Never assume children are not listening to what’s being said around them. When I was a little boy I remember a story told by a visiting preacher during his hour-long sermon. That story haunted me for years. The preacher told of a missionary family who went to evangelize a tribal culture in some faraway jungle. The indigenous people in that tribe apparently did not appreciate this intrusion. They demanded that the husband and wife denounce their faith in Christ. When the couple refused, the natives threatened to slowly kill their children one by one until the couple denounced Christ. The couple still refused and had to witness the torturous deaths of their children beginning with the oldest. After the youngest was killed, the father and mother were chased out of the jungle.
The purpose of this story (and I now believe it was a story and not based on any actual incident) was to stress how important it was to maintain our devotion to Jesus. Our faith should be so strong and firm that we should be willing to witness the torture and deaths of those dearest to us rather than to denounce Christ. But as a child that was not the message I heard. I remember looking up at my parents and wondering if they, in a similar circumstance, would sacrifice me or my younger brother in order to verbally hold fast to their faith. The story really frightened me because I knew how important my parents’ faith was to them.
As an adult I have another question regarding this story. Perhaps there are people who would consider this question heretical, but I think the question allows us to deepen our understanding of the nature of God. The question is this: What kind of God would demand or expect such a sacrifice just to maintain his honor? And that question leads to a series of other questions.
- Does God want us to grovel before him, falling down on our knees and ceaselessly telling him how great and wonderful he is? (Like apparently a certain politician I won’t name demands?)
- Is heaven (what I prefer to call the next dimension of human existence) an eternal worship of an egotistical, narcissistic God who thrives on subservient and sycophantic praise?
- Does God become angry and vengeful if we don’t offer such praise and devotion?
- If the parents in the missionary story chose to save their children by denouncing Jesus, even though in their hearts they were still devoted to their Lord but wanted to save their children, would God send them to hell? I mean, what is the downside of saving your children from torture and death if God expects parents to literally sacrifice their children just so he can be honored?
I have many other questions on this subject, but these will suffice for now.
If Jesus reveals the nature of God (and that is what we believe when we claim to be Christian), then what about the following teachings and examples? What do they say about the nature of the God that Jesus reveals?
- Greatness is defined in terms of service. The only way to be great in the Kingdom of God is to serve. (Mark 10:41-45; Luke 22:24-27) Do we ever think of God as serving humankind and creation? But if God is like Jesus, then God must be a servant.
- We are to love others as we love ourselves. (Mark 12:28-34) So does God love us as much as God loves God’s self? If so, then is there any place for an egotistical, narcissistic God?
- We are to love our enemies because God loves God’s enemies. (Matthew 5:43-48) But I find it more than a little difficult to believe God loves her enemies if she sends them to hell if they do not give her honor. Does God demand more from us than God is in the core of her being?
- On the night of Jesus’ betrayal, he stripped, girded himself with a towel, and washed the dirty feet of proud men. (This was something a Jewish master could not require his servant to do.) And he asked his disciples if they understood what he was doing. Do we understand? If Jesus reveals the eternal nature of God, then it was God washing those feet—not a God on a high throne but a God eager to love with such unbelievable and unexpected compassion and depth. (John 13:1-11)
There is a line from the movie “Oh, God” which I treasure. “God is like a comedian playing to an audience that’s afraid to laugh.” God is so eager to reveal her love to us as well as her joy. But it’s hard to love a God who is egotistical and narcissistic. We can fear that God. We can honor that God. We can obey that God. We can even praise that God, but never with the depths of someone who finally comprehends in his/her heart of hearts that God is love. And neither can we totally trust that God. We can believe we are “saved,” but we will never feel “safe” with such a God.
1 John says that “God is love.” Paul in his great love chapter (1 Corinthians 13) defines love. If we substitute the word “God” for the word “love,” perhaps we will appreciate more who God is. God is patient; God is kind; God is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. God does not insist on her own way; God is not irritable or resentful; God does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. God bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. God never ends.
Shug, in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple tells Celie that “God loves admiration.” Celie responds, “Are you saying God’s vain?” Shug answers, “No, not vain—just wanting to share a good thing. I think it pisses God off for us to walk by the color purple and not notice.” I think Shug understands the kind of admiration God wants from us. It’s the kind that comes from knowing a God who wants to share a good thing—who wants to share love, joy, peace, and belonging.
So, should worship and praise of God be part of our lives? Of course they should–but never out of fear or any sense that God seeks our sycophantic and forced obedience and service. If we understand anything about the nature of God from Jesus, we will praise and worship God out of hearts overflowing with thanksgiving, joy, and authentic love. And when we praise God that way, we will find God side by side with us celebrating that we have finally let go of our fear to “laugh” and realize that all along God has simply wanted to share a good thing. With such an experience we enter what Bono of U2 calls “a beautiful choreography for a life well lived” as we join in the Divine Dance which is destined to include all of creation. Now the God behind that image is a God I can truly trust and love!
[The perceptive reader may have noticed that in the first paragraphs of this article I used the pronouns “he/him/his” for God. In the second half of the article I used the pronouns “she/her.” I did so because I believe that the concept of God found in the missionary story and throughout much of church history is thoroughly patriarchal in origin. Women would never have conceived of such an egotistical, demanding, rigid, and unloving God. With a few glorious exceptions, church theology for two thousand years has been manmade—that is, conceptualized and enforced by males. I can only wonder how advanced we could be today in our faith if women (who make up half the human race!) had been allowed a voice in formulating and applying theology.]
(Bono’s quote was in relation to Richard Rohr’s book on the Trinity called The Divine Dance. If you want your mind stretched or if you have ever struggled with the concept of Trinity, I recommend this book. You will love it!)