Wisdom is so kind and wise that wherever you may look you can learn some thing about God. Why would not the omnipresent teach that way?"1
I did it! I invited my new friend to come to an evangelistic meeting. Mark was a thoughtful and generous man. I admired him and wanted him to begin his journey of faith and to come to love God as I do.
Every night, the evangelist conducted a question and answer session. He glided smoothly through the cards, each one with a question about God, the Bible, or faith. These were questions people had submitted the previous day. The evangelist's confidence was impressive. He tackled the most difficult questions with the conviction of a person who has mastered his subject. The highlight of the evening was the sermon that followed, presented with air-tight arguments.
As we walked out of the auditorium I felt triumphant. But Mark was strangely quiet. Restless to hear about his experience, I broke the silence, "So, what did you think?"
Mark slowed down his walk, glanced into my eyes and said, "He seems to have God in his pocket. He has an answer to every question. He has no doubts, no confusion, and no awe. I do want to believe in God, but his god is too small. Something is missing. I felt no wind in his soul."
God who cannot be mastered
In Isaiah 55, the prophet addresses God's people who have all the information about God. But, unknowingly their souls are hungry and thirsty for a deeper faith. So, God rattles their self-confidence declaring, "My thoughts are not your thoughts, and neither are your ways my ways. ... As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts" (Isa. 55:8, 9, NIV). In other words, "Don't assume you can master Me!"
God is a mystery. Job asks, "Can you fathom the mysteries of God?" Job 11:7). In this world God is not as obvious as we often claim He is. Instead, what we do know has a way of creating more roads for our thoughts to travel on in discovery of still more baffling questions.
Bono of U2, in his introduction to the book Selections From the Book of Psalms, puts it this way: "How do you explain a love and logic at the heart of the universe when the world is out of whack?"2 The predicament of being a creature is that we simply don't have all the answers.
We live in the kingdom of God, and that kingdom was especially ushered in with the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But although real and powerful, the presence of the kingdom of God and the actions of God's spirit are hidden, small like a mustard seed (Matt. 13:31) and invisible like a wind John 3:8).
Dancing with God
All told, however, there are distinct advantages to being a human being before a mysterious God.
First, because God is a mystery, we have deeper lives. There is more depth to phenom ena such as friendship, art, motherhood, or plant life than any textbook can contain. These subjects are mysteries; they cannot be mastered, yet they are as real as the type we are reading.
So it is with God. He takes more than our reason captive. He rouses our imagination, our feelings, our intuition human faculties that can reach deeper or take one in important directions, inaccessible to mere logic.
Look at how Isaiah describes the way the Word of God affects our world. "[When the Word comes to you] ... you will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands" (Isa. 55:12, NIV). The Word makes reality move to its music.
That's what happened when the daughters of Israel danced in celebration with Miriam (Exod. 15:20), and when David "danced before the LORD with all his might" (2 Sam. 6:14), God was pleased.
That's why in a beloved story about salvation there was a whole village dancing in the celebration of the return of the prodigal son (Luke 15:25). That's why Jesus certainly danced in response to the repeated invitation of God to praise Him with dancing (Ps. 149:3; 150:4). Dance involves the whole of a person.
Church father St. Augustine wrote a poem about the relationship of dance and Christian life. It was titled "In Praise of Dancing": "I praise the dance, for it frees people / from the heaviness of matter / and binds the isolated to community. / I praise the dance, which demands everything: / health and a clear spirit and a buoyant soul. / Dance is a transformation of space, of time, of people, / who are in constant danger of becoming all brain, / will, or feeling. / Dancing demands a whole person, one who is / firmly anchored in the center of his life, who is / not obsessed by lust for people and things / and the demon of isolation in his own ego. / Dancing demands a freed person, one who vibrates / with the equipoise of all his powers. / I praise the dance. / O man, learn to dance, or else the angels in heaven / will not know what to do with you."3
We are to be people of wonder. As believers in God, we are not only dispensers of answers a body of doctrine that we can demarcate and control, but we are also dispensers of mysteries. We point not only to the answers, but also to the unanswered questions of our faith. As thirst makes us struggle for water and appreciate the rain, these mysteries lead us to experience God in deeper ways.
