An Interview With Mark Galli, Managing Editor of Christianity TodayBlog / Produced by The High Calling
Mark Galli's recent book, A Great and Terrible Love, takes on the daunting topic of God's attributes and delivers a profound meditation on the Person we worship. Galli, senior managing editor at Christianity Today, articulates the questions about God that haunt many believers. The book's answers are often as surprising as they are satisfying. In anticipation of his retreat at Laity Lodge, we took the opportunity to speak with Mark about his recent book.
Most would think of a book on God's attributes as being philosophical and possibly dry in character. Yours is surprisingly meditative and devotional—a rich source for those looking not only to know God in a deeper way but also to love God. How did you come to the writing of the book? Why did it occur to you that meditating on the attributes of God might be a way of approaching key questions of Christian spirituality?
This is the second book in a series on the "hard edges of God." The first book was Jesus Mean and Wild about how there are many biblical passages in which Jesus was anything but sweet and gracious. I was looking at how we understand those episodes as expressions of God's love, since Jesus is God's love incarnate.
So in the next book I wanted to think about the big picture of God. What are the things about God that make him seem distant and aloof, even intimidating? The point of the book is that the highest attribute of God is that he is love. It asks, "How is the God who is said to be omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent—as well as jealous, wrathful, and righteous—how does this God we worship embody love?"
Why does God want us to wrestle with him in prayer, both acknowledging God's sovereignty and yet affirming the validity of personal expressions of need?
This has to do with the doctrine of God's immutability—God's unchanging character and God's sovereign will. People wonder the point of praying, since we are always praying that things will be different—and God is said not to change. Does prayer do any good or not?
I'm trying to preserve our understanding of God's sovereignty, which is so important because it comes through time and again in Scripture. I try to solve the prayer paradox this way: God has unchanging purposes for our lives, for the future of the Church, for the coming Kingdom of heaven. We cannot alter God's will in these things.
But God humbles himself in the form of a servant, so that at times he allows us freedom of choice in participating in his work. Our choice, be it x or y, is okay as long as it's made with the right intention. As long as we do things to glorify Him, to love other people, God accepts our choice.
We also have to think about the miracle that prayer is. In the Lord's Prayer, God tells us to hallow God's name and to help bring in God's Kingdom. God's name will be hallowed and his Kingdom will come whether we pray to these ends or not, yet we are called to pray for them anyway. The fact that the holy, transcendent God of the universe would allow us to speak with him is a miracle. And we can pray for everything from the Kingdom coming to having our cancer cured. The door is always open to the transcendent God of the universe!
I thought the book was particularly helpful in pointing to the Cross as the preeminent answer to the problem of good and evil. Would you comment?
I don't think there's a Christian answer that can make us comfortable with evil. But what the Cross does say is that evil and suffering are real and that they will be experienced as godlessness. ("My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?")
Now those who rail against the Christian faith will say that it all seems pointless and ask: "How could you believe in a God that allows such evil?" And they have a point.
The Christian witness is that in the very midst of such evil—of godlessness—God is to be found. That is what we see in the Cross—both godlessness and the presence of God occurring simultaneously. In the Cross, we see God's judgment of the world as an evil place that deserves nothing but death, and his radical grace that says that I am going to embrace this world nonetheless.
The book has the courage to take on aspects of God that many shy away from. Why is it important that we acknowledge God as a jealous God and even a wrathful God?
Focusing on the attributes of God is extremely important today, when the evangelical movement is wrapped up more in "what would make the church and culture better . . . ?" than on looking at who God is. It seems to me that the Gospel is about God first and foremost. It shows us who God is through what he has done: He's come to us as Christ. He's died and risen again. It's really important for us as Christians to think about who God is before thinking about what we should do. Acknowledging who God is informs everything we do from that point on.
As for jealousy and wrath, they're both biblical and part of the revelation. They're God saying, "This is who I am." Jealousy is especially noted in the Old Testament, but wrath in both books. Jesus in his ministry shows the wrath of God incarnate when he gets angry with the Pharisees, overturns tables in the temple, and curses a fig tree! That these attributes are in both testaments and witnessed to by Jesus means we cannot ignore these attributes.
We need to realize that God's jealousy and wrath are not driven like our jealousy and wrath are driven, which is usually by pride and ego. God is a God of love. He's different from us. He is jealous for the welfare of his creation—he's not indifferent about it.
