God of the Gaps

Most, if not all of you, have heard the expression used in my title, “God of the Gaps.”1 Depending on your exposure to the term, it can have a variety of effects on your thinking. Henry Drummond, a Christian evangelist, is thought by many to be the first to use the expression. He did so in the context of chiding Christians on the littleness of their way of thinking about God. His argument was that we need to broaden, not narrow, our understanding of how God works. In Drummond’s way of thinking, God could equally well create via evolution as by fiat six day creation. For those taking a more literal understanding of Genesis, this view was unacceptable, regardless of the truth of the perspective. Drummond argued that by not taking a larger view of God, we would increasingly consign God to a smaller and smaller scope as our own knowledge increased.

This paper is not a discussion of creation, regardless of how you believe it occurred. In this paper, I intend to suggest that there are times when God wants to be “The God of the Gaps.” This paper was stimulated by a recent sermon at our church by Pastor Richard Fenn. Pastor Fenn presented three conversations with Jesus from the book of John, and then had those acted out by two members of our congregation. He did not tell the actors how he wanted them to present, he only gave them the stories from John to read and then asked them to present them in acting form. You could not tell from their presentation that they had no prompting from Pastor Fenn.

The stories were 1) The woman at the well in Samaria; 2) The woman caught in adultery; 3) Martha at the death of Lazarus. It struck me as I listened to each story anew that there are times when God wants to be our “God of the Gaps.” So using these three stories, allow me a moment of digression, as I attempt to flesh out what I mean.

The Woman at the Well2

In this story we find Jesus using the opportunity of water to discuss this woman’s life with her and fill the gaps in her life. He offers her “living water,” which he goes on to explain means spiritual healing. He also offers her a new perspective on worship. She tied worship to a place, while he ties worship to God only. He then points out it is possible to do this from anywhere, so we do not need to become territorial in our worship. He also fills a gap in her soul by offering her healing from prejudice. In the process of this discussion he offers her forgiveness for her profligate life.

While this last statement may not seem obvious to you, it was to her. Never once in his conversation with her did he condemn her for her past. He showed her, by his comments on her past, that he knew her past when he first opened up the conversation with her. Remember, he initiated the conversation. As a Jew, and as a “prophet,” her perception was that he would never have done so if he had known all the husbands she had been through and that she was currently living with a man who was not her husband. He clearly showed that this did not stop him from reaching out to her. This filled the largest gap of all, her understanding of God. She had her understanding of God exploded. By way of analogy, in this one conversation she went from a pre-Copernican view of the universe (God), to a post Hubble Ultra Deep Field view of the universe (God).

The Woman Caught in Adultery3

Jesus once again filled in the gaps of our understanding of God in this story. First, the Pharisees hoping to catch him out,4 brought a woman “caught in the act of adultery” (notice they did not bring the man who led her into the adulterous relationship).The scene is too clearly a set up. When asked what they should do with her, as “the Law of Moses commanded us to stone such women,"5 instead of answering, Jesus bent down and began apparently writing in the dirt. Then being pressed for an answer, Jesus looked up and said, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

The Pharisees found themselves face-to-face with their own culpability and could not stand it. God had once again filled the gap. He made them look at themselves while they were trying to condemn another. We as humans so often need this gap filled. It would bring greater compassion for our fellow humans. Not only did Jesus fill this gap, but he waited until all were gone before he spoke to the woman. Recognizing her need for privacy in this moment, he quietly asked her where her accusers were. She was there expecting to feel the stones falling on her at any moment, and is shocked to hear Jesus’ question. She looks around surprised to see no accusers. She acknowledges this and Jesus responds by filling the gap in her soul — forgiveness. But he doesn’t stop there. He then fills in one more gap. He gives her something to do with this new found forgiveness.

