Today, I continue my interview with Timothy Stoner, author of The God Who Smokes: Scandalous Meditation on Faith.
Trevin Wax: You write about worshipping a God who “lets you drop,” who lets you get hurt. How does this view of God counter the popular belief that “God is always there for me”?
Timothy Stoner: God is not safe; nor can He be manipulated. He is perfect in His wisdom and love and knows much better than we what we really need. And He is not averse to allowing/causing pain, struggle and disappointments that He knows are essential for our maturation, growth, refinement and strengthening.
He tells us that He is like a gardener who will not let sympathy for his plants dissuade Him from trimming or cutting off (sometimes ruthlessly) branches that are unproductive or that are preventing maximum fruit bearing.
Because of our inveterate selfishness and idolatry it is not unusual for God to orchestrate deep suffering that we might learn to draw our comfort from Him alone and to shape us into vessels filled with comfort for others.
God is always there for me only in the sense that He is working all things: pain, sorrow, loss, sickness, defeat, sins and successes, together for my maximum good and His ultimate glory.
Trevin Wax: It’s interesting that you justify your belief in the exclusivity of Jesus Christ by turning to the marriage relationship. How has your understanding of marriage and covenant helped you grapple with Jesus’ exclusive claims regarding salvation?
Timothy Stoner: One of the most beautiful metaphors in the Bible for the relationship of God and His people is that of Bridegroom and Bride. Hosea is a prime example. The Decalogue and the book of Deuteronomy are replete with explicit and implicit declarations of the holy jealousy of God the lover for the exclusive devotion of His beloved.
There is nothing demeaning or improper about this depiction of God’s jealousy. Lovers are rightfully exclusive in their devotion. That is the nature of romantic love: there can only be one beloved. God, as husband, Lord, Master, King, Lover appropriately demands, expects, and urges the undivided deveotion and faithfulness of His bride for whom He gave up the best that He had—His only Son.
What we fail to note is that this demand for exclusivity is for our benefit more than God’s. Though He will not be diminished and damaged by our harlotry, we will be. So, it is a jealousy for the good of the beloved, not out of a selfish need to be loved. This helps me understand how salvation—the commitment to the Lord Jesus is like a marriage covenant entered into between the bride and her divine (royal) groom who has given up His life for the one He loves.
Trevin Wax: You write about the need for evangelicals to have a greater appreciation for art. How do we appreciate and create culture as evangelicals and still remain focused on personal evangelism?
Timothy Stoner: Good art can be a means of grace that points away from darkness and despair to hope and light. It can be a window through which humans can see the True, the Good and the Beautiful – all of which are signs pointing ultimately to Jesus the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
Art can provoke dissatisfaction with the finite, the material, the earthly by evoking longing for our true home and our good Father. It can remind us that this world is not our home, that there is a reality that is more real and more substantial that stands behind this world. It can be a means to break down intellectual prejudices and crack open a window where grace can stream in.
Art can be a good gift that God uses in common grace to bless His creatures with joy, delight, pleasure. A gift that makes life livable and becomes another indirect means of leading men to repentance by goodness rather than severity.
Ultimately, these can all become instruments to lead men to Jesus. But evangelism is not the only justification for art. Sometimes joy can be grounds enough. Other times it is simply fulfilling the creation mandate to lovingly “name” the creation, blessing it by affirming its essential character, or fulfilling one’s calling to imitate God (knowingly or not) by bringing beauty and meaning out of chaos and disorder.
Trevin Wax: How does longing for God affect the way we live?
Timothy Stoner: David described his ultimate passion and his singular motivation as living in the house of the Lord all the days of his life, enjoying the sweetness of Yahweh and consulting Him in His Temple (Ps. 27:4 JB) The Psalmist tells us that he longs for God as a deer pants for the brooks of water in summertime.
Longing is another word for hunger. We live to satisfy our hunger. So we draw near to Him in prayer, in worship (corporate and private), in sacrament, in repentance, confession and submission. He is our highest good and our highest priority (our relationship with Him takes precedence). We feed on Him and ask to be made hungry for more.
We seek to live a life of prayer—which is very hard (we seek to live life in a conscious and purposeful awareness of His presence). We make choices to cultivate, not dull, or bend, or satisfy our hunger for Him improvidently. We tune our senses to be alert to His real presence in what He has made (creatures and creation). We cultivate eyes that see Him and ears that hear Him and hands that feel Him all around us.
We deny our fleshly appetites that tend to quench or divert our hunger for (and sensitivity for) what is Real and True and Beautiful. We live a life of repentance and humility, like little children we run to our Father, even when (especially when) we sin and disobey.
We make it our goal to make our Father look good. We brag about Him, who He is, what He has done and is doing. We earnestly desire that everyone love Jesus, the Savior and Lord we love, that all might serve Him, follow Him, acknowledge His beauty and goodness and extravagant, sacrificial love.
We seek in all things to live doxalogically: that He receive the maximum honor, praise and glory possible. What we long for is a world that is filled with white-hot worship of the One who alone is worthy. Our eyes are not fixed down, but up. We look forward even as we live in the present, because we know that His ultimate goal is to restore and reconcile all things to Himself, and we want to collaborate with Him even now in the interim between the already of the kingdom of God and the not yet.