The God I Can't Worship

Last year, I was on a return trip home from 2 busy days of ministry training when I ran into a massive thunderstorm. Exhausted, but eager to return home, I spent the next 3 hours gripping my steering wheel with the windshield wipers on full throttle. Driving my 4-door, compact sedan, my stomach tensed up and I held my breath each time I passed an 18-wheeler drifting in and out of its lane. Finally, about 30 minutes from home, the storm let up, and I breathed a sigh of relief. 

In Mark chapter 4, there is a story about Jesus calming a storm. Not a metaphorical, difficult-situation-in-life kind of storm, but a real, actual, literal, life-threatening thunderstorm. Mark’s Gospel account tells us that it was a “great windstorm” (4:37), letting us know that these were furious, hurricane-like conditions. And Jesus does this not by summoning some sort of higher authority or appealing to a greater power, but by waking up from a nap and simply saying “Quiet. be still,” which was the equivalent of a dog owner rebuking his unruly pet and saying “hush, be muzzled.” The water fell dead still. Eerily still.

Now, if you’ve grown up in the church, this is the part of the message where the pastor says, “Just like Jesus calmed this storm, He can calm the storms of your life.” Like my drive home in a thunderstorm, when we think of getting through a metaphorical “storm” in our life, here is our progression of thought: 1) Something bad happens, 2) I cry out to God, 3) He rescues me, 4) I experience joy and relief. And while there is an element of truth in this statement that allows us to take comfort in the fact that the God who controls the wind and the sea is capable of handling the difficulties of our lives, the problem with this interpretation is that it doesn’t quite fit the narrative in the way it is typically taught. Notice the reaction of the disciples after Jesus calmed the storm:

“He said to them, “why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:40-41, emphasis mine)

At this point, the storm was over. So why the fear? Why the terror? Why the dread? Why not joy, relief, and celebration?

Because, in that moment, Jesus became more unmanageable than the storm that almost killed them. There was no sigh of relief. Only stunned silence and holy fear.

They had seen miracles. They had seen healing. They had seen demons cast out. But no one had ever calmed a storm before. When they asked, “Who is this?” it was rhetorical. They knew the answer. Only God can do that. They were paralyzed in a bewildered moment of awestruck worship at the staggering realization: The Lord of glory—Yahweh, the Great I am, the Almighty—is standing with us in this boat. It was a haunting realization.

But this is not a picture of Jesus that most of us are accustomed to. The god we find most commonly in the modern church is an impersonal force who is just there to help us get our relationships and finances in order. He really needs us to vote the right way before he can do anything significant. He’s conveniently on board with helping us use our church to grow our personal platforms and celebrity status. He can be downloaded off of the internet and reduced to glorified spiritual pep-talk status. We live cupcake lives, and he is the icing on top. He is impossibly practical, pedantically mundane, and sounds a lot like the advice we can find get from a talk show Monday-Friday.

He might provide us with a weekly emotional pick me up, but he doesn’t leave us in awestruck fear. He leaves us immune to truths that should render us speechless. He leaves us checking our watches for how much longer the service is going to last and complaining about how we didn’t like the songs we sang that day and maybe—MAYBE— gets our attention one day a week as long as he isn’t infringing on baseball games or trips to the beach or the pregame show or our sleep or the next Netflix binge or whatever else we can find to keep ourselves distracted.

This god doesn’t leave us in a dreadful wonder of his glory. Of his power. Of his—dare I say it—holy terror. He might be a god we like, but he isn’t a God we fear. The only problem with this god is that he isn’t God at all. 

There’s a word for a god you can easily explain. It’s called an idol. 

You can explain an idol. You can fit it on a bumper sticker. You can control it. You can give it definitions and neat lines. But, as Elisabeth Elliot so pointedly said,“A god who is small enough to explain is not big enough to worship.”

“A god who is small enough to explain is not big enough to worship.”

— Elisabeth Elliot

We prefer a god who is easy to walk away from. A god who wouldn’t dare make us feel uncomfortable and demands nothing. A god who mostly wants me to be entertained on Sunday. A god who really needs us to put on a t-shirt and serve in the nursery and give some money. A god who dispenses a plethora of self-help strategies that ultimately leave us looking back to ourselves for salvation. 

But that’s a god I can walk away from. A god I can be indifferent to. A god I can explain. And, therefore, a god I can’t worship.

But the Lord, the Great “I AM,” the God who calls the raging seas into quiet submission, will not be defined on anyone else’s terms. He will not be reduced to pithy one-liners and empty sales pitches and marketing campaigns and recycled cliches. 

5 years ago next month, I lost my dad. It was one week before Christmas. He was 50. He had battled cancer for 4 years, but his death still came very unexpectedly. My emotions in that hospital room as we watched him breathe his last ranged from violent anger to paralyzing fear.

As we stood around that room, sobbing uncontrollably, unable to breathe, move, or think, you know what question nobody asked? This one: “Hey, what were those seven strategies for overcoming fear?” You know what words nobody said? “Good thing we have God to calm the storms of our life.”

No. In that moment, everything practical was insufficient. Because when life takes a sledgehammer to your heart and the cliches fall flat and you don’t know up from down and left from right, there is not a single line of bumper sticker theology that will be capable of patching the wound that has been torn open in your soul. 

Don’t get me wrong. There is great value in practical counsel. We need to be able to live out the high, theological concepts of Scripture in real, tangible, knowable ways. But if your knee-jerk reaction in the chaos is to look to yourself for the next 3-step solution, you will find yourself in an endless spiral of hopelessness. A shallow, superficial, 1-sided view of suffering may fit neatly into the kiddie-pool safety of our everyday lives, but a kiddie pool faith won’t survive a hurricane world. 

If we go back to the beginning of this story, there’s a small detail at the scene in Galilee in Mark 4:35 that is easy to overlook: “On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.”

This is important. Read from the beginning of the passage slowly. Jesus never said that there wouldn’t be a storm. He just said they would see the other side. And make no mistake, Jesus knew exactly what was coming. As skilled sailors and fishermen, He intentionally took them to the brink of their greatest fear and intentionally orchestrated an impossible circumstance in order to demonstrate His immeasurable strength. 

We can pretend all day that safety and comfort are God’s top priorities for His people, but the consistent message of Scripture is clear: If you want to see the Savior, you have to sail into the storm. Want to wear a crown? Carry a cross. Want a resurrection? Not without a crucifixion. Want new life? Die to sin and self.

You have to go through it. Not watch it from the shore. Not hear about it from someone else. You have to go through it. But when you do—when you have been shipwrecked by the seas of agony or you are drowning in the depths of your sin and have convinced yourself that you are incapable of being saved— He will swallow your brokenness in a wave of everlasting mercy from the bottomless fountain of living water and throw you onto the shore of His immovable character and steadfast love. He will overwhelm you and terrify you in His power, but simultaneously comfort you with the grace of knowing that He is for you and that you are completely and irrevocably His. 

With you, in the chaos, you will find a God of power. Of glory. Of holy splendor. A God whose voice can somehow both comfort the brokenhearted and scare hell out of itself.

When God says “peace, be still,” it is not so we can breathe a sigh of relief, but to take our breath away with holy wonder. And in a moment of divine paradox, the same voice that tamed the seas with the roar of the lion will ask, “why are you so afraid?” with the tender call of a gentle lamb.

Incomparable power. Indescribable peace. One moment. Two incomprehensible realities. Not either/or. Both/and.

That’s a power I can’t imagine. That’s a peace I can’t comprehend. That’s a paradox I can’t explain. 

That’s a God that I can worship.