Posts Tagged ‘concept of God’

JAMES 5:13-20

13 Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 14 Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. 17 Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18 Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.

19 My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, 20 you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

Intercessory prayer has become problematic for many modern people, since its practice through the centuries has been dependent upon a worldview and concept of God that many today can no longer hold with intellectual integrity. The idea of God as essentially separate from and existing above the complex field of our human experience in the world is becoming less and less compatible with our growing understanding of the universe.

True, just because God is not as necessary as He once was for explaining the origin and architecture of the natural cosmos, doesn’t automatically mean that we have outgrown and moved beyond our need for Him. We have become more materialistic and less spiritually-minded as a culture, and our problem with prayer may reflect more the implicit atheism at the heart of our contemporary worldview than a genuine individual maturity on our part.

Nevertheless, and the thoughtful atheists among us notwithstanding, the “theory” and practice of intercessory prayer does bring a challenge before the modern (or postmodern) believer. Are we still to think of God as somehow outside and vertically removed from our world, so that we must call Him into a given situation of need, on behalf of someone who is sick or sin-ridden? Is it just you and that suffering other, therefore, until you invoke the presence and (hopefully) healing power of God?

If instead God is not separate from the world or external to our experience, but is rather essential to the world and already deeply present at the heart of reality, then our prayers of intercession could be relevantly understood as a kind of intuitive participation in the sufferings of another, and an urging of the Spirit towards their life, health, and hope. The one who prays and the one who suffers have common ground in the universal life of God.

EPHESIANS 4:25-5:2

25 So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. 26 Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and do not make room for the devil. 28 Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. 29 Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31 Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32 and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

What does it mean to be an ‘imitator’ of God? Well, it all depends on whose concept of God you are consulting. In ancient imperial societies where military sovereignty was all the rage, the patron deity of a people was typically imaged as a dread warrior and blood-drunk tyrant. Even after the revolution initiated by Jesus, the so-called Christian civilization that ensued still represented God conceptually in terms of vengeance for sin, condemnation of outsiders and heretics, and justified violence against unbelievers.

If that’s your concept of God, then imitating him is merely a matter of carrying this divine wrath and aggression into the affairs of your daily life. How should you handle the person who has done you wrong? Take God as your model: He couldn’t be appeased until finally His own son was killed and his blood offered up for divine satisfaction. (You may find this language offensive, but that is the prevailing theory in Christian orthodoxy today.)

Jesus revealed God in a new way, not as vindictive and hard to please but as gracious and forgiving. He found this view of God so compelling and inspiring, in fact, that he gave every ounce of his energy and his very last drop of blood in pursuit of its realization in the midst of our dark and violent world. One who is truly a disciple of Jesus is thus also an imitator of the God revealed in his gospel and life. We can forgive others freely, repeatedly, and without conditions because we have been forgiven in the same radical way by God.

PSALM 98

O sing to the Lord a new song,
    for he has done marvelous things.
His right hand and his holy arm
    have gotten him victory.
The Lord has made known his victory;
    he has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations.
He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness
    to the house of Israel.
All the ends of the earth have seen
    the victory of our God.

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;
    break forth into joyous song and sing praises.
Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre,
    with the lyre and the sound of melody.
With trumpets and the sound of the horn
    make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord.

Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
    the world and those who live in it.
Let the floods clap their hands;
    let the hills sing together for joy
at the presence of the Lord, for he is coming
    to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
    and the peoples with equity.

Throughout Asia early in the first millennium BCE a revolution occurred in the way that Divine Reality was understood and represented. Without dismissing the unique elements across the distinct cultures, we see in them all a common discovery of the Divine as transcending the local confines of geography and tradition.

Yahweh (God’s name that must not be spoken but only referenced as “the Lord”) in Israel, Brahman in India, and the Tao in China were all regional designations for the One beyond all. Whether God was outside the world as its creator (Israel), beneath the world as its ground (India), or within the world as its balancing center (China), this revolution in religious understanding brought both benefit and trouble in its wake.

Positively, the transcendence of God projected the path of human spiritual evolution to a level beyond the narrow horizons of local religion. With the whole world now in view, the expansive visions of the prophets (in Israel) and the mystics (farther east) could embrace the entire earth and its collective future. Negatively this meant that old certainties were needing to be abandoned or at least modified in light of the new revelation. We can never predict what God will do next!

