Unsafe God

Today's Pipe Series draws us into a place of worship. I often find myself looking around when I attend gatherings of The Family of God. I catch myself wondering how odd it must be for visitors witnessing several hundred, even thousands, of Christians singing their hearts out to a God they cannot see.  

It can feel so pagan at times; pagan in the raw sense of the word, ruddy and beautiful, haunting and mysterious. 

Last night at just such a gathering, my friend Mandy Joy Miller sang while her husband (and some friends) played. Caught in the moment I found myself staring out into the woods behind the house, remnants of day's last light filtering through. Mandy read from one of my favorite passages in Revelation, the one where the beasts with eyes all over their bodies cry out, "Different, different, different, is the Lord God Almighty." 

Mandy then spoke of her prayers lately, and how she'd been overwhelmed with a vision of a great lion; the kind of lion that is "strong and loving." (Psalm 62:11-12) 

I love the scene in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe where Lucy says of Aslan being a lion, "Then, he isn't safe?"

"'Course he isn't safe," replies Mr. Beaver. "But he is good."  

Lewis here appears to draw from Rudolf Ottos's theological classic The Idea of the Holy  in which Otto describes the numinous. The  numinous is the experience that underlies all religious experience, it's that something "wholly other" than experienced in ordinary life. It's made up of three parts: mysterium (evoking a sense of silence), tremendum (overwhelming power), et fascinans (attractiveness in spite of fear). 

In The Problem of Pain Lewis describes the numinous like this: 

Suppose you were told thee was a tiger in the next room: you would know that you were in danger and would probably feel fear. But if you were told 'There is a ghost in the next room,' and believed it, you would feel, indeed, what is often called fear, but of a different kind. It would not be based on the knowledge of danger, for no one is primarily afraid of what a ghost may do to him, but of the mere fact that it is a ghost. It is 'uncanny' rather than dangerous, and the special kind of fear it excites may be called Dread.
With the Uncanny one has reached the fringes of the Numinous.
Now suppose that you were told simply 'There is a mighty spirit in the room,' and believed it. Your feelings would then be even less like the mere fear of danger: but the disturbance would be profound. You would feel wonder and a certain shrinking—a sense of inadequacy to cope with such a visitant and of prostration before it. ...
This feeling may be described as awe, and the object which excites it as the Numinous.  

Last night, in our little gathering space, I felt what Lewis and Otto describe as numinous. I also felt it Sunday morning while singing songs of worship. 

But there are times when I don't feel it. I know I'm speaking a lot about feelings. And I know I need to guard myself from emotionalism, but I stand with Jonathan Edwards in espousing a religion that is based on positive affections for God. I want to be caught up in him; I want to dangle my heart over the chasm of his love and feel the gulping fear that accompanies.  

So it is, when my spiritual affections lack I then reflect on how my actions reveal their absence. I can feign true religious affections, but that veneer will invade my every day and draw me away into haughtiness, pride and fear. 

I find my spiritual affections grow when they stem from organic action, like frequent gatherings of free worship through song, discussion and testimony.

I remember one morning this past winter I was visiting my friends Josh and Lacey Sturm in Pittsburgh. We were finishing a project on a Sunday morning when Josh hit the pause button, picked up his guitar and began to lead us in a time of worship through song. I stood across from Lacey and just listened as she sang soft notes of praise. The quiet time of whisper-worship dangled me over the chasm of Christ's love. 

At once I was struck with a different fear; a wholly other kind of feeling that prompted tears, adoration and thanksgiving. We ended our time of song with lingering silence. I could almost feel the holy breeze of the Spirit passing through the chasm. 

I wanted, like Lucy, to throw myself into God's massive fury neck and cling to him while trembling. Indeed, Lucy, he is not safe. But oh, is he good.  

So give yourself permission to feel a bit more today. Expose yourself to the chasm of his glory and see if it doesn't just scare you further into his love. Let go of the cynicism that so defines our culture (even our Christian culture!) and clothe yourself in numinous. See what the great eyed-creatures saw and shout, "Oh God, how different you are! And oh, how I love you!"  

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Timothy Willard is the author of three books, including Longing For More: Daily Reflections on Finding God in the Rhythms of Life. He has collaborated on over 20 books and has written, consulted and served as spiritual director for organizations such as Chick-fil-A, Catalyst, Q Ideas and Praxis Labs. He lived in Oxford, England for two years studying beauty in the works of C.S. Lewis. He earned his PhD in Theology under the supervision of world-renowned theologian Alister McGrath. When he’s not riding the trails in the Appalachian mountains you can find him by the fire with his three daughters and his wife making up stories about Tom the back yard badger. He lives somewhere in the south Charlotte woods.