The God of Nature and the Nature of God
I remember a friend in high school who nearly drove into one of those giant-yellow-flashing-arrow signs that tell you your lane is about to end and you had better merge. She was a bit distracted. And this was in an age long ago when nobody, except for Hollywood millionaires, had a cellphone, and even those who did couldn’t do anything remotely close to texting. My friend was just paying attention to other things than the blinding giant arrow glowing in front of her.
The truth is, we can all miss signs from time to time. I’m reminded of the comedian Jeff Foxworthy’s “Here’s your sign” bit, and the early nineties remake of the song “Signs.” Consider these examples my pre-cell-phone-age bona fides.
Of course, some signs aren’t that important and who really cares if you miss them. How many of us break our necks to read historical markers on the side of the highway? Not me. Well, once I did stop out of curiosity to read one on a backroad in Kentucky only to discover my time would be better spent doing about anything else like cleaning out the stale french fries unreachably stuck in the abyss between the base of the driver’s seat and the armrest. But make no mistake, some signs are worth noting.
How about the most important things? Are there signs for how we might navigate life? What about God? Do we get a sign? Is there any way in the world can we ever know God? Many people simply conclude there aren’t good answers to this question. Some assume the challenge implies there is no God. I can empathize. Sometimes I’d like a more clear sign too, like anytime I have a massive decision to make.
As a Christian I believe God has given some pretty big signs. In fact, the Apostle Paul says that all of creation is pointing to God (Romans 1). King David says the heavens themselves are declaring how great God is (Psalm 19). But why is it so easy to miss? Is creation really sending us a sign? Is the world itself a sign? And if it really is as plain as the Bible makes it sound, why don’t more people believe?
It’s a matter of interpretation. We look up, we look out, we look in, and we get a sense that all of this has to have come from somewhere, that our lives have to have some kind of purpose, that there’s some transcendent meaning behind it all. But is there? Some say yes. Some say no. Whose interpretation is right?
The Apostle Paul explains that our selfish and disobedient impulses lead us to suppress truth that we instinctively know. Instead of striving to know God, we seek to do our own thing. I can understand that too. As a Christian, I’m not exempt from that temptation. No Christian is. But in the end, reality cannot merely be what I want it to be. Reality won’t recreate itself to suite my fancy. If there is a God, a very source to our idea of meaning and morality, then we’re in a very different situation. He’s the Moral Law Giver, and we are under his authority.
Naturally, we all turn away from his authority and try to do things according to our own standards. But deep down we live and believe as though there are real things like right and wrong that exist outside of us, and we have this sneaky suspicion they come from somewhere outside of nature too since natural explanations for goodness fall so flat. Paul tells us that’s because God created the world so we could clearly see his power and his divine nature. We look at the stars and think, “Something powerful happened to bring all of this into existence.” But what is that something? Paul says it’s God. Our hearts speak up sometimes to admit he might be right.
It’s not just looking up where we see pointers for God. We see them when we look in too. Again, where does these notions of right and wrong come from? Paul explains God has written his moral law on our very hearts (Romans 2). If that’s true, as I believe it is, we’re in a lot of trouble, aren’t we? C.S. Lewis once noted, if there is a source of the moral law, a Moral Lawgiver, then he must hate most of what we do.
Paul explains because nature points to God in a way all can clearly perceive his existence, we’re without excuse before God (Romans 1:20). We can’t excuse ourselves by saying we simply didn’t know. We do know. By nature all people know there is a God. But the Bible also shows us that naturally, no one knows God in a personal and meaningful way. We long for some transcendent connection, but we don’t measure up. This divine relationship has been severed. The Bible explains this as the result of sin, our disobedience and selfishness.
The beauty of the Christian story is there is a solution to the problem. That’s kind of the big theme of the whole Bible. The Apostle Paul uses the word “gospel” to summarize this biblical plot.
While the Apostle Paul shows us the God of Nature in Romans, he also emphasizes the nature of God. God has made a way for broken people like you and me to reconnect with the powerful source that brought the whole cosmos into being. “I’m not ashamed of the gospel,” Paul says, “for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes.” The gospel is the story of Jesus’s death for our sins, and his resurrection from the dead to defeat the power of sin and offer us forgiveness.
By nature, everyone knows there is a God. But because of sin, no one naturally knows God. But through the gospel, anyone can know God. We just have to see the signs.