10 October 2019

Is God nice?

Ever noticed how, in Christian media, some variation or other of the "wrath of God" theme comes back to remind us of how lax we are, how we lower our standards of holiness beyond recognition, how we've let our standards slip ever since we stopped talking so much about sin and hell?

An old John Piper quotation has been circulating again:
God cares more about your happiness than you do. He is so serious about your joy that he threatens hell if you refuse to find it in him.
To be fair to Piper, I've not read the original book, so I don't know for sure that he didn't intend irony, but I do know the theological tradition from which this gem appears to come. I wrote about another expression of this tradition here: Hell, holiness, and Jerusalem. I'm not going over that ground again, but I'm intrigued by a sort of emotional corollary to it: If God is not feared the way some preacher demands, our religion has become fatally soft and sentimental. Or to put it even more manipulatively, God is to be loved, or else.

Speaking of avoiding overly sentimental images of God, there's no denying that God gets a mixed rap in the Scriptures. Abraham has to plead with God not to wipe out Sodom and Gomorrah entirely if there are any righteous people to be found there.
Far be it from you to do such a thing -- to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?
(Genesis 18:25, NIV)
To eliminate idolatrous competition, God gives some apparently ruthless commands to the Israelites, instructing them at times to attack others without mercy. (On God's collateral damage, I've also written recently.) The prophets record God's wrath at the way poor people are treated, and their faces ground into the dust, but the apparent fact is that faces were ground into the dust in order for the prophets to rage about it.

Jesus confirms that God permits seemingly random tragedy -- for example, the Galileans massacred by Pilate, or "those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fellon them -- do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no!" (from Luke 13:1-5).

If I rely solely on the recorded history of our understanding of God, and on the incredible diversity of ways that we've interpreted that history, my head starts spinning. So this morning, knowing that I was being led to write about whether or not we have a God who lives up to God's own standard ("compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love" -- Exodus 34:6, Psalm 86:15, Psalm 103:8, Psalm 145:8, Jonah 4:2), I decided to try asking God directly: "Are you a kind God?"

Dolphus Weary (r) and 1975
version of me.
The answer came immediately in the form of a memory: a Scripture that I learned as a children's song at Voice of Calvary in Mississippi in 1975, where I spent a summer teaching in a remedial reading program. In the default masculine language of the time ...
Brothers, let us love one another
For love is of God and he who loves is born of God
He who does not love does not know God for God is love
Beloved, let us love one another -- First John Four Seven and Eight!
(That last part shouted with enthusiasm.)

I found this answer immensely comforting. There is no ambiguity in this teaching. A few words later, in verse 12, John promises us that "if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us." There is no exception based on past wars or past enemies; there is only the requirement of love ... a requirement that, having ourselves been addressed as "beloved," we are eager to keep.

Not that this learning or this eagerness hits us all at once. In verse 18, we're assured,
There is no fear in love. [Goodbye, vindictive God!] But perfect love casts out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. [Goodbye, hellfire manipulation!!] The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
It's very possible that we are still fearful, still not made perfect in love. But the path is there before us, with no secret password, no doctrinal asterisks, just an invitation into a love relationship. We enter into this promise by committing ourselves to learning how to love, learning how to recognize the witness of God already in us (as the early Quakers taught with joy and costly perseverence), and allowing ourselves to dare that God's very nature ("God is love") is shaping us -- however slowly we allow our grip on fear to loosen at last.

We're also not alone on this path. (The New International Version substitutes "dear friends" for "brothers.") Back to verse 11: "Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another." For some of us, our first task is to open up to receive love before we learn to express it and rely on it and sense God's nature in the experience.

I'll never forget the experience of getting to know J. Bartram Shields, a long-time minister of Indiana Yearly Meeting. It was my first time teaching a course for the Tri-Yearly Meeting School on the Ministry, a series of retreat-style classes for those preparing to be Friends ministers in Indiana, Western, and Wilmington Yearly Meetings. Bart Shields was teaching a Bible class, and I was teaching a class based on Urban T. Holmes's book Spirituality for Ministry. Some time after that week of classes I visited Traverse City, Michigan, where Bart and Sara Shields lived, and was able to spend time with him again. He told me, "I loved you from the first moment I met you." That may have been the first time anyone said anything like those words to me in a non-romantic context. The impact that he made on me with those simple and generous words are still part of my life. I can't claim that I've totally let go of fear, but I'd be a lot further behind were it not for the influence of people like Bart Shields.

Beloved, let us love one another. That's the best way to learn about what God is really like.

A reminder: One of the best sources for news about religion in Russia and the former Soviet Union is Paul Steeves' Russia Religion News.

Why Simply Messy is a Quaker.

Evangelicals and Holy Land tourism.

Pentecostalism as mysticism: Pete Enns interviews Jonathan Martin.

Ramallah Friends School is celebrating its 150th anniversary. One way to participate: Do you have any items, documents, or other exhibit-worthy materials relating to the school's history? Consider contributing them to its new museum.

Ruthie Foster:

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