Those who cannot surrender to music cannot dance. That's why faith is very much like dance. The Word of God wants to have its own way with us and we cannot experience it with out surrender. Without surrender, our desire to control leads to insecurity and awkwardness. This is a picture of a Christian who believes certain information about God but does not see, hear, and touch the beauty of the gospel. For those who let go, there are such things as the Salsa of Grace and the Waltz of the Kingdom.
God who cannot be manipulated
The second advantage of being a human before our mysterious God is that God cannot be manipulated. Sufi poet Rabia (Sufism is a pacifist movement within Islam) wrote a poem titled "Troublemakers": "Since no one really knows anything about God, those who think they do are just troublemakers."4
We are not exempt from this. Christians of the past and present who have "mastered God," have done more than their fair share of trouble-making in this world. The personal lives of contemporary people and the records of history are littered with suffering and injustice inflicted by human beings who have made God too small small enough to be packaged and boxed into a government, into an ideology, into a leader, into a religious organization, or into a denomination.
But if God is a mystery, no person and no organization can assume the authority of God over anybody. Nobody can shrink the kingdom of God into their own little kingdom. Nobody has God in a pocket, let alone their pocket.
Because God has a tendency to surprise us at every corner and spill beyond our definitions, we as believers in this God are not called to be master teachers of God, but master learners.
At the end of that evening with Mark, I thanked God for Mark's ministry to me. I realized that in the matter of knowing God, it is not triumphalism but humility that takes the day.
Christian theologian Thomas C. Oden writes: "[Our] egocentric temptations are always seeking to inflate the fantasy that one's own time bound, parochial way of reasoning toward or from God is the only way. The healthier the study of God, the more candid it remains about its own finitude, the stubborn limits of its own knowing, its own charades, Band-Aids, closets, masks, and broken windows."5
Learning before teaching
What does the mystery of God have to do with evangelism? Everything! When Christianity was about to break out beyond the con fines of Judaism, God visited Peter, a leading apostle, and Cornelius, an outsider to established religion. Instead of receiving clear verbal teaching from God, Peter received a bizarre and disturbing vision that surprised, stirred, and mystified him deeply.
He saw a pack of strange animals. He insisted that these animals should symbolize for Peter people different from him; the chosen people God had just included along with the Jews.
With this dream, Peter's established categories were disrupted. He was forced to rethink the ways the good news was in fact being received and by whom. He was accustomed to talking to Jews and arguing them into becoming Christians.
But now, instead of Peter being an evangelizer, and Cornelius being an evangelee, God guides them to become spiritual friends. 6 They are about to discover more about God together.
As he enters the house of "impure people," it is Peter who is stretched first (Acts 10). He is forced to show respect to the people of a "wrong religion." Peter had never done this before and he finds himself off-balance (verses 28, 29). These circumstances oblige Peter to ask, "Why am I here? Why did you send for me?" He is out of his comfort zone and just by being there he violates his previous religious commitments.
In effect, Peter is saying to Cornelius, "I am learning here along with you." To comfort and encourage Peter, Cornelius utters the first teaching about God, "We are here in the presence of God" (verse 33, NIV). It is clear that Peter changes and grows first.
Instead of presenting ourselves as dispensers of answers, we are invited to become spiritual friends and discover the treasure of God in and among other persons. Others don't begin their spiritual journey with us. They are already on the journey and our first task is to listen to their story and dis cover fresh truths and beauties about God. There are footprints of God in their lives. In any encounter where God is discussed, Christians should be the most ready and eager to learn.
By genuinely receiving more of God from others, we model for them an attitude of openness. We become safe spiritual friends.
