I have come to think that one of the most important theological distinctions—a distinction with vast implications for how we understand God, our world, and ourselves—is the difference between the God who pushes and the God who pulls.
Conventional theology tends toward the God who pushes. The God who pushes sets things into motion. When we open the pages of the Bible we find God doing just that: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). The Hebrew word bārā’ (create) is supplemented by many others in the Bible that are similar, such as `āsâ (make), yāṣar (shape), and qānâ (originate). These are verbs that push: God shapes, makes, creates. But if we read Genesis 1 carefully, we discover the picture is more complicated.
The third verse is where the action begins: “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Gen. 1:3). This is not God making or shaping, but God speaking and summoning. This is the God who pulls, who by the power of his Word draws out of chaos something new. The summons God utters is not limited to that moment. “Let there be light” echoes throughout history and will so echo until all is light, until darkness is chased away. We meet this God not only at the beginning of the Bible but at the end, where the one who is seated on the throne says, “I am making everything new!” (Rev. 21:5).
We need both perspectives. It is characteristic of the Bible to say both/and, not either/or. One of the most troubling things about much of theology is that it tries to make us choose between things that are equally affirmed by the Bible as if we can have only one or the other. Thus the church divides between those who believe that God chooses and those who believe that we choose, even though both actions are amply represented in Scripture. Or we’re asked to choose between the Bible and the church, as if we could have one without the other. And so it is here: We need both the God who pushes and the God who pulls. It’s when we have one without the other that we get into trouble.
In Reformed tradition, the perspective of the God who pushes has been dominant. The biblical story is often presented in four movements as creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. This shorthand can mislead us if we do not also have the perspective of the God who pulls. If all we have is the God who pushes, we tend to look backward toward what we have lost.
In this view, salvation has the character of restoration—getting back to the garden, as songwriter Joni Mitchell puts it. This idea of restoration puts a premium on our view of what we and the world were at the beginning. The Bible doesn’t say much about this, but we have our own ideas. We divide the present world into the things we regard as “natural” and those we regard as “unnatural.” By “unnatural,” we mean those things that, in our opinion, weren’t there at the beginning.
There are two problems with this point of view. First, we are the ones doing the deciding about what is natural and what is not. Nature is complicated. If we go by observation, many things are natural. But this is not what we mean by “natural.” What we mean is what we think proper to nature. We want to get back to the garden—our view of the garden. In times past, people thought many things were natural that we no longer regard as natural. So when people trot out the nature argument, they are usually talking about their own predilections.
The second problem with the restoration idea of salvation is that the Bible suggests salvation goes beyond creation. Take, for example, the contrast between Genesis 2 and Revelation 21. In Genesis 2, the first people live in God’s garden, where God strolls in the cool of the evening. In Revelation 21, we live in the New Jerusalem, descended from heaven, where God takes up permanent residence with his people.
Clearly something has changed between Genesis 2 and Revelation 21. Instead of garden life (or rather, in addition to garden life) we have city life. Garden life, especially in Genesis 2, is about the beauty of nature; city life is about the beauty of human culture and creativity. In the first, we have plants and animals; in the second, we have art and music. This is a remarkable perspective, a redemptive one, when we remember that according to Genesis 4 city life began with Cain and his descendants.
If all we have is the God who pushes, it’s hard to take account of all this. But if we also have the God who pulls—who stands at the end of history and summons us and all creation toward his new creation—then we have a perspective from which to understand that all things have not yet been revealed. There is more to be discovered—new possibilities for human life. It’s as if God stood at the far end of time and said, “Let there be human life in all its abundance and with all its delights,” and for all time human life continues to respond in new ways to the divine summons.
Of course, as in Genesis 1, the forces of chaos and darkness continue to resist the call of God. It sometimes seems that history proves nothing except the remarkable ability of human beings to resist the divine Word. But it is not so. God still calls, and one day all will hear and obey.
Fundamental to any understanding of the Word of God in history is a metaphor found in Isaiah 55:10-11:
As the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.
In a remarkable way, this passage draws together the perspectives of the God who pushes and the God who pulls. The Word God speaks falls into the rich soil of human life, and there it continues to grow. We have not yet heard the whole Word. This is the good news: not the gospel of going back to the garden, but the gospel that “no eye has seen [and] what no ear has heard” (1 Cor. 2:9).
This leads us to live our Christian lives facing forward, not backward. It’s not about what we were, but about what we are becoming. As Jesus promised, “‘I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth’” (John 16:12-13).
Web Discussion Questions
- What insights do you gain when reflecting on how the biblical story begins with a garden (Gen. 2) and ends with a city (Rev. 21)?
- How would you describe the difference between the God who pushes and the God who pulls? What metaphors or images would you use?
- Which perspective—the God who pushes or the God who pulls—have you, personally, preferred? How has that influenced your spiritual choices or journey with God?
- How may having both perspectives of God pushing and pulling change how we currently approach or do things in church?
About the Author
Clayton Libolt was the long time pastor of River Terrace Church in East Lansing, Mich. Since his retirement, he has served in a variety of interim positions. He is presently serving as the interim senior pastor of Sonlight Community CRC in Lynden, Wash.