“Don’t put God in a box.”
It’s one of the most popular phrases in evangelicalism today. A common refrain of small groups and Christian coffee shop conversations, it just sounds like it makes sense, doesn’t it?
Putting God in a box sounds restrictive, unwise, and impossible. So, obviously, we shouldn’t do it.
I understand the sentiment: don’t take away from the fullness of God by constructing restrictive theological systems.
I get it, and often the phrase is meant well. We shouldn’t limit what we think God can do or who we think God is. Amen!
There are two problems with this “Don’t put God in a box,” philosophy, though:
It’s sorta impossible.
Like a doctor conducting a biopsy on an extracted piece of tissue or an oceanographer studying the waters of the Pacific in a laboratory instead of in the ocean, sometimes grasping something means we have to examine it in less-than-normal conditions.
This phrase, “Don’t put God in a box,” sounds nice, because the sentiment is noble, but it’s really sorta impossible.
When someone tries to discuss the mysteries of salvation… don’t put God in a box.
When one attempts to plumb the depths of the knowledge of God… don’t put God in a box.
When a student attempts to discern what God has for his future… don’t put God in a box.
The problem with the phrase is that it simply isn’t practical or possible.
“Don’t put God in a box” assumes too much. It assumes that what we already acknowledge as true about God isn’t putting him in a box.
“God is love” is true, sure, Scripture says so, but to say, “God is love,” and act like nothing else matters is a textbook example of putting God in a box. It takes something about God, boxes it up, and restricts our thinking of God in that moment to His love, His justice, mercy, grace, and more are left out of the box.
But no one says don’t put God in a box when you say God is love.
God must be put in a box for the same reason stars are best gazed upon through a telescope. Like an astronomer peering through a telescope, it simply allows us to examine a small part of who God is on a deeper, more intimate scale.
If I assigned you a task to study the universe, you would be foolish to not use a telescope and other necessary equipment. The universe is too vast to be truly known with the naked eye. But, examining the stars, planets, and galaxies would be “putting the universe in a box,” because you would be focusing too much on one aspect of the universe than the others, which are equally “universe” as the view you have in your telescope.
In the same way, when you study the nature and character of God, you must certainly put him “in a box,” viewing him through the telescope of his Word and the lens of human reason and understanding. God is, by default, put “into a box” when you think about him because our minds cannot think about the fullness of God at any given moment.
God is so big, so glorious, so majestic, that if he is not studied and wondered upon in small ways, we would be too overwhelmed to think about him at all.
We must put God in a box to do any theology, or thinking about God, whatsoever.
Ah…Yes, that leads to the next point: Perhaps we don’t want to put God in a box because we’re afraid we would stumble upon certainty in the process.
It’s often abused.
I heard “don’t put God in a box” constantly in college small groups whenever someone in the group tried saying something definitive about God.
Too often, “Don’t put God in a box” is a free ticket to theological ignorance.
When you’re having a discussion on theologically-grey matters, it is unwise to make definitive statements about God in ways that Scripture does not do so. But making statements such as, “Well, God is ___ and God is ____ so we would be safe to assume he’s sorta like _____.” isn’t putting God in a box so much as it is attempting to use reason to understand the glimpses of God we have in Scripture.
Making Scripture-based speculations on what God is doing amidst a tragedy isn’t “putting God in a box” so much as it is trying to make sense of who we know God to be despite the difficulty of life.
We must not limit God in ways Scripture does not, but to wonder and discuss who God is and what he is doing in real life based on what Scripture says of him is not “putting him in a box” any more than making sense of the universe through a telescope is packaging up the universe.
We are called to love God with our minds, and while we are unwise to make definitive statements about who God is apart from Scripture, we are foolish to think theological systems and modes of understanding God restrict him—they clarify him.
We put God into a box the moment we think of him. Putting God into a box isn’t the problem, being unwilling to think outside of that box is.
This post was originally published on millennialevangelical.com