The God We Got
Rev. Gary Cox
University Congregational Church—Wichita, Kansas
I want to begin by asking you to envision a father—a dad. This is the type of father that we all know exists, but hopefully, none of us were cursed with having such a dad ourselves. This father is entirely unpredictable. He has several children, and each of them have learned to sort of tiptoe around whenever he is present, because they are never sure when he is going to get uncontrollably angry and fly off the handle.
One evening he sits on the sofa, pleasantly reading to his six-year-old daughter, cuddling her, smiling at her and laughing with her; and the next moment he leaps up, brutally grabs her and violently throws her through the living room window, where she lay crying, and bleeding, and fearing for her life.
And she is left with a decision. Should she run? Should she just take off down the street, running blindly into the unknown, assuming that whoever finally takes her in will surely be no worse than that unpredictable tyrant of a father who treats her so horribly? Or should she collect herself, and with head bowed low walk up to the front door of her father’s house, knock on that door, and hope that the man who answers is once again in a loving mood?
The reason I begin with that story is simple: I have just described the way many people think about God. That unpredictable dad who one minute treats his children with love and the next minute, for no good reason, thrashes them to within an inch of their lives, or worse, takes their lives in some senseless and painful way—that is the God many of us have been told to worship.
So when Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount to knock on the door and it will be answered, I am not especially surprised that most of us don’t knock. Why would anybody want to be in relationship with a father like the one we just discussed? I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t knock on that door.
Since my ministry is not dedicated to saving souls in the traditional sense, and is instead committed to moving people toward a closer relationship with God, I take very seriously the idea of knocking on that door. God doesn’t come bursting through. Jesus is fairly specific on this subject, and for that matter, all the great religious leaders have basically agreed on this one idea: the world is designed such that we can live our lives as if God does not even exist. God will not jump in our path and insist we enter into a relationship with the eternal. Nobody is forced to be a person of faith. People are not forced to develop their spiritual side. If we don’t knock, the door will not be opened.
So, as a person dedicated to convincing people to knock on that door, I think it is reasonable for people to want to have some idea of what’s on the other side. What’s there? Oh, I know it is a mystery beyond the ability of human beings to understand, let alone express in words, and I don’t have any precise answers. But I’ve spent a fair amount of time knocking on that door, and I think you should at least know what I’ve found over there, or at least, what I’ve found mysteriously shining around the edges of that door as it cracks open.
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There is a theological concept known as via negativa. What this concept means is that there is nothing we can say about God that is completely true. In fact, every time we try to define God with words, we take a step away from God. Perhaps Taoism says it best: The God that can be expressed is not God. Via Negativa holds that the only way to even get close to understanding God is to say the things that God is not.
So before I can say what I find behind that door, let me first say what I am thoroughly convinced is not behind that door. That angry and unpredictable tyrant of a father that we considered a few moments ago—the father who one moment loves his children tenderly and in the next moment brutalizes them without reason—that father is not behind the door. I assure you, if I thought that is what’s behind the door on which Jesus told us to knock, I would beg you to never knock on that door. I would tell you to do as that little girl should do, and run away from the door as quickly as possible, because what is behind that door is entirely untrustworthy.
It is difficult to get rid of all the bad ideas about God we have firmly entrenched in the subconscious part of our minds. This God is almost always male, and he is always frightfully powerful. From an early age we see the airplane crash on television and hear friends and family say something like, “Who can ever understand the will of God…but God’s will be done.” We watch some child die of cancer and hear somebody say, with such comfort in his voice, “God must have needed her in heaven more than we needed her here.”
We learn from an early age to say our prayers to this God. After all, tomorrow he might decide it’s my turn to get deathly ill. Tomorrow he might decide it’s time for a car to jump the curb and run me down. Who knows—he might even let my house burn down as I lay sleeping this very evening. But he loves me. He watches out for me. And we owe him complete devotion at all times.
As children, we don’t understand, but we take all these little tidbits of information about God and stash them away in that little corner of our minds reserved for things we’ll figure out when we get older. And by the time we are capable of honestly seeking a relationship with God, there is layer upon layer of bad information that we must plow through before we can make any real attempt to embrace the mystery of God.
Small wonder that people often simply decide that there is no God, since God surely does not exist as the amalgam of all those strange notions we’ve accumulated over the years. I’ve had people tell me they were atheists. And I ask them, “You really don’t believe in God?” When they say that they certainly do not, I ask them to tell me about the God they don’t believe in. And when they’re done, I usually tell them that I must be an atheist too, since I don’t believe in the God they just described either. In fact, if what they have described as God exists anywhere in the universe outside of the human mind, then we’re all in trouble.
Here’s the whole point. The God we got is not the God we often think we want. The reason we are so quick to credit God with every terrible thing that happens is that we insist on having a God who has power—power to do anything he—always he, this God—wants to do. This God micromanages creation down to the tiniest detail. So if somebody gets killed in a car accident, well, God could have kept it from happening, and it still happened, so it must be God’s will. To say otherwise would be to insinuate there are limits on God’s power.
We want a God with power. We want a God who will punish the wicked. We want a God who will rescue us when we’re in physical danger. We want a God who will listen to us, and who has the power to do what we want him to do.
But that is not the God we got. And it’s a good thing. Because that particular God would be the capricious tyrant we have been told to fear. That particular God would not be something in which we could place our trust. After all, his love can turn to irrational anger at any moment. And no matter how strongly theologians may claim otherwise, we can never really love that God. We can fear that God, but we cannot love him, any more than the little girl in our story could love the lunatic who threw her through the window.
