A Universal Longing: Transcendence
Say It in a Sentence: Deep in the soul of every human being is a longing for transcendence created within us by God Himself.
Something unusual captured the world’s imagination at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia. If you think back and squint, you may be able to recall the surprising word hanging from the Sydney Harbour Bridge unveiled at the opening ceremony. When the torch was lit to launch this long-awaited crown for the land down under, the background sky was illumined by an Olympic display of fireworks. Just then a massive sign that hung on the bridge flashed to brilliance, and in a moment people around the globe read what God has placed inside each of us. The word was Eternity. What a strange word to select as a theme for the Olympics. Was it intended only as a motivator for the athletes soon to compete for record-book immortality? To the Aussies it was much more, as even its “copper plate” font was rooted in the history of the island continent. Understanding the word’s significance leads us to the theme of this chapter and to where every discussion of the church and its purpose in the world must begin.
In November 1932 in Australia, a down-on-his-luck, World War I veteran named Arthur Stace was homeless and hopelessly addicted to alcohol. His life of gambling and petty crime had only worsened his poverty and driven him to suicidal depression. Having failed at everything he could think of to content the aching cavity in his soul, he stumbled one Sunday night into a church. In God’s providence, preaching that evening was a man named John Ridley, who spoke on the subject of eternity. “You’re on your way somewhere brother! And God made you to long for the place you’re headed for.”1 Ridley eloquently described the settled destination of every human being with the word eternity, repeating it again and again. Eternity, eternity, eternity! Those eight letters captured Stace’s mind and demanded from his life a major course correction. As Ridley proclaimed the truth of every person’s march toward eternity and the only gospel that prepares a soul for that inevitability, the God of the universe invaded Stace’s soul. Conquered by the message of salvation and Christ’s provision for his own eternity, Stace dedicated the rest of his life to doing what he could to help people find the God who had found him. Every day for more than thirty-five years, Stace rose before the sun, and after a cup of tea and a few moments in Bible reading, he’d go out into the streets of Sydney with a piece of chalk and write the word Eternity. Over and over, thousands of times Stace wrote this word in the same beautiful script. As the town awoke, people would see the word everywhere: on the sidewalk outside a coffee shop, on the backside of a street sign, and on the cornerstone at the base of a building. Eternity mysteriously appeared all over town. Somehow, instead of being insulted by the overtly spiritual message, people reported feeling strangely encouraged. From all walks of life, Sydney citizens were stumbling upon eternity scrawled in the most surprising places. Until 1956, no one knew where the writing came from. But they finally found him, Arthur Stace, and no one demanded he stop his daily discipline. Instead they supported, even celebrated, his graffitied message of the life to come. If you go to Sydney today, you can enter a particular government building and up inside the bell in one of the towers you can find the word written by Stace still legible more than fifty years later—Eternity. Stace died in 1967 at eighty-three years of age, but he left an impact that will last long after every chalk mark has faded. His gravestone reads, “Arthur Malcolm Stace—Mr. Eternity,” a word he had written more than five hundred thousand times.
Over and over, thousands of times Stace wrote this word in the same beautiful script.
Thirty years after his death, the host country chose that word to express the longings of the world at the first Olympics of a new millennium. Eternity: it’s a powerful word that penetrates deep into the soul of every human being. And every time we make a choice that detours our search for fulfillment, eternity shouts within us, “You’re getting colder.”
The Search for Eternity Is Nothing New
He has made everything beautiful in its time.
Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart.
