O Come, Let Us Adore Him–If We Can Stand It

I love the sights of Christmas. My beloved spends considerable time and skill “Christmasing” our home and there is something beautiful to look at almost everywhere. Sculptures of choristers or crèches in each nook; glittering ornaments catching the light in every direction; model villages evoking the longing for a truly peaceful, joyful society; photos of our sons with Santa Claus taken every year but one of the twenty-three years we have had at least one son; and of course our tree laden with commemorative ornaments we have gathered from every place we have traveled or lived.

I love Christmas movies, too–almost too much. We have watched our favourite movies so many times that we recite lines of dialogue as punchlines throughout the year, the way more spiritual families can recite Scripture. (Hmm….)

But you know what I don’t much care to do? Look at the baby Jesus.

If I had been a shepherd or a wise man (students of mine: don’t bother with the easy jokes here, thank you very much), I would have hurried to see the Messiah, the King of the Jews, sure. Amazing!

But having seen him, I likely would have been looking for the door after five minutes or so. “Yes, that sure is a baby and it’s great that Emmanuel has arrived . . . but I wonder if I could borrow your computer to check my e-mail . . . .”

It’s a standard statement in systematic theology that God is invisible. But I’m not so sure God is literally invisible. Some people in the Bible seem to have seen God (Moses, Isaiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, John . . .). I wonder if it isn’t that God is invisible so much as that we can’t see him, which isn’t the same thing.

Paul says he “dwells in unapproachable light.” God is too hard for us to look at, too bright, too dazzling, even painfully so. So God is invisible the way a brigher version of the  sun would be invisible. We need better, much better eyes with which to see him.

(Some of you are thinking of the Narnia Chronicles and C. S. Lewis’s depiction of his heroes gaining stronger and stronger eyes as they race toward Aslan’s Kingdom. C. S. Lewis was right again.)

Paul also tells us to let our mind’s eye, so to speak, spend time on “what is true, what is honorable, what is right, what is pure, what is lovely” (Phil. 4:8). In fact, he tells us to “dwell on” such things.

But I confess to a very limited attention span in that regard. To be sure, I can watch good, and even not-so-good, Hollywood movies for a couple of hours at a stretch quite easily. Yet I generally can’t look at the Bible that long, or Christian poetry, or paintings of Christ (even the best ones), let alone sit in a chair or kneel on the floor and just dwell on whatever comes to my mind as I try to meditate on what is truly excellent, truly of God.

Our last son is halfway through teenhood and each week or so we debate what movies are appropriate to watch. He’ll sometimes say about objectionable material what is perhaps what teenagers typically say to their parents: “Papa, it won’t bother me. I’m used to that.”

And I think, and sometimes say, “But you shouldn’t be used to that! It should bother you.” And I wonder about my parenting, of course, and I then try desperately to think of a way to blame my wife instead. (I haven’t found a way to do that yet.)

Dante’s Divine Comedy concludes with the beatific vision: a giant Rose Bowl of heavenly spectators gazing forever in adoration of the Trinity. You know what? It sounds completely boring to me, particularly given Dante’s geometricized portrayal of God as so many interweaving spheres. It’s kind of a groovy light show, I guess, but after a while, it pales.

I’m not sure, however, what alternative portrayal of God would hold my attention much longer. I do love God and I serve him as best I can. I am grateful to be adopted by him and I gladly talk about him to anyone who will listen. I just don’t want to stop and enjoy God’s beauty, and I generally don’t. I have books to read and TV to watch and the Internet to surf.

I have sung “O Come, Let Us Adore Him” for almost fifty years now. But I still don’t do it much, this adoring thing. I can’t really stand it. Can you?

