Is God boring?

I was struck the other week when a friend spoke to me about the hard time he was having drumming up interest in a sermon series on God. It seems it is so much easier to grab people’s interest if the sermons are recognizably about us in some way or other. This is, of course, simply another form of the age-old concern about relevance. In a consumer-oriented age, those who listen to sermons want to know the cash value up front.

As those who believe that the Bible is the word of God and believe that effective proclamation of that word should show the way it cuts across the grain of life in a fallen world, perhaps this doesn’t bother us overly much. While we don’t want our preaching and teaching to degenerate into an endless series of self-help lessons, we do want people to realize that God’s truth is meant to make a difference. But is there, just perhaps, another more serious issue here that we should recognize and address?

19th-century liberal theology has regularly been criticized for turning theology into anthropology—for putting the focus on human beings and our experiences (in particular, our religious experiences) rather than on God. There were certainly philosophical commitments behind this shift, but the practical effect was to ensure that we kept talking about us, who we are and what we should do. It was this human-centredness in German Protestant theology that provoked the revolution of the early 20th century which is usually associated with Karl Barth.

But could we have, for other reasons and in a very different way, allowed 21st-century Christianity to have a very similar orientation to human concerns, human needs and human action? Are we more liberal than we realize? Even when clothed with God-language and fortified with verses from the Bible, are we too often just talking about us? Is this where the search for relevance has led us?

Perhaps we need to recapture a sense of wonder at what God is like and what he has done. Perhaps we need to show people again that thinking about God for God’s sake is neither boring nor irrelevant. God himself is not the problem; it is the way we often talk about him that is the problem.

11 thoughts on “Is God boring?

  1. Thanks for this very helpful post Mark.  All too often preaching is dominated by our small issues.  But I wonder if there is a false distinction between preaching about God and preaching about us – because ‘God is for us’.  Every truth we teach about God affects us – and is entirely applied to us.  There is no part of Scripture that I know that teaches about God abstracted from his people.

    On another point, I think Karl Barth’s approach is ultimately boring from the pulpit.  He teaches God-centred Christian philosophy, rather than God-centred Biblical Christianity which calls for real response from real people.

  2. <i> Every truth we teach about God affects us – and is entirely applied to us. </i>

    Yes, I was thinking your thoughts after you Andrew.

    If we really believe ourselves to be in God’s image, then all our teaching about God is necessarily also about our selves—without wanting to claim too much, for we are, after all, creatures. But there’s surely scriptural warrant for believing that our thoughts of God and our thoughts of ourselves are bound together.

    One of my favourite Calvin quotes:

    <i>Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But while joined by many bonds, which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern. In the first place, no one can look upon himself wihtout immediately turning his thoughts to the contemplation of God, in whom he “lives and moves” [Acts 17:28]. For, quite clearly, the mighty gifts with which we are endowed are hardly from ourselves; indeed,  our very being is nothing but subsistence in the one God. Then, by these benefits shed like dew from heaven upon us, we are led as by rivulets to the spring itself.</i>

    And so on and so forth. The first paragraph of Calvin’s <i>Institutes</i>. Great stuff!

  3. I agree with Gordo, and I reckon we do even better than Calvin. Jonathan Edwards develops an ancient theme found in Athanasius and Gregory of Nyssa* that stresses that humanity is an “overflow” of the delight of God has in his Image(Son). This connection means that anthropology and theology are intimately and rightly connected in the incarnation:
    – humanity is in the image of the Son (the true image of the Father)
    – humanity is incomplete until the Son comes and fulfils it through the incarnation, cross and ascension.
    – the Son and humans (in him) have a shared destiny: to be (and delight in being) the manifestation of God the Father. What he is eternally and perfectly as Son we become asymptotically for all eternity.

    * and, recently, David Bentley Hart

  4. yes but hold on, the original subject was sermons. A proper sermon has an application: something we can apply to our lives . Sometimes it might be in a way about God (e g confidence in God’s promises-something I need more of) but generally its “this is the way – walk therein.”
    You theologians might be able to do more but remember to whom you are preaching.