Three thousand years before Arthur Stace, a man named Solomon, the wisest and richest man of all time, chronicled his own futile search for fulfillment in the timeless scripture of Ecclesiastes. If a human ever strolled down each conceivable avenue of potential satisfaction without finding it, that person was Solomon, the ancient king of Israel. Ecclesiastes details Solomon’s experimentation with every pleasure, from constructing a palace so opulent it staggered world leaders to accumulating jewels and possessions that became innumerable. Solomon pursued advanced academic studies and sex with a different woman every day. He explored in-depth every possible iteration of the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Yet his tears of frustration are easily heard in the words “So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind.”2 Solomon discovered what so many fail to realize: that history is a repetitive loop of personal futility and that every imaginable experience of the horizontal promises a fulfillment it never truly gives. In Ecclesiastes 3, Solomon turned his expression of frustration on the God who made him, concluding that God has “put eternity into man’s heart.”3 While there has been some debate among scholars about the meaning of ha’olam (םַֹלעָה), most translations agree the best understanding is eternity.4 In his commentary on Ecclesiastes, Michael Eaton asserted, “‘Eternity,’ by far the commonest meaning, fits the context well, for the whole passage has been concerned with God’s scheme of ‘times.’”5Eternity in this passage refers to our deep and abiding sense of something outside the boundaries of our senses. “Our consciousness of God is part of our nature, and the suppression of it is part of our sin (Romans 1:18–21).”6
Solomon was crushed by the realization that on his own, he could not fashion a happiness or satisfaction that would endure beyond the momentary.
Tremper Longman continued by noting:
Since eternity is a divine attribute and since its counterpart, mortality, is something dreaded and feared, one would think that [Solomon] was pleased by this truth. However, the context makes it clear that he was not happy as a result of these observations about God’s workings in the world and in the human heart—the verse is yet another cry of frustration on [Solomon’s] part.7
Eaton’s summary of Solomon’s state of mind is fitting: “[Solomon’s] vast researches have found nothing in the finite earthly realm which can satisfy the human heart intellectually or practically.”8 Solomon was crushed by the realization that on his own, he could not fashion a happiness or satisfaction that would endure beyond the momentary.
C. S. Lewis called it “the inconsolable longing” and admitted:
There have been times when I think we do not desire heaven, but more often I find myself wondering whether in our heart of hearts, we have ever desired anything else.… It is the secret signature of each soul, the incommunicable and unappeasable want.9
We Long for Eternity but Can’t Find It
Like Solomon, we cannot fashion happiness for ourselves either. I was aware of Ecclesiastes 3:11 for many years before the second part of the verse caught my full attention: “He has put eternity into man’s heart yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” If you’re looking for an answer to the mystery of human misery, X marks the spot—Ecclesiastes 3:11b. The implications of Solomon’s statement are staggering: people are looking for the eternity God created them to long for, but they can’t find it on their own. Like a hungry man outside a locked gourmet restaurant, we know satisfaction is near but can’t get to the food; like a blind man on the edge of the Grand Canyon, we feel the awesomeness close at hand with no capacity to take it in ourselves. Searching for eternity does not lead to finding until God Himself intercepts our wandering pursuit.
At the core, we are the same, and Solomon rightly observes that fulfillment must come from a source outside ourselves and beyond this world: “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can … have enjoyment?”10 What Solomon tried in vain to fill is woven into the fabric of human existence. Do you get it? God made you the way you are, and He made me the same. God designed us so that we can’t find fulfillment or lasting enjoyment apart from this eternity. The busier we are trying to satisfy our deepest longing by good and bad horizontal means, the more likely we are to miss God’s Vertical invitation to experience Him.
This eternal longing is given by the Almighty and separates us from all other created beings. A gift universally given to humankind, it lives in each member of your family. Each person on your street feels the emptiness deeply even if he or she can’t articulate it. Every single citizen of the community surrounding you and your church aches this moment to have the cavity filled. All persons moving about in your city tonight have a deep desiring that achievements and accolades and back alleys of pleasure can never fulfill. As each new generation arrives, it believes itself unique but discovers in the end it is the same. This searching, deep in our souls, is a hunger that food can never feed, clothing can never cover, and shelter will never warm. At times it becomes a ravenous longing that demands satisfaction beyond our accomplishments and accumulations. Billionaires around the globe are miserable because in them this longing goes unfulfilled, while certain single parents with hungry children in mud huts are overflowing with joy because they have found this eternity.
