It Takes Guts to Believe that God Loves You

In a world characterised by so much brutality and suffering, it is a bold person who still asserts that human beings are ‘made in the image’ of a loving God. If there are marks of divinity in human beings, the deity in question appears to be terrifyingly cruel.  In 2015, the Los Angeles Times reported that scientists had uncovered what they described as ‘evidence of the earliest known murder among our ancestors’, with the implication that ‘interpersonal violence may be baked into the human experience’.  It came in the form of a grisly skull belonging to a hominid species much older than Neanderthals. The cranium showed signs of two repeated blows with the same implement, suggesting an ‘intent to kill’. These pre-historic remains hint at the dark possibility that the murder of Abel by Cain is emblematic of the human condition.  As the wars and genocides of the twentieth century conclusively proved, even with all our technology and education, we are frequently no better than that frightened ape that clubbed his enemy to death (although so much deadlier). As Sigmund Freud noted grimly in his essay Civilisation and Its Discontents (1929):

 Men are not gentle creatures, who want to be loved, who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbour is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him. Homo homini lupus.

Yet, if “man is a wolf to man” (surely a slur on wolves?) how can that be reconciled with the human-positive language of the Gospel?  Are Freud’s ravenous apes the same creatures worthy of having their hairs counted by God (Matt. 10:30)? Are these monsters the same creatures of which God says, “I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters” (2 Corinthians 6:18).  Are these designers of bombs and missiles really the meek sheep which Christ will gather back (Matt. 18:12–14)?  When we peer into ourselves the darkness can sometimes seem overwhelming. Often we feel trapped by our egotism and although we know what we should do, we often shudder at the prospect of doing it. We rather others died before we died to our own selves. As Paul put it:  ‘For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it’ (Romans 7:15-20). In Paul’s painful honesty, we readily see the processes of natural selection which have made us. We perceive the outworking of millions of years of biting, tearing and clawing.

In the face of this shattering reality, it is hard to believe that anything so vicious could be cherished by any Supreme Being worth its salt. Yet this is precisely what the Gospel tells us about ourselves. When God sees us, he does not perceive a violent primate, but sons and daughters, heirs, and princes.  He does not see our sins, but rather the Spirit of Christ at work in us. In other words, God always sees us through the eyes of mercy. In the face of all the wrong we commit (or ever will commit) God declares in grace: “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool’ (Isaiah 1:18). The promise of Jesus is that God will not be pushed away.  The Cross and the Resurrection are signs of God’s ultimate refusal to give up on his creatures. Even when confronted with the roving spirit of Cain, God is not deterred by our coldness. He continues to wait and he continues to give. This is exciting and it is frankly scary. We are invited into a love we cannot earn, we cannot control and do not deserve by any human metric. This is the ‘ocean of light and love’ experienced by George Fox at his convincement, and it is the true reality of which Paul said, ‘neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers’ can bar us. Believing this promise of grace is the most radical act we can undertake. For once we hear and believe in that love which persists we can see beyond “fight and flight”, and all the ancient forces which keep us trapped in the past (both personal and collective).

What does such a graceful affirmation offer us? We can lift a sense of judgment from ourselves and by extension lift the burden of judgement from others. We can declare along with the Songs of Songs: “My beloved is mine and I am his” (2:16). In articulating this new status, we can begin to act like the cherished one we know we are.   Through the love freely offered us, we become capable of sharing love more abundantly with others. Once we recognise our identities as sons and daughters of a loving Father, we can be open to the riches of our inheritance. As Martin Luther once put it: “If I have sinned, yet my Christ, in whom I believe, has not sinned, and all his is mine and all mine is his”. But as the story of the Cross illustrates it takes guts to believe that God is love, because to do so calls into question the punitive behaviour which characterises our species- all our weapons, all our prisons and detention centres become shadows. God’s loving judgement, puts human judgements to shame.  But such a gift of escape may be too much for some to bear. Paul puts the challenge of this new nature provocatively when he tells the Church at Corinth:  “Do you not know that we will judge angels?” (1 Corinthians 6:2-3). Putting the issue more pointedly still, Athanasius said that, the Son of God became man so that we might become God.  We are earth-bound creatures of mud and blood, meant for eternity- a destiny we share with the whole of creation (Rev. 21).

