Could you worship a God who makes Himself nothing?

[This is the first synchroblog of our new blogging collective The Despised Ones addressing the question of power and authority in the light of Philippians 2. Check out other synchroblogs on our facebook page and like it while you’re there!]
What does the cross say about God’s nature? Not just Jesus, but God — all three members of the Trinity, including the Father. When Jesus says to Philip in John 14:9, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” how do we apply that statement to the cross? If Jesus “made Himself nothing, taking the form of a slave and being born in human likeness” (Philippians 2:7), does that tell us something about what God is like or is Jesus’ incarnation and crucifixion only a very specific tactic that God used which reveals nothing about how God really is?

The evangelical doctrine of penal substitution seems like an attempt to rescue God from looking weak on the cross by putting Him in complete control of the situation the entire time and making Him the one who drove the nails into His Son and caused Him to die under the weight of His wrath (never mind that not one verse in the Bible actually says this). When Jesus says,”The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands” (Mark 9:31), what He really meant was that He would be held in His Father’s wrathful hands the entire time. And when He says, “The Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes” (Mark 10:33), what He really meant was God will hand His Son over to Himself.

Sorry for the sarcasm. It’s hard to avoid it. But don’t you see that the cross is God’s choice not to be sovereign for a moment or at least to be sovereign in a different way? As Paul says, God “did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us” (Romans 8:32). That’s an image of surrender, very different than for God to be holding His Son in His burning wrathful hands the entire time. The cross is a renunciation of power on the part of the Father, not just the Son. The only direct participation which the Father has in the cross itself is that He doesn’t say, “Forget it. Come back to heaven,” when Jesus says, “Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me” in Gethsemane (Mark 14:36). Not removing the cup is very different from pouring out your wrath.

The cross is the culmination of a mission on which Christ has been sent (i.e. let go of, handed over, given up), which is itself the culmination of God’s self-humiliating experience of tying His name to a particular nation of God-wrestlers (Israel) who had way more wicked kings than good ones and who caused the Gentiles to blaspheme His name (Romans 2:24). The primary way that God reaches out to the world is He humiliates Himself in order to invite us into His arms.

The first major Christian heretic was a man named Marcion. Marcion was scandalized by the disparity between the God described in the Old Testament and Jesus, so he decided they must have been two entirely different gods and consequently decided to cut the Old Testament out of his Bible. The church ruled Marcion a heretic, declaring that the Israelite relationship with God was essential to and continuous with God’s ultimate revelation through Christ. The way the church has reconciled the disparity between Jesus and the God who orders the slaughter of women and children in the book of Joshua has been to interpret the Old Testament through the lens of Christ.

We are living through an era of neo-Marcionism, the difference being that the dispensationalist evangelicals of today, unlike Marcion, are not scandalized by the two completely different gods they find in the Old Testament and New Testament. They rather prefer the mixed martial arts superhero Old Testament God to the limp-wristed hippie of the Sermon on the Mount, so they reverse the traditional Christian hermeneutic and interpret the New Testament under the shadow of the Old. They call the Old Testament deity God and the New Testament deity Jesus, and the role of the New Testament Jesus is to get the Old Testament God to stop being angry at you so He will sit in your corner where you can sic Him on your enemies.

That’s why at least on the macro level, American Christianity today looks nothing like Philippians 2. If Philippians 2 is a defining image of the one we worship, then it’s worth asking whether we would still worship if all the worldly power and success were removed from our worship context. What if you had to be in the loser congregation and not your thriving megachurch? Could you gather every Sunday morning with thirty people in a large, dilapidated sanctuary that once held a thousand and needs a new roof and a new paint job? Will you still be able to worship Jesus when it’s no longer part of the ritual by which suburbanites affirm the legitimacy of their wealth?