Jesus said the first and greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind. That’s a pretty tall order if God resembles the father in our story. It would be difficult to love the God we think we want—the God who watches over every disaster with an approving eye, and snatches the life out of young children for purposes none can ever understand.
Fortunately, that is not the God we got. I’ve said plenty about what God is not, and if via negativa is true, there’s nothing I can say about God that will help us understand God’s nature. Every word would lead us another step away from God. But I’m not completely convinced by that idea of via negativa. Oh, I think we need to get rid of—to negate—most of the images of God we’ve accumulated over the years. But I also think there are some images of God that at least point us in the right direction.
Some have said there are two possibilities when it comes to God: God is either all-powerful, or all-loving, but God cannot be both. We may think we want the all-powerful one, but I am convinced we are very fortunate to have the God we got—the God who is all-loving. If God were all-powerful in the sense that God controlled absolutely everything that ever happens, we would be nothing more than puppets. Free will would just be some sort of illusion. God would have planned it all out from the beginning, and even though we might think we were making our own decisions, all we could really do was follow whatever script God had laid out for us. We would be robots, really, and nothing more.
It is much better that we have a God who is all loving. But it leaves some people asking the question: Why worship a God who is not all-powerful? The first answer to that is, “Because that’s the only God we have.” But the second answer is at least as important: “Because God loves us.”
I want to be clear that I cannot say what God can and cannot do. This is God’s universe, and if God chooses to do some things that I don’t understand, well, that’s fine with me. I’m glad it is God and not me who makes the rules. But I have this picture in my mind of somebody jumping off the top of a building and shouting out to the heavens, “Thy will be done.” I suppose they view it as an act of faith—that God will surely intervene with miraculous power and set them gently down on the ground below. But if I can personify God more than I normally would, I have to think that when God sees somebody pull such a stunt, God is thinking, “My will be done? I beg your pardon! You’re the one who jumped off the building. Don’t blame me for the mess you make when you hit the ground!”
Again, I don’t make the rules, and God may well be able to bend the laws of physics now and then, but it seems clear that those miraculous occasions are definitely the exceptions to the rule. And for the most part, it seems to me that God can love us through every mistake, but God pretty much lets us face the consequences of our actions.
Still, as a person of faith I believe God always has the last word. After the death of Patrick Jones I gave a sermon based on Leslie Weatherhead’s great book, The Will of God. I think this would be a good time to briefly revisit Weatherhead’s ideas.
Most of our notions of God are grounded in two simple ideas. First, God has a will, an intention, for the world. Second, God is all-powerful, and therefore everything that happens must be in accordance with God’s will. Combining those two ideas ultimately leads us to the type of God we’ve tried to rule out as a possibility this morning. Weatherhead rescues us from this hopeless theological dilemma by saying we must think of God’s will in three different ways: God’s intentional will, God’s circumstantial will, and God’s ultimate will.
Let’s use as an example something that would be absolutely horrible. Let’s say that an airplane accidentally crashes into a school, killing everybody on the plane and hundreds of children in the school. We all know that some people would be talking about the will of God, reciting all the empty platitudes that are supposed to be of comfort in such a time. And if you are a person who finds comfort in that idea—that God is in complete control and willed that event to happen—you do not have to accept Weatherhead’s theology.
He says that in that case, it was God’s will for that plane to land safely at the airport, and for all the children at that school to have a safe and happy day, and grow up to live happy and loving lives. That was God’s intentional will. That was what God intended.
But free will is an essential part of creation, and things go wrong. Accidents happen. And in this case God’s intentional will was thwarted. The plane crashed into the school. That is where God’s circumstantial will takes over. God manages to bring good out of even the worst tragedy. In this case, we can imagine the community pulling together, the churches pitching in to provide financial aid to the hurting families, friends and even strangers compassionately giving of their time and money to try to ease the pain of those who suffer. Suddenly there is goodness where there was before only apathy. Suddenly there is love where before there was indifference. It doesn’t make up for the tragedy, but God’s circumstantial will does make the best out of a very bad situation.
And lastly there is God’s ultimate will. And this is the will of God that cannot be thwarted. God’s love calls creation into being—calls each one of us into being; and God’s love receives us again when we are bound in time no more. I don’t know the mechanics of that, but I believe it. And God’s ultimate will always triumphs. In the case of the airplane crashing into the school, the pain is here with those who were left behind. And God’s circumstantial will does all it can to overcome that pain. But for the actual victims of the tragedy—for those on the plane and those in the school whose lives were lost—they are beyond all pain, beyond all suffering. They are held in the arms of God, not as time-bound creatures, and not in nothingness, but in the fullness of time, in the eternity of God’s love.
I believe that is the God we got. And while it may be true that any words I say about that God will only take us further away from the true nature of God, I’ve got to try. I’ve got to try to say what it is I’ve seen around the edges of that door on which Jesus tells us to knock. Everything I say is only metaphor, and falls far short of the unspeakable truth that calls to us from just beyond the periphery of our vision, from someplace deeper than we can ever get our minds around. But the images point us in the right direction, and for many they are very helpful.
God is love. God is light. God is life. God is truth. God is joy. God is everything that is, and more. God is more distant than the farthest star and closer than our breath. God is the Tao, Brahman, Atman, Nirvana, the Great Spirit, El Shaddai, Yahweh, the Great I Am, the Ground of Being. God sees all that has ever been and all that will ever be in the present moment, which for God is the only moment that ever has or ever will exist. And God has cast a perfect reflection into time and space, the one who teaches the lost in Galilee, speaks truth to power, and hangs from a cross, bridging time and eternity.
I believe…that’s the God we got.