After Barb described her “higher power,” Bob, a Christian, exclaimed, “We worship the same God!” That compassionate, accepting being could only be Yahweh, about whom St. John wrote, “God is love.” I appreciated what Bob was trying to do, but it was misleading. No one ever would have called Barb’s god scary; Yahweh, on the other hand, could be terrifying. Yahweh had created Hell; Barb’s god would never think of such a thing. They couldn’t be the same: Barb’s god was much nicer.
Her god was more like that of Reverend Marilyn Sewell, pastor of Portland’s First Unitarian Church. A recent newspaper article entitled, “Pastor’s message doubles audience,” tells us she likes Jesus, but cannot accept the doctrine that a divine savior died to save her from her sins. “My favorite metaphor for God is ‘beloved,'” she says, “Why? Because if God is beloved, it’s a free choice. You don’t choose mother or father. I like the passion of beloved. It’s like two lovers being drawn to each other. I like to think God is that crazy about me, and I’m that crazy about God.”
C. S. Lewis would have called these gods “tame lions.” Injustice angers them, but the actions of their followers never manage to fall into that category. “That’s OK,” the gods say, “You were tired,” or “You were just learning,” or “They were nasty to you,” always followed by the refrain, “You’re only human, after all.” These gods are very accepting because their followers never do anything to warrant rejection. They wouldn’t; they aren’t that kind of people.
As Christians we’ve become persuaded that we are that kind of people, the kind of people whom God could, with perfect justice, crucify or throw into Hell. Many have stumbled over this idea on the road to God, but it is an unavoidable feature in the spiritual landscape. There is no way to God except through Jesus and His atoning death, and to go to Jesus is to admit we’re that kind of person.
Not surprisingly, the other gods are much more popular. It is much more pleasant to believe that God is as delighted with me as I would like to be with myself. Unfortunately, pleasantness has never been a particularly reliable criterion of truth.
Filtering out the uncomfortable facts about God is like whistling in the dark: it may make you feel better not to hear those footfalls, but if they belong to a killer, you’re going to be just as dead in the end. It makes much more sense to know what you’re dealing with. Only when your response is based on the reality of your situation is there a possibility of affecting the outcome.
One of the realities of our situation is that, contrary to Reverend Sewell’s wishful imaginings, God is not crazy about us. He’s angry at us, angry enough to create Hell, something the Bible most often portrays as a pit of fire whose inhabitants burn forever. Some believe this is a literal description; others believe it to be metaphorical. If it is metaphorical, however, that fact should not comfort us. The image is of something horrifying and eternal; if a metaphor was used, it could only be because we are not capable of comprehending its significance directly.
But another reality is that God loves us and has taken our debt to justice upon Himself in the death of Jesus. Those who trust in Him need not fear Hell, but can look forward to eternal life in God’s righteous kingdom.
No one who has not grasped both of these realities can claim to know God, but putting them together is difficult; He can seem like two different Gods. Listen as one person struggles to understand:
OK, on the one hand, God must love everyone, no exceptions, or it would make no sense for Jesus to urge everyone to trust Him. On the other hand, God is so angry at our evil that He had Jesus crucified, and will throw into Hell those people who don’t identify with his death. Granted, He is justified in all this, but since He obviously hates evil so much, how could He could possibly love me? I am so evil, even as a Christian. If I am one.
“God hates the sin, but loves the sinner” may work for the academic in his ivory tower, but it’s just too easy for me to imagine God’s reaction to my continued failure: His weary sigh, the profound disgust on His face, the slow shaking of the head. Does God love me? I guess so. I hope so. Not that I could blame Him if He didn’t. He must, right? Because He died for me?
Do I love God? I know I ought to; I want to. But sometimes I think about how disgusted God must be with me, how He’d probably prefer I just stop bothering Him, and I get angry. After all, I can’t help it if I’m disgusting; that’s what I need Him to fix. Then it seems to me that I must not love Him, and I get scared, because that means I’m not going to make it. I suppose that means I’m going to Hell, but I don’t think much about Hell. Lately I’ve stopped feeling anything at all. I wonder if that means I don’t care anymore.
This was me a few years ago. God didn’t have to throw me into Hell; I was already there. I knew something was wrong with my thinking (the Bible portrayed Christians as still sinners, yet able to rest in a way that I couldn’t), but I had no idea what it was. Sometimes the most terrifyingly reasonable explanation seemed to be that I wasn’t really a Christian. At those times I teetered at the edge of despair: if God had not chosen me, how could I possibly change His mind? The one thing He really valued, goodness, was the very thing I needed from Him.
But did I want it? That in itself would have been an infallible sign of being chosen, but I didn’t know. How could someone who wanted goodness fail so often, consciously, as I did? How could someone who wanted goodness be angry at God, the way I sometimes was? Didn’t that betray an attitude of entitlement, something entirely incompatible with the humility of the repentant sinner? My thoughts were in a hopeless tangle.
Then one night I dreamed I was standing at a wooden gate in the high stone wall surrounding Heaven. I knocked and knocked, but no one came. It began to get dark, and a cold wind swirled around the shallow alcove. I was very tired. Wrapping my sweater tightly around me, I lay down on the stone stair, reasoning that eventually someone leaving would trip over me. Maybe I could talk him into letting me inside.
The desolation produced by dream was accompanied by an odd feeling of familiarity. Where had I seen this picture before? Of course! Revelations 3:20: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice, and opens the door, I will come in to him, and will dine with him, and he with me.” But it was backwards: Jesus was the one seeking entrance, the one in danger of not being admitted. Or maybe it was my dream that was backwards.
Thus I began to realize that I had made the opposite error to that of Barb and Reverend Sewell: they had ignored God’s anger; I had ignored His love. It didn’t really exist for me, because I didn’t understand it.
And why not? The modern knee will jerk in the direction of my parents, but a more likely reason is that I myself do not love. Since I tend to value people by how well they please me, God’s loving me when I so obviously don’t please Him is hard for me to imagine. What I picture is a reluctant, grudging, stingy kind of love, not the active, open-hearted, generous thing we find in the Bible when we actually look.
Think of the father of the prodigal son, anxiously scanning the horizon for any sign of his return. The son didn’t even get a chance to give his sad little speech before his father had gathered him into his arms and whisked him away to a feast celebrating his return. Was the son a different person from then on? In one sense, undoubtedly not: problems such as his don’t just go away. In another sense, completely: now he wanted to be a son. As long as that was so, he would never want for a father.
I now understand my anger at God. It was the anger of a prodigal child who returned to discover her father had taken advantage of her absence to go to Europe. No baby-sitter! Free at last! It had nothing to do with entitlement, and everything to do with need. I needed Him to love me, and He didn’t. I needed Him to be there, and He wasn’t. So I thought.
One day my boss teased me, “You know, we only hired you because you’re a woman.” I was indignant. “That’s not true!” I cried, “Not only was I the best qualified, I got the highest score on that test.” Then I felt sheepish; the twinkle in his eye said, “Gotcha!” No one likes to think of his success as anything other than a reflection of his own excellence, but in the case of salvation, we need to get used to it. If we insist on making it on our own merit, it’s not going to happen; that is the lesson of Hell. We’ve got to let our Father pull some strings. Of course, then my success reflects, not my own excellence, but my Father’s love. Someone could say, “You know, you’re only here because you’re Yahweh’s kid.” But if that happened, I know my reply: “That’s right. He’s my abba. And He’s fixing me.”