Observation Confirms What Scripture Reveals
In the Bible, Genesis 2:7 calls what makes us unique ruach (חרו), “spirit,” or the “breath of life.” It is what the Creator breathed into humanity that distinguishes us from all other living things. It’s why you know deep inside that you are not an animal and didn’t come from one. Even biological and physiological studies demonstrate clear separation between humans and animals. A 2005 study in Trends in Cognitive Sciences claims, “Humans have more cortical neurons than other mammals.… The outstanding intelligence of humans appears to result from a combination and enhancement of properties not found in non-human primates, such as theory of mind, imitation and language.”11 Other studies have noted the differences between the “emotional center” of the brain in humans and animals.12 Even the secularist is compelled to admit scientifically that there are fundamental differences between human beings and animals. A complexity and consistency of emotion, the existence of conscience, and the capacity for empathy are just a few of the differences science might attribute to evolutionary advancement but acknowledges as real nonetheless. Every discussion of the nature of man or meaning, or ministry, must begin with this reality: humans are unique among the living in that there is in the center of each of us a hunger for something that the experiences of this planet cannot satisfy—a quest for eternity.
Why, then, does it seem that almost every book written about the mission of the church in the past twenty-five years has focused on the ways countries, cultures, even individuals are so different? Over and over we are exhorted to aim our churches’ ministry at some point of demographic data and are deluged with the distinguishing characteristics of successive generations. We are taught to study our culture and contextualize the message to fit the uniqueness of the mass we seek to minister to. Is this helpful, or has it taken us off track? Is the church to be about scratching the minutiae of our unique itches, or is it about filling the vacuum of universal commonality installed in us by God?
Maslow Missed It at First
In 1943, Abraham Maslow introduced his famous “hierarchy of needs.” Based on several years of observing the most successful and intelligent members of society, Maslow concluded that all people have certain basic needs, which can be illustrated by a layered pyramid. At the base are human necessities like food, clothing, and shelter. Next in importance, Maslow claimed, was the need to be loved and to belong. In his original study, Maslow went on to argue that the highest need of humanity is self-actualization. “What a man can be, he must be,” wrote Maslow,13 claiming that the crowning human desire was to “be all you can be.” Interesting but incorrect.
In the 1971 book The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, Maslow acknowledged that his subjects were not satisfied in their own accomplishments and experiences but were looking for meaning beyond themselves, forcing him to amend his previous conclusions. “Transcendence refers to the very highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of human consciousness, behaving and relating, as ends rather than means, to oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos.”14 It’s hard to find a college professor today who relates that Maslow reluctantly retracted his widely distributed conclusion that personal experience was ultimate and fulfilling. Yet so much of our thinking is based upon Maslow’s errors and fails to account for his own admission that human longing could be fulfilled only in something outside the individual. Maslow realized in the end that the need for transcendence was much more pervasive than the need for self-actualization. Even among those who had not reached Maslow’s standards for self-actualization, the recognition of longing for the transcendent was common.15 Wow, wow, wow!
Is the church to be about scratching the minutiae of our unique itches, or is it about filling the vacuum of universal commonality installed in us by God?
Frankl Confirms Maslow in Death Camp
During World War II, Viktor E. Frankl was a prisoner in the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp. In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl chronicled his experience and found that, in order to survive the camp, it was necessary to cling to something outside of himself. Frankl wrote, “Being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone other than oneself—be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself—by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love—the more human he is—the more he actualizes himself.”16
Do you sense that same longing in your soul? Have you known the emptiness of looking for a satisfaction that doesn’t arrive in that next raise or relationship or …? This human condition is presented throughout the Scriptures and observed in the social sciences but not understood. Please be patient as I resist the temptation to rush to solutions and linger here with more evidence for those who doubt that God has installed this longing for something beyond ourselves. Everything I am bursting to share with you about church requires “buy in” on this foundational premise: that every human being shares this appetite for eternity.
Eternity Even in the Darkest of Human Souls
Back in college I heard a missionary speak on “eternity” from Ecclesiastes 3:11. His name was Don Richardson, and he had spent the best years of his life learning the Sawi language as a missionary to the cannibalistic, head-hunting people of Western New Guinea, Indonesia. Most people in ministry think that their assignments are tough for reasons particular to where they serve, and every pastor has a story about how his geography is tough terrain to build a church. However, not many can claim, like Don Richardson can, to be called to a Stone Age people whose language is unwritten and unknown. To make matters worse, the Sawi people in the 1950s still believed they proved their prowess by eating your brains and using your skull as a pillow.
