I’ve been reading Joe Rigney’s The Things of Earth: Treasuring God By Enjoying His Gifts, and cannot recommend it too highly. For me Joe’s contemplations have been like cold spring water on a thick August afternoon. For years I have felt like something was missing in my understanding of how to love the things God gives in the context of loving God himself supremely. Well, actually, it would be more accurate to say I’ve felt like everything was missing in my understanding! It’s one thing to hear John Piper say that God himself is the best thing, not his gifts, and to affirm it because of course. But it’s another thing entirely to then turn from that truth and look with love and joy and thankfulness at the universe, rather than with contempt or paralyzing anxiety. Joe’s book is about how to do that.
One thing Joe’s work has illuminated for me is a carelessness in evangelical talk. Growing up I frequently heard Bible teachers say something like the following: “Worship is adoring God for who he is, while praise is adoring God for what he does.” This makes all sorts of sense as long as you don’t go digging in the Bible to find it. It makes sense because it’s our nature to separate who God is from what God does. Part of that I imagine is due to a good desire to avoid idolatry. God gives us the universe but God himself is not one with it. Of course that’s true.
But I suspect something else is going in this way of speaking, and it’s precisely what Joe has in his crosshairs in this book. Separating who God is from what God does can be a lazy way of admitting that we don’t know how the two actually relate to another. It can mask a serious misunderstanding of the things of earth. It’s much easier to say “God is holy and loving” than it is to say, “God has created a physical universe and human beings whose very existence tell us that He is holy and loving.” The first sentence exists in the attic, away from the messy problems of evil and suffering and decay. The second sentence invites uncomfortable further inquiry.
But what if it’s actually not good–what if it’s actually sub-Christian–to think of God’s nature abstracted wholly from the things he has made? What if, as Jonathan Edwards said, God’s “supreme excellencies” are known through His works? What if the things of earth do not, in fact, grow strangely dim in light of his glory and grace? What if they ARE the light of his glory and grace?
Of course none of this means that God IS the Milky Way. In fact, it would be silly to talk about glory and grace if all we mean is pantheism. The universe has no grace. The universe has no begotten Son to send into the world. It has no cross to bear. The important point here is that Jesus of Nazareth was very man of very man, and very God of very God. His incarnated deity is what John calls the “exact representation” of the Father. There is no understanding God that is abstracted from flesh and blood, because whoever denies that God has come in the flesh is the anti-Christ (1 John 4). God’s works are not cordoned off from his glory. God’s glory shines in His works.