That's why Peter proceeds not by preaching, but by conversing, talking with Cornelius, not to or at him (verses 34, 35). Instead of showing them how much they have to learn from him, Peter tells the household of Cornelius about how he stands corrected by God and what he is learning through this experience saying, "I now realize ..." (verse 34, NIV).
And when Peter does begin to teach, he emphasizes not the ignorance of Cornelius but what Cornelius already knows about God. He starts his sentences with, "You know . . ." (verses 36-38, NIV).
Hearing the music vs. winning the argument
We're accustomed to evangelism as an argument. If two people have different views, we tend to assume that one must be right and the other wrong. We begin with the premise that the conversation about God is a showdown to establish who is right and who is wrong.
But if God is also a mystery, then humility is in order. We can't invite a person to make a step toward our point of view if we have painted them into a corner.
Argument is always about winning and losing. Dancing is not. That's why Isaiah describes the Word of Life as a music that comes to us from the heart of God and Zephaniah describes God as rejoicing over us with singing (Zeph. 3:17, NIV).
Imagine. God singing! Spiritual friendship is when both sides work together to hear these songs of God and make their lives move to the melody and rhythm of the revelation of God.
For the postmodern person, spirituality is evangelism.7 Our goal is not to win arguments. Our goal is for everyone to know God better.
In the Bible, the Word of Life comes from some of the most unexpected places and people. The Sovereign God does the same thing today, and we must be willing to receive the Word wherever it is encountered. However difficult it may be to accept, in our meetings with other people there must be a real chance that we will change as a result. If matters of life and truth are dis cussed and we do not allow for the possibility of our transformation if we are only willing to take the role of a teacher, and not of a learner, then we are simply not fit to teach about God.
The power of humility
Our concept of evangelism has been changing over time. In the premodern world (medieval) the market of ideas was like a long table with a Christian ruler sitting at the head of the table. Evangelism was conceived of as increasing the domination of Christianity, as in a conquest. The establishment of a new Christian kingdom was the goal. Our brothers and sisters of the time often thought, "The more power we accrue, the better off God's mission in this world will be."
The era that followed, called modernity, was ushered in by the Enlightenment, when the believers in empirical science liberated the world from the oppression of such religion and established reason as the ruler at the head of the table of ideas. Under this regime Christianity has been slowly banished to sit in a separate dunce chair and evangelism came to be conceived as a battle of arguments.
We came to think that "the more right we prove we are, the better off God's mission in this world will be." Now we live in postmodernity, a time when trusting reason alone has been found inadequate at best and dangerous at worst. The unexpected happened: The table of ideas itself changed shape. It became round! So now there is no longer a head of the table at which some dominating personage may sit.
Christianity, like everyone else, is allowed back to the table as one of many ideas in the market.
This development is a fresh opportunity for us. However, assertions of power or barrages of arguments do not work for people who have increasingly more complex expectations of how a vibrant faith should be validated. The main question the world has for us is, "Can Christianity produce good people?"
Since humility and a willingness to learn are a large part of what it means to be good, we cannot just talk. We have to hear others first. And how ever strange this might sound to us, we must learn about our God from them. We must allow others to impact us and demonstrate the same humility we expect from them.
Pursued rightly, this kind of attitude does not relativize what we believe. In fact, it radicalizes what we believe because it establishes God as Sovereign who "shines in all that's fair."8 Humility and strong conviction are not mutually exclusive. Humility is not a sign of weakness but of strength, and the Bible's call to humility is a call to faithfulness. In fact, genuine regard for what others can add to our faith does not com promise our Christian commitment, but rather expresses it.9
Humility is not just another method of outreach. It is a command from God and one of the core teach ings of Christianity. John, in his Gospel, comes to a pinnacle of revealing of the glory of God. He introduces the occasion by this statement, "Having loved his own he [Jesus] now showed them the full extent of his love" (John 13:1, NIV).
