21 – Knowing the Heart of God

Published in 1990 by Bethany House Publishers as the Introduction to a Collection from George MacDonald’s Non-Fiction, Fiction, and Poetry


            To George MacDonald, all of life’s truth could be discovered as part of an extremely simple, two-step process: realizing who God is, then obeying him.

            Finding agreement, however, about what comprise the two elements of that process is not an easy task. For most men and women major stumbling blocks sit squarely in the middle of the road, which hinder them at each point. Both Christians and non-Christians alike are shackled by deeply entrenched false notions about God. We do not realize it, of course, because our misconceptions are much more subtle and less glaring to our eyes than those of our Victorian predecessors, to whom MacDonald wrote. Similarly, we are not aware of our distorted mental pictures of God, because the teachings Christians have received and the general prevalent views of our culture at large are so deeply ingrained that we scarcely pause to question them.

            We might expect non-Christians or inactive churchgoers who rarely give their beliefs much thought to hold inaccurate viewpoints about God. Because they have not searched for truth, they can hardly be blamed for not finding it. If blame is to be laid at their door, it is for not caring enough about truth to seek it out.

            A much more serious charge could be leveled at the Christian community of the twentieth century–those considering themselves enlightened, actively growing, energetic Christians who pray and attempt to apply biblical principles in their relationships and everyday dealings, and whose faith is a vital part of daily existence. For even the majority of those individuals largely mistake much in the divine character of the God whom they worship and serve. To a large extent, therefore, they misinterpret the primary focus of what God desires from them as followers of his Son. Not grasping the true essence of God’s character, they also misunderstand Jesus–his person, his message, and his mission on earth–thinking he came to save them from God, rather than to lead them home to our Father.

            From such historically embedded false concepts of God, George MacDonald sought to free his readers. His writings picture the Father warmly and wonderfully full of love for his creatures. Coming to know this God in the true fullness of his being is, according to MacDonald, a process of discovery. Such it was in his own life, and into such a discovery of the character of God he leads us in his writings.

            Once people begin to acquaint themselves with their Maker–once they begin to discover the who of God–then the question changes to one of how: how do we come to know him on a deeper level? Though many of us have been Christians for years, we find ourselves meeting our heavenly Father seemingly for the first time.  Now we want to reallly know him! We want to probe the depths of God’s character; we want to understand more of his ways; we want to draw close to his heart.

            At this point, according to MacDonald, everything changes. No longer is the spiritual path one of discovery, but rather–to put it simply–one of hard work. Once we know who God is, the quest to know him intimately–as our Creator, our Father, our friend, our co-worker–becomes a probing, pursuing, active process of diligent application on our part. We then move out of the realm of the divine character to initiating our own growth by the efforts we make to draw close to the heart of God.

            In MacDonald’s view, there is but one path, but one way to draw intimately close to our Father: through the door of obedience. God became a man in the person of Jesus Christ in order to teach us of God’s character and to show us how to obey. Thus, to acquaint ourselves with the Father, we must obey the Son. There is no other way to truly know God. MacDonald even goes so far as to say that without such obedience, notwithstanding what a person may think he “believes,” one cannot be considered a Christian at all.

            In the same way that we misunderstand God’s character, so also do we misunderstand what is involved in knowing him. The very word “know” is part of our difficulty. We mistakenly assume “knowledge” is what it takes to know God. Thus, belief for many Christians is viewed as having to do with a mental assent to certain basic doctrines about Christ, and we attempt to strengthen our so-called belief by learning more and more about God and the Bible and Jesus, and by becoming more and more involved in a variety of church and other Christian activities that are intended to bolster this “faith” of ours. We expend enormous energy increasing our mental knowledge–reading, studying, discussing, analyzing the Scriptures–thinking this is helping us to “know” God more fully. We read books, watch Christian television, vocalize spiritual slogans, listen to Christian music, display Christian paraphernalia, tell people about Jesus–give them books and tracts and pamphlets and New Testaments, explain to them many scriptural principles, and make every attempt to convince others of the truth of the Gospel. All the while, however, these efforts have to do with the ideas of Christianity. But there is no salvation in being mentally convinced of the Gospel’s truth, nor in possessing a huge repository of biblical wisdom. None of these things will deepen intimacy with our Father. Knowing God can never come from studying and gathering knowledge about him, not from convincing others of truth, not from knowing truth yourself.

            MacDonald says: “Men would understand, they do not care to obey. They try to understand where it is impossible they should understand except by obeying. There is no salvation in correct opinions. A man’s real belief is that by which he lives. To do his works is to enter into a vital relationship with Jesus, to obey him is the only way to be one with him. The relation between him and us is an absolute one; it can begin to live in no other way but in obedience: it is obedience.”

            This second volume in the Discovering God series, therefore, is not a book from which you will merely increase your knowledge of or about God. Contained herein are George MacDonald’s words of truth not to help you understand God more fully but rather to help you in your desire to obey him. If obeying the Son is not the desire of your heart, then this book will have little to offer you. But if obeying the words of Jesus is the hunger of your being, your intimacy with God will increase, not from any words you read here, but from your own willing attempts to do what God–not George MacDonald, not your friends, not your pastor–tells you.

            If you have not previously read a great deal of George  MacDonald, you are in for a mind- and heart-expanding experience, and more than likely the upsetting of many traditionally held views. You may find yourself doubting MacDonald’s wisdom at points, arguing in your mind against issues he raises, even getting angry with him. But if you find yourself thinking, praying, and probing the depths of your faith from new vantage points, George MacDonald will have succeeded in widening your spiritual horizons.

