I wrestled a bit with calling this post “The Necessity and Sufficiency of God”; in many ways it’s a good topic – worded like that – to talk about, and it would have been just a little nerdy. But there’s so much thrown around today about how necessary God is in our lives that our eyes – Christian or not – glaze over when we see this. Without proper consideration and skills I don’t have, such a post might border on cliché, and not be a source of interest to anyone.
It’s the sufficiency thing that I’ve been struggling with personally recently, and which therefore takes some focus. There are several issues that intersect with it, and so I think it requires some development; also, while the necessity of having God in our lives is often and easily discussed (whether positively or negatively), the sufficiency of having Him, or the lack of it, can set a foundation for our lives to such an extent that we have trouble noticing its importance.
Developing our values and co-opting God
In our churches and workplaces, and more broadly in our cultures and societies we come to depend on the views of people around us for an understanding of virtues and decency. Decisions on what is right and wrong are often made by large numbers of people who have convinced each other that they have the truth. To find out how to be a “good person” is to live around and be in touch with our peers. When a society disagrees on a topic, we refine our own demographic further so that we can justify our correctness and spurn the dissenter. An idea not sanctioned by our demographic is rejected as unreasonable, immoral, or stupid, depending on the idea in question.
We do this in church, and we do it with God. We begin to assume God somehow has the same values as those around us, and if not, we feel obliged to resolve the tension. It’s typically much easier just to assume that there is no tension, and to project our own views and values onto God.
Kirsten Powers mentions something like this in her testimony. “It says a lot about the family in which I grew up that one of my most pressing concerns was that Christians would try to turn me into a Republican.” Isn’t that such a telling statement? We live so securely in our values and ideologies – the same ones we adopt from our peers and cultures and other in-groups – that we assume that our God also shares it. “I’m a Christian, and a fiscal conservative, therefore God is obviously a fiscal conservative.” This is what it means to co-opt God.
Sophie must be getting sick of me saying this – because I say it a lot – but something I notice about myself is that, when in church and listening to a confronting sermon, or reading a confronting article, I think quietly, yes, that’s right! The other people here had better listen to this! Isn’t that such a tidy little hypocrisy? When we hear a challenge, we immediately assume that it’s best meant for those around us, and it doesn’t even occur to us that it’s meant for us instead.
This is a subtle idolatry: it puts our principles first and treats them as first in our lives. This is a difficult distinction to highlight, because it’s just so easy to say, “but my principles are Godly!” But among our “virtuous” principles are embedded the little selfish ones. The selfish ones glorify what my little community believes. They glorify the work I do, at the expense of what others do. At the bottom is a little principle that says I’m wise and clever and in no need of correction.
With Calvin and Hobbes, Bill Watterson made deeply insightful observations about his life and his job as a cartoonist. He had a lot of trouble in interaction with his publishers; it caused him so much distress that in one comic, Calvin tells Hobbes, “A lot of people don’t have principles, but I do! I’m a highly principled person! I live according to one principle, and I never deviate from it.” When Hobbes asks him what it is, he says, “’Look out for number one’.”
Advertisements play on this. Someone intelligent somewhere decided the best way to get someone to buy something is to make them think they deserve it. L’Oreal loves telling you you’re worth it! Because I really am, aren’t I? Aren’t you? Hey, if you can get away with the cashier giving you too much change, then you totally should – but if the government makes a clerical error and takes too much of your income in tax? Then stand up! Speak out for yourself, because no one else will! Stand by your principles!
Slavery to self
So as Christians, we are no less subject to the first commandment than anyone else. Ultimately we are obliged to ask ourselves what we hold first in our lives, and it’s too easy for us to say, “well, God, of course!” An easy test, along the lines of the above, is to ask ourselves why we believe (which is a distinct question from how we came to believe) – do we believe because God seems to believe in the same things we do? Do we believe in God out of some kind of solidarity of values? If so, then we suffer (and commit) idolatry, because we are holding God to some different standard, which, incidentally, is centred in ourselves.