0 Responses to “O Come, Let Us Adore Him–If We Can Stand It”

  1. poetreehugger

    “I do love God and I serve him as best I can.” Sounds like adoring to me…

  2. Agnus Tuck

    “Dante’s Divine Comedy concludes with the beatific vision: a giant Rose Bowl of heavenly spectators gazing forever in adoration of the Trinity. You know what? It sounds completely boring to me, particularly given Dante’s geometricized portrayal of God as so many interweaving spheres. It’s kind of a groovy light show, I guess, but after a while, it pales.”

    I generally assume that freedom from the body’s limited senses will enable a more appealling experience. Sometimes an interest of mine will wane in favour of another, like losing interest in action figures in favour of American politics. I assume earthly pleasures will give way as easily when the spirit matures.

    “I just don’t want to stop and enjoy God’s beauty, and I generally don’t. I have books to read and TV to watch and the Internet to surf.”

    I would like to think that God’s beauty is even unintentionally captured in those creations, and that it’s in part what we respond to.

  3. John Stackhouse

    Thanks, poetreehugger, for the encouragement. But I don’t think that service is the same as adoration. They’re connected, of course, but the monastic distinction between prayer and work (ora et labora), the contemplative and the active, is what I’m getting at here.

    As for Agnus Tuck’s comment, well, I don’t see us ever experiencing “freedom from the body’s limited senses” since I understand resurrection to mean we will be embodied forever. Still, I take your point that our tastes (and abilities) change as we mature, so perhaps I will grow in both respects to enjoy the beatific vision. For now, though, I simply have to report as truthfully as I can that adoration is mostly an activity I envy in others.

    • poetreehugger

      When you mention “the monastic distinction between prayer and work”, I am reminded of Brother Lawrence. He seemed to achieve a state (or a way of life) where the two blended into a continuous, lived-out worship. Although it took him much time and discipline to achieve.
      I also have to ask you a question related to your “very limited attention span in that regard” (of dwelling on the lovely, on God). It seems to me when I read your books, which I enjoy so much for the clarity of thought and conciseness of language, you must have spent a great deal of time doing exactly that, pondering or dwelling on these issues. Or maybe your mind is able to do that quickly and easily which I take enjoyable hours to think over and reflect on…

      • John Stackhouse

        Thank-you for these kinds words! I guess what I’m saying is that (a) I’m no Brother Lawrence (!) and (b) I am indeed capable of sustained periods of attention to various sorts of things, including theological things, but rarely to God in Godself.

        Alas, working hard to understand and express ideas about God is not the same thing as admiring and praising God for the realities those ideas express. The latter is what I’m calling “adoration,” and is something in this New Year I’d like to engage in more often and at greater length.

        Thank-you once more, however, for the Christmas gifts of your affirmations. They mean a lot to me, as they would to any author. Happy Christmas to you!

  4. Rob

    Okay, so you’re not asking us to deconstruct your own lack of adoration, but rather asking us to describe our own, if it exists.
    First, however, I’m compelled to say “thank you” for your vulnerability. Too often we think that these same feelings within ourselves are because we’re “laymen” and that those who study Him full time are somehow holier than we are and thus immune to such difficulties.
    Second, in answer to your question, yes I do find myself adoring Him and I can definitely see that adoration getting more consuming as I mature (to borrow the word from the previous poster) to “glorification”. I don’t think I quite agree with Dante’s depiction of what eternity will be like. I’ve never read The Divine Comedy, but given your description it sounds to me like “the trillion year worship service”. That would indeed be quite boring. I’ve heard a great sermon that gave a description of “the new earth” that is pretty much our existence without sin. At that point, worship will be clear and, further, we’ll see His hand in all the things we love, enjoy and do. Adoration will be easy, I think.
    As for now (in my fallen, non-glorified state), I have a distinct advantage in that I have a long commute and my car’s radio is broken 🙂 Even with that, I don’t often find myself able to focus on Him as would be prudent. When I do it’s because I first rationally consider what’s He’s done, and what He will do (hope); and then I allow myself to get emotional about it a little. This is especially possible since the birth of my two sons. Our youngest is barely one month now and I find it much easier to personalize just what happened with the Advent of the Christ. I look at him and think “Gosh, the God of the Universe was just like that.” It’s not that babies are cute (even though they are) it’s that He’s God and He was a seemingly helpless baby so that I could know Him. This is a nice tie in, I think, with the cross. He was seemingly helpless then too, and it was for me. I adore Him when I consider that.