Martha at the death of Lazarus6

One might think that since Martha knew Jesus well that she didn’t have any gaps that needed filling, but this story shows she did. When Mary and Martha sent for Jesus when Lazarus became ill they expected him to come right away. After all, this family was clearly one of Jesus’ patrons. They were well-to-do and supported his ministry. Didn’t that give them a certain in with him? This is a mistake many of us make — we think that what we do for God gives us certain rights and privileges. This is a clear gap in our thinking process. Jesus, as you all know, did not come right away. There were a number of lessons Jesus wanted to teach. A number of gaps, not only in Martha, but even in his closest disciples. He waited until he knew Lazarus was dead before going. Even if he had left right away, he likely would not have arrived in time. The story states that he waited two more days after learning and then went. When he arrived Lazarus had been in the grave for four days. Considering travel time only one conclusion makes sense. Lazarus was already dead when Jesus got the message, but Jesus wanted to make a point. Do the math any way you want, subtract the two additional days from the four he had been in the grave, and Lazarus would have been in the grave two days instead of four. The primary difference in outcome has to do with filling the gaps for us. Raising a man who has been in the grave for four days removes any doubt as to whether or not he is dead at the time of his resurrection.

But back to Martha. The conversation between Martha and Jesus is another opportunity for him to fill in Martha’s gaps. Martha firmly believes, and states she believes, that if Jesus had come, Lazarus would not have died. She also firmly believes that Jesus has an in with God. It is unclear from the text what Martha is trying to say to Jesus, but perhaps she is trying to reassure him that she still believes he is the Messiah when she says: “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus tells her that Lazarus will rise again, and Martha expresses her conviction in the resurrection of the righteous and that Lazarus will be among them. Jesus continues to try and fill in her gaps with the statement: “I am the resurrection and the life...” Martha misses the point, and has a comeback that is the equivalent of today’s “yeah, yeah...” This becomes clear when Jesus instructs them to roll back the stone and Martha objects because of the stench of four days of death. Jesus gently fills in the gap again by reminding her of what he had already told her.

The gap in understanding God and what he is capable of, it seems to me, is endemic in the human condition. This gap of understanding about Jesus being the resurrection and the life was not fully filled until Mary met the resurrected Jesus at his tomb and the disciples realized the implications.

There is one last point that I think can be made from this story. To get this last point we need to continue on in John 11 to verse 53. It demonstrates why those Christian teachers, evangelists, and thinkers recommend that we expand our view of God beyond being just “the God of the Gaps.” No matter how many gaps God fills, there are still those who choose to disbelieve. After the resurrection of Lazarus, the biggest “miracle” Jesus had performed in his ministry, the leaders became more determined to kill him. We need a view of God that is big enough to encounter, and give us strength to resist disbelief. That disbelief comes in many forms. There is external disbelief which challenges our intellect. There is internal disbelief that we are safe to save, that God would want to save “even me.” There is the disbelief that comes from our thinking we know “the Truth,” and anything outside our known truth cannot be believed. There is the temptation to see the very small gap in our brother or sister’s eye (Jesus called it a small twig or straw, Karphos7), and miss the yawning chasm in our own (Jesus called it a beam, dokos7 — this is a large structural beam holding up the roof). This blindness on our part leads others into disbelief. And then there is what we would consider the incredulous. Each of these areas are gaps in our real knowledge of God.

These stories, among many in the Bible, illustrate that God is willing to fill those gaps for us and give us a larger view of him and his capabilities. He created us and all around us, including the deepest depths of a phenomenal universe. Is your God too small? What are your gaps God needs to fill? What are mine? I pray that God will fill each of our gaps, so our real needs are truly met.

Notes & References:

1The expression “God of the Gaps” is one used in modern philosophy to describe the use of “God” to explain things we either don’t have enough information to explain, or for which we believe we may never have enough information to explain. This was first introduced to philosophical circles by Christian thinkers chiding Christians for using a “God of the Gaps” to fill where modern scientific knowledge was inadequate so “God” was invoked as an explanation for what we didn’t have enough knowledge of. Their prediction was that as our knowledge increased we would consign God to a smaller and smaller area of unknown knowledge. The argument these thinkers put forward is that we need to make God responsible for all aspects of existence, not just the miraculous. For a more thorough description see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/God_of_the_gaps. I don’t want you to get too caught up in that set of arguments, as I am going off on a tangent from that expression. However, I will start there.