PSALM 34:1-10, 22

I will bless the Lord at all times;
    his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
My soul makes its boast in the Lord;
    let the humble hear and be glad.
O magnify the Lord with me,
    and let us exalt his name together.

I sought the Lord, and he answered me,
    and delivered me from all my fears.
Look to him, and be radiant;
    so your faces shall never be ashamed.
This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord,
    and was saved from every trouble.
The angel of the Lord encamps
    around those who fear him, and delivers them.
O taste and see that the Lord is good;
    happy are those who take refuge in him.
O fear the Lord, you his holy ones,
    for those who fear him have no want.
10 The young lions suffer want and hunger,
    but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.

22 The Lord redeems the life of his servants;
    none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.

There is a strong current in the Bible, vocally represented in the traditions that promoted the idea of Yahweh as not only supreme among the gods but as the only god there is (monotheism), which regards everything that happens as directly caused or allowed by the divine will. When things go well for us, this doctrine poses no problem at all. But when adversity comes and bereavement leaves us reeling in its wake, the connection between God and our experience is much harder to discern – and much easier to doubt.

We can use the familiar Western “centers of consciousness” as a way of analyzing this conundrum, picturing God as like us in possessing a mind (knowledge), a heart (passion), and a will (action). When it comes to human suffering, then, perhaps God

  1. knows about it, but doesn’t really care and refuses to help.
  2. doesn’t know about it, and would care if the information was provided (suggesting the importance of prayer).
  3. doesn’t know, and wouldn’t care even if He did.
  4. does know and certainly cares, but is afflicting or allowing the suffering so that something else can be realized (such as humility, repentance, patience, fortitude, or wisdom in the sufferer).

As you can see, the first three explanations make God into something “less than God” in the classical sense of an all-knowing, all-loving, and all-powerful authority over human affairs. The deities of other mythologies might demonstrate less-than-perfect qualities, but the unqualified monotheism of the Bible (Judaism and Christianity) and Quran (Islam) has traditionally forced believers to look for God’s hand (active/passive will) in our suffering and loss.

Another response might be to suggest that God names a mystery we cannot understand. Perhaps there isn’t a supreme being calling the shots or letting things slide. Maybe suffering is just part of the burden of existence – neither a punishment for sin or a strategy for our salvation. Sometimes it follows fairly predictably on our own poor choices, as the immediate or delayed consequence of what we are doing to ourselves, each other, and to our planet. Often, however, it defies explanation (even a theological one) and the best we can do is meet suffering with a grounded presence, mindfulness, and grace.

PSALM 118:1-2, 14-24

1 O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
    his steadfast love endures forever!

2 Let Israel say,
    “His steadfast love endures forever.”

14 The Lord is my strength and my might;
    he has become my salvation.

15 There are glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous:
“The right hand of the Lord does valiantly;
16     the right hand of the Lord is exalted;
    the right hand of the Lord does valiantly.”
17 I shall not die, but I shall live,
    and recount the deeds of the Lord.
18 The Lord has punished me severely,
    but he did not give me over to death.

19 Open to me the gates of righteousness,
    that I may enter through them
    and give thanks to the Lord.

20 This is the gate of the Lord;
    the righteous shall enter through it.

21 I thank you that you have answered me
    and have become my salvation.
22 The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the chief cornerstone.
23 This is the Lord’s doing;
    it is marvelous in our eyes.
24 This is the day that the Lord has made;
    let us rejoice and be glad in it.

This passage from the Psalms would become one of those privileged texts that early Christians used as  “prophecies” of Jesus. “I shall not die, but I shall live” and mention of a rejected building stone becoming the chief cornerstone are references vague enough to be applied in any number of ways, which is a virtue that makes them readily adaptable to a variety of situations.

The theme of being punished by God was another feature with direct transfer value to early Christian theories of atonement – of how Jesus’ suffering and death was somehow instrumental in world salvation. An assumption that reality is moral in nature is deep in the cultural DNA of ethical monotheism, which is behind the Bible’s heavy accent on obedience, responsibility, justice and equality – but also our perennial struggle with guilt, forgiveness, retribution and punishment in Western society.

