While he doesn’t address this illustration in particular, Donald Miller ruminates on such “efficient presentations of the gospel” in Searching for God knows what. Miller ponders:
. . . while the ideas presented in these pamphlets are certainly true, it struck me how simply we had begun to explain the ideas, not only how simply, but how nonrelationally, how propositionally. I don’t mean any of this to fault the pamphlets at all . . . . Millions, perhaps, have come to know Jesus through these efficient presentations of the gopsel. But I did begin to wonder if there are better ways of explaining it than these pamphlets. . . . [The] greater trouble with these reduced ideas is that modern evangelical culture is so accustomed to this summation that it is difficult for us to see the gopsel as anything other than a list of true statements with which a person must agree. . . .What is the thing we're missing? The central aspect of the gospel: a relationship.
. . . Perhaps our reduction of these ideas has caused us to miss something. [bold and italics mine]
Follow me for a moment. About seven or eight years ago, I became friends with a young woman in her early 20s. She was curious about God and, in many ways, desperate for a way to live her life better than what she had. We talked about God often and at one point I shared with her the Bridge. I drew it out on a piece of paper, asked her if this made sense and if she wanted to do something about it. She kind of shrugged and nodded, saying she’d like to think about it some more.
I moved away a couple of years later, but kept in touch for a while. In one of our last conversations, she related how a few days before she’d been rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery for an on-going physical problem. As she lay on a hospital gurney all by herself waiting for surgery, she was more scared than any other time in her life. She was afraid she was dying. She cried out to God—asking that if he was real to come and help her, to take away her fear. Nothing happened, she told me. She added, almost as an afterthought, that it wasn’t until the anestisist came in a few moments later, talking to her in a calm voice and stroking her forehead, that she began to calm down.
As I listened to her story, my heart beat thick and fast. “That was God,” I told her. “That was God answering your prayer.” She was silent for a bit. When she spoke again there was relief in her voice.
“Really?” she asked.
“Really,” I told her. I explained that God often works through other people, using them as his hands and feet and voice. I explained that God is always there, waiting and working to bring us into that wonderful life he has waiting for us. He is waiting and working to bring us back to the one relationship we were created for.
Years later, as I think on those two conversations I realize now the first one is missing something important—the context and Story that goes with the relationship God desires and wants to give her.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying the Bridge illustration is wrong. Indeed, a break has occurred in our relationship with God. There is a distance, but not in location or presence; it is a distance in relationship—like the distance between a caught-in-the-act-rebellious teenager sitting on the couch next to her loving, concerned father or the distance between a mother trying to talk to her son who has covered up his ears and squished his eyes shut as his yells, “Na, na, na, na!”
And, indeed, what causes this break is sin, the blackest of black death. As we sit there like the stubborn rebellious teenager or the self-deafened and self-blinded son, refusing to relate to our heavenly Father—a relationship for which we were created—we live in death and head towards death. Like Wayne Jacobsen says:
[Jesus’] message was that God’s kingdom has come near you and you can become a participant in it. You have a Father who loves like no other father you’ve ever known in your life and can now discover what it means to have a daily relationship with him. If not, then your own sin will destroy you utterly and completely.Yes, the Bridge contains true ideas. But God isn't distant, waiting on the other side of a chasm. Rather, he's pursuing and breathing and waiting and working right where we are. God is never distant. He is always there. While there is an incideous break in our relationship, there is no chasm between us. He does not leave us alone. He is the ever-pursuer. He is always with us—even if we don’t want him to be.
I wonder if the gospel is less about crossing a bridge above a giant chasm than a split-second turn around and fall into the loving embrace of God. A restoration of a wayward daughter to her father. The un-blinding and un-deafening of a son to his mother. Biblically, says Miller, we are “hard-pressed to find theological ideas divorced from their relational context. There are essentially three dominant metaphors describing our relationship with God: sheep to a shepherd, child to a father, and bride to a bridegroom.” So, while we "need to understand that Jesus is alive, that He exists, that He is God, that He is in authority, that we need to submit to Him, that He has the power to save, and so on and so on,” we need to remember that all these very true and important facts are “entangled in a kind of relational dynamic.” When we divorce the truths from the Story itself, something is lost.
Again, please hear me on this: Like Miller, I’m not saying the Bridge and illustrations like it aren’t accurate or haven’t helped many enter into a relationship with God. Indeed, the Bridge helps me remember important truths. But, I tend to agree with Miller: these illustrations lose something in their reductions. The gospel—indeed all of Scripture—is a Story all about relationship, a relationship with a God who loves beyond measure and pursues and works always to restore his creation (especially us) to himself. For my friend, realizing that she was in that Story, that God was near to her—and, like a shepherd to a sheep or a father to a son, he pursued her, wanted her, loved her—made more sense and opened her heart wider than my sketched drawing of stick figures crossing over a chasm on the back of the cross.
If I were honest about my own relationship with God, I’d say, “Me, too.”
(Image: Bridge by Jef Poskanzer at flickr; Father and Daughter by without you. At flickr)