Is God really in the details?

by Kristin on November 1, 2011

in Belief, doubt & hope

Photo by mr_dissing

“God is in the details.” I’ve always sort of liked the idea of that quote, but I have to admit, I’ve never really dug into what it means (or what it means to me, beyond the realms of art, architecture and the natural world).

Then today, when I was responding to a comment from Matt on my blog (the post is about identity, and Matt brought up the difference between “purpose” and “destiny”) I found myself thinking and writing this:

…to be honest, I’m not a big believer in “destiny” as a part of my faith. I believe too much in free will, and the ability to shift and alter our lives as we go, for better or worse. I also believe there are many paths we can take (in terms of who we partner with, what we do for a living, etc.) that can be in line with our true identity and God’s “will for our lives.” In other words, the identity is agile and God’s will is more about the big picture than the specific details.

That sort of sounds like the opposite of “God is in the details,” doesn’t it?

So which is it—a God of details or the big picture?

Not surprisingly, I’m going to go with “he’s both,” because God is like that—sort of big and hard to pin down. But I couldn’t just leave it at that, of course, so I took a walk this morning I thought through this “both-and” characteristic of God. Here’s my tentative conclusion: God’s will is about the big picture, but he is manifested in the details of how we live out that will.

In other words, God’s big picture for me might include compassion and writing. They are part of my identity, but there are many ways I can (and have) lived out those parts of who I am. It’s when a specific part of my identity becomes a concrete action in my life that God can be seen. My faith is this complex, encompassing thing, but that’s not how it’s seen by others. It’s more likely seen in a single sentence I write that hits home, or the flavor of a soup I make for a sick friend.

If you use the mosaic-style image above as a metaphor, it might work sort of like this: God’s goal is to make that big-picture image look like something meaningful—like the you he created you to be. But all those little pictures that make up the big picture? They represent our choices, our relationships, our actions. God can work with what we give him, but sometimes we veer off track and the materials we supply start to distort the big picture, making it hard to recognize.

Because it’s inevitable. Those God-revealing details are often overrun by the many mindless, meaningless details that fill our days—the ones that aren’t at all rooted in his big picture purpose for our lives. What’s more, all those empty details can distract us (and those around us) from the God-revealing details. That’s why it’s so important to keep working at uncovering our big-picture identities, and lining them up with our more detailed purpose and free will actions.

OK, now my brain hurts, so you all can take over—point out the flaws in my approach, and get me thinking all over again! :) I’d also love to hear if you think this big-picture-vs.-detail take on identity rings true in a philosophical sense, even if you don’t believe in God.

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  • Sarah Louise

    I love this. I remember once describing God as store manager, trying to set up a schedule for the day. Okay, so Sally has to go to lunch here, and Patrick has a break here, oh, but Molly is out sick, so I’ll change this…and the other person REALLY had a problem with that. Her stance was that every minute was planned. Which hello, how does that fit with free will? And I think most things with God are both/and, not either/or. (Although, not everything.)

    Now my brain hurts.


  • Julia Rademacher

    This struggle you describe is something I am constantly discerning as a leader in the faith community. What is God calling us to do/be, and how much do we contribute to formation of that plan? Does the plan exist and do I, through prayer, reflection, awareness of the holy, come to realize the plan to fully live it out? Well, yes, but it’s a true fact we don’t always do this well. Sometimes not at all. And then I feel like that becomes a works/righteousness thing (hello, Lutheranism) like if I don’t figure out the plan and live contrary to it, am I then living a life that is displeasing to God? And well, that doesn’t fly for me. I feel like God intends a beautiful life for me and all of us that reflects who we are created to be. Because of our brokenness we cannot fully figure it out–life gets in the way…and we lose our way. However, in the midst of our choices (which some are unhealthy) we see God as the God who works in aIll things. Amazing Grace… Thankfully, I believe in a God who loves and cares for me even when I may have a different idea for my life than what God may have. I would even dare to say that God values my choices and encourages me to grow through those choices (good and bad) and works through me to help me live the most authentic life possible, giving glory to God in my best and worst moments. Great post, Kristen!

