Where Is God in the Darkness? with C. Baxter Kruger
Dr. Kruger discusses the goodness of God and our moments of darkness.
J. Michael Feazell: When unbelievers are good, where does that come from?
C. Baxter Kruger: I think that’s a fantastic question. If you grew up (like I did) with Calvinism, then you would look at people who are outside of the church and say “that’s not really goodness. I don’t know what it is, but it’s really depravity, because it’s really sin.”
But if you pan back to the Trinitarian gospel, you realize that Jesus has included the whole human race in his life with his Father and in his anointing in the Holy Spirit, and therefore we ought to see the fruit of that inclusion in people whether they have worked it out theologically perfectly or not. I think that gives a much better perspective, because what you’re looking at is the love that the Father, Son, and Spirit share with us freely. They’re not concerned about getting credit all the time. They share that with us, so that we can be filled with their music, and we can experience their life and their love in our families.
The Holy Spirit’s mission is now to bring clarity to that, not to create it, but to bring clarity to it. Jesus says in John 12:46, “I have come as light into the world so that you may not remain in your darkness” because he has included us. We’re in the dark about it, and Jesus sends the Holy Spirit to convict us so that we can begin to know what’s going on. That goodness comes from the only circle of goodness in the universe, and that’s the goodness of the Father, Son, and Spirit, whether or not people can give you a theological account for that. That’s the way I see it.
JMF: So by the same token, all goodness that there is comes from God — love comes from the love relationship…
CBK: …of the Father, Son, and Spirit. Truth, goodness, life, beauty, music, harmony — these things come out of the Father, Son, and Spirit relationship, and are shared with us and are seeking to express themselves in our lives.
JMF: Which illustrates the point that when we’re good, when goodness comes through us, it’s not our goodness. This is God’s goodness. He gets the credit, not us.
CBK: In terms of origin, it is really important to realize that goodness…comes from the Father, Son, and Spirit. Several years ago I had a pastor friend that called me, and there was a tragedy in the congregation. I think a father had died and left three or four, five kids and mother. The whole church was just overwhelmed with burden for this family. The pastor called me and he said, “I don’t understand, Baxter,” he said, “Where is God in all this? Here we are feeling this burden, I feel this burden, yet where God in all this?”
I said to him, “Number one, you’re asking two questions. The first question is, why did God let this happen? I don’t think anybody has the answer to that. The second question is, given that this man died, where is God in the midst of all this suffering and pain?”
I looked at my friend, and I said, “Hang on here a minute. Are you actually suggesting to me that this burden, this overwhelming burden that you feel for this family, that your congregation feels, are you suggesting that that has its origin in you? That you are this good of a person, that you are burdened this deeply for this situation? Or could it not be that God is the one who is burdened, and he shares his burdens and his joys with us all, and we are involved in participating in the unfolding of his concern for this particular family, this particular fold of sheep?”
That makes way more sense to me. Otherwise we have to take credit for it, and then we think it’s really us, and then our burden is better than your burden. And we have creativity better than your creativity, rather than seeing it as all of a piece, and being able to celebrate that and help people participate in it. That makes a lot more sense to me.
JMF: I know you’re working on a novel, we’ve talked about that before, is there anything about that that you could share with us — a little tidbit or preview?
CBK: Yeah, I’ll tell you how it starts. I have a recurring dream…one of the characters in the novel…I have a recurring dream. In my dream I’m in the woods. I don’t know if I’m hunting or why I’m there, but I’m standing looking at a farmhouse that’s old, old, old — like 100 years old — and there’s hardly anything left there — a couple of cypress plants, a little piece of what would have been a window, and one rafter that looks like it’s being held in midair, suspended. I don’t know where I am and what I’m doing. I’m standing, and this thing is so old there’s trees and vines and bushes growing up in the inside of it.
