Saturday, June 6, 2009


Healing our Image of God
How we deal with troubled times depends a lot on what we imagine God to be like. The remarks in this post are based very much on a book called "Good Goats: Healing Our Image of God" by Matthew Linn et. al. The toughts in this article and the next one are simply meant to provoke some thought. If they seem one-sided then you can add a comment or two; if they don't speak to your own experience of God then consider yourself fortunate.

One of the sayings that we post on placards to encourage our high school freshmen during their orientation week reads like this: "When two African warriors meet to make peace they do not drop their spears, they drop their shields."

One of the basic requirements for intimacy is to leave yourself vulnerable to others, to let go of your defenses and take down your safety net. Letting go is hard enough under the best of circumstances, but what if I don’t really trust the other person in the first place? My spiritual life is determined so much by the particular image or picture I have of God.

Most of us say that we believe in a gentle, loving God who cares for us and who died to save us, but too often that God gets shoved into the background by a second and totally contrary image of the divine; one which many of us Christians were brought up with, and which we hold on to alongside or even in preference to the picture revealed to us by Jesus of a Lord of unconditional Love, who is madly in love with each of us. The God of matchless MASTERY wins out over the God of infinite INTIMACY.

The following is a little story that may give you some idea of what I'm talking about:
It's from God of Surprises by Gerard Hughes, S.J.


God was a family relative, much admired by Mum and Dad, who described him as very loving, a great friend of the family, very powerful and interested in all of us. Eventually I am taken to visit "Good Old Uncle George." He lives in a formidable mansion, is bearded, gruff and threatening. I cannot share my parents' professed admiration for this jewel in the family. At the end of the visit Uncle George addresses me. "Now listen, dear," he begins, looking very severe, "I want to see you here once a week, and if you fail to come, just let me show you what will happen to you." He then leads me down into the mansion's basement. It is dark, becomes hotter and hotter as we descend, and I begin to hear unearthly screams. In the basement there are steel doors. Uncle George opens one. "Now look in there, dear," he says. I see a nightmare vision, an array of blazing furnaces with little demons in attendance, who hurl into the blaze those men, women and children who failed to visit Uncle George or to act in a way he approved. "And if you don't visit me, dear, that is where you will most certainly go," says Uncle George. He then takes me upstairs again to meet Mum and Dad. As I go home, tightly clutching Dad with one hand and Mum with the other, Mum leans over me and says, "And now don’t you love Uncle George with all your heart and soul, mind and strength?" And I, loathing the monster, say, "Yes I do," because to say anything else would be to join the queue at the furnace. At a tender age religious schizophrenia has set in and I keep telling Uncle George how much I love him and how good he is and that I want to do only what pleases him. I observe what I am told are his wishes and dare not admit, even to myself, that I loathe him.

My guess is that many of us are familiar with Uncle George. This is a distorted, MASTERY-BASED picture of a God who is Almighty, who can do whatever the heck he wills. Dear Old Uncle George shows all the earmarks of a "Mastery" freak:
1. On a power trip: Wouldn't you be? Alone at the controls. There is nothing "gentle" about Uncle George. He does not "adapt" to things- He doesn't need to! This God gets his way or else!
2. Makes you earn everything - There is no free lunch. You work to win his approval, none of this unconditional love stuff! You get salvation the old-fashioned way: you EARN IT! This is very American, of course; and so we can relate to it.
3. He keeps score and exacts horrid punishment.
The main plot line is this: you spend your life trying to avoid God's wrath. Like some character in a Dickens novel. Mercy is not part of the plot -- It gets injected from the outside only as a foreign element, an afterthought, through indulgences and casuistry.
4. Uncle George is vengeful, getting even with anyone who crosses him,"The All-Just God."


When I was a kid we had a cherry tree in the back yard. Perfect for climbing. I was told, of course not to climb in it. One day I disobeyed, and fell from a low branch, landing hard on my behind. The kitchen window flew up, and a knowing parental voice cried out: "See! God punished you!"

Now, we never give statements like that a second thought; but let’s look at it for a minute:
If a parent pushed a child out of a tree on purpose, that parent would be in court the next morning! That's called child abuse, and you can locked up for it! Uncle George, who pushes little boys out of trees, ought to be attending weekly 12-step meetings! Or going to therapy to work through all his anger issues.
Yet countless Christians, I suspect, have this image of Uncle George, a God of Mastery, somewhere in their head or heart at the same time that they're praying to the God of infinite intimacy, who died to save us. We find it hard to just simply let go of this image of a God who vaporizes any man or beast who accidentally sets foot on Mt. Sinai. We've become so used to rationalizing this picture of an ill-tempered, punishing God, and living with it, that we don't notice how fundamentally incompatible it is with the idea of an infinitely loving, forgiving God.
We just accommodate a little: We add provisos and conditions to the New Testament's simple, clear statements about grace and forgiveness.

Thus "God is love" becomes only half a sentence: the complete version is "God is love, BUT…he's also all just and keeps careful track of all our mistakes, for which he will demand complete satisfaction." "God is love, BUT …he won't forgive you until you repent."
True, that's in the bible. It's the Deuteronomist Code in the Old Testament, exemplified by the Ten Commandments. Richard Rohr reminds us that this code was based on punishing ( not healing) the unrepentant sinner. It goes like this: I sin -- God punishes me -- I repent -- God loves and rewards me.

But later on, as God keeps revealing more and more about the nature of God, the prophets break with that idea of the covenant, and introduce a whole new way of understanding God's relation to us. They turn the Deuteronomist code on its head: I sin; I'm unrepentant; I'm loved and rewarded by God; this heals me so I can repent!
In this idea of the covenant, God's justice is no longer at odds with his steadfast love. Instead "mercy and justice come together."

To be continued next time....

1 comment:

  1. Hi--I was taught to fear God growing up, but I feel that now my perspective is that of a loving God. The problem that I currently have is understanding purgatory if I want to view Jesus as being all loving. The catechism makes purgatory sound like a horrific place where you have to pay for all you do. That is where I am confused with my image of God.