What follows is a description of the God of the universe, kneeling down before His creatures and washing their feet. This cosmic servanthood of God is what distinguishes the Christian God from every other. In one way or another, all other deities on this world are described as merely powerful. That's how they get things done. But our God uses humility to get things done. He relies on the weakness and foolishness of love (1 Cor. 1; 2).
Because of the gospel, death becomes life, the last become the first, giving makes one rich and humility becomes the most powerful force in the universe. Through the humility that is at the heart of the Incarnation, God evangelized us (Phil. 2:4-11). That's why humility holds such promise for the future of Christianity. It does not exclude evangelism but improves its prospects.
Remnant that refuses the compliment
The Bible talks about the remnant that would throughout history be keepers of the truth. One of the first times the concept is mentioned in the Bible is when God speaks to Moses.
Disappointed with the Israelites, God declares His intention to destroy them and make a new nation (a remnant) from faithful Moses (Exod. 32:10). Surprisingly, Moses does not find this apparent favoritism of God toward him to be good news. In fact, Moses declines the invitation and offers his own life to be blotted out of the Book of Life so that the Israelites could somehow stay in favor of God. Moses, much like Jesus himself, inter ceded for others at the expense of his life. And God loved Moses for this. Remnant people are those who like Moses look for the best in others, finding reasons why others should be saved.
Remnant people are to be defiant includers, champions of lifting others up, even at the risk of losing their own standing with God. Perhaps people who claim to be the remnant over everyone else automatically get disqualified. One of our scholars from Europe10 once told me, "Our complex of superiority keeps us on the bottom."
Humility sounds timid, but let's not be fooled. Humility is the expression of ultimate courage, and pursuing personal and corporate humility is a means of aggressive evangelism. In the economy of the kingdom of God, the sheer display of power is simply too weak and ineffective. The Bible talks about the Word of God as a double-edged sword (Heb. 4:12). It cuts both ways. Applying it to our own hearts is the way to successful evangelism. These inner shifts of attitude appear to be small, but are in fact tectonic. They speak louder and longer than programs, events, and campaigns ever can.
We have been given some insight into the mystery of the gospel that even angels long to look into (Eph. 3:4; Col. 1:27; 1 Peter 1:12). We are thankful to God for all the revelation we have. Because of the answers we do have, we trust God from within the mysteries we live with. The time has come, however, to become thankful for the mysteries of God as well as to humbly let others enhance our knowledge. Air-tight arguments give us a sense of being in control, but they keep us isolated and stagnant. Letting the wind back into our souls deepens us.
1 St Catherine of Siena, "Wherever You May Look," in Love Poems from God Twelve Sacred Voices From the East and West Daniel Ladinsky, transl (New York Penguin Compass, 2002) 191.
2 Selections From the Book of Psalms: Authorized New King James Version (Grove Publishing, 1999) VII.
3 St. Augustine, Daily Dig (newsletter from <www.bruderhof.com>), June 24, 2003.
4 Ladinsky, 27.
5 Thomas C. Oden, The Living God: Systematic Theology, Volume One (New York: Prince Press, 1998), 406.
6. For ideas about spiritual friendships and the problem of evangelism as an argument I am indebted to Brian McLaren, More Resady than You Ralize: Evangelism as Dance in the Postmodern Matrix (Grand Rapids: Mich,: Zondervan, 2002).
7 Statement by John Dybdahl at the main presentation on Dancing With God, RE-CHURCH conference 2003, Lake Arrowhead, CA (<www.re-chruch.org>).
8 Verse from the Christian hymn This Is Our Father's World, for discussion of common grace see Richard J. Mouw, He Shines In All That's Fair: Culture and Common Grace (Grand Rapids, Mich. Eerdmans, 2001).
9 Brian McLaren, Generous Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids: Mich.: Zondervan, 2004), 264.
10 Milorad Kojic, Cornell University, New York, 2002, Personal Communication.