order to be who he is. For all his cosmic power, then, this God turns out to be pitifully weak: he needs us…
The other way to think about God is lamp-lit and evenly paved: it is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. It is, in fact, The Way. It is a lane that ends happily in a very different place, with a very different sort of God. How? Well, just that fact that Jesus is ‘the Son’ really says it all. Being a Son means he has a Father ... And a father is a person who gives life, who begets children. Now that insight is like a stick of dynamite in all our thoughts about God. For if, before all things, God was eternally a Father, then this God is an inherently outgoing, life-giving God. He did not give life for the first time when he decided to create; from eternity he has been life-giving.
And I can honestly say that I have never really thought about God like that. For me, seeing God-in-himself as Ruler or Creator has been much more common, in my thought life and my prayer life, than seeing God-in-himself as Father. I’ve seen Father too much as a metaphor, and too much in connection with his relationship to me; that he has eternally been the Father of the Son has formed an embarrassingly small part of my theology. I’ve been more of an Apostles’ Creed sort of person:
I believe in God (yes),
Father Almighty (yes, with the loving and relational word offset by a Big Powerful word),
Maker of heaven and earth (yes),
And of all things visible and invisible (yes).
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord (and on we go to the next member of the trinity, having said all there is to say about the God who makes and rules things).
Consequently, the essence of God, to me, has been bound up with holiness and otherness rather than love. I’m the guy who sits there during weddings, when the vicar says “primarily God is a God of love”, and tuts to myself, wondering who he thinks he is to prioritise love over holiness, glory, or whatever else. But Mike Reeves shows what a nonsense that is. For one thing, God has been loving in all eternity, and that is what marks him off from all other gods. A non-triune god could not, Reeves rightly points out, be essentially loving, because there would be nobody else there - but the triune God has always and forever been overflowing in love, in other-centredness, in outgoingness. For another, he says, the idea that holiness and love are pulling in slightly different directions (which is part of my everyday take on things, despite the fact I know in my head that it isn’t true), is complete bunk:
People even say things like, ‘Yes, God is loving, but he is also holy’ - as if holiness is an unloving thing, the cold side of God that stops him from being too loving… The words used for holiness in the Bible have the basic meaning of being ‘set apart’. But there our troubles begin, because naturally I think I’m lovely. So if God is ‘set apart’ from me, I assume the problem is with him (and I can do all this in the subtlest, most subconscious way). His holiness looks like a prissy rejection of my happy, healthy loveliness.
Dare I burst my own bubble now? I must. For the reality is that I am the cold, selfish, vicious one, full of darkness and dirtiness. And God is holy - ‘set apart’ from me - precisely in that he is not like that.
Which is also why the Levitical instruction to ‘be holy, because I am holy’ effectively amounts to ‘love God, and love your neighbour’ (Lev 19:1-18). If God is essentially loving, then becoming more like God is becoming more loving - which, of course, is the highest thing to which Christians are called.
As such, Reeves is urging us to have a view of God that is Athanasian rather than Arian, based on the revelation of God in Christ rather than on natural theology and human deduction. After all, he points out, understanding Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, necessarily involves understanding God as triune, loving and relational, since “Son” implies a Father, and “Christ” implies an anointing with the Spirit. As a result of this sort of view of the triune God, we will find that love, Fatherliness, Sonship, outgoingness and beauty become the defining features of our vision of God. And I desperately need that. So my copy of Reeves’ book is covered in scribbles and underlinings, and I’m about to go back through it and read it again.
Pastors: read this book. Teachers (especially those who are more likely to be hard than soft, and more likely to be unbending than fluffy): read this book. Christians: read this book. Then give it to someone else - church leader, stay at home mother, or neither - and get them to read it too.
There. I feel better now.