For the longest time, and still for a large majority of  believers, “steadfast love” and “punishing severity” were held in tension in the orthodox concept of God. It was not an overt contradiction to regard the same personality (divine or human) as compassionate and merciful one moment, vengeful and punitive the next. This bi-polar tension in theology worked its way out as alternating anxiety and despondency in the human psyche – or perhaps the conflicted human psyche projected this bipolarity into the nature of God.

Still, by the time of the Protestant Reformation (16th century CE) this internal conflict was driving denominational development. Martin Luther’s evident concern over the security of salvation was answered by John Calvin’s doctrines of predestination and the perseverance of the saved. And across all denominations the belief in God’s universal and irresistible grace has run up against the conviction that unrepentant sinners (that is, those able somehow to resist God’s grace) will suffer everlasting punishment.

Jesus would later proclaim a radical revision to this ethical concept of God, with his gospel of unconditional forgiveness. Sadly, Christian orthodoxy buried his teaching under layers of interpretation that effectively canceled out his message and reaffirmed God as a retributive deity who used redemptive violence (in Jesus’ death on the cross) to “save” the world.

 

PSALM 31:9-16

9 Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress;
    my eye wastes away from grief,
    my soul and body also.
10 For my life is spent with sorrow,
    and my years with sighing;
my strength fails because of my misery,
    and my bones waste away.

11 I am the scorn of all my adversaries,
    a horror to my neighbors,
an object of dread to my acquaintances;
    those who see me in the street flee from me.
12 I have passed out of mind like one who is dead;
    I have become like a broken vessel.
13 For I hear the whispering of many—
    terror all around!—
as they scheme together against me,
    as they plot to take my life.

14 But I trust in you, O Lord;
    I say, “You are my God.”
15 My times are in your hand;
    deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors.
16 Let your face shine upon your servant;
    save me in your steadfast love.

Along the course of spiritual development a neophyte becomes a “true believer,” where the questions of faith are gradually resolved and replaced with the answers of doctrine. The searching question of God gives way to orthodox theories about God. An open and curious mind gradually closes down on certainties.

When you are taught that God loves you, watches out for you, and will intervene on your behalf in times of trouble, the naive expectation is that God will come through. But what happens when he doesn’t? Is it that God doesn’t see your suffering? Is he watching but just doesn’t care? Could it be that God is aware of your suffering and desperately wants to help you, but is limited in his power to do so? Such are the new questions that stretch and threaten the definitions of orthodoxy.

One way of “saving God” – or saving your concept of God – is to take responsibility for his silence or absence. Perhaps you don’t deserve God’s help. Maybe you’ve done something to disqualify yourself from divine favor. What if God is punishing you with this ordeal, for a sin you have conveniently forgotten? Or it might be that your faith is not what it needs to be and God is actually subjecting you to this pain or loss in order to make you stronger.

And so on.

But the evolutionary arc leading from neophyte to true believer doesn’t end there, without a significant amount of what might be called spiritual frustration where the soul’s journey to fulfillment is stymied and cut short of its intended goal. Beyond the “true believer” stance of religious commitment and doctrinal certainty is the mystical experience. In that place, on the other side of truth as it were, there is no theological possessive such as might prompt the soul to say, “You are my God.”

In the experience of divine presence, this moment is enough. There is nothing else.

1 SAMUEL 16:1-13

The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” 2 Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ 3 Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.” 4 Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?” 5 He said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

6 When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” 7 But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” 8 Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 9 Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 10 Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” 11 Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.” 12 He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” 13 Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.

After the Israelites settled the Promised Land but before they were united under a single monarchy, social order was managed by a tag-team of charismatic leaders known as the Judges. Samuel is an interesting transitional figure, being the last Judge and the one who anointed the first kings. There were many who felt that a monarchy amounted to a defiance of the theocracy (more or less direct rule by God) that had been in effect during the period of the Judges.

The loose federation of tribes that had left Egypt for Palestine were struggling with this transition from an “ad hoc” government where issues could be addressed spontaneously on the basis of what god commanded in the moment, to one that had to work through multiple channels and by means of an all-too-human administration. This added element of mediation (magistrates, secretaries, and officials) is what caused the feeling of many that their nation was sliding irrevocably into a secular age.

