I didn’t even know who George MacDonald was until recently. I think the first time I heard his name was last summer when my good friend Matt Perkins of Northwest Anglican and my mother-in-law Tiffany Seppala were discussing his books over lunch. They said he was a great influence on C.S. Lewis.
So I started reading, Discovering the Character of God by MacDonald recently and realized his writings aren’t something I can just quickly read through and say, “Oh that was good,” and move on with life. No. I say “I made the mistake of reading George MacDonald” because I can’t do that. I can’t read a chapter, smile and then just go on with life like nothing happened.
For whatever reason, his writing has challenged me at the core of who I am. As he writes about the character of God I begin to think about who God really is.
And I want to share a statement that really rocked me last night. So much so that I had to sit my book down, sit up straight in bed and really consider what I had just read. But before I share that let me give you a little background on George MacDonald in case you aren’t familiar with him.
Here are some quotes from the introduction of Discovering the Character of God.
“In a life of eighty years and a literary career spanning nearly five decades, Scotsman George MacDonald (1824-1905) produced some fifty-three books of tremendous diversity…Though he was said to have considered himself a poet first, a preacher second, and a novelist third, almost three-quarters of his published work was fiction.
As a boy growing up in northeast rural Scotland, from a very early age, George MacDonald began to pose questions to himself about the character of God. Raised in a family of strict Calvinist convictions, he found it difficult to accept within his own heart the “harsh taskmaster” view of the Almighty, which seemed the prevalent notion in the teaching he received. His search to discover what God was really like took him down many unexpected theological and doctrinal roads and often landed him squarely in the middle of controversy. But it was a search born out of an honest and humble desire to know God in intimate and personal friendship and to obey Him in every aspect of life.
[C.S.] Lewis himself credits MacDonald for beginning him on the road out of atheism toward being a Christian, and later expressed frustration that no one seemed to pay any attention to the high regard in which he held MacDonald. Finally Lewis went public, published an anthology of small quotes from MacDonald, and issued the following statement to get people to stand up and take notice of MacDonald: “In making this collection I was discharging a debt of justice. I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master; indeed I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him. But it has not seemed to me that those who have received my books kindly take even now sufficient notice of the affiliation. Honesty drives me to emphasize it.”
OK, I’ll stop there. The introduction to this book is riveting enough but it’s the childlike ideas and practical spiritual lessons that MacDonald shares that contain so much raw and unadulterated truth. So here’s what I read last night:
“The greatest obscuration of the words of the Lord comes from those who give themselves to interpret rather than do them. Theologians have done more to hide the Gospel of Christ than any of its adversaries. It was not for our understanding, but our will, that Christ came. He who does that which he sees, shall understand. He who is set upon understanding rather than doing, shall go on stumbling and mistaking and speaking foolishness.”
As someone who places such high value on “understanding” while neglecting the more important trait of “obedience” I stopped in my tracks when I read this. I felt like a little light begun to shine inside me and I could start to see the importance of obedience…as if for the first time.
Like most Christians, I’m not ignorant of the fact that it’s right to obey the Lord. But, as MacDonald reveals, knowing something and doing it are two completely different things. And I have to admit that I don’t live out obedience in my daily life.
While I’ve went through seasons where I was intentionally focusing on hearing God and obeying Him (and now that I think about it those have been some of the best times I’ve had with the Lord) more, I don’t think obeying God is a just reserved for a “season” of life. I want obedience to be a desire just like my desire to read, learn and understand spiritual things.
Nobody has to twist my arm to read, it’s something I want to do. Same goes for writing. But it’s not like that for obedience. And I want that to change. If that father in Mk 9:24 can pray, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” then I can pray “Lord, I obey; help me to be willing to obey.” And I’m thankful I have the best Helper living inside of me!
As I read MacDonald I feel like I’m learning in an unusual way. Like truth is weaving its way into my heart and imagination. His writings challenges my apathetic ways and stirs up a desire in me to launch out on my own childlike journey of discovering God. I feel blessed to be challenged like this. And I’m hopeful the Holy Spirit will guide me in this great adventure. And I pray you would also be challenged in such an exciting and real way!
About Josh Monen
Josh is a Christian, entrepreneur and writer from Ridgefield, WA. He's married with three kids: ages 4, 2 and 1. Before he met God, Josh was a drug addict with a $500/day cocaine addiction that almost killed him. Today he's seeking a real authentic relationship with God and others.
MacDonald writes like no one else. My favorite is actually his fiction and I would highly recommend eventually reading Phantastes. Lilith is good too but I think Phantastes contains some of the most beautiful writing I’ve ever laid my eyes upon. C.S. Lewis wrote of Phantastes: “What it actually did to me was to convert, even to baptise . . . my imagination.” After reading Phantastes I could understand Lewis’ comment about this book “baptising” his imagination.
I’m like you in that I place an extremely high value on “understanding” and neglect simple child-like obedience. Sometimes I think understanding in our day and age is underemphasized and I have this natural gut-reaction to go to the other extreme but that leads to the knowledge which St. Paul says “puffs up,” instead of the love which edifies. Thanks for this post brother, it was something I needed to read. I’m very excited for you and Lacie and pray for you both daily.
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Thanks for your comment. Your recommendation led me to start reading Phantastes and I’m really enjoying it!
I know what you mean about reacting to something that’s wrong and choosing to go to the other extreme…I find I do that a lot too. I like what Bill Johnson says about that though, “Reacting to error only creates another error. It’s better to respond to the truth.”
So these days I’m really trying to respond to truth instead of reacting to error. But I admit I don’t do it as often as I’d like but I’m thankful that God is working in me to change that. Thank you for your prayers bro, we appreciate that very much.
I can say I believe in some way his writings saved my life. Just like in Shrek, that idea about onions having layers, I have come to see how MacDonald speaks of truth. Keep on reading and thinking and let me know more about those light bulbs in your head lighting further and further into those truths that MacDonald writes about. I certainly am of the mind that obedience to the pure will of God is the key to the kingdom of heaven.
Hi Lawrence, thank you for sharing. So glad to hear how your life was impacted by MacDonald. I’m excited to continue on this journey of discovery. And I’ll be sure to share the “light bulb” moments as I experience them. Thanks.
Hi Josh, it is great to meet you virtually and to share a similar experience.
About five years ago, as a homeschooling dad, I decided to read through a list of “100 Essential Classics” so that when my children were old enough to read literature, I could embark on that journey with them. I read whatever struck my fancy, in no particular order, thinking that I had five years or so to get through the list. Don Quixote was a romp, and my children enjoyed my reading some parts aloud. (Don’t read a modern English translation, they’re awful. There is one from the late 19th that has a vocabulary as rich as the original Spanish, and the poetry rhymes.) Robinson Crusoe, Swiss Family Robinson, Brothers Karamazov, some Dickens, Chesterton’s works, C.S. Lewis (everything he wrote), Tolkien, and more, were delightful and insightful true classics.
But then my random finger selection method fell upon Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. At the end I slammed the book shut (well, the cover of my eBook) frustrated and filled with such an empty, hopeless feeling. Yes it was well-written, but the world to which it had transported me was full of despair.
Literally moments later, desiring to come out of the gloom, and for some unknown reason, I thought of trying a George MacDonald book, even though none were on “the list.” After all, if Lewis, Tolkien, and Chesterton all cited him as a profound inspiration, there must be something to him. So at random, I selected “The Flight of the Shadow.” Wow! It was as if George MacDonald had read Wuthering Heights also, slammed it shut in frustration, and set down immediately to pen a story like Bronte’s, but full of light. The setting and tone of the two stories is astonishingly similar, yet MacDonald’s Muse (Jesus) shines through.
At that point I abandoned “the list” and set about reading everything George MacDonald wrote. Each book, some written better than others, was packed full of characters who truly walk with Jesus, teaching by example what a thousand sermons could not. How wonderful it was to meet Sir Gibbie and his adoptive mother Janet, and Donal Grant, and Malcom (and his blind grandfather Duncan), and Thomas Wingfold, and Alister and Ian, and Cosmo, and so many more.
The best part is that God has greatly blessed (beyond what I had even imagined) the original desire I had when I began “the list.” My older children, 13, 15, and 16, and my wife, have joined me in reading about a dozen MacDonald Essentials. Not long ago, during a discussion of our family bible study in the Gospel of Luke, my 13-year-old son said, “Hey! That’s just like what Donal Grant did for so-and-so!” That was only the beginning of the insights and lessons about living a life of simple obedience to Jesus that my family has taken away from MacDonald’s stories.
Praise be to God!
My favorites would have to be Sir Gibbie, for MacDonald’s several characters who walk in simple obedience, and how well he shows what that looks like! And the Princess and Curdie books which also show simple obedience in action. I am convinced that the concluding battle of Tolkien’s The Return of the King was influenced by the conclusion of The Princess and Curdie. G.K. Chesterton cites those two books as profound influences on him also.
I love the way you describe learning from MacDonald’s writing: “Like truth is weaving its way into my heart and imagination.” Well said!
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Robert, thanks for your comment. I’m glad you enjoyed it.