So twisted was the Sawi mind-set of treachery and duplicity that when Richardson told them the story of Jesus’ death, they saw Judas as the hero and applauded the account of Christ’s betrayal! Try as he might, Richardson could find no way to bring the good news to this tribe that penetrated their dark minds. After watching fourteen vengeance-driven blood baths outside his front door, Richardson was ready to pack it in—and painfully conclude that he had located a people who were beyond reach. Surely here was a people in whose hearts there was no echo of eternity, a culture so darkened that not even a scent of searching could be seen in their souls. Having lived among them, Richardson felt forced to conclude that they had no desire beyond immediate gratification of their most base impulses. But he was wrong.
Shortly before he was to abandon his work, Richardson saw something that changed everything, including those he came to help. In an elaborate ceremony, a Sawi chief took his own infant son and presented his child to the enemy chief. This “peace child” ensured reconciliation between the warring tribes and established a lasting relationship that would not be breached in their lifetimes. Seizing the obvious parallels to the gospel, Richardson proclaimed to them God’s peace child and the loving heart of their Creator, who gave His Son to be reconciled to each of them. Did it matter? Would they even care? That single analogy opened the way for entire villages and families among the Sawi to express their long-suppressed desire to know the God who made the world around them. The peace child exposed a longing they secretly held to be free from their murderous ways but feared to express in their environment of savagery. Looking in from the outside, you would have thought they loved their way of life, but they were searching for a better way just like their fellow man in the Western world.17 Contrary to appearance, the Sawi were different from us in obvious ways but the same as us in the most significant way. The tribal people converted en masse, first tens, then hundreds, then thousands. The largest circular building in the world today is in western Indonesia where those who found eternity in God’s peace child gather to worship.18
Don Richardson’s teaching on Ecclesiastes 3:11 and his personal experience with that reality shaped my early thinking about the church and its mission. Let this reality mold your thinking too: there is something not only similar but universally identical about every human being from every culture throughout history. The access points or expressions of that longing vary from culture to culture, but the underlying vacuum in the center of every soul is a manufacturer’s specification from God Himself; He is the One who has placed eternity in our hearts.
But eternity is a general term; it’s how people would describe what they have not experienced fully. Let’s move the idea of what we were created to long for and what the church was created to facilitate a little closer to the flame.
Eternity Means “Transcendence”
A few pages ago I mentioned Maslow’s usage of the term transcendence describing the highest hunger he’d left out of his original hierarchy of human needs. English dictionaries give us little phrases to help us understand transcendence: “the action or fact of transcending, surmounting, or rising above … the attribute of being above and independent of the universe.”19 Those phrases help us toward an understanding of transcendence, but let’s invite some theologians to put meat on the bones of this essential human longing:
The term often used to say that God is much greater than creation is the word transcendent. Very simply, this means that God is far “above” the creation in the sense that he is greater than the creation and he is independent of it.20
D. A. Carson:
God exists apart from the creation that he made, and thus above space and time.… He is not in any way dependent upon his creation; he is self-existing—that is, he draws his own existence only from himself. He is absolute.21
The doctrine of transcendence has several implications that will affect our other beliefs and practices.…
1. There will always be a difference between God and humans.… Salvation consists in God’s restoring us to what he intended us to be, not elevating us to what he is.
2. Reverence is appropriate in our relationship with God.… While there are room and need for enthusiasm of expression, and perhaps even an exuberance, that should never lead to a loss of respect. There will always be a sense of awe and wonder, of what Rudolf Otto called the mysterium tremendum.
3. We will look for genuinely transcendent working by God. Thus we will not expect only those things that can be accomplished by natural means. While we will use every available technique of modern learning to accomplish God’s ends, we will never cease to be dependent on his working.… There will be the anticipation that God, in response to faith and prayer, will work in ways not humanly predictable or achievable.22
Transcendence is the best single word I have found to describe the attributes of God that are found only in Him and what is missing too often from our churches. We are facilitators of transcendence. Our main job is to usher in the Almighty—God forgive us when we have settled for less. When transcendence is welcomed and unveiled, no one even notices the program, the preacher, or other people. Anything resembling performance seems out of place. Because all that is visible is eclipsed by what is not: God Himself moving through the church in power and meeting with His people in manifest ways.
Our main job is to usher in the Almighty—God forgive us when we have settled for less.