            George MacDonald was no teacher of “theology” in the usual sense of the word. His writing was varied. Among his 53 published books are included more than 400 poems, 25 short stories, a dozen literary essays, 50 sermons (some ranging more than 50 pages in length), a number of book-length fairy tales, several fantasies, as well as some 30 realistic novels of between 300 and 800 pages each. And on nearly every page, in nearly every poem, and certainly in every sermon, the two things George MacDonald cared most about–the character of God, and obedience to his commands–were clearly visible.

            Thus, the attempt has been made here, as in the previous volume, Discovering the Character of God, to offer a rounded sampling of George MacDonald’s thought from multiple sources–his poems, his sermons, and his fiction. You will undoubtedly find yourself enjoying certain of the genres more fully, and may even skip selections here and there. This is not intended as a book to read straight through, but one to be digested slowly. Though the chapters average eight to ten pages in length, they are divided into many smaller sections in order that you may read brief portions at a time and perhaps use the book devotionally for daily readings. But to accurately represent MacDonald’s thought and to adequately convey his approach as a writer, selections from all these various genres are necessary.

            There are those who voice concern about the spiritual implications of fiction, thinking that the novel is somehow less “real” than a more didactic book. The reality of fiction, however, lies on a deeper plane than mere “factness.” Reality is a function of truth. And truth–however conveyed–is real. There is, therefore, a reality pervading the novels of George  MacDonald, because the situations and characters point toward truth, and toward the One in whom is contained all truth.

            By communicating his message in such a fashion, George MacDonald was following the example of his Lord. For fiction was frequently the vehicle Jesus used in order to best convey principles of life in God’s kingdom. As Jesus spoke to ordinary people, he found that telling them stories through nonfactual characters was the best means to express realities and truths they might not have grasped so deeply in any other way.

            “Pure theology, as it happens, figures much less prominently in Holy Scripture than might be expected, suggesting that God the Author is not so much a theologian as He is a writer of literature in the broadest sense of that word. And similarly, when the Son of God came into the world, He came as a storyteller as much as a preacher.

            “In fact, in Matthew 13:34 we are told that `Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; He did not say anything to them without using a parable.’ This is a startling verse. Paraphrased, it might read: `Jesus didn’t preach to the people. Instead He just told them stories all day long.’

            “What this means, in effect, is that a great deal of what Jesus said is not literally true. The parables are fiction, works of the imagination that Jesus made up … and the truth they contain is an imaginative or spiritual truth … and often enough the only explanation He deigned to offer was, `He who has ears, let him hear.’ … For it is not just that fiction … can occasionally be a useful channel for presenting the gospel or can provide colorful `illustrations.’ Far more than that, there are times and places when fiction alone can effectively communicate the truth.”1

            “Do good to your neighbor” was not a teaching that originated with Jesus; it had been set forth by hundreds of great men before. But it was Jesus who penetrated clearly and incisively to the very heart of the matter with his parable of the Good Samaritan, immortalizing the truth as no one before or since has ever done.  In fictional form, the truth came alive for all time. Through the nonfactual, but highly real, genre of the parable–of fiction–Jesus brought spiritual principles to life.

            Christian fiction is nothing new. George MacDonald is not the first to weave spiritual truth through imaginative, poetic, and fictional formats, but he is the greatest such writer I know. What some point to as defects in his novels–the fact that they are interspersed with comments, observations, and digressions–I view as the feature that so elevates his writing above the norm as a medium for communicating spiritual truth. For George MacDonald neither the pure didactic nor the pure story was sufficient: the principles must be stated; then they must be lived. Thus, following God’s example in the Bible, MacDonald made full use of many forms of writing: poetry, teaching, history, long fiction, short fiction, and parable.

            MacDonald’s priorities are reflected in these topical readings. His homiletic principles are stated from his sermons, followed by passages from his novels that exemplify those same truths. The fictional selections are an intrinsic part of the process: how the truths are lived was a question always at the forefront of MacDonald’s mind. The fictional readings here provide the practical illustration to undergird the teaching. They are not mere additions to the meaty sections of the text; they are equally vital to the reader who would learn from MacDonald how to practically obey the Lord.

            This is but a scant sampling of MacDonald’s thought on knowing the heart of God through obedience to Jesus. His writings include more than 1000 pages of sermon material, and some 12,000 to 14,000 pages of fiction. This compilation of a mere 300 pages of selections is only a tip of the iceberg. The sermons are fairly thoroughly reproduced in edited form. But for deeper treatment, especially from the novels, I would urge your reading of the stories in their entirety–either in edited format, or in their originals (the availability of both is given in the appendix).

            For those interested in further background about MacDonald himself, his life, his theological bent, his impact in his own day, and/or studies and analyses of his books, I would point you to two sources: one, the biography of MacDonald, George MacDonald: Scotland’s Beloved Storyteller; and secondly, one or more of the volumes of “The Masterline Series”–articles and essays about the person and work of George MacDonald by various authors who have studied his work in depth. Information on both of these can also be found in the appendix.

            I would like to express my appreciation to those few intrepid souls over the years whose dedication to MacDonald helped keep him faintly in the public eye until the reawakening of interest in his works began in more earnest. Foremost among those is Bethany House Publishers, whom I once more salute–not only for their excellence and integrity as a publishing house in today’s environment, where compromise of values is all too common, but for their commitment to make George MacDonald’s work available. Bethany House, along with Sunrise Books, is preserving the works of George MacDonald for future generations, for which our children and grandchildren always will be grateful.

            Michael Phillips

           Eureka, California