Here’s a life truth I’ve found helpful and true: Whether atheist, agnostic, or theist (i.e. believer in God), our image of God (whatever it may be) shapes us. We are ALL steadily and increasingly formed by the Pattern we think life, the Universe, and everything operates by.
Consider my life. I’ve gone to church and been Christian for as long as I can remember. Hmm … as I sit here typing this up, something occurred to me, which I’d never thought of before. When telling my story of following Christ, I “always” note how the “God” I grew up with was angry, distant, and to be feared. I basically say this was my “first” God, the God of my youth, who, in my thirties transformed into the God revealed by Jesus. While formulating that thought in my head, though, something new occurred to me …
My first memories of church (and thus God), while I was in kindergarten, 1st, and 2nd grade, are joyful, carefree, and happy. I remember loudly and gleefully singing and dancing my heart out at church. Love poured out of my body because I’d met a kind, generous, and giving Creator.
Yet, as I grew up and was told more about “God”, things began changing for me. The deity I was told about expected everyone to act morally perfect, and ANY moral mistake (big or small) meant we’d fallen short of God’s standards, so had to go burn in hell forever. Fortunately, though, God had provided a way out. Sin (i.e. ANY moral failing from saying a curse word to speaking a white lie to committing adultery to having impure thoughts to murdering someone) made the Divine angry. But, instead of pouring punishment and wrath for our sins on us, God decided to basically kill Jesus instead of us (note, it was rarely explained this way in church, but this was effectively what they were saying). This meant, IF we agreed in our heads and with our lips that the Christ was God and had died to save us, then and only then would we get to avoid the eternal torture and punishment of hell.
Interestingly, as I remember them, these frequent “Gospel” (i.e. “Good News”) messages I heard at church focused on the anger and wrath of God, plus the pain and trauma of hell. I literally don’t recall any of God’s goodness, generosity, or giving nature being spoken about. The benefits of heaven were purely and simply summed up as NOT being hell. In fact, I recall thinking how boring heaven was going to be … but at least it wasn’t hell!
Before summing this aspect of my life and God experience up, I do want to point out it wasn’t all fire and brimstone, so to speak. There were stories about and times witnessing our Creator’s goodness and Love. I’m just saying they were NOT emphasized, nor were they the central images of God presented.
As a youth and young adult I was presented with what I think is a pretty typical American image of God: God is distant (up in heaven), angry at us for any wrongs we commit (and we ALL mess up), to be feared (as God sends people to hell by default), violent (God IMPOSES punishments for sins on us), and fickle and demanding (we’re expected to behave perfectly morally, while God knows we can’t). This is basically the picture of our Creator I was presented with, and you know what? I think it’s more Zeus than Jesus.
I loved mythology when I was in kindergarten thru twelfth grade. Zeus was one of my favorites, because he could and frequently did hurl lightning bolts at people, gods, goddesses, or monsters that crossed him. He was also the high god, the one in charge, so I thought that was pretty cool too. He led the “good” guys when they went to war. He was a bit schizo though, acting generous and kind in one instant, before turning around and flying off the handle in a fit of rage in another moment. If I had to sum up Zeus I’d say he was uber manly, super strong, to be feared, violent, and unpredictable.
The point I’m trying to make here is the God we’re regularly presented with, imagine, and follow in the U.S. is more like this Zeus figure than Jesus. Consider, as one key example, Jesus’ command for us to love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, and act in tangibly loving ways toward those who despise, harm, or oppress us; not to mention that He summed the whole point of life up as loving God and other people as we love ourselves. I wonder, would God command us to do something God doesn’t do? Jesus also tells us to ALWAYS forgive others (He says 7×70 times, but this is a symbolic way to say continually forgive). Again, I ask, does the Divine expect us to do what our Creator doesn’t? I’m simply saying that the image of God we’re often presented with is unpredictable, violent, fearful, and more like Zeus than Jesus.
I started by noting how our images of God, whatever they may or may not be, form and shape us. Friends, as you might be able to imagine, years of hearing over and over about the God who sends people to hell to suffer FOREVER by default, is angry at ALL of us, is WAY up above us in heaven, is to be feared, and thank God for Jesus because without Christ’s death on the cross there wouldn’t be hope for ANYONE to avoid hell, formed me to be insecure, fearful, worried, sometimes angry, emotionally detached, and a bit violent.
These notions about the Divine aren’t exactly abnormal though. I think they’re pretty standard in the U.S., so is it any wonder that fear saturates our news, division rules our politics, scarcity guides our economy, and violence dictates our way of life? We’ve been formed in the image of the Zeus type image of God we often portray, hear about, and think of.
Why do we do this? Why do we think of God in so un-Jesus-like ways? I think the answer is pretty simple and came straight from Christ. He said the way of the world is to have power over others, it’s to be violent, it’s to wage war, it’s to conquer other people and nations, it’s to WIN at all costs, it’s to shut others out, and so on. So, desiring these, our culture has fashioned God in their image. Surely there’s a better Way. Surely there’s a better God. Isn’t there? I, for one, think so! I believe it’s the Way of Christ and the Divine Source of Life and Love revealed by Jesus. Who, by the way, immediately followed saying the way of the world is the aforementioned, by declaring the way of God’s reign as one of love, care, service, and giving.