Of course, just because “God” is calling the shots doesn’t automatically mean that a nation will be godly. We put the word in quotes to remind ourselves that our concepts of God will always reflect our general needs and aspirations as a species, as well as our more peculiar quirks, hangups, and ambitions as individuals. In other words, “Thus saith the Lord” doesn’t mean we should simply accept what follows on blind faith.

So there are dangers on both sides – a more secular (this-worldly) government that might easily lose its moral footing and get too self-involved to do any good for its people, or a theocracy where “God” might be little more than an unimpeachable (and conveniently transcendent) warrant for bigotry, dogmatism, oppression and violence.

King Saul, Israel’s first, did not fare so well. By going off on his own course and not listening to God, he had pulled his nation into some dangerous religious compromises. So “God got rid of him” – at least that’s how the rankled golden-age folks were reading history.

Back to the theocracy of charismatic leadership, then? Not so fast.

                                                                                                 

Truth is, charismatic forms of government just can’t manage the expanding concerns of a growing population – not to mention that they are inherently unstable. However much the Bible story of Israel’s emergence is actual history and how much of it is more like many other national myths, including the United States of America, social order and politics inevitably moved in the direction of monarchy.

Samuel’s task now was to follow God’s direction and anoint Saul’s successor. He was sent to Bethlehem, to a man named Jesse who had eight sons. At a special ceremony Jesse sent his sons out to Samuel, one at a time beginning with the eldest. 

Samuel naturally had his own assumptions and preferences, and after God said “pass” on each boy that he regarded as qualified for the job – down through the list of seven sons that Jesse had summoned to attend – the prophet looked around quizzically, perhaps a little embarrassed. “Is that it? No more boys?”

“Oh, well” answered the father, “there is my youngest, but I didn’t think to have him here. He’s young, inexperienced, and tends to daydream and scribble poems while supposedly watching my sheep.”

“Bring him to me.” When the young lad arrived, God confirmed: “This is my man!” And so that day, Samuel anointed David the new king of Israel.

It makes you wonder just how many blessings, opportunities, and even miracles might never make it to your eyes because your mind isn’t looking out for them.

PSALM 27:1, 4-9

The Lord is my light and my salvation;
    whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
    of whom shall I be afraid?

One thing I asked of the Lord,
    that will I seek after:
to live in the house of the Lord
    all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the Lord,
    and to inquire in his temple.

For he will hide me in his shelter
    in the day of trouble;
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent;
    he will set me high on a rock.

Now my head is lifted up
    above my enemies all around me,
and I will offer in his tent
    sacrifices with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make melody to the Lord.

Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud,
    be gracious to me and answer me!
“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!”
    Your face, Lord, do I seek.
    Do not hide your face from me.

Do not turn your servant away in anger,
    you who have been my help.
Do not cast me off, do not forsake me,
    O God of my salvation!

Before Jesus came with his revelation, the conventional idea of God was that he is somewhat arbitrary, temperamental, and unpredictable. And while these qualities might have originated around the fundamental discovery of freedom as inherent to existence itself (distinctive to the Bible), their effect in the personification of God was to make him seem rather unstable.

For any reason, which the devotee may or may not have awareness of, God might withdraw his protection, his mercy, or even his presence. Clearly seen was the benefit to be enjoyed in the favor of God, but the shadow side of such bliss was an anxiety over whether it all might be suddenly and without forewarning taken away.

Protestantism would much later try to mitigate this anxiety with the doctrine predestination: the belief that once God chooses you for salvation, you’re in for good. The underlying issue of an arbitrary God was not therewith resolved, only covered over. The psalmist’s desperate petition not to be cast off from God gives us a glimpse into this shadow of anxiety in theistic religion.

Jesus rejected the entire notion of the fickle God and taught instead that God is forgiving (always loving), steadfast (inherently reliable), and universally provident. All anxiety can be released in the knowledge that God seems nothing but your salvation and well-being. God won’t turn from you, even though you may turn from God. In unfailing love, God reaches out and invites you to authentic life and joy.