I’m looking through this little window in my dream, and I suddenly see a green ghost, radar green, weird green. It’s looking from behind the tree inside the house at me, and it doesn’t want me to see it. It’s terribly, horribly sad — like it makes me almost heave, to feel the sadness of this thing. Then I always wake up. I wake up with this feeling of this horrible sadness. That’s the way the story starts.
Then I actually do go hunting, and I shoot a deer, and I go get it, and it gets up and runs off in the woods. So I’m chasing this deer and trying to find it, because it was a big buck, and I don’t want to listen for the rest of my life to people abusing me about not being able to kill the big deer. So I’m running through the woods, then I crawl through the woods, and I come up under this tree, and I’m thinking, trying to find this trail to the deer, and all of a sudden, there’s the farmhouse. It’s not a dream, it’s real.
Then I’m sitting there wide-eyed and stunned and trying to figure out what in the world is going on, and the ghost appears. So, long story short, I go home, I’m trying to figure out what this is about. At 3:30 in the morning I get a phone call from a man in Australia whose daughter is in trouble. She’s read some of my books, she wanted to talk to me…what’s happened? She tried to kill herself, why’d she try to kill herself? She’s incredibly sad, some green monster, some green creature keeps hanging around the shed and makes her feel incredibly sad.
So the whole question then is: what is this thing? Where does it come from? How in the world can its sadness come on me and her, and how are we going to get grips of this? So there I’m having conversations with my old professor in Scotland who is now in glory, but he gets resurrected in a book, and we have a long conversation about some of this, and I talk to people in Australia and people around the country while I’m trying to pull together an answer to find out, because it’s not a theological question, this is a gut-wrenching question. We’ve got to find some solutions to this, or this girl could die, and I could, too.
That’s the basis of the book — works all the way through toward a resolution. I am introducing all of the concepts that are in my other books but almost in reverse. The concept of the perichoresis, sharing in Christ’s life…the other question is how the green creature’s sadness is shared with me and this other girl.
JMF: So have you got a timetable on it? Is there a…
CBK: I’m going to finish it.
JMF: How close are you?
CBK: I’m two-thirds done now. I’m planning on going back and spending as much of December as I can to finish it up. Then I’ll go through oodles of editing and whatever along the way. But we’ll see.
JMF: So what moved you to want to start the project?
CBK: Ever since I finished Across All Worlds…the very end of that book is a narration of a discussion that a man has with Jesus. He thinks he kills himself, he wakes up, he’s not dead, he meets Jesus, and they have a long conversation. That was one of the easiest things I’ve ever written. Ever since then I wanted to take that idea and write it as just a great story.
I want it first and foremost to be a story that’s just a great read, but underneath it is all the message and the truth and insights that have been given over a period of time. That book was finished in like 2003, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since, but I did not have the particular plot line that I was looking for. I was sitting one night here six, eight weeks ago, and it just sort of hit me where I need to start. So I sat down and did the first 15, 20 pages. Just right there, just (thump)…and been working on it ever since.
JMF: We’ll look forward to seeing it. Let’s talk about Across all Worlds: Jesus Inside Our Darkness. What lies behind this book?
CBK: That book is where the light and light and love of the Father, Son, and Spirit, theologically outlined, and the trauma of human life and brokenness meet. This is in some ways the story of my life — how Jesus meets us in our darkness, not in our theological Sunday-anity. But he meets us where we really are, and that scares us, because the minute he comes showing up in our darkness, then we begin to know this is darkness.
I remember years ago when my wife and I were first married, and we got into a debate about the color of the apartment walls. I had said well, look, Linda, obviously white. She said no, they’re off-white. I said no, they’re white. So I snagged a piece of typing paper, walked up, and just confidently slapped it upside the wall and instantly knew that they were very off-white. I wasn’t even close.
So I think when Jesus comes to us to meet us, to love us in our darkness, his light shines and we suddenly know that no matter what we want to call what we’ve been living, this is darkness and this is dead. This is not light. So there’s this crisis that happens.