Could you worship a God whose life goal isn’t to make every average person awesome like all the bestselling Christian authors claim, but rather to make somebodies into nobodies for the sake of reducing all worldly idolatry to nothing (1 Corinthians 1:28)? Could you worship a God who doesn’t mind being despised by the world for the sake of making the despised ones into His people? I’m not very good at worshiping that God, because I still want Him to make me famous and brilliant and wildly successful. That’s why I have to keep coming back to the cross.

9 thoughts on “Could you worship a God who makes Himself nothing?

  1. Pingback: Why the dream has been deferred | Mercy not Sacrifice

  2. I’m going rogue here. I grew up in an environment where I was taught to glory in the (theoretical) dilapidated sanctuary and all the virtues of poverty, whilst the parish continually preached a sort of spiritual blackmail to extract funds for ever more resplendent facilities (supposedly bespeaking the Glory of God). Seriously? It goes without saying that, in such a congregation, no one dares making an appearance in dilapidated or ill-smelling clothing, such as would be the only possessions of a wandering prophet.

    I’ve done a great deal of therapy and meditation on the concept of self-acceptance.
    Let me observe, without requiring you to place any special significance: it is a hallmark of the abusive parent/spouse, the demagogue, the mentally ill, and the hardcore addict to obfuscate. Their pathological lying is a habitual occupation with propaganda, directing attention and energy away from simple, adaptive, joyful living (the kind that I believe Jesus exemplified). The pathological liar is incapable of giving or experiencing Love; since (s)he is completely wrapped up, and seeks to wrap everyone else up, in an idolatry of the ego (which fastens upon money, status, righteousness, adorableness, etc., in place of WORTHINESS). For the record, I don’t believe pathological lying to be incurable. If the ‘accuser’ / ‘heckler’ (ego?) were destined to prevail, then the Gospel would be nothing other than a long-winded exercise in casting pearls before swine.

    I think we can all agree that Christ has declared us worthy. Why then, do many texts multiply the words of Luke 17:10? If the Greek is taken literally (descriptive), then it reads like a deflective answer to the disciples’ perennial request (17:5) to make them more faithful / righteous: i.e., if you put your faith in obedience, then you count yourselves “unworthy” servants. Why, why, WHY do so many scholars interpret these words as prescriptive?

    I think that these scholars have bowed to the ego’s obsession with righteousness, and its compulsion to heckle. It is particularly telling that, in Jesus’s immediately preceding breath (17:6), he tells his disciples that the way to increase their faith is to command the world around them (also Matthew 16:19 & 18:18, Luke 13:16, Mark 11:21-23)!

    In my view, Luke 17:1-10 reads like the first principle of parenting. Do not treat yourself or your child like a bond-servant! Is this not the same message as the parable of the Prodigal Son?

  3. Morgan, I really appreciate the work you and the other despised bloggers are doing here. I only have one problem … I don’t find myself despising you.

  4. “If there were someone who could love him only in his loftiness, that person’s vision is confused; he does not know Christ and therefore does not love him either; he is taking him in vain. Christ was and is indeed the truth. If someone can love him only in his loftiness, what does that mean? It means that he can love the truth–only when it has conquered, when it is in possession of and is surrounded by power and honor and glory. But when it was struggling, when it was foolishness, to the Jews an offense, to the Greeks foolishness; when it was insulted, mocked, and, as Scripture says, spat upon–then of course such a person could not love it; then he wished to stay far away from it. That is, he wanted the truth far away from him, but this is actually to be in untruth. It is just as essentially a part of ‘the truth’ to suffer in this world as to be triumphant in another world, in the world of truth–and Jesus Christ is the same in his abasement as in his loftiness.” – Kierkegaard.

  5. Just wanted to drop in quickly and say this is great Morgan. Resonates with me a lot. Also, if you haven’t checked out Michael Gorman’s ‘Inhabiting the Cruciform God’ where he spells out his idea of ‘cruciformity’ (you shall be cruciform because God is crucifom) – you should. Peace to you.

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