Sunday, June 18, 2017

Seven FAQ's About Christian Faith (and Seven More for Good Luck) 01

(A new series of posts)

Ch.1: Is God Mad at Me?

What Are We Made For?

We are made to be loved and love.

Love is what God is and God made us to be like him.[1]

Love is the energy that moves us. The soil in which we bloom. What makes us who we are meant to be. The necessary and sufficient condition for full humanity. It is God’s glory and ours too.

More to the point – this is the point! The only one that matters. Without a deep awareness and assurance of our Creator’s love is both disposition and action our lives becomes desperate and distorted searches for it. Surrogates abound: family, children, job, stuff, status, wealth, achievement, sports, health, and other deities we create to fill the god-shaped hole inside us. The 17 century French mathematician and philosopher Pascal says it well:

“What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.”[2]

Every human beings needs to know in heart and mind that their Creator is love, made them from that love, for that love, to be lover themselves of him supremely and every other human being as well.

We knew that at the creation. The picture of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is of creatures well-loved, lavishly provided for, and given an identity and vocation far more than adequate to secure their sense of significance and security.

Whatever exactly we parse the significance of Adam and Eve’s breaking relationship with God to mean, it at least means that we know this originary divine love now by default. It’s absence. Or better, our inability to sense and live out of it. For the Creator’s love and care for us never wavered. Indeed, it only intensified or solidified (if I may use such terms) with God’s absolute unwillingness to acquiesce in our rebellion.

Some religions and spiritual philosophies present human beings as part of or an expression of their deity him-, her-, or its- self. Divine love here is simply the self-love the deity.

Others allot but a bit role to humanity. We do the grunt work the gods have tired of and want relief from.

Yet others value humanity highly. So high, in fact, that we are very nearly aliens in our bodies and earth-boundedness. If we can find and practice the proper spiritual insight and protocols we may make our way toward the blessed state of union with the deity (personally or impersonally considered) when death finally frees us to “shuffle off this mortal coil” (Shakespeare) and we may rejoin the “spiritual” from which we came.

Nowhere, however, do we find creatures begot by the Creator’s love alone, beloved for no reason but that love alone, trusted with the immeasurable privilege of being God’s royal children and priests in the temple of his creation, destined for life with him forever in communication, communion, and community, asked only to love and trust the Creator’s love for us and mature into the full stature of humanity God designed for us. St. Irenaeus, the great 2nd century theologian said it well: “The glory of God is humanity fully alive and life is beholding God.”[3]

Life as gift and grace. As love and latitude. Freedom and fealty. The unfathomable reality of living God’s life in a human key!

Nothing but love and God’s provision for human well-being, goodness, and eventual maturity at the beginning. And, as we will see, nothing but that at the end and at every moment in between.

No “God With a Scowl”

Flash forward to our world today. Sadly, this biblical picture of God as the ever-loving Creator and Redeemer, ever-seeking, ever-welcoming Parent of wayward children, ever-patient care-taker of his wondrous creation unwilling that it or its creatures fail to reach their intended glory, this view of God has been often hidden, obscured, or even contradicted by his own followers, of all people!

Too many people today, maybe even you, dear reader, think of God a the aloof, demanding, vengeful, deity who must be assuaged and persuaded to accept his human followers only after he requires Jesus to die for us, taking his Father’s wrath on himself and protecting us from it.

Even then, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, God seems, to hear many of his followers tell it, obsessively concerned with his rules and our following them. A regimen of what the late Dallas Willard called “sin-management.” Both the left and the right have versions of this deformity of the gospel.

“On the Right, the gospel is “vampire faith” (they want Jesus for his blood), it is shaped by atonement theology and obsessed with atonement theology, and it is about “relief from the intrapsychic terrors of fundamentalist versions of hell.”

On the Left, the gospel is about “good acts” and activism and “self-determined acts of righteousness.” So the Right is about proper beliefs and the Left about proper behaviors.”[4]



From either direction, then, much American Christianity leaves us bereft of the Bible’s God who far from being distant and demanding has shown himself in Jesus to have drawn near and consider us dear, arms open as wide as possible to welcome us ungrateful and undeserving creatures home again, wide enough with love enough that even without the nails his arms would remain bound to the cross in divine welcome.

This ersatz surrogate deity, the one I call the “God with a Scowl,” rules with an iron fist. We live in fear of failing this God. Moral failure, social or political “backwardness,” arrogant self-righteousness, doctrinal aberrations, all place of on God’s “bad side” liable to and worthy of a good old-fashioned jolt of divine wrath. One or a combination of these things (depending, of course, on one’s theological outlook) inevitably turns our view of God into that of God “with a scowl.” Obsessively concerned with our performance and ever-ready to avenge any misstep, the burden of maintaining our relationship with God falls squarely on us.

When an author like Philip Pullman writes a trilogy of children stories (His Dark Materials) which portray God as a moral iron fist (the God “with a scowl”) who terrorizes humanity and the church as his earthly authoritarian representative, and when the church promotes boycotting his movies as anti-Christian because Pullman kills off this deity, we see this distortion of the gospel revealed in all its ugliness. We ought to cheer for the demise of this deity whether Pullman believes it to be Christian God or not. This God needs to die!

Jesus

God “has shown himself in Jesus.” Ah, there’s the magic word. Jesus of Nazareth, Israel’s Messiah, shows us who God is in the fullest measure possible. In fact, the most radical thing Christian faith says about God is that he is Jesus-like! We can’t say Jesus is godlike unless we mean the deity he has shown God to be. We can’t try to fit him into views of God we have gotten from somewhere else. Because we don’t know who or what God is apart from him!

Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension brings to a climax the long story of God with Israel in pursuit of his eternal purpose for his creatures and creation (see the next chapter for more on this). In him

-the God who desired to draw near to his people draws as near as possible by becoming one of us (Matthew 1);

-the God who rescued his people from slavery in Egypt rescued all humanity from slavery to the devil by dying for and God raising him from the dead (Hebrews 2:14-18);

-the God whose established his presence in the midst of his people in the temple physically, now indwells his people personally and in Jesus they become his new temple (John 2:22; Ephesians 3:19ff.);

-the God who wants to be the center of his people’s life makes Jesus the center point of the whole cosmos (Ephesians 1:10); and

-the God who always wanted to be at home with his people, finally is (Revelation 21:3).

From the uttermost to the innermost, the smallest to the largest, the best to the worst, Jesus makes it clear that God has loved his people and his world lavishly, abundantly, generously with no regard to the cost to himself and for the benefit and well-being of all he has created. He reveals the God “with a scowl” to be a fraud, a massive and destructive hoax perpetrated by powers of evil that oppose God[5] and seek to undo his work in the world (more on this (d)evil figure in a later chapter).

Jesus is the face of God’s faithfulness to all he has promised his creatures and creation. And that faithfulness means love, compassion, justice, forgiveness, welcome, and a good future for us.

His heart is God’s heart, his hands and feet God’s embrace of and action for us, his words God’s wisdom, his death the extremity of God’s compassion, his resurrection the enormity of God’s power and resolve – in short, God’s utter faithfulness to be with us, in us, as us, an economy of gift and grace, friendship and fealty, abundance and adoration throughout the ages.

Jesus – we know God is not mad at us, you and me, because of him. And because of him we know God is not mad at the world, vengeful, or out to get us for our sins. In fact, God does not even treat us sinners or allow sin to color his relationship with us! Karl Barth says it beautifully:

"[Man's] legal status as a sinner is rejected in every form. Man is no longer seriously regarded by God as a sinner. Whatever he may be, whatever there is to be said of him, whatever he has to reproach himself with, God no longer takes him seriously as a sinner. He has died to sin; there on the Cross of Golgotha...We are no longer addressed and regarded by God as sinners...We are acquitted gratis, sola gratia, by God's own entering in for us."[6]

“We are no addressed and regarded by God as sinners” – that’s the grace of God in nutshell! Is God mad at and vengeful toward us? Perish the thought! Such a blasphemous idea is a lie of the enemy. No matter how loudly shouted or often repeated it is a lie! If you’re feeling unloved or under condemnation by God boldly grab the truth and throw it back in the face of the accuser (the (d)evil). The glory of the gospel is that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19). Did you hear that? “Not counting their trespasses against them.” That means your trespasses and mine – everyone’s.

God is not made at or vengeful toward us. Never has been! Brokenhearted, yes. Had to practice tough love toward us, yes. But love it was and love it remains. As the God character in “The Shack” repeatedly intones, “I’m especially fond of you.”

And God is!



[1] I know God is not male. But English unfortunately does not have generic pronouns so we have to make a choice. My choice, and it’s not the only way to go, is to go ahead and work with the “improper” pronoun that the biblical text gives us. And use the full variety of images, male and female, scripture offers to craft a view of God that is neither male nor female but grounds both in God’s being. Like I said, this is my choice of a way to go. If another person chooses to do differently, like use “Godself” in place of pronouns, that is fine with me. I find that cumbersome but it is another way to go.
[2]Pascal, 1966, 75.
[3] Against Heresies, Book 4, 20:7.
[5] Whether or not we personify this evil as a “devil” figure or not, the crucial thing is to recognize that there is some intentional organized opposition to God in his universe. The evil we face is more than the sum total of humanity’s misdeeds and failures.
[6] Barth, 1949, 120-121.

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