When did we decide that relevant need-meeting was superior to awesome God-meeting? We have settled for the horizontal and become comfortable leading and attending churches that God does not. Sailing is only delightful when the wind blows, and church without the transcendent leaves us dead in the water. Does your heart hunger for the miraculous in church where God’s power is manifested in measurable ways?
When did we decide that relevant need-meeting was superior to awesome God-meeting?
May I ask some honest questions? Whether you attend a megachurch, a large church, a medium or small or microchurch—when was the last time God took you to the mat and pinned you with a fresh awareness of His size compared to yours? How have we come to be content with so little of God’s obvious presence? I believe there are reasons why good, dedicated people serving the Lord settle for so much less than what church was created to be. Often it’s because a rational antisupernaturalism is all we have ever known.
Look Up to Experience Transcendence
John Frame wrote, “Transcendence invokes the biblical language of God’s majesty and holiness. It often represents metaphors of height as well: the Lord is God ‘in heaven above’ (Deut. 4:39). He has set his glory ‘above the heavens’ (Ps. 8:1). He is ‘enthroned on high’ (Ps. 113:5). We are to exalt him, to attribute to him the highest status.”23
In 1961, A. W. Tozer wrote the book Knowledge of the Holy, in which he warned:
We must not think of God as highest in an ascending order of beings starting with the single cell, then the fish, then the bird, then the animal, then man and angels and cherubs and God.… This would be to grant God eminence or even preeminence but that is not enough. We must grant God transcendence in the fullest meaning of that word. He’s wholly other. He breaks all the categories of being and knowing.24
Rationalism versus Transcendence
A further description of transcendence is that which is higher or beyond the widely accepted range of human experience cataloged in Aristotle’s ten categories. Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle created a “map” that attempted to encompass the full range of human experience into one or more of ten rational categories. Somehow Aristotle suppressed the eternity in his own heart, because his system includes only what can be proven by rational means. Sadly, his thinking forms the foundation for the rationalism that continues to control the mind-set of the Western world. While postmodernism may have replaced rationalism as the philosophy of choice on a given college campus, rationalism is still the prevailing presupposition that dictates expectation among churches and their leaders. Rationalism says if you can’t quantify it, if you can’t prove it, if you can’t show it to me, then it doesn’t exist. Rationalism teaches us to deny the eternity that God has placed in our hearts. And church leaders raised on rationalism lead ministries where the supernatural, the Vertical, is suppressed and where God Himself is at best an observer and certainly seldom, if ever, an obvious participant in church.
Rationalism is still the prevailing presupposition that dictates expectation among churches and their leaders.
One of Aristotle’s more recent offspring who wrestled with the limits of rationalism was Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). Kant proposed a “Copernican Revolution” in philosophy, saying, “Up to now it has been assumed that all our cognition must conform to the objects; but … let us once try whether we do not get farther … by assuming that the objects must conform to our cognition.”25
In other words, sometimes we know that we know something, even though we are helpless to prove it rationally. That experience comes from the eternity in our hearts. Maybe the greatest rationality of all is the recognition that rationality itself is incomplete as a way of knowing.
People will ask, “Will you test the transcendent? Can you show me the supernatural? Because unless you do it rationally, I will never believe.” For the person concluding rationally that God does not exist, rational attempts to prove otherwise are doomed, and that is why the church should never have bowed to the idolatry of rationalism. While there are surely rational reasons for believing in God, Verticality must rule rationality and not the reverse.26 In a society where rationality has ruled so long, the church frequently fails to see that in forsaking the weekly pursuit of the transcendent, we have given up the only ground that was uniquely ours in this world. In attempting to make the church something that can attract and add value to secular mind-sets, we have turned our backs on our one true value proposition—transcendence.
Maybe the greatest rationality of all is the recognition that rationality itself is incomplete as a way of knowing.
The entity God created to traffic His transcendence has fallen far from its mission when it chooses instead to traffic what can be found on any street corner or at the local mall. You may ask, “But how has the church done that?”
• By offering secularists what they find mildly interesting and calling it church.
• By submitting to self-help sermons where encounter with God is not even on the agenda.
• By letting the horizontal excellence of the show stand in for Vertical impact.
• By substituting the surprise or shock of superficial entertainment for the supernatural.
Church was designed to deliver what we were created to long for. Church must again be about a Vertical encounter that interrupts and alters everything. If it isn’t Vertical, is it really church at all? What do we really have to offer this horizontal world so burdened with its own happiness this moment? When we settle for a festival of felt needs at church, we fail to offer what God has charged us exclusively to give; we fail to facilitate what God has created people to need, and that is eternity—transcendence—the rare air of something totally beyond ourselves. Vertical is what God made us to long for and what the church is designed to facilitate.
When We Experience Transcendence
I experience transcendence when what God has made reminds me how little I am. I stand on the shore of an ocean and realize that there are worlds underneath the waves. I look up from the base of a mountain and am reminded, “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.”27 To experience the transcendent is to sense your smallness. By that I don’t mean transcendence makes me feel belittled or self-deprecating. A true encounter with the God of the universe makes me feel gladly small, perfectly puny, and happily so, in my assigned place and actual size! A true experience of eternity leaves us feeling, as C. S. Lewis said, “the infinite relief of having for once got rid of all the silly nonsense about your own dignity which has made you restless and unhappy all your life.”28 Transcendence is a healthy dose of insignificance to a race whose root sin is pride. Transcendence cuts us all down to our proper proportion before an awesome God. That you and I are not significant is a wonderful, freeing discovery, and that’s what church is for.
I experience transcendence when what God has made reminds me how little I am.
I experience transcendence when all that is knowable reminds me how little I know. I have an earned doctorate, which means I have been to more school than most, and have read a lot beyond that, but preparing this chapter has involved a heavy dose of ancient philosophy. In seeking to make eternity understandable, I realized again that the sum of my knowing is fractional and miniscule. I’m reminded that we should live with the awareness that the God who “upholds the universe by the word of his power”29 established it all and holds it all together.30
I experience transcendence when all that is knowable reminds me how little I know.
Only a tiny fraction of what is knowable has been discovered through scientific inquiry. Even the most learned people must confess in humility the vastness of what we do not understand. Recent scholarship on the new frontiers of science reveals their awareness that so little is discovered or truly understood in spite of all that is known.31 Beyond that is the only source of absolute sufficient truth, which is the Word of God. I have given my adult life thus far to the study of this particular book God wrote and confess to a stronger sense than I had in seminary of how very vast and deep the Scriptures are and how little I know of what He has revealed. In that moment of transcendence, a humble awareness of my own ignorance relative to all that can be known invites me to remain in awe before the One who knows the end from the beginning and everything in between. That’s what church is for.
I experience transcendence when something infinite reminds me I am finite. David the psalmist experienced this when he wrote, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?”32 We live in a solar system (our sun and eight planets) that has a diameter of approximately 7.5 billion miles. If you drove your space car at 65 mph around the clock, it would take you 13,172 years to get across it. And as large as our solar system is, it’s nothing when compared to our galaxy. There are over 100 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy alone, with each star representing a solar system more or less the size of our own with planets revolving around their own suns. That’s 100 billion solar systems in our galaxy. Astronomers guesstimate 50 billion galaxies in the universe. Then we learn that our universe is continuing to expand and we don’t have even a clue about the size of all God created. When I think of it all, I marvel that the God who spoke it into existence33 wants to reveal Himself to you and me and through us to others.
I experience transcendence when something infinite reminds me I am finite.
All of these experiences diminish any sense of personal sovereignty, forcing me to resign again as chairman of the board of my own life. Transcendence helps me accept that there is One who exists outside the boundaries of human knowing, who calls me to bow before Him and serve Him as the true Center of the universe. You and I can’t figure God out, but He placed within us the hunger to feast on Him as reality, and that’s what we go to church to find.
Transcendence versus Immanence
A problem that has arisen in the Western world church in the past one hundred years is that many love to hear preaching about the immanent aspects of God’s character to the exclusion of His transcendence. While it is wonderfully true that God is loving, merciful, caring, and compassionate, we err when we downplay or reject preaching about transcendence, holiness, omniscience, or omnipotence.