When we start with, and keep our eyes firmly on Jesus, we see a God who is VERY un-Zeus-like. The Franciscans (a small segment of Roman Catholicism), for example, are a great encouragement to me on this front. The Franciscan way of thinking says Christ was Plan A, not Plan B. What they mean by that is God taking on flesh, being born human, and living, dying, and rising again as Jesus was NOT a reaction to our sins (i.e. Plan B). It was ALWAYS Plan A.
As John Duns Scotus (1266-1308) said our Creator always planned to reveal God’s self as Christ. Jesus didn’t come to “fix” our sin problem and satisfy God’s need for blood in order to forgive us. As if our good Creator would need or demand the death of Jesus in order to love what God created. If you really think about it, isn’t the idea that God, who is Love, required the sacrifice and death of Jesus to be able to love what God had created nonsensical? I think we always were forgiven; WE just needed the cross to realize it. Along those lines, one of the primary storylines of the Bible is God’s relentless, unceasing, faithful, and loving pursuit of us; God is always and forever PRO us, WITH us, and ON our side.
As Richard Rohr beautifully and frequently puts it: “Franciscans believe that Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity. It didn’t need changing: God has organically, inherently loved what God created from the moment God created. Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God. This sets everything on an utterly positive foundation. Rather than being an ogre [like Zeus], God is Love. Rather than being sinners in the hands of an angry God, we are inherently and forever loved by God, no matter what we do or don’t do.”
Please note, I’m NOT saying Jesus and the cross weren’t essential and didn’t do anything important. I’m convinced it was. I firmly believe Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection freed us from the powers of culture, society, Sin, and Death; something ONLY God could do. N.T. Wright sums it up eloquently in The Day the Revolution Began by writing this about the effects of Jesus’ death on the cross: “Celebrate the revolution that happened once for all when the power of love overcame the love of power. And, in the power of that same love, join in the revolution here and now.”
I’d like to land the plane by summing up what I understand a Jesus-looking God to look like. First, God is Love; others-oriented, self-giving, care and kindness who pours God’s self out for the benefit of others. After all, this is the greatest commandment, the one that sums up all the Bible and Law. Along those same lines, this means our Creator is patient, kind, not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude, doesn’t insist on God’s own way, is not irritable or resentful, does NOT rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in truth. The Divine carries all our burdens, believes the best of everyone, hopes the best for everyone, is with us to the end, and will never cease (if those words sound familiar, it’s 1 Corinthians 13.4-8a, I just replaced “love” with “God”).
“What about God’s “wrath?” you might find yourself wondering. This “Love” stuff leaves God seeming a bit soft after all, don’t you think? Great question. Divine wrath is referenced in the Bible a number of times, after all. When we start with Jesus and take scripture as a whole, though, I’ve discovered something revolutionary. God’s “wrath” is NEVER punitive, it’s ALWAYS restorative. In fact, it doesn’t resemble human wrath at all.
What I mean by that is our Creator doesn’t punish for the sake of punishment, nor does God even actively inflict harm on us as a “consequence” of wrongs we’ve done (punitive). Instead, God is like a parent who allows a teenage child with a driver’s license to drive the car. Then, after the kid gets a ticket, in an accident, or something like that, the parent doesn’t inflict the punishment, it’s natural and normal. Then, God, like a good parent, hugs the kid, loves the child, and also sorts through the mess created by the child in order to learn, grow, and transform from said mess into the best and most responsible version of her or him (restorative). Likewise, the Divine’s wrath is simply allowing us to experience the NATURAL consequences of our actions with the express purpose of then turning that negative into a positive. In God’s Economy NOTHING is wasted, EVERYTHING belongs and is used to transform us and the world in positive ways.
Along those lines, a few other portraits, or hallmarks of the Divine we see via Jesus are God is generous, gives extravagantly, heals, forgives, is inclusive of all peoples, and knows no borders or boundaries. I say this because these actions and images of Christ are ALL over the Gospels. Jesus feeds people, multiplying food or creating wine from water left and right. It seems like every other chapter Jesus is healing a person, or two, or three. Christ frequently tells people they’re forgiven, in a Divine, “I mean it” sort of way. Over and over again, Jesus goes out of His way to INCLUDE outsiders, those hurting, those oppressed, and the marginalized, because it seems EVERYONE is welcome and included in God’s Reign of Love. In fact, the one people group we see Jesus critique (strongly) are the religious factions that sought to exclude other people from the “in” group. Beautifully, though, Christ did NOT exclude the excluders, even they were welcomed in His gatherings!
I think a saying/mantra of sorts from Blissology, the yoga school I’m a member of, really gets at being formed in a Jesus-like image by saying: “Nothing to prove, everything to share.”
With all of this in mind, today I invite you and I to consider choosing to be formed more in the image of Jesus than Zeus. Pick generosity, abundance, inclusivity, peace, expansiveness, care, kindness, and love, over anger, fear, division, insecurity, demands, scarcity, and violence. I’m convinced you, me, and the world will be better for it!
What’s your experience with the image of God that’s portrayed to us shaping your life?
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Grace and peace,