One of my favorite stories in the Bible revolves around the largely unknown disciple of Jesus: Cleopas. (You can read his story in Luke 24.)
Cleopas was a disciple of Jesus who had traveled to Jerusalem for the Passover. While in Jerusalem he witnessed the crucifixion of his hero. His dreams of joining the Messiah in restoring Israel to glory lay shattered at the foot of the cross.
He stayed in Jerusalem a few days. He gathered with the other disciples and no doubt they exchanged laments at the death of their Messiah.
He listened with amazement when the women returned from the tomb and said they’d found it empty. He pondered the message of the angels who told the women that Jesus was alive. But after John and Peter went to the tomb and came back empty handed, Cleopas gave up.
Confused. Disoriented. Stunned…
Cleopas left his dream. He left the other disciples. He left Jerusalem and returned to the ordinary routines of daily life.
“He had hoped that Jesus was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” Had hoped. But not any more. Now he knew better. As Cleopas trudged the 7 miles back to Emmaus he was wiser for the experience. Everyone knows dead people don’t come alive again. Not prophets. And definitely not Messiah’s. In fact, the Messiah wasn’t even supposed to die!
Whatever those angels were talking about, he didn’t know, but he had work to do. He’d spent enough time following a whisp of a dream, now he needed to make up for all those wasted days he’d spent following Jesus around the countryside.
Subsequent events, such as meeting the resurrected Jesus and sharing a meal with him, proved Cleopas’ despondency misplaced.
As we consider the disparity between Cleopas’ perspective of recent events and the reality of those events we notice how his reaction was largely determined by his initial expectations. Cleopas held a rigid, brittle understanding of how God would work through the Messiah. When events didn’t roll out the way he expected, he gave up. He didn’t even wait around to consider the significance of the empty tomb or the angel’s message. He knew how God would work, and it wasn’t like this.
It’s easy to criticise Cleopas for placing God in a box of his own construction. Yet, we all have boxes of various shapes and sizes in which we place God. Usually, it’s easier to see other people’s boxes, so we often don’t notice our own.
Anytime we speak on behalf of God describing what He can’t, won’t, doesn’t, wouldn’t, couldn’t, will, or must do, we add another plank to our own God Box. I’m not suggesting that we simply invent statements about God. We usually have Scripture and good reasons to see God as we do. But Cleopas had Scriptures and and good reasons for his view of the Messiah… He was wrong, and sometimes we are also.
I’m not necessarily using the term “God Box” in a negative way. My goal is simply for us to recognise that everyone constructs a unique view of God. This recognition should cultivate a spirit of humility when we make absolute statements that reflect our own God Box.
Let me provide some examples of planks in a God Box:
- God doesn’t hear the prayers of unbelievers.
- God won’t save someone from the consequences of their own stupidity.
- God doesn’t care about human politics.
- God can’t get me out of this mess.
- The Holy Spirit can’t inhabit an unbaptized body.
- God doesn’t perform miracles today.
- God wouldn’t send a dream to someone today.
- God won’t condemn you for that.
These restrictive statements may be true (or not), but even if they are, they create a framework for God to fit inside. But God is always bigger than any box we create. And Scripture frequently describes God creating exceptions to principles we regard as rules. It’s not that God is capricious, but he sees a bigger picture than we can hope to see.
Perhaps more surprising is that we can also build our God Box out of permissive statements:
- God will answer your prayer.
- God will heal you.
- God has defeated death.
- God wants what’s best for you.
- God understands our weaknesses.
- God wants everyone to be saved.
- God cares more about the heart than rigid obedience.
- God’s grace always wins out over justice.
These lists could go on and on.
When we make statements like these about God we begin to define Him. They represent our efforts to fit a limitless God inside our very limited minds.
Thus we need humility in (at least) two places:
- We need humility to allow God to act outside our understanding of Him. God has the freedom and authority to create his own exceptions to our rules.
- We need humility to accept that others’ God Boxes may be correct in places ours aren’t.
To Cleopas’ credit, when the risen Messiah revealed himself Cleopas didn’t argue. He didn’t hang his head in shame. He excitedly ran back to Jerusalem to celebrate his errors (God’s good news) with his friends. May we have the humility to acknowledge our errors when we discover them. And may the construction material of our God Box more closely resemble rubber than cast iron, giving it the flexibility to stretch and adjust as our view of God matures throughout life.