  5. That’s a fair comment.
    But the motivation for action/application in the Bible is often grounded in the exalted depiction of what we have become and will become in Christ (random eg. Rom 6:4; Gal 4:6; 1Jn 3:1-3;1Cor 6:3ff). And sometimes we are even exhorted to keep trusting in Christ because he fulfils our humanity (Heb 2:5ff). So this shared glory of humanity and the Son isn’t just systematic theology – it keeps coming out again and again (culminating in crazy-huge verses like Rev 3:21 and 5:9-10).
    Surely this has got to make for exciting sermons!

  6. I would like to see a movement develop devoted to cleaning up the language of boredom.

    OK, so lets assume for moment that the self is the standard of all things and that all things are relative to pleasing the self and that everything not pleasing the self is boring.

    But why then do we insist on saying “IT is boring” as if it was an objective statement of reality inherent in the thing itself? Should we not be more honest and say “I am bored by God, nature, other people, etc.”? Or if we want to think beyond just individual selves, we could say “I’m the kind of person bored by talk about God.” Would not this be a much more honest use of language?

    How important is this distinction? I think it is very important because the kind of language used serves as a mask disguising the real problem, a problem of self-centeredness that hides more than a little hypocrisy, especially when used in reference to God.

    We need a much better theology of boredom if we are going to address the issues of our time, because boredom is at the heart of a culture that does not reverence God.

    Ecclesiastes is probably a great place to start with its cry of “Boredom, boreom, everything is boredom.” Boredom is the price of a self-centered world.

  7. I’ve actually been told that God just seems so boring. I asked them if they had ever read the Bible thoroughly and they said no. I I asked if they read at least one book of the Bible and they said no. So I am not sure where the sentiment was coming from. They just expressed that church, christians and God just seemed so boring. I really did not know how to respond to that except to explain human depravity and regeneration.

  8. Thanks for your interesting comments.

    I certainly agree that our knowledge of God and our knowledge of ourselves are intimately connected. My question is rather whether we are at all excited about God or whether we approach the knowledge of God (when we do) as merely a means to an end, namely to know ourselves better or improve our lives, or …

    John Piper has made delighting in God a feature of his ministry. He is certainly on to something. However, even he can fall into the trap of presenting delighting in God as a means to an end, namely my fulfilment as a human being made in the image of God.

    The real issue for me is whether we are excited about knowing God on his own terms and for his own sake. To make the point even more sharply, are we able to excite others as we preach about God or are they simply waiting till we get to the bit where we tell them what to do?

  9. I have a theory about boredom, at least part of it. We tend to feel what we call “boredom” when something calls us to responsibility and we don’t want to be responsibile.

    I observe this in my own life. I can work extremely hard on all kinds of projects, even difficult and tedious ones with interest and zeal. Yet when it is something I HAVE to do I feel “boredom” and strong resistance to doing it, even if it is something I would normally enjoy doing.

    For example, I love studying the Bible and researching questions and understanding passages. Yet nearly every week when it comes time to actually preparing my Sunday sermon… I feel boredom and I have to consciously overcome it, even though I actually love studying and preparing messages. The fact I HAVE to do it puts pressure on my selfishness.

    I think that is the way people respond to God (and Christians). They find these call them to responsibility and they don’t like it.
    (probably words like ennui, sloth, lassitude, langour, closely related).

  10. I agree with Mark T.

    God is far from boring, but alas some preachers do their best to prove other wise.

    The word of God is awesome and awe inspiring, but many people judge ‘God’ on how interesting the preaching is.

    “The particular use of the periphrastic construction in the second verse” may rock your socks off, but it will probably bore the pants off your congregation!

    Boring sermon = boring God – not true of course, but something to remember as we prepare and preach with humility (and hopefully not much boredom!)

    Also I reckon Jesus is a pretty engaging person to preach on!

  11. I beleive it is a substantial mistake to put the burden of the dialogue on preachers. It is not that preachers can’t be boring, but I strongly doubt that it is the real problem of our time and more than I think it is the fault of most teachers that students don’t do better in school. I’ve heard far too many interesting presentations that I’ve heard others call boring to buy into that analysis.

    Just consider that most people find the Bible boring, and many people (perhaps, at least young people) think nature studies are boring and these are both the direct work of God.

    As long as we excuse slothful observers and chiefly blame the teachers we are unlikely to address the real problems of our times.

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