I use an illustration of a small child running into the street and his mother rushing out, jerking him onto the sidewalk, and letting him have it. Maybe even spanking him for emphasis. Is she jealous and wrathful? What she's doing is entirely to make it clear to him that what he has done was dangerous. That motherly anger of the moment, that wrath, is driven by her jealousy that her child grow up and have a full and complete life.
In the same way, the passages that talk about God's jealousy and wrath are all driven by the desire that his creation be the thing he has called it to be. (And we are the people who are constantly running out in the street.) Through these passages, he helps us not only take him seriously, he also reminds us of how seriously he takes us.
The book closely considers how even our desire to repent often (and maybe always) conceals a hidden desire to manipulate God. You show that God's mercy rises even above this. Would you comment?
Yes. I write about how even God's mercy is something that can intimidate us. If we understand mercy for what it is, it means we bring nothing to the table before God. What we, as evangelical Christians, try to bring to the table is what I call a penitent attitude. We come to the table saying, "I have a right for you, God, to pay attention to me." Or, "I recognize that I fail to live up to the life you've called me to live out, but at least I'm coming to you and repenting." Or we come to God with something even more selfish, and that is "I feel guilty—ashamed of who I am," and we want prayer to lift that burden. In a sense, we use God, because the most important thing for us is not God, it's that uncomfortable feeling we're trying to get rid of. Even our most holy and religious actions are convoluted and selfish, and we really have to start taking the word "mercy" with absolute seriousness.
Our truly prayerful actions involve a complete abandonment of the idea that we can bring anything to God that would justify us. Once we grasp God's free act of grace and mercy, we're freed to go out and love and serve the Lord with gladness and joy. Not because we owe him something or because it's our duty, but just in realizing that everything is about mercy. Everything is about grace.
Why is our virtual participation in the life of the Trinity so key both to our love of God and neighbor? How is the doctrine of the Trinity the wellspring of Christian spirituality?
We have to see that at the core of the Trinity there is an experience of love, which is God's highest attribute. What's amazing to me is that God is love and experiences love perfectly—he doesn't need anyone else for him to know and be love—yet the nature of love is that it spills out from that kind of self-sufficiency and over into creation. So God in effect creates a world that he knows ahead of time is going to reject his love, yet he does it anyway.
God's loving us is a complete and utter act of mercy and grace at its most mysterious. And if that's the nature of God's love toward me, well, comprehending that makes for a startling, awesome moment. So the Trinity is not just a model for us of how to love others, it's more a realization of love that's perfect but also that overflows and is willing to love the imperfect. It's the realization of that miracle of grace that transforms me, and suddenly I'm loving out of gratitude and joy.
How can understanding the attributes of God better lead us to embrace our work as a means of serving God, and how might the laity be emboldened in their particular tasks in the world through considering the attributes of God?
It gets back to what I talk about in the book: what happens to us when we grasp various dimensions of God's love for us. We talked about his jealousy, which is a sign of how seriously he takes us and loves us. Also his mercy, forgiveness, and grace. And we talked about God's not needing us for love but his love overflowing to the things not worthy of love. So each of those attributes of God ends up pointing to the radical grace of God, his miraculous love for us, and his grace and forgiveness of us. And that, then, is the miracle that can actually begin to transform us from people who are living all about ourselves to people who can truly go out in the world to love and serve the Lord with "gladness and singleness of heart." Our work then becomes an act of gratitude and joy for the miracle of life—the miracle of forgiveness, mercy, grace, and a promised transformation in the Kingdom. The more we understand who God is, the more that understanding transforms everything we do.
Why does God's mystery—his ultimate unknowability—draw us to God? How does the mystery of God make for the adventure of the Christian life?
To me, it works this way: If we are worshiping a god or praying to a god who we really feel we understand, then we're no longer worshiping or praying to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. We're praying to a dime-store god whom we can manage, understand, and control. We've lost the Creator of heaven and earth who does all these strange things that we can't comprehend. So, you see, to participate with the God of the Bible as revealed in Christ is to participate in the life of a God of mystery.
There is something built into the human heart and soul that is drawn by mystery. In the book, I use the analogy of falling in love. The first months of a love affair entail an insatiable desire to know everything we can about a person. We are drawn by their mystery. And in a good marriage, there remains a tremendous amount of mystery in that the more you get to know a person, the more you realize there are these different depths and layers that you'll never figure out. God's mystery is a way of his hiding himself, showing us a little bit of himself so that we'll ask for more. And God is infinite, and we are finite, and this is sort of the journey of eternity. Because of the nature of who God is and who we are, it's going to be an infinite exploration into the mystery of God. That's what will make it incredible for those of us who like to bask in mystery.