This book is about Jesus meeting us in that crisis and loving us because he wants the broken parts of us to come to know his Father’s love, and he’s determined to get inside of that in the Holy Spirit. In some ways it’s a sequel to Jesus and the Undoing of Adam. And there’s another paper called “Bearing Our Scorn: Jesus and the Way of Trinitarian Life” that follows that book, and so that’s almost a trilogy. That paper’s available on our site for free right now.
JMF: That’s thegreatdance.org.
CBK: Yeah, go to thegreatdance.org, and it will take you to the mother ship [i.e., thegreatdance.org will link you to perichoresis.org, where the paper is available].
JMF: In the book on page 29, you begin chapter 5 with this, “Reconciliation is not about Jesus suffering punishment so that the invisible, faceless, and nameless God up there somewhere can forgive us [which is very much in the back of the minds of many people] — it is about the Father’s forgiveness, in action, entering into our estrangement and its hell, penetrating the fundamental problem of sin. As James Torrance would say, ‘The Father does not have to be conditioned into being gracious,’” and you say, ‘There is no sense in which he needs to be coerced in order to forgive,” which is so much…
When we pray it’s like we beg, and we’re not sure he’ll forgive us, so we beg some more. And we keep on saying it until we finally get it out in some way that kind of almost convinces us that maybe that was good enough — like we’re asking the boss for a raise or something. “Forgiveness is first,” you write, “Overflowing out of the way in which the Father, Son, and Spirit love one another. From this forgiveness arises passion for it to be known and received.”
CBK: That, to me, is at the core of a proper view of reconciliation and atonement. Adam and Eve sinned, they failed, they hid from God. In falling, they had already become ashamed, and then they projected their shame onto God. They became guilty, they projected their guilt onto God. So they’re creating a mythological deity in their heads. That’s who they’re hiding from, because the Lord is the greatest philanthropist in the world, and how on earth could you possibly think evil of the Lord who had created all of this and given this to them, but in two seconds they go from being believers in the goodness of the Lord to actually believing he is the enemy to be avoided at all costs.
So, for me, the question from Genesis 3 all the way through the book is: how is the Lord actually going to reach Adam and Eve in their darkness and in the bushes? Forgiveness is not about how can we do something to get God off our backs or change God. That’s the whole fallen mind’s view of forgiveness. The Father, Son, and Spirit forgive us the minute that we sin, that we failed. But they see that we can’t receive that, that we can’t believe that, that we’re not about to say okay, I’ve been forgiven, I want to have a relationship again. So they’re trying to find a way to take that forgiveness and earth it inside of us in our darkness so that we can actually experience it.
They’re not going to rest with some legal fiction where the Father says, okay Jesus, enough suffering, I forgive them, because that doesn’t do a thing for Adam and Eve in the bushes. They’re still scared to death. There’s no communion. So forgiveness, and J.B. Torrance is right about this, forgiveness is first, and then comes a determination on God’s part and the Father, Son, and Spirit’s part, that we actually get to the place to where we can receive it and experience it as forgiveness. The whole Bible is about that passage — to incarnate the forgiving love of the Father, Son, and Spirit so that we can get to the place where we can experience that love as love and forgiveness that it is. We’ve turned the whole thing upside down in the Western world with our legalisms. It’s pathetic, terrible.
JMF: So the gospel is about restoration of relationships, not about keeping laws and rules.
CBK: It’s completely about relationship. Always has been, always will be. We’re the ones that have created this system where we think somehow God needs to be changed. I think the entire Old Testament sacrificial system was never for God’s benefit. It was never designed to placate an angry God — it was always designed to let Israel know that there is a way of forgiveness here just long enough so that we could have a little bit of relationship.
In the end, the guilty conscience is never addressed in Israel’s sacrificial system, and it’s addressed in Jesus because the way he comes to have a relationship with us and the way he deals with our guilty conscience is he actually allows us to dump our guilt on him. We brutalize him and humiliate him, and he accepts us, thereby meeting us as we actually are in our brokenness.