4If interested you can find extensive discussions online of all the ways they were trying to trap Jesus. Simply type into your search engine “Jesus writing in the dirt.” You can also find discussions of the ways in which they broke the Law of Moses by the way they brought the woman to him.

5All texts quoted are from the New Oxford Annotated NRSV, revised 4th edition, Oxford University Press 2010.

7Matt 7:3-5 & Luke 6:41,42

Dave Reynolds has been an Emergency Nurse for the last 40 years. He currently practices at Randall Children's Hospital Emergency Department in Portland, Oregon. He avidly enjoys studying the Bible as a hobby.

Photo by Jeff Nissen on Unsplash

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/8956

Christ also taught about Who to worship and the when. Explicit upon Whom , expansive about when and where. To us fathers He taught a special Grace,

Thank you for the article David. God doesn’t want to just fill gaps - He wants to fill everything. As humans are revealed more knowledge, it should not diminish any perspective of God. The phenomenon we could not explain yesterday is no less miraculous today, just because it can be explained.
The biggest “limiting” factor for God is our willingness to let Him work in our lives. Just when we say “God couldn’t do that” is when He steps up to the plate and hits the ball out of the park. There is so much to God our small minds can’t comprehend, not in this life. The best advice - don’t try to understand, He will reveal to you what you need to know if you let Him.

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bob, loved your reply! We are the ones who relagate God to a specific niche in our lives. sadly far too often as a fire insurance policy or life preserver (after we go out on our own into the deep end of life). having said all that, it is very difficult to let go, and let God. In fact, it is a daily struggle for me.

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More often than not, God is the God of last resort. As you say, we call on him when we can’t do anything. Our real “strength” lies I acknowledging our weakness. When we do this we are more inclined to call on God as our first, and only resort.
Most people view self-discipline, in a religious sense, as being able to withstand temptation. This relies on our own strength to overcome. Self-discipline is really the opposite. We can’t do it on our own, so why try. The only way to overcome temptation is to call on God’s strength.
I really dislike the analogy of God as my co-driver. I would rather have the best in the driver’s seat, not the passenger seat, calling out instructions.

What about the black holes? Like doubt, fear, future, Adventism trades on those without a clear Christ likeAnswer. Take the traditional evangelistic series, The beast dominate with little or no mention of the Lamb or the Shepherd.

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It says a lot about the people posting on this when a positive article like this only gets 5 replies, while other articles, with less uplifting content receive 00’s of responses, most of which is a repitition of dogma from both sides if the divide in Adventism. Very disheartening :pensive:

@tjzwemer those black holes are man-made constructions. If an evangelist creates a black hole, it is then easy for him to back fill the hole. I feel this type of evangelism is done because there is a lack of faith/trust that the HS can do the job. I don’t doubt that the Spirit is at work in those large evangelistic campaigns, despite the methods employed. It would be interesting to follow some of the converts in a Seven Up type program. Approach a number and see if they are willing to allow a team to reconnect every 7 years to see how many actually remain, and how their attitudes and beliefs have changed over the years.
The Lamb and the Shepherd have to be present, or their are gaping holes in the Gospel. There is no salvation without the Lamb. I would like to see evangelism flipped on its head, so it becomes a more complete story. Not one trying to say we have all the answers, but “let me introduce you to someone who can fill the gaps.”

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That of course is true, however, God gave us minds capable of intelligence. Too often we don’t want to grapple with difficult ideas that arise. Too often institutionalized faith communities bank on that and use this fact to push compliance. We must always ask where the “spiritual facts” we assume to be true come from. “Let each be certain in his own mind what is the truth.” before we give anyone authority to speak for us.