  • Kirstin

    Wait, I thought the *devil* was in the details? At least, that’s how the cliche rings in my head. But I think it’s sort of saying the same thing, either way.

    It’s all the tiny little decisions that add up to one big ideal, one well-lived life, one accomplished goal that determine whether the thing is really good, good-if-you-squint-really-hard, or bad. But a BAD big picture probably can’t become good, even if a lot of the little tiny details and decision ARE good. It may be somewhat less bad, and there may be some good that can come of it, but God’s details can’t make a bad big picture good, though the devil’s details can make a good big picture bad. (Though I’m happy to entertain counterexamples…my brain doesn’t hurt yet, but then I may not be thinking hard enough about this.)

  • Kirstin

    Julia Rademacher’s post appeared while I was typing my comment in, so I didn’t see it until I had finished. It’s a completely different angle on KT’s OP, but it articulated for me some of the religious changes I’ve been going through.

    The connections JR draws between KT’s “details” and God’s plan and the struggle that it entails resonates with me, but in a different key (if you will). As an adult I’ve been drawn to Judaism (and away from the Protestantism I was raised with) because of its attention to the lived details of life. In Judaism, what matters is paying attention to the details: observing the law, studying God’s word, being good to other people. If you try to be good in all the specific small details (and of course, Reform Judaism offers the out that you ONLY have to heed the minutiae of religious observance that has meaning for you), then the big picture will take care of itself. I hadn’t realized this until reading JR’s response, but I’m enjoying feeling freed from the pressure I felt in the religion I was raised in to be forever trying to identify and make sense of a big picture. Belief in a God who is personally invested in us as agents of a big plan can be a comfort–but as a child of one very sincere devout parent, I largely experienced it as a source of self-doubt and misdirection.

    Maybe there’s a big plan and maybe there isn’t–I’ll light my candles on Friday nights, make sure my kids get instructed in the tradition, observe the holidays, pray, and use every opportunity to perform mitzvot. The details are plan enough!

  • Ray Hollenbach

    My brain has hurt for some time, now, and I’m used to living with the pain. Mies van der Rohe’s famous saying applied to the details of architecture–namely, that attention to detail brings God glory–how could it not? Yet, your thoughtful stroll gives us all something to think about, Kristin–so thanks!

    The tension between the big picture (conceived by the Great Artist) and the details (executed by us, His apprentices) inevitably leads me to worship. Who or What could be capable of such a vision? He has dreams in mind for us, yet he allows us to choose our paths daily. Somehow, the vision comes together. The tension headache comes when I try to imagine Him reacting to circumstances just as I would–sequentially, locked in time. But he stands outside of time, so our choices come as no surprise to Him. Still, we make the choices; He does not trick us into our decisions unaware.

    When I look back on the choices I’ve made through the years, I conclude they’ve truly been mine, yet also, when I see the results I think, “how could it have been any other way.” I find in the Biblical narratives (especially Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph) the comfort that God deals with whole lifetimes, and I rest in the safe idea that I am neither alone, nor on my own.

  • Amy Nabors

    I spent much of my summer thinking about this also. I agree with you. I had been thinking about it for a couple of months when our pastor shared a message series about it. He described God’s will as a door. As long as you were within the frame of the door you were within God’s moral will. As you described that could be different things. I’m still in the process of studying it all. Here is a link to the series though if you’re interested.

  • ed cyzewski

    You may have heard of the Homebrewed Christianity podcast. While it’s sometimes a little academic, their interview with Roger Olson may be of interest here. He’s one of my favorite theologians. He’s well versed in historical theology and anything contemporary, and he’s still not quite sure about this stuff. He’s looking into open theism, though he remains a classic Arminiam. All that to say, if one of the brightest theological minds is still unwilling to put his foot down on this matter, I feel pretty good about letting it ride.

    I had a conversation with a friend, and we talked about how these debates over Reformed and Arminiam theology don’t really help when you’re praying, asking God to help you overcome sin or to protect you. Whether or not your fate is predestined or open, God is still a loving Father who wants us to pray to him and to listen. That’s good enough for me.

