The God Who Isn’t Always What You’re Looking For (May-Jun 2003)

By Matt Dabbs

by John Alan Turner
May – June, 2003

My wife, Jill, has been corresponding with a friend from high school who is getting a Ph.D. in Artificial Intelligence from a prestigious school in England. Raised Mormon, he now proclaims himself agnostic, argues with naturalist reasoning and speaks like an anti-theist, but he doesn’t admit it.

Until very recently, I ministered for a church in west Texas.Around here,“origins” may mean tracing the beginning of your church back to AD 33; so, I’ve had to bone up on the basics of our apologetics again in order to assist Jill in these email conversations.That means immersing myself in the writings of Francis Schaeffer and others who deal so eloquently with difficult questions of epistemology and ontology. Schaeffer has moved me to love God with “all my mind” again.

I read Schaeffer’s classic, The God Who Is There. Profound and insightful, he still manages to be accessible and clear. I believe it ought to be required reading for good Christian thinking.Thirty years after Schaeffer’s book was published, Bill Hybels wrote The God You’re Looking For. There is something about the similarity of these titles that strikes me; it bugged me until finally the connection landed: the titles say something significant about the way our thinking has changed in thirty years that separate their release dates.

The God Who is There

Francis Schaeffer spoke to the 1960s generation that still seemed to care enough about the concept of God to actually despair over its loss. In Schaeffer’s analysis, self-medication, the sexual revolution, existentialism and even madness were not merely sin and debauchery for the fun of it, they were the logical conclusions of philosophical ideas surfacing in the works of American artists, writers and film makers.The old ways of thinking were being stripped away by philosophers and theologians until God was nothing but a memory.Yet Schaeffer pointed out that memory was more than nothing, that this memory of God and propositional truth can be retrieved.

Francis Schaeffer spoke to young people from families that still prayed to God, in a nation that still pledged allegiance to him. Many of these students actually made the long trek to Schaeffer’s home in Switzerland, to find out if there was any validity to their childhood beliefs about God and the meaning of human existence.When Schaeffer gave credibility to both, and even a historical context for understanding why they had doubted God in the first place, many were persuaded to believe.Thirty years ago, most people thought it was enough to prove the logical probability of God’s existence and the reliability of the scriptures.

It was assumed that belief would follow the evidence. The God Who Is There assumes that people care enough to do something about God, should it prove to be a rational thing to believe in him.

Reading Schaeffer again today makes me long for such a mind-set. It also makes the despair of the 60s and 70s seem almost attractive when compared to the moral relativism and self-absorption that characterizes most of western culture in our time. I wish more people cared enough today to actually despair! I wish that truth meant enough for people to lament its absence; I wish that proving the rationality of the existence of God would assume the embracing of that God as its logical consequence.

The God Whom You’re Looking For

We live in a generation that has moved beyond the rational boundaries of Schaeffer’s day—even beyond despair. Hope is fantasy. Truth is whatever anyone wants to make it. God is a concept to be used only when useful.

Religion is a preference. There is nothing beyond ourselves to which we can appeal; only the subjective desires and felt needs of human existence are left. The God Who is There is about as relevant to today’s thought processes as Francis Schaeffer’s jodhpurs.

It’s not that the truth is no longer true; it’s just that the postmodern mind doesn’t seem to possess the thought forms necessary to grasp truth as absolute. Announce the God “who is there” today, and people will want to know which God you’re talking about. On which channel? Representing which ethnic group? And if he is “there,” just where is there? Is he out on video, yet? Does she have a website? And before anything else, people would want to know what this God could do for them, because whether or not God is there, the operative question is, what can belief in this God do for me?

Today, The God You’re Looking For is an appropriate title. Is there any other way to address a postmodern mind except by way of the expressed needs, longings and desires of people? The churches who are adopting this approach are reaching a new generation. But they are also unearthing new dilemmas in ministry. Schaeffer himself said that each generation of the church “has the responsibility of communicating the gospel in understandable terms, considering the language and thought forms of that setting” (Escape from Reason, 94). What if the language and thought forms of a generation are inept at holding the kind of belief systems necessary to sustain a relationship with God over the long haul? Then, quite simply, it is up to us to respectfully teach people to think in thought forms that are foreign to them—that are outside their cultural experience.To some degree, then, in helping people learn how to follow God, we must now help them learn how to think properly all over again. If people no longer have the thought forms to grasp absolute truth, then we have to teach and challenge them to love God with all their present minds until God can form in them a new mind. Paul’s words in Romans 12:2, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind,” take on new significance in this regard. It will take a new mind to even believe.

If the postmodern mind cannot grasp an absolute truth, what gives? Either the postmodern mind, or the God we preach…and the God of the Bible has never been very interested in making adjustments in his character or his nature in deference to our inadequate thought processes. In order for new believers to grow in their understanding of and relationship with God, we must help them graduate from faith in a God they met on one level, to a God who demands they stretch their minds in order to meet him in ways they have never thought of before. And in the process of transformation and sanctification, we discover that God does not exist for us;we exist for him. He is the absolute one in the equation…

“True worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth” (John 4:23). When Jesus spoke those words, he was not speaking of my truth, but of his truth to which I adjust myself and my thought processes. New believers have come to God because he has met their need; mature believers come to God regardless of their need.They come because he is God and he is worthy of their worship and allegiance.

The Current Task

If, in fact, our minds must conform to God’s vision for himself, then our task is difficult and poses tricky questions. For instance,we’ve embraced a vision of God who is relevant and contemporary. Yet, when we find that God can also be irrelevant and old and difficult to follow, will we still love and obey him? What will we choose when we find that the God of the “easy yoke” is also the God who demands that we take up the instrument of our own death and follow him wherever he chooses? What do we do when “the God who is there” is not “the God anyone is looking for” or even wants? Do we still preach him? Will we be tempted to continue giving people a God they are looking for when the God who is there no longer holds their interest?

Both these titles are true and necessary. The God You’re Looking For is a title that can start people thinking about God today, but at some point, the God you are looking for has to become The God Who Is There—the God who was there all along, and the God who will be there forever. He is The Absolute, regardless of our ability or inability to conceive of him. This is the God who deserves our praise whether or not he fits our preconceived ideas or meets our needs. Somewhere in me, I hear God saying to us all today, “If you are looking for God, I am the God you get, because I am who I am.”New Wineskins

John Alan Turner lives just outside of Atlanta, GA, with his wife Jill and their two daughters Anabel and Eliza. He is pursuing a Ph.D. in religion and philosophy. Having served churches in California, Maryland and Texas, John now works as a freelance writer and speaker. He speaks to thousands of people every year at youth rallies, retreats and conferences. [jaturner@pastors.com]

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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