Heather Headley-Musso is a Tony Award–winning singer who has traveled the world with Andrea Bocelli and sung for presidents. She and her husband, Brian, a former NFL player, attend our church, and she frequently leads worship. I have always been a little amazed that they chose our church as their home, so when I got the chance, I asked her why.
“I come to this church because you preach to me different than I preach to myself,” she said. “I am always telling myself that God loves and will forgive, but here I can hear the things of the Lord I don’t prefer but know to be true.” That was an affirmation of what I want to communicate here. Church has to be about helping people discover what they can’t get anywhere else. But has church not, on many fronts of late, been about the very opposite? God forgive the church of Jesus Christ for trading its birthright access to the transcendent for the pot of stew that is horizontal helpfulness. How shortsighted and human centered. The outcome of this disaster is that we have created a Creator in our own image who weeps, cares, and longs to help, but in the end we doubt He can because we have made Him so much like ourselves. In making God our buddy, we find Him nice for cuddling but not much help when the hurricane comes.
Unfulfilled Longing for Transcendence Leads to Idolatry
There is great soul danger in spirituality without transcendence. When God exists to serve the creature, and church is about meeting my needs, I am sailing the ship of my own soul toward the rocks and will run aground in idolatry.34 This dreadful journey is detailed in Romans 1:18–23:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
In this foundational passage, Paul was explaining the universal commonality of human sinfulness that would take him through three chapters. Along the way, he established that all people—regardless of their race, knowledge, or attempts to establish their own righteousness—stand justly condemned before a holy God. But here in chapter 1, he began at the root of the problem. The dilemma of the human race is not that we are unaware of God but that when push comes to shove, we value ourselves more highly than we value God. The core of humanity’s sin problem is not a horizontal behavior to be corrected but a Vertical relationship to be restored. As a result of our sin, God has given us over to the evil inclination to elevate ourselves above the One who made us. Just as we saw in Ecclesiastes, however, even in that sin-darkened state, people are aware of something beyond themselves. God’s creation is shouting to us of His transcendence, but we silence the message in the idolization of self. All are aware of God, but most do not acknowledge God in His rightful place. We know there is something outside the realm of our senses, but we do not want to let go of what we hold dearest to find Him. Apart from God’s intervention, our idolatry escalates and ultimately destroys us.
God forgive the church of Jesus Christ for trading its birthright access to the transcendent for the pot of stew that is horizontal helpfulness.
Maybe, like me, you have a vague recognition of the name Blaise Pascal without an awareness of who he was. Brilliant and incredibly educated, Pascal lived from 1623–1662, just thirty-nine years. But in that short time he invented and influenced much that we take for granted today: from calculating machines to the first public transportation system, probability and decision theory, as well as the mathematics of risk management. He proved the existence of the vacuum, which set the stage for quantum physics. His statistical-probabilities analysis envisioned the insurance industry, management science, racing forms, lotteries, and Las Vegas. Pascal invented the vacuum pump and detailed our understanding of outer space. His thoughts stand behind the jet engine, internal-combustion motors, the atomic bomb, and mass media.35 All of this and much more came from the mind of Blaise Pascal.
In many darkened hearts, God is viewed as the invention of weak minds. Pascal was private about his faith, but after he died, one of his aides found a crumpled piece of paper pinned to the inside of his coat, where Pascal had written:
The year of grace 1654
Monday, 23 November … From about half past ten at night until about half past midnight
FIRE. God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob—Not the God of the philosophers and of the learned. Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace. God of Jesus Christ.
My God and your God.
Forgetfulness of the world and of everything, except God.
He can only be found by the ways taught in the Gospel.
Grandeur of the human soul. Righteous Father, the world has not known you, but I have known you.
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.
Let me not be separated from him forever. May I never forget his words. Amen.36
One of the greatest and most creative minds in human history could not be satisfied in itself and science. Pascal wrote prolifically of his insights and discoveries but echoed Solomon and the human search for eternity: “All men seek to be happy. This is without exception, whatever different means they use.”37 In the end Pascal concluded:
Since the present age never satisfies us, experience tricks us and leads us from misfortune to misfortune until death. What then does this craving and inability cry to us if not that there was once a true happiness in man of which there now remains only the mark and empty trace? We try mainly to fill it with everything around us, seeking from things absent, the help that we do not receive from things present, but they are all inadequate because only an infinite and immutable object that is God himself can fill this infinite abyss.38
We see the evidence of this abyss every day on the news as those in the public eye literally self-destruct. The images are engraved on our conscious minds, as people who find what everyone strives for then find it to be futility.