  • Kristin T.

    Sarah Louise, that’s a super interesting (and funny—in a good way) analogy! A big part of why our brains so often hurt over these concepts, I think, is rooted in our desire to fit God into our earthly time-space continuum. It’s also easy to think “If I was as powerful as God I’d want to orchestrate every last detail,” but I just don’t think that’s what God is about…

    Julia, thanks for the great thoughts. This especially resonated with me: “I would even dare to say that God values my choices and encourages me to grow through those choices (good and bad) and works through me to help me live the most authentic life possible…” You mention that God has a best plan for each of us, but the question still is this: How much detail does he include in that plan?

    Kirstin, Ray is right about the quote generally being attributed to the architect Mies van der Rohe. I did some very basic research on the devil being in the details, and it sounds like the “God” saying came first. Anyway, my perspective is that God’s big picture—his outline for our lives—is always good and beautiful and pleasing, but if we provide the “wrong” details through our choices and actions, it becomes more difficult for that original picture to be realized and recognized. Also, I love your reflections on Judaism, and why it works for you. Beautiful.

  • Roxanne

    I think God is the details and the big picture, all at once. Because, yeah, he’s like that.

  • Katie @ cakes, tea and dreams

    I love this idea – that our details can be a way of manifesting God’s big-picture will for our lives. My brain is hurting about this too, but I tend to think (these days, anyway) that God is less worried about us getting every little thing right and more concerned about us being the kind of people He wants us to be. A good reminder when I tend to go all Type A about the irrelevant details.

    Also: Anne Lamott once said, “Some people say that God is in the details, but I have come to believe that God is in the bathroom.” Which is perhaps another way of saying: God can be anywhere – in the details, the big picture, or even in the bathroom. (Slightly off topic, maybe, but I love her work and I thought of that quote when I read your post title.)

  • Preston

    I was doing thesis work last night and reading on the patristics and the early Church. Jaroslav Pelikan has pointed out that the early Church got into the thick of it when they lost some of the Jewish identity of paradox, specifically the mutable immutability or immutable mutability of God. That’s had me thinking in joy all day. :-)

  • Kristin T.

    Ray, don’t say that—I don’t want to get used to living with the brain pain! I was hoping you’d say it gets better! You have, however, done a perfect job of summing up exactly what made my brain get all knotted up, so thanks for this: “The tension headache comes when I try to imagine Him reacting to circumstances just as I would–sequentially, locked in time. But he stands outside of time, so our choices come as no surprise to Him. Still, we make the choices; He does not trick us into our decisions unaware.”

    Amy, thanks for sharing what you’ve been learning and thinking. The door image is interesting—I’m curious to find out just how wide this doorway is. :)

    ed, I’m not familiar with Roger Olson—I love hearing about new theologians to add to the mix (especially those who admit to not being sure about everything). I also appreciate your open attitude about it all. I’m working on that!

    Roxanne, yeah, it’s kind of difficult to image God being anything but “both, and”—in ways we can’t begin to understand.

    Katie, you nailed this, as far as I’m concerned: “God is less worried about us getting every little thing right and more concerned about us being the kind of people He wants us to be.” Anne Lamott nailed it, too. I might not know exactly what she means, but I definitely know what she’s getting at.

    Preston, you had to go and make my brain hurt even more, didn’t you? But as long as we’re thinking in joy, I won’t complain. :)

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  • IllBeYour Huckleberry

    As a Christian we are to seek out God and he can only be found via the Truth. The truth of which is in the details. However somewhere along the way the saying, like all things, is perverted in this world. Saying the Devil is in the details simply furthers the lies and Confusion. It is to remove Gods association to the truth and replace God with the devil. It is to further push the ignorance of all. Ignorance of the truth, the details and the alignment of God with both ones faith and knowledge. Even though I do not believe, it is the intent, of all who say such a thing, to spread this confusion. However while God is in the details the Devil who is the master of lies, perversions, confusion and ignorance is revealed by the truth in the details that can only lead one to God. God is in the details as the Devil is revealed by them. For God, let the truth be known, the truth of all things! God Bless