He can deal with the guilty conscience because he’s standing inside it with his love for Papa and with his love for the anointing in the Holy Spirit. That seems to me to be the heart of the early church, although it’s a very modern way of saying it. It’s not an early church way of saying it, but it’s the same values, the same understanding, I think, as the early church — non-legal, relational, passionate about adoption, we’re going to do this, we’re going to pay the price of whatever it costs in order to meet the human race in this darkness and confusion.
JMF: Of all the books that you’ve written, is there one that you can point at and say, that’s the one that gave me the most satisfaction, and I felt like I really got across… I’m sure all of them have a degree of that…but is there one special one that stands out to you?
CBK: If you forced me to say it, I would say that the little book which was originally two chapters, but the InterVarsity edition of The Parable of the Dancing God. It’s a little pocket book. It cuts into the Western legalistic vision of God. It helps people see the goodness of Jesus’ Father. That’s the whole gospel to me. So if you force me to pick one book, I would pick that one.
Then I would pick sections in other books, like the first chapter of God Is for Us. I think probably everything I’ve ever known is crammed into one little sequence on adoption and total purpose. And then the book Home is on John 14:20, which is my favorite verse. It’s about what we’re really longing for — to participate in life in the Father, Son, and Spirit.
In some ways my favorite of all is The Secret, because it was the hardest thing I ever wrote, and it’s like I was determined to get it in 20 pages, because it was way more difficult to write than a 300-page book. There’s sections in Across All Worlds, sections of The Great Dance, but if I had to pick one book, it would be The Parable of the Dancing God, which, by the way, is now in Portuguese and Chinese, and it’s being translated into Spanish, and it’s already been translated into German, but we’re getting that translation verified. It just has a life of its own.
JMF: You call it Parable of the Dancing God and then also your other book, The Great Dance.
CBK: Right. You’d think I was a dancer…
JMF: Yeah. How does the word “dance” figure in these titles?
CBK: The story of the prodigal son…the shocking, stunning part of the story is the father’s love for the boy, and he’s embarrassing himself by running, which you don’t do in that culture as an elder statesman. He’s dancing in joy over the return of his son, so there’s a reason [the book is titled] Parable of the Dancing God because the whole story is about who God really is…
Jesus is in conflict with the Pharisees, and he’s saying, look guys, you’re hurting these people by telling them that my Father is like this, and this, and this. You’re wrong, sit down and be quiet. I’m going to tell you some stories here about who God really is and what God is really like. So that comes to me as just an obvious way of talking about God the Father in this story here — as a dancing God.
Then some years later I wrote The Great Dance. That’s a sweeping panoramic book that goes from why God made us, who we are, what’s going on, how our lives work, and why the Trinity…that God is Father, Son, and Spirit, created us to share in that adoption, those main themes. But I was looking for a central metaphor that could capture some of that. That phrase, the great dance, is used in various places in history, particularly though in a couple places in C.S. Lewis, where he calls it not the great dance but a kind of drama or dance where he talks about we are going to be filled with the three-person life of the Trinity. That’s at the back of Mere Christianity.
Some people think that the word perichoresis means dance, which it actually doesn’t, but some people try to translate it that way, so there’s some confusion there. T.F. Torrance asked me about that, and he said he didn’t understand. He didn’t like the concept of “the great dance” close to “perichoresis” because it seemed like I was supporting the view that perichoresis means the great dance, and it doesn’t. It means mutual indwelling, it means creating space for one another and dwelling in one another. But that is just a metaphor that came to me, and it seemed like it worked on many levels with different people. I knew the Baptists don’t particularly like it, but…
JMF: Well, the prodigal son, when he comes home, and the first thing the father does is give him all the emblems of sonship while he’s expecting or only barely hoping for slaveship so he can get a meal. He gets the shoes, he gets the ring, he gets the robe — he’s the son. And the celebration is a dance, a party is thrown.
CBK: A huge one. So that emerges there, and then this one is just, I was thinking, trying to think of a single image that captured something of the part of the heart of that book. I came to that, and it was brought up to its own in that sense.
