Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Sin and Reaching for the Invisible God

I was lent a Reaching for the Invisible God by Philip Yancey many months ago by a member of my cell group, but although I started it I didn’t finish it and it sat on my shelf for quite a long time. Sadly though my friend is leaving York and so my cell very soon and so I have to return it to him. Rather than give it back unread (which I think quite disrespectful) I have forced myself to finish it.

Philip Yancey is clearly an intelligent man who has read widely. He writes in what are effectively strings of thoughts or anecdotes. This means that it is hard to pin down what he is trying to say in a bullet point fashion of the sort that appeals to my analytical mind. Once I finished the book I tried to do just that, and produced something quite unhelpful. His contents page gave me the best clues though, and it suggested that the book was all about growing in a relationship with a invisible God who often ‘seems absent, indifferent or even hostile’. He has many things to say and stories to relate which hint at how such a relationship can be possible, and can be sustained.

Although I am slightly unsure of my feelings towards the book, I could make several comments on this blog. Some of these would be positive, for example commending his avoidance of easy answers, and others would be negative, he could for example be questioned about whether his heavy reliance on other peoples experiences and writings could suggest a lack of confidence in the ability of the bible to shed light on the concerns of the book. But I thought I would just briefly mention a concern of mine which persisted throughout my reading of it.

I was always concerned that Yancey doesn’t seem to bring sin into the question of our relationship with God. Having said that, he clearly thinks that we need to be reformed to reach the invisible God, and the spiritual disciplines are clearly close to his heart. However, I cannot help suspecting that for him sin is just an obstacle to be overcome in perusing a relationship with God. He seems to suggest that the only reason sin should concern us because it prevents us reaching God and so happiness, rather than because it is something that is a concern of God himself. In fact the word ‘sin’ is rarely mentioned by Yancey at all. This approach of Yancey’s contrasts strongly with that of the biblical writers. Paul leaves the blame for lack of knowledge of God firmly at the door of the sinner (Rom 1:20-23; Eph 4 :17-18). The psalmist can even call the one who doubts Gods existence a fool (Ps 14:1). Also, whereas Yancey points out how God’s ‘shyness’ can be for our good, God in the bible often announces that he is ‘shy’ because of the wrong we have done. Yancey does not mention that, perhaps because of the bad experiences he has had in the past with fundamentalist churches. Obviously, we too have to be careful here as everyone suffers doubts, and that does not mean we should doubt our salvation, or become paranoid introspective Christians. But I think we should doubt the motives of our doubts as much as we doubt the motives of our faith, if not more.

We should not dwell on sin for too long though, but move towards our hope for its destruction, and our new creation when there will be no more doubts. However, this leads me to a connected problem that I have with Yancey’s book. Even a book focused on the personal search for God, as his is, should surely highlight the work of Jesus in his death and resurrection in enabling a relationship to God to be enjoyed by sinners, but as far as I can remember Philip Yancey doesn’t mention it. This is saddening and not very honouring to Christ, but I will not dwell on it further.

I may be being too hard on Yancey because I do not totally understand his goals in writing this book. He has many good points to make, and pastoral responsibility is very important when talking about the relationship of our sin to our doubts. I also know that I have it far from sewn up, and could not even begin to imagine how I would write a book on our relationship to God. However, I think that Knowing God by Jim Packer would be a better choice for anyone wanting a book on this subject, although is style is no where near as good.


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