The first commandment – to have no other gods before the Lord – is frighteningly complete. It means that when we hold God first in our lives, there is no standard with which we compare Him – God becomes the standard. A common thing to hear in church, but maybe its absolute power doesn’t really occur to us. It implies that our following God should in principle be predicated on nothing other than what comes from Him.*
This transformation is scary. The willingness to give up that last principle is like baring your chest before a spear, or like jumping off a cliff onto the rocks. It would be stupid if it were for anything other than one who has the authority to say:
“Would you discredit my justice? Would you condemn me to justify yourself? 9 Do you have an arm like God’s, and can your voice thunder like his? 10 Then adorn yourself with glory and splendor, and clothe yourself in honor and majesty. 11 Unleash the fury of your wrath, look at all who are proud and bring them low, 12 look at all who are proud and humble them, crush the wicked where they stand. 13 Bury them all in the dust together; shroud their faces in the grave. 14 Then I myself will admit to you that your own right hand can save you.”
And the flipside is this: although there are none capable of supporting us like God, yet He is more than capable. This is how God is sufficient for us – He provides everything we need, and we can never need anything else. Therefore to recognize God’s sufficiency is to shed our slavery to anything other than Him – it’s bound together in Romans 6,
“Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought form death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness”,
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction”,
-pretty much all of Ecclesiastes,
“Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools, who do not know that they do wrong”,
-and uh… I guess everything else? It’s pervasive. This is the strength of God’s sufficiency. It’s a confession of smallness and imperfection and depravity which so naturally opens up to letting Him carry you through it all. This is what Abraham and Paul had; though separated by thousands of years and vastly different perspectives and cultures, they both gave up themselves for God to let His sufficiency hold them.
To hold my principles first is to say to God, “I don’t need you to provide for me”, no matter how noble these principles may be. To take any principle – no matter how good it is – before God is to rebel against Him because it refuses Him. There is no half-way point. Jesus said, “You are either with me or against me”. This is why God’s necessity and sufficiency are so close together (and why I had trouble naming this post); to acknowledge His necessity is to accept His sufficiency, and vice versa.
So as Christians we should think carefully about that first commandment. Jesus wasn’t kidding when he said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” If we base our following of God on some other value, some other principle, then we are implicitly telling Him we do not love Him with all our heart, soul, or mind. What dictates your values? What do you hold highest in your life, Christian? Do you trust the people around you, who you know are as flawed as you? Do you trust your traditions and family values first, a flawed set of rules for a flawed set of people? Or do you trust the Lord first, who you say is perfect? I hate clichés, but I couldn’t resist: you can talk the talk, but can you walk the walk?
* There is a fine distinction to be made here, and I don’t want to give the impression that I support blind faith – that is, faith which does not stand up to critical examination. Note that many Christians became so by examining the evidence in the Bible, and from external historical sources. Frank Morison famously became a Christian by examining critically the facts from the period – he found that he was unable to answer key questions around Christ’s death and resurrection without acknowledging his deity. Others became Christians through other means, often involving evidence of a personal nature. I don’t mean to say that one must become a Christian out of nothing but faith in God – this is a circular argument and a strawman often employed by angry atheists – but rather that our following of God has outgrown being reliant on some ‘third-party’ standard. Nor do I mean to minimize the importance of certain philosophical issues: many people struggle with how a loving God could allow suffering in the world, and simply answering, “it doesn’t matter because God is all-supreme,” is insufficient and unpalatably unsatisfying, as many will attest. Questions like these are not annulled by a God-centred life – the perspective just changes.
Furthermore, for Christians (even long-time ones) there are periods of doubt as well. At times like these, reassurance of the validity of your faith is often required. Attempting to silence the doubt by some rite of religiosity damages the faith and leads to blindness. In addressing the interpretation of Genesis, Henri Blocher in In the Beginning off-handedly asserts that “Faith rests on facts, objectively asserted.” He goes on to say:
“The believer will not dodge the task of harmonizing his interpretation of Genesis with his extra-biblical knowledge about the beginning. But he will not be in a hurry to approve or condemn the view of the scientists; with equal vigilance he will guard against the twin excesses of veneration and execration. If his calling allows, he will turn his interests to the elaboration of a rigorous scientific account, with presuppositions that have been rectified or reformed. His first concern, however, will be to discern the meaning of the biblical text.”
(I very much like Blocher’s…treatise? monograph? but by quoting him I risk misrepresenting it.) The point I’m trying to make in this aside is that faith does require critical testing to be kept sharp and perceptive instead of blind, and in times of doubt it does well to remember the evidence which supports it, if only as a matter of reassurance. Evidence is a matter of fact, but here I’m trying to talk about a matter of principle.