The Shadows of God in the World: Everything is in God
The world is haunted by God. One cannot walk the earth without encountering religion, spirituality, or other such expressions of a sense of the divine. In fact, to put it very boldly, the annals of history might be summarized as mankind’s aching and agonizing orbit around the idea of God.
The ancient Egyptians, Mayans, and Aztecs had a clear sense of the divine, marking their worship with structures we find today like pyramids and altars. The ancient Greek city of Athens, with all of its wisdom, could not tolerate the rumor that Socrates denied the gods. Mosques, temples, and churches fill every continent on earth today. On and on we could list examples from every geographical place on earth and in every era of history.
To put it simply, we know there is a divine entity. But this entity seems strangely hidden behind a veil of mystery. What—or who—is God? And where do we find him?
The Apostle Paul gives his audience at Athens what I think is one of the most powerful and majestic pictures of who God is. The God whom Paul reveals is not the white bearded man in the clouds. He is not the spirit animal residing in the forest. He is not the god-like man atop Mount Olympus. Paul gives us a much more terrifyingly large picture of God in Acts 17:24-28:
The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. For in him we live and move and have our being.
Simply put, Paul says that God does not exist in the world. The world exists in God.
Quoting the Greek poet Epimenides, he explains that we live, move, and have our being (exist or are) in him. Paul deliberately quotes this Greek poet because he knows mankind sees shadows of God. He tells these Athenians, ‘Here’s an example from your own culture!’ He understood quite clearly that this poet was looking into a truth. Epimenides grasped that, in some way or another, we are within God. The church father Chrysostom explained it in this way: God pervades us in the same way the air surrounds and fills us.
We are to understand the world as a mirror that reflects the being of God. It reveals who he is, a type of speech that transcends words yet declares his glory (Psalm 19:1). He is not far away in some distant part of space, but here, present among us whether we are rising on wings of the dawn or settling on the far side of the sea (Psalm 139).
This explains our sense of the divine. He is all around us. Mankind sees shadows of God everywhere.
This has an incredible amount of implications on how we view the world.
The Sun, the Fountain, and the Ocean: God is the Source of Everything We Enjoy
Reflections of God are everywhere. Who he is can be sensed in nature, in friendship, in art, in romance, and in all things.
The theologian Jonathan Edwards (my personal hero) explained it as such:
To go to heaven, fully to enjoy God, is infinitely better than the most pleasant accommodations here. Better than fathers and mothers, husbands, wives, or children, or the company of any, or all earthly friends. These are but shadows; but the enjoyment of God is the substance. These are but scattered beams; but God is the sun. These are but streams; but God is the fountain. These are but drops, but God is the ocean.
The wonderful things we enjoy, like marriage, family, friendship, are indeed great pleasures. But why do we enjoy them? Where do such things have their origin?
With this understanding of God, it is easy to explain why we enjoy them. It is because such things are shadows of the one true God. All such things are sunshine beams, water droplets, and streams that find their origin in God. He is not only the author but the sustainer of such things (Hebrews 1:3). Every good and perfect gift comes down from the Father of the heavenly lights (James 1:17)
Evil and the Presence of God: Explaining Evil and Suffering
Though all goodness extends from his being, we may not say that God is everything to include evil. God is not everything. Everything is within God. God is love (1 John 4:16), a God in whom darkness cannot reside. We may interpret evil—murder, theft, adultery, sexual immorality, lying—as resistances to this divine presence. Such things exist within God and are tolerated by God’s great patience, but he is not present therein.
C.S. Lewis once described sin as the absence of good. Sin, or evil, is like a hole in the ground, an absence, a void. The divine presence of God departs from such places. Evil is defined by the absence of God’s good presence. Where evil is, there he is not. Therefore he departs from evil, as he demonstrated to the Israelites when his glory departed from the temple (Ezekiel 10). The wrath of God is not so much hellfire, but abandonment (Romans 1).
The presence of God is what holds all things together (Colossians 1:17). When God’s presence is resisted, we become undone. We experience death, an undoing of goodness, in all of its sinful and evil expressions. Death corrodes us from the inside out, culminating in bodily death.
Looking Beyond the Shadows: Finding God as He Is
Humanity has always been content with the shadows. We sense the divine, but we cannot grasp him. Like the prisoners in Plato’s cave, we seem to be content watching the flickering shadows, unwilling to get up and walk out into the glorious light outside. We are content to remain rotting, dying, stinking of evil and chained to a destiny of death. What shall we say to these things?
Thanks be to God, who rescues us through Christ Jesus our Lord! (Romans 7:25)
Jesus Christ comes to us as the full and embodied presence of God. He is the sun itself, the fountain of goodness, the beautiful stream, the wholeness of Deity (Colossians 1:19). He arrives to demonstrate to us the reality of what the shadows in the world point us to.
This mysterious God is no longer mysterious. The veil has been torn. God has, as it were, kissed his bride, creation, in the person of Jesus Christ.
Jesus beckons us to look beyond the shadows. The goodness of things like food and drink are not real—they point to the reality of the life-giving presence of God in bodily form (John 6:55). It is only through this bodily form that we come to know what we sensed all along in the shadows of life. The God who has always been here, symbolized for us by the things that are excellent and praiseworthy (Philippians 4) like marriage and friendship, has come as a person we can touch, see, hear, and love.
This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. (1 John 4:9)
Through his birth, through his teachings, through his ministry, through his passion, through his resurrection, we come to find—at last—the God in whom we exist. It is he who has loved us and sustained us all along, and it is he whom we must stop running away from. We must leave the far country and come back to our Father’s house.
There, he will wipe away every tear. There, he will reinstate us as sons and daughters. There, he will unleash the floodgates of his brilliant and infinite creativity, inviting us to explore, create, enjoy, and live peacefully within him for eternity.
May we, in view of this marvelous reality we live in, say with Paul:
Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!
“Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?”
“Who has ever given to God,
that God should repay them?”
For from him and through him and for him are all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen.