Donal Grant: The Obedience of Faith

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Mystery. Intrigue. Drugs, dark secrets, the decay of the will, and the transforming power of God’s love sown by a single man to a harvest of redemption.

That’s Donal Grant. George MacDonald has an uncanny gift for unzipping a reader’s heart, dropping in all kinds of mind-expanding and life-altering thoughts, and then zipping it all right back up.

donalgrant.gifIn reading MacDonald, I’m stuck; I’m forced to think about Reality, the nature of God, how a human being looks when God is willing and acting through the man, and what obedience really is. That’s the magic of George MacDonald. He takes fiction and puts you in touch with Reality, and when you put down the book for the day a great big turbine of thought is purring in your head and heart.

By my late twenties I’d read nearly all of the C.S. Lewis catalog except for Studies in Words and Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature (which I’ve still not read), some of them many times, and began to dig into George MacDonald because he was the man of whom Lewis said, “He was my master” and that his Phantastes “baptised my imagination.” When I first began reading MacDonald he seemed legalistic to me with all his talk of obedience and “doing what Jesus tells you.” At times he really agitated me. There were moments where I literally felt sick, knowing I didn’t have what it takes to be holy. Such is the effect of MacDonald’s work on someone with legalistic and unworthy concepts of God.

But perseverance had its way. As I continued I found the depth of his view of God – that it is God within the human who activates and empowers, and that we can be strong by His strength alone. In our time-bound perception this translates to the inner choice and attitude of faith, leading to the outer form or action of faith which is obedience. Donal Grant is a real character study in how this inner choice and attitude of faith is manifested as obedience; the Son re-incarnating the life of the Father in Donal through Donal’s continual offering of his body as a living sacrifice, and being transformed by the renewing of his mind.

On strength: “…if any one trust in work, he has to learn that he must trust in nothing but strength – the self-existent, original strength only; and Donal Grant had long begun to learn that. That man has begun to be strong who knows that, separated from life essential, he is weakness itself, that, one with his origin, he will be of strength inexhaustible.”

On the nature of punishment and the love of the Father: “All hatred of sin is love to the sinner. Do you think Jesus came to deliver us from the punishment of our sins? He would not have moved a step for that. The horrible thing is being bad, and all punishment is help to deliver us from that, nor will punishment cease till we have ceased to be bad. God will have us good, and Jesus works out the will of his father. Where is the refuge of the child who fears his father? Is it in the farthest corner of the room? Is it down in the dungeon of the castle, my lady?”

“No, no!” cried lady Arctura; “–in his father’s arms!”

What we touch in Donal is holiness. Not the pressed lips, hair in a bun caricature, but the real, living, breathing, loving, alive-with-the-life-of-God kind of holiness, the kind that makes us want to live and love and be alive with that same Life. “The gospel is given to convince, not our understandings, but our hearts; that done, and never till then, our understandings will be free.”

Profile photo of Ron Block

Winner of 147 Grammys (or so), Ron Block is the banjo-ninja portion of Alison Kraus and Union Station. When he's not laying down a bluegrass-style martial-arts whoopin' on audiences around the world, he's taking care of his donkey named "Trash" and keeping himself busy by being one of the most well-read and thoughtful people we know.


20 Comments

  1. Profile photo of Jason Gray

    Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    Hey Ron,

    I’m grateful to be reminded of this book again. Don’t let me rest til I get it!

    I love the passage you quoted, too. “in his father’s arms!”

    Brilliant, beautiful, true, giving full measure to God’s holiness and grace.

  2. Nate

    “At times he really agitated me. There were moments where I literally felt sick, knowing I didn’t have what it takes to be holy.”

    Sounds like a good read. I’ll definitely check him out someday.

  3. Profile photo of Ron Block

    Ron Block

    @ronblock

    I forgot to say that Donal Grant is a sequel to Sir Gibbie, another book of his I love.

    Nate,

    MacDonald’s theology agitates those who think that believing certain facts about God is what saves us. We can believe Jesus died and rose and ascended and that He sits at the right hand of God the Father from whence He shall come to judge the living and the dead, and still never actually trust Him in our daily life. We can trust Him to save us from Hell and then trust Him for nothing else, instead walking in our own ways, our own means of coping with life, which is what Paul calls “walking according to the flesh.” That’s where GM’s theology hits home. It’s about trusting Christ Himself, that Man who sits at the right hand of God, not merely assenting to an exact set of facts about Him (though such facts are important).

    That’s where GM really hit me in the stomach in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I had been trusting God for salvation (by which, back then, I meant, “I won’t go to Hell”) and to provide for my needs as per Malachi and Matthew 6. But I had rarely, if ever, trusted God to be my strength, my joy, my peace, my gentleness, etc. Instead, I built a whole persona based on trying to be a great musician and Mr. Nice Guy. After I prayed the Tozer prayer (“Lord, work Your will in my life, no matter what the cost”) in 1991, God began to break down these false identities, and in fact completely crashed both of them by about 1994; it was then He began to transform me as I learned to renew my mind according to His facts – not mere mental assent to these facts, but a grabbing hold and a hanging of my entire being on them; I bet the farm on God’s promises. I’m loved, accepted, holy, one spirit with the Lord, a king, a priest, dead to sin, dead to the Law. As I accorded my mind with God’s truths and hung myself on His truthfulness, I saw major life transformation, and continue to do so.

    Where there is Hell in our consciousness, a writer like GM is “the smell of death unto death.” When Heaven breaks through, and we begin to think with God’s thoughts, writers like GM become perfumed with Life, and bring Life.

  4. Nate

    Wow… thankyou Reverend Ron…

    I agree. I’ve seen this in my own spiritual walk. I used think the whole purpose of Christianity, the cross, of Christ was to keep me from going to hell. I wondered why, at baptism, the preacher didn’t just hold me under and send me on my merry way to heaven.

    Then, in college, God started breaking through and teaching me things. Things about worship and his glory, suffering and his value, righteousness and his supremacy. I can totally identify.

    And he continues. As of late, he’s been challenging my whole way of thinking. I’ve been bending biblical principals into my worldly way of thinking. But God wants to totally change my way of thinking to be in line with his. He wants to transform my mind. ( And he’s the one who is doing it.) Once he changes our minds, I suspect more and more every day that it is not Christ who is the rebel. He is the standard and he is the rebel. It is not the Christian life that is turned upside down. The Christian life is right and the world is upside down.

    Thanks again, Ron, its good to think about these things, to think about the things of God.

    Also I’ve never read any Tozer though I heard him mentioned in many sermons, books and conversations. Whats a good starting place? I will definitely want to check it his work someday.

    I feel so privileged, so lucky, to stand on the shoulders of such giants as Tozer and the like. What a wonderful age to live in.

  5. Profile photo of Ron Block

    Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Nate,

    Any of the Tozer collections available are good. He writes a lot of short, to-the-point essays, pithy, concise, and shooting from the hip. I used to think Tozer legalistic too (everyone seems legalistic to a guy that knows he can’t live up to God’s standard, and doesn’t yet know the Power that lives in him). I like Tozer’s writing style better than AB Simpson, his predecessor, but Simpson goes deeper. I think Tozer takes all that Simpson says for granted, and is writing from the upper level of already standing on the Christ-in-you life. It’s like reading the second half of Ephesians (do this and that) without the first half (you are this and that because God has done it and empowered you), but taking everything in the first half for granted. Tozer’s fiery call is for holiness in the church.

  6. Tony Heringer

    Ron,

    Have you read “Jack” by George Sayer? There are parts of that book that bring me to tears. What I’ve apprehended about Lewis (and I say apprehended because Tolkien said “You will never get to the bottom of him”) is, as you’ve noted here, MacDonald was profoundly influential on him.

    But, knowing that, I’ve never read MacDonald. This passage impacted me in as it did Jason:

    ‘Where is the refuge of the child who fears his father? Is it in the farthest corner of the room? Is it down in the dungeon of the castle, my lady?”

    “No, no!” cried lady Arctura; “–in his father’s arms!”’

    Like Lewis, he seems to draw you along to what you want and indeed know the answer should be and in fact is. In this case, the nature and the power of the Father’s love. I was reminded of the father of the prodigal looking for and running to his son as well as Paul’s description of the Spirit’s inner cry from hearts of “Abba, Father!”

    “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” Solomon tells us, but thank God that He doesn’t leave us there. He leads into a love beyond our comprehension.

    Like Jason, I too will put this book on the reading list. Thanks!

  7. Suzane

    Ron,

    First, thank you for teaching me about holiness, and seeing my true self, who I am in Christ. You’ve been a great friend, teacher and mentor. I’m blessed to know you.

    Regarding this book, what a wonderful way you have for making readers hungry to read the books you talk about. It’s truely a gift.

  8. Profile photo of Ron Block

    Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Tony,

    I’ve not read that biography.

    The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and then, “Perfect love casts out fear.” The deeper we go into the Father, the more we recognize that He is love, and there is nothing to fear from that love. But, of course, we reverence God, and go on holding Him in awe – we don’t lose that godly fear, the fear of loving anything more than God, the fear of not putting Him first. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom because it casts out every other kind of fear; if we fear God and learn to know Him, it seems more and more silly to fear anything else.

    I went through a phase as I was learning who I am in Christ where the immanence of God, God-with-me, became so prevalent that I nearly lost hold of His transcendence. That caused me to lose reverence – I got almost a little too familiar (in the bad sense). There’s got to be a balance of the paradox in order to stay spiritually healthy. The transcendent power that created the universe, that holds everything together, that can speak and nothing becomes everything, balanced with that loving, strong, disciplining Father who also sweetly broods over us like a mother hen – that’s the paradox of God.

  9. Tony Heringer

    Ron,

    Could that be why Paul says the Spirit’s cry is “Abba, Father”? You have the familiar “pappa” with the formal “father.”

    This battle betwixt fearing God in the wrong way and being too familiar with Him is similar to what is going on with parenting in America. When I was growing up, children were seen, but not heard. I joked with someone recently that I don’t think I talked to an adult in a real way until I was in college. They were scary and there was separation to be sure.

    But, now, it seems the pendulum has swung too much the other way. Kids are, in many circles overly familiar with adults. They loose that sense of awe and wonder that they start out with as little ones.

    Check out “Jack”, it was recommended to me by a pastor friend who was also a C.S. Lewis fan — so much so, he travelled to Oxford to check out all of Lewis’ old stomping grounds. It is a very good treatment of the man.

  10. Profile photo of Ron Block

    Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Tony,
    On “Abba, Father”, from Vine’s:

    “In the Gemara (a Rabbinical commentary on the Mishna, the traditional teaching of the Jews) it is stated that slaves were forbidden to address the head of the family by this title. It approximates to a personal name, in contrast to “Father,” with which it is always joined in the NT. This is probably due to the fact that, abba having practically become a proper name, Greek-speaking Jews added the Greek word pater, “father,” from the language they used. “Abba” is the word framed by the lips of infants, and betokens unreasoning trust; “father” expresses an intelligent apprehension of the relationship. The two together express the love and intelligent confidence of the child.”

    Definitely with you on kids.I have to stay on mine about respect. Even though they don’t watch television (aside from Friday night movie night) or do video games (except Saturday, Lego Star Wars on my Mac!), they are in constant contact with other kids whose mindsets are fueled by the world-mind, which helps fuel the natural tendencies of my children. That world-mind is always whirling around seeking whom it may devour. I don’t believe the “children should be seen and not heard” mindset was healthy (as Jesus rebuked the disciples), and neither is the opposite; we don’t need to treat our children as if they were the center of the universe, because they’ll believe it and, through that false belief, act accordingly.

    I used to go to a child psychologist to get parenting answers, and he was always poking fun at the self-esteem movement, the idea that we’ve got to make sure our kids feel good about themselves. His answer: “People feel good about themselves when they do good.” A child who loved and respected, and is taught to respect his elders, be courteous, kind, and helpful, will feel good. Children left to themselves end up losing about twenty years of their life in playing catch-up on manners, respect, discipline, organization, and miss opportunities that come easily to those who are better taught.

    That’s where love and boundaries fit together. Giving boundaries is an expression of love. It’s easier sometimes in the moment to let behavior slide, but as my child psychologist said once, “Keeping the peace destroys the peace.” It opens up the way to childish tyranny.

  11. Tony Heringer

    “Abba” is the word framed by the lips of infants, and betokens unreasoning trust; “father” expresses an intelligent apprehension of the relationship. The two together express the love and intelligent confidence of the child.”

    Love that picture. Thanks for the exposition!

    On the funny side of this self-esteem issue, when my kids were little and playing soccer all teams competing received trophies and had a party at seasons end. It just cracked me. In fact, one season, the kids didn’t win a game in ten tries and didn’t score a goal until the very last game. But, we celebrated it.

    I think this is yet another example of how the pendulum has swung the other way. There was (and in the hyper-competitive, usually older age sports there still is) a Vince Lombardi mindset of “winning is the only thing.” Now its a Stuart Smalley mindset of “we are all winners!” Both are wrong and yet hint at what should be right. As Paul says in Corinthians, we should admire and emulate the athlete who literally agonizes over his sport to gain the perishable. We should do that to gain the imperishable.

    Good words my friend. Keep fighting the good fight!

  12. kelli

    As one who has also been more influenced by George MacDonald than other writer, I must chime in! Thank you, Ron, for introducing him to some and for reminding others of a dear, old friend and mentor.

    Ron’s depiction of GM is beautiful and true. His characters are so real – obedient in such a way that stirs your soul to the follow the same. Yet, they are not perfect. They are “real” (fictionalized) people living out the love through obedience that we are to live. You cannot walk away from reading one of his novels, if even just a paragraph, without your heart being called to something greater.

    You are constantly reminded of the Father and His will, and of Jesus, our elder brother, whom made it possible for us to be free of sin, as well as the beauty and holiness of our Father. There is such beauty in his writings…not only through his realness of his characters but also in his descriptions of nature (Granny).

    I have yet to experience a more real relationship with our Father (outside of His Son), than the one between Him and George MacDonald. I cannot recommend his books highly enough!

    Here’s an online link to some of his works…. http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/author?name=MacDonald%2C%20George%2C%201824-1905 .

    Just a little taste is all you need (as you can see from Ron’s quotes), and you’ll hunger for more of the truths he portrays!

    …kelli (i could go on and on here!!!)

  13. Profile photo of Ron Block

    Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Kelli,

    Part of the realness of Donal, Malcolm, and other GM characters is that he shows their inner struggles with doing right. They aren’t two-dimensional goody two shoes; they are real people wrestling with their flesh tendencies and continually going back to their Source. I’ve never forgotten the image of Malcolm, caught in the grip of feelings of intense anger, throwing himself down on the ground face down, his hands grasping at the ground, and getting a grip again on the Spirit perspective. It’s Donal continually turning to Christ with his inner heartache. In this way GM models for us what it looks like to manifest the life of Christ out through our flesh in real-time. There is temptation, and the characters turn temptation into a call for deeper and stronger trust in the One who is the source and ground of their being.

  14. Julie

    “I forgot to say that Donal Grant is a sequel to Sir Gibbie, another book of his I love.”

    Are you serious?! I loved Sir Gibbie! I had no idea it had a sequel. I’ll have to check that out. Thanks for sharing this Ron!

  15. Profile photo of Ron Block

    Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Julie,

    It’s a sequel in the sense that it is Donal’s story after the happenings in Sir Gibbie. Sir Gibbie himself doesn’t figure in it, except for occasional mentions.

  16. nancy

    Thank you so much for sharing this. I love George MacDonald and I loved Sir Gibbie (so much that we named a guinea pig “Wee Sir Gibbie”).

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