  5. Samuel

    John,

    Inspired by your honesty and confession, I, too, have to confess that I do not adore him as I ought. For me, too many things get in the way: my own brokenness, the distractions around me, and also, I suppose, the enemy’s wiles. To steal a phrase from Darrell Johnson, most of the time I’m content with giving my ‘mild approval’ rather than true adoration.

    Two more autobiographical observations, if I might: I’ve been reading a little of Jonathan Edwards’ Life and Diary of David Brainerd. It seems that I, along with probably most evangelical Christians today, do not experience God the way that our spiritual forefathers of the revival movements did. I don’t mean to romanticize the evangelical revivals as models of Christian piety, but it seems that we simply do not have an appreciation for the sheer glory of God that the early revivalists did. At least I don’t. I’m not sure why. Probably a combination of those three things I mentioned earlier. I do hope my spiritual sensitivity (or, to use CS Lewis’ metaphor, spiritual keenness of sight)of God’s glory grows as I continue to mature in faith.

    Second, I wonder if my own spiritual poverty is not also connected with Jesus’ lesson in Luke 7 with the woman who washes Jesus’ feet with her tears. The one who is forgiven much loves much, after all. For most of my Christian life most of the time, I simply have not been that sinful woman. No, I have been much more like the Pharisee, who may have invited Jesus into his home, yes, but who sits fairly smugly in my own righteousness while the ‘true’ sinners are at Jesus’ feet. To be honest, I simply have not been in a spiritual posture to adore him. Again, I hope this posture continues to change in me as I grow in faith.

    Anyway. Thanks for the post, and for the conversation.

  6. Andrew

    I’ve found that all of the distractions and noise of the world we live in – whether it’s the niggling thought that there might be an email waiting for you, the barrage of advertisements, or the onslaught of demands to be constantly busy – can really make simple contemplation difficult. I often find, when I want to sit and think, pray, or even read a long book, that other thoughts keep arising, competing for my attention. I’ve been trying to develop the discipline of closing the door to these things (metaphorically or literally), that I may open the door to God a little wider.

    Dante, certainly, helped me to understand something of what it is to contemplate God. I also came across the mystic Evelyn Underhill this month, whose writings have also been helpful in this regard. But the single most useful thing I’ve found in turning my distraction to contemplation has been introducing an element of ritual into my form of prayer, through using the daily offices from the Book of Common Prayer. Ritual is something that tends to be lacking in evangelical churches (at least the ones I’ve attended), and I think needs to be rediscovered, without of course abusing it. I realized recently that having a completely different service every week means that I am constantly judging what is being said, which is another distraction from actual prayer. On the other hand, using the daily offices gives me something to follow, so if some distraction arises, it’s much easier to simply ignore it and plough on. Furthermore, having something set like that encourages me to lay aside a block of time for prayer. Things like the Psalms also remind me to look beyond my own thoughts, desires, and words to God. After awhile, as the words have become increasingly familiar, it is these prayers rather than questions about email that arise in my mind. This is, gradually, allowing me to concentrate on God without needing to attend to the other trifling concerns I might have.

    This problem isn’t something that I’ve managed to solve entirely (and I feel a little silly writing this to you, of all people), but perhaps it may be of some use.

  7. Dan

    Thank you for sharing your personal reflections so candidly. They all hit very close to home for me but I do not have the boldness to share my conscience as publically as you have.

    Although I value my faith walk as genuine and have my moments close to Him, it would appear that much of my life is consumed by “busyness” – or just busy getting busy….