JMF: I think Madeline L’Engle and others have used the analogy of the great harmonies, the song of the universe, the harmonies of the stars or however she puts it…
JMF: …that depict a similar kind of a concept — of this everything working together and being part of a great…
CBK: There’s a book on physics called The Cosmic Dance, where he [Giuseppe Del Re] says in his book that physics has come to know that the Newtonian model (that the universe is like a great huge organized machine) is a metaphor that doesn’t really work in the way that the universe really is. He says scientists have come now to see that the universe is more like a great dance. That’s the actual words that he uses. So it’s been around.
I wanted something that captured that vitality and the beauty and the goodness of the life of the Father, Son and Spirit and helped us see that that’s why they made us, is that we could be part of it. To find a single metaphor is hard to do.
JMF: Sure. All the most beautiful things that human beings experience…you can look at, that give you joy, whether it’s a beautiful panorama of a wonderful scene of night sky…you can see beauty, you can hear beauty in great music and experience movement…dancing is something everybody can do, but not everybody can play great baseball or racquetball or whatever. Dancing is something that everybody can do. Regardless of your skill level, everybody can sway to the music, tap their foot, get into the movement, feel like they’re a part of a dance.
To me the beauty of it is that all those good things we can experience…and they’re all in the context of sharing it with others. You look at a great thing and you think, you think of the people you care about the most — wow, I wish my wife could see this, or boy, I know who would really like to see this. We take pictures so we can share them with other people. It’s like I can’t take this in alone. This is something that’s bigger than me. But all this is built into the fabric of the universe by the author of the universe who is in this dynamic love relationship that’s of a movement — an inner penetration that never ceases.
CBK: The great dance is an image that helps us think of vitality in music and movement and life. It helps us begin to realize that this is what’s going on inside of us. It’s not necessarily just dancing. It is vitality. In the very beginning of the book, I talk about the river of living water that seems to be flowing through all of life that I experienced when I was 12 years old on my bicycle, that I knew playing baseball, that I knew in romances — something ancient and vast and deep and beautiful is running through the middle of all this, that all of this is a part of.
Then in time I came to call that not just the river of living water but to call that the great dance. It’s just saying that’s the life of the Trinity. That’s the river running through it all, is the life of the Trinity and the music of the Trinity, the beauty of the glory of the goodness and the light and the fellowship to come out of it. That’s what’s being given to us in Jesus. The great dance alights and is seeking to come to expression in millions of ways in us as persons, unique ways as persons. It’s the Trinitarian life, it’s the great dance, it’s the river of life, and it flows from the Father, Son, and Spirit relationship.
JMF: Isn’t that where we feel the joy? When we feel joy, as opposed to say, happiness, or a temporary sense of pleasure in something. But a sense of abiding joy comes from that place.
CBK: It’s the same as we were talking about, you know, with respect to our participation. Our sharing in the life of the Father, Son, and Spirit doesn’t look the same way for everybody, but this is the source of it. For some people it’s going to be passion for whales, and for some people it’s going to be passion for their families and fatherhood and motherhood — making things, caring for people, being a human person engaged in caring for the poor. This is all the ways in which that life of the Father, Son, and Spirit is being shared with us, and we’re expressing it in unique and diverse ways.
Learning to see that for what it really is is not just some people being good and therefore because the “save the whales” people care about the whales, and the rest of us don’t, they’re therefore better than the woman who cares about making bread for her neighbors. And vice-versa.
A lot of times if somebody cares about seeing that dogs aren’t mistreated in town, people will tend to say well, there are people being mistreated in town. How can you care about the dogs? And yet, everybody has their own journey, their path, and their makeup that allows them to be an expression in a certain way.
