The ultimate evil of idolatry is the forsaking of God. It’s not merely unauthorized worship or illicit pleasure; it’s the folly of seeking satisfaction in anything other than the fount of all goodness. It is the rebellion of seeking acceptance from anyone other than the Father of all mercies, of seeking protection from anyone other than the Lord’s Christ, of seeking comfort from anyone other than the Paraclete. We worship the creation rather than the Creator. We pursue the gifts rather than the Giver. We settle for the seen rather than seeking the Unseen. Over and over again in the Scriptures, the people of God are warned against contenting themselves with God’s blessings and thus forsaking the true and lasting beatitude of life with God himself.
But let’s be honest: the seen has certain advantages over the unseen. For starters, the seen is, well, seen. It is in right in front of our eyes. It promises immediate gratification. Furthermore, injunctions to move through and beyond the visible world to the invisible God are difficult even to understand. What does it even mean to seek God above everything else? Is it anything more than a pious cliche? Do we even know what we are talking about?
The whole concept of God seems abstract and mystical. This is because, in part, the concept of God is abstract and mystical. To be sure, God has made himself concretely known. In the incarnation of the Son of God, the invisible God has made himself visible to us. The intangible has become tangible. The unseen has become seen. It is precisely through the concrete revelation of God in the life, passion, death, and resurrection of Christ that God has come near to us and has disclosed to us his true identity.
The incarnation reveals to us the dignity of the created order. It shows us that Christianity can never be a world-denying religion, that redemption is not a flight from creation but a restoration of it. But the purpose of the incarnation is to lead us back to God himself. God became man so that man might become God, as many of the Fathers put it. The goal of incarnation is theosis—union with God himself. This goal reaches its apogee in the life to come and the beatific vision of the glorified saints. But it begins even now in the present life, as believers learn to seek the things above, where Christ is, rather than the things of earth.
Life with God is, then, in a very real sense abstract. It asks us to think beyond the merely physical and concrete. It stretches our minds to consider a being who is beyond being, the source and ground of being. It beckons us to meditate on a God who is utterly independent, timelessly eternal, and absolutely immutable. It requires our greatest intellectual resources to consider the very idea of God.
But, in another sense, life with God is also irreducibly mystical. When we skate beyond the capacities of our reason in our contemplation of God, no more cogitation is advisable, or even possible. All that remains is the experience of God. This is why the mystical writers of the Eastern tradition have sometimes spoken about God as utter darkness. Of course, they were familiar with the Scripture that teaches us that “God is light and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). The point being made wasn’t about God’s moral character but about God’s knowability: “The LORD has said that he would dwell in thick darkness” (1 Kings 8:12). We could even say, the point wasn’t so much about God as it was about us. As creatures, we cannot comprehend God–we cannot traverse his circumference and subject him to our rational measurements. It is not a function of some kind of quantifiable inability. It is the qualitative distinction of the Creator and the creature. This apophatic approach to God has much to commend it when we consider the scriptural teaching about God’s incomprehensibility: “Behold,God is great, and we know him not; the number of his years is unsearchable” (Job 36:36; cf. Psalm 145:3).
So where does this leave us? How are we to avoid the sin of idolatry, of becoming so enamored with the creation that the Creator himself is eclipsed? What does it mean, in the trenches of the battle against sin, to treasure God above all? Perhaps we could seek some help from the mystical writings of Maximus the Confessor. At the risk of oversimplification, we might summarize his contemplative approach as a three-step movement from mediation on the created order to the patterns and principles (logoi) according to which the world was made and finally to God himself. So, the abstract and mystical is not divorced from the concrete and creaturely; they are organically related. God made the world good; he reveals himself to us through it; and he came among us in Jesus Christ in order to restore it. So, he means for us to enjoy the gifts of creation as the gifts that they are. When viewed from within the creation, these gifts are ends in themselves. No one loves anything for what he can get out of it. Otherwise, it would not be love. So marital love, the love of children, the enjoyment of the creation or art—these are ends in themselves when viewed within the system of creaturely goods. But when viewed in light of God, the gifts of creation were meant to led us in contemplation to the mind of God, who so designed and ordered and disposed of these gifts that they reflect the divine reason and benevolence. And beyond these creaturely designs, we are finally led to contemplate God himself—absolute, unqualified, unneeding Blessedness. It takes time and effort and prayer to get to this place. But surely this life with God is what lies behind such biblical cries as “you have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound” (Psalm 4:7) or “one thing I have asked of the LORD, that I will seek after…to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD” (Psalm 27:4).