    I have had my moments with Him and there are usually different seasons around that, depending on my “busyness”. Even when I feel I am in-service for Him, I sometimes get too distracted to cherrish the relationsship – or even His presence in the situation…..

    I’d like to feel that I could be the first one there and the last one “standing” – but sadly – I typically fall somewhere (vaguely) between those posts. Often, our moments with Him come during a passionate sermon or worship service. That should happen even more frequently in the prayer closet or as we bathe in His word.

    After reading and contemplating your thoughts, I will be watching more dilligently for time to share with Him and draw closer, through all the “busyness”.

    Blessings

  8. Travis

    “If I had been a shepherd or a wise man (students of mine: don’t bother with the easy jokes here, thank you very much)”

    Come on John…I mean don’t pitch the softballs over the heart of the plate if you don’t want us to knock ’em out of the park…

    • John Stackhouse

      The warning was for your own good, Travis. But sure, feel free to mock the professor on whom your academic career currently depends. Nothing–I repeat, nothing–bad will happen to your grades, past or future.

      In fact, to make sure I grade your current final exam with full impartiality, I think I’ll dig it out of the pile right now…. [Sounds of lips smacking]

      • Travis

        ahhh John,

        many thank yous for this post. It has given me the right words to say for my course review (and perhaps even a good opening for a letter to the academic dean?). “completely incompetent as a teacher” has a nice ring to it….My academic career may depend on you but next time you put some food on your table I want you to say: “This meal was brought to you in part by the budding genius Travis Barbour”

        but seriously Merry Christmas to you and you family–wishing you the peace of Christ at this time! In all seriousness I enjoyed the above blog as well. Unfortunately I can relate a little too well…especially:

        “I love Christmas movies, too–almost too much. We have watched our favourite movies so many times that we recite lines of dialogue as punchlines throughout the year, the way more spiritual families can recite Scripture. (Hmm….)”

        I wish the content from class could be verbally spewed out as easily as lines such as:

        “you’ll shoot your eye out kid”

    • Tracy

      Travis, don’t let him bully you – nobody’s “academic career currently depends” on any one professor – even JGS. I can say this with confidence, even being in an especially “vulnerable” position as his thesis student – he doesn’t give what he can’t take! 😉

  9. Bennett

    So during a sermon last week I noticed in Matt 2:14-15 the author evokes a prophecy from the OT. My NASB pointed to three different places, but my favorite was Numbers 24:8-9. Where are all the Christmas carols about baby Jesus coming to devour his enemies and crush their(our?) bones?

    Thanks for this very honest post. Having just re-read The Great Divorce it is especially easy for me to imagine what you are describing. I like the expression “it isn’t that God is invisible so much as that we can’t see him, which isn’t the same thing”. We think of invisibility as a part of God’s character (poor fellow, He can’t be seen), rather than seeing it as a mere fact of our visualization limits.

  10. Timotheos

    Teresa of Avila would probably put it this way: knowing God results in self-knowledge through an inner journey into my life that will lead to him. People, however, are so caught up with worldly cares that they are content simply with “doing” things, and never enter into the kind of prayer that leads to a genuine divine encounter. The soul, for Teresa, is God’s paradise, being made by him and for his pleasure.

    At the end of the year I have been reflecting on the past year and what I want to change next year. I resonate a bit too much with your comments, and want to to boldly and bravely enter into the interior life and meet with God rather than be satisfied with being a mover and shaker in the world of ministry….

  11. Ron

    John,

    That beatific vision stuff seems to miss an essential point about the hereafter. We don’t end up in heaven…its life after life-after-death that really matters (and seems a lot more interesting to me). We end up back on Earth with new, resurrected bodies… and work to do! I’m thinking it will be pretty engaging work as well… Check out “Surprised by Hope” by NT Wright for a fuller explanation….

    • John Stackhouse

      Or, for that matter, check out “Making the Best of It,” by J. G. Stackhouse, Jr. Tom doesn’t need the royalties or readers: I do!

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