CBK: That’s right. If you can recognize it, then you can see the genuine burden of people who are concerned for whales and the burden of the people who are concerned for stray dogs and animals that are being abused. You can see the genuineness there, which is the life of the Father, Son, and Spirit, and you can see the abuse of that. But if you can recognize it for what it is and not let it become a competitive superiority/inferiority kind of thing — now I recognize who this is, and I even recognize it on Sunday morning and the preacher’s stammering attempt to talk about grace. I can hear it in a 5-year-old girl’s attempt to play the piano. It’s not perfect, it’s not professional, it’s not technically correct, but there’s something going on in it that’s really good, that’s really beautiful, and that’s the life of the Father, Son, and Spirit.
You see it in the people’s care for an animal. You see it in people who are growing crops in Kansas to feed the rest of the world and the people who are concerned for the whales. That’s just beautiful. That’s where your eyes are opened and you start seeing Jesus and his Father and the Holy Spirit everywhere all around us. I tell people, you’ve got to take your church glasses off. You’ve got to take your secular humanity glasses off and look at what’s going on — the river of living water, the life of the Father, Son, and Spirit.
The great dance that they share is in us, and is seeking to express itself in us and in our lives in very unique and beautiful ways. Honor it, respect it. Relate to that, not to whether or not the person has degrees, or education, or money, or prestige, or lives in this part of town, or is this race, or is this sex, or whatever. Relate to the life of the Father, Son, and Spirit and honor that that you see emerging, and help it. Help it come forward, because it will be a blessing for all of us when it comes forward. That’s what I see.
JMF: That’s the same thing Paul said when he talked about Christ in us — the hope of glory.
CBK: Exactly. Colossians, where he says, “The mystery has been hidden, God has made known and given to me to proclaim Christ in you. The mystery is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” The hope of being included in the glory of God has been given to us in Jesus, because he’s come to dwell in us and share his life with us.
There’s a huge pressure that gets taken off of us on our religious side when we realize that we’re already included and that Jesus did this. He just says, trust me, walk with me, and you’ll bear fruit in this that you can’t even conceive of without even trying to bear fruit just from walking with me. There’s a great relief of not having to be the person who gets everybody saved… I’m free to be me and I’m free to help the farmer be the farmer.
JMF: And that means that Christ is in everything we do. We can take joy in his presence even in our leisure activities, our sports, or whatever…our cooking, our sitting down to eat.
CBK: This striving that you see in so much Christianity is not Jesus. This is coming from darkness. There are times when the Christian life is painful, there are times when it’s full of burden. But the striving to make these things happen for God is from the darkness. Jesus says, “come to me when you want out from that, and I’ll give you rest for your souls. Come walk with me, take my yoke on you, I’ll show you how to have some fun here and get some stuff done. I’ll show you how you can get water and I can change it into wine.” Now you try that all you want at home, but you’re not going to get from the water to the wine, because that’s what he does.
He says participate in me, walk with me, I’m gentle, I’m humble in heart. I’m not about servitude and all this striving and keeping everything right for God. That’s just not how this works. You come walk with me and we’re going to go fishing tomorrow. You come walk with me, we may bake bread for your neighbor tomorrow or we may make a fishing lure, or we may write a book, or we might just sleep in, and we might care deeply about people who are in Thailand who are being trafficked…kids that are being taken away and sent into sex trades. We may get very involved in that. I’ve got plenty of people I’ve got involved. But you walk with me, I’m not going to wear you down, because it’s my responsibility, I’m just going to give you a part in it. It’s beautiful. You’ll get way more done walking with me this way than you will striving to get everything right for God and keeping everything right for God.
That’s sometimes I think why people are just so put off with Christianity — we talk about the joy of the Lord, you know? It’s like, give me a break! Let’s just have a vision where we can recognize the life of the Father, Son, and Sprit emerging in people, and we want to help that. We see how it’s getting turned over here, and we’re opposed to that. What are we going to do about that? Let’s ask Jesus what he’s doing about it and participate. It’s just way simpler. It’s not as complicated now, and the straining and striving is very burdensome, very not Jesus. It’s our fallen imagination.
JMF: Well, thanks for your time again. It’s been great to have you here, great to talk, and we appreciate all the good stuff.