Ernest Hemingway put a shotgun in his mouth and blew away his brilliance. Marilyn Monroe stuffed herself with sleeping pills and slipped into eternity in search of the love that eluded her here.39 Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, River Phoenix, Heath Ledger, Amy Winehouse: the list could fill pages, each story shadowing the next down the slope of despair. Outside the artistic culture there is greater stability but less satisfaction. Why do athletes persist in careers beyond their prime even as they become a cartoon of their former selves? Why did Bernie Madoff continue to accumulate even to the point of absurdity? Why does Bill Gates jettison much that he acquires? Is he searching beyond success for a significance that exists outside of himself? And while the vividness of those who self-destruct for all to see confirms the universal nature of human longing for transcendence, should we not be moved to greater compassion for the masses around us, just as empty but alone and unknown? Should we not grieve over the frequency with which the church has given them trivia while they search for transcendence?
When we ask people what they want in church instead of giving them what they were created to long for, we play into the very idolatry that church was created to dismantle.
My point is that when we ask people what they want in church instead of giving them what they were created to long for, we play into the very idolatry that church was created to dismantle. Most of us don’t bring carved gods in our pockets to church. Instead, our idols are subtle variations of self: my sexuality, my sincere religiosity, my stuff, my substance to abuse, my perfect little family for a second or two, my insatiable ambition—these are the forms of idolatry church is supposed to tear down. When our churches serve banquets of self-centered theology, we create disillusionment in the hearts of people who feel God has failed them; but in reality God has not met with them at all.
Kathy and I planted Harvest Bible Chapel when I was age twenty-seven and fresh out of a seminary experience that almost extinguished the flame God had lit in my heart. But passion for the Vertical goes back much further in my life.
It began for me one summer in upstate New York. I understand better now how sending me to camp, a rebellious, stubborn teen, was welcome relief to my parents and how they must have been floored when I rushed into the kitchen ten days later and shattered their peace with the pronouncement “Mom and Dad, I found God.” It was the language of experience. Subsequent good theology heightened my appreciation of the grace that actually found me. It could have been a flash in the pan, and it might have faded by Labor Day weekend, but it didn’t. Even though I tried to escape, the Lord continued His pursuit of my stubborn heart, and He continues it today. Was I saved that summer, or did He bring me back again to the profession I had made as a seven-year-old boy by his mother’s bed on a cold February night ten years earlier? I don’t know, but this I do know: God met me through the heartfelt worship in a room called the Tabernacle, packed to the rafters with high school students; the passionate preaching of Christ and His Word in a way that truly engaged my heart; the loving interaction of authentic Christians who cared in a way that didn’t seem contrived; and the fervent prayers offered spontaneously outside the dining hall or on the path back to my cabin. There in the beauty and majesty of the Adirondack Mountains, by the deep blue of Schroon Lake, New York, God burst powerfully into my soul and I have never been satisfied with less since that day.
What I experienced that summer is what I have spent my life trying to bring to others. I had no idea how hard it would be or how many would join our pursuit. I certainly never imagined that someday people would read a book about what I believe the church must come back to. Since that summer, the goal of God experienced has never changed. Do you want that passion too, or want it again? Don’t you long to be part of a community giving itself in pursuit of the God who made us to long for Him? Even if you struggle with some of chapter 1, please stay with me. I am not writing as one who has arrived but inviting you to join our journey toward what we believe is a better and more biblical approach to church. Please allow me to develop it further and add detail about this worthiest of goals. I promise we will get to some “hows” that I have spent my life discovering, but first, another chapter, more specific, regarding the “what.” If we are not crystal clear about what a Vertical Church must be, we will struggle to reach it and never remain there. In chapter 2, we will move from what our hearts long for to what God has specifically provided to fulfill that longing. It’s what should fill our churches every weekend and carry God’s people through the week. It’s what the masses long for and desperately need to experience. It’s not easy to facilitate, but when we truly have it in our churches, it’s time to order more chairs.