What utterly scandalous suggestions! How could such weak and spiteful beings have sway over the powers of the invisible world? How can we become mirrors reflecting the nature of God? It is surely more realistic to return to the savage safety of the rules which made us:  “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Gen. 3:19). It is this ethic of struggle that we hear in the voice of the High Priest of the Jerusalem Temple who fears what Jesus might do to his ordered world: “You do not realise that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish” (John 11:50). Or it put it another way, it is better that unruly love should be snuffed out than allow the anarchy of a perpetually giving God to recast the world. It is much easier to put this ceaseless love on trial and nail it to a cross than hear it and feel open to change. It is easier to follow the script of our evolution than concede the possibility that we nasty bipeds are meant to be a mirror of the Eternal, to be vessels for a reality that is just not like us.

Sometimes this refusal to accept the radical nature of grace becomes manifest in the way some Christians talk about God on the Cross. Instead of understanding the crucifixion as an outpouring of God’s love in the face of the wretchedness of the human situation, an emphasis is placed on stilling the anger of a righteous God, who must have satisfaction in blood. This theological reading is surely built on our ancient Reptilian brain; that part of ourselves which controls our aggressive instincts. Here, God, the bloodthirsty judge serves as a projection of our fears for survival. Someone must die so that we must live. In some theories of atonement, God’s Law is simply a refined version of our own longings for retribution against those who or put us in danger. But the Gospel repeatedly tries to push us beyond this reptilian apparatus by telling us that we must not return evil for evil and that peacemakers will be blessed. The Deity Christians worship is the arch offender against notions of natural justice. In his community, the first will be last and the last will be first, where rain is sent on ‘the just and the unjust alike’ (Matt. 5:45). The God of Jesus Christ is not a capricious sky Father filled with all our instinctual aggressions. The One loved by Israel, whom Jesus calls Father has come to save the world and not to condemn it. Yet there has been much copious theologising trying to blunt this fact. Grace perfects nature as the old Catholic theologians tell us, but invariably nature resists. We still want to believe that God plays by our rules of vindication and punishment, something the logic of grace denies. Our challenge is this. Are we prepared to see ourselves as God sees us or continue to be defined by our past? Grace is the key but will we open the door?

Advertisements

7 thoughts on “It Takes Guts to Believe that God Loves You

  1. I have never liked stopping Paul in mid thought. “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” cries out for the resolution of the next little bit. “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin. There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.”

    In Vol. VI of the Works of Fox, the opening article concerns “THE LIVING GOD OF TRUTH; AND THE WORLD’S GOD IN WHOM THERE IS NO TRUTH”. You have aptly described the states of two different images: the image of God in which we were created and the image of the world’s god who was a murderer and a liar from the beginning. That article is well worth the while to read and ponder. I would offer to summarize it here, but my summaries are often longer than the original. In a somewhat parallel passage, Fox details some of his insights concerning the plight of being human thus:
    “So here were three states and three teachers. God was the first teacher in paradise; and whilst man kept under his teaching, he was happy. The serpent was the second teacher; and when man followed his teaching he fell into misery, into the fall from the image of God, righteousness, and holiness, and from the power that he had over all that God had made; and came under the serpent whom he had power over before. Christ Jesus was the third teacher; of whom God saith, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased, hear ye him:” and who himself saith, “Learn of me.” This is the true gospel-teacher, who bruises the head of the serpent the false teacher, and the head of all false teachers and false religions, false ways, false worships, and false churches. Christ, who said, “Learn of me,” and of whom the Father said, “Hear ye him,” said, “I am the way to God, I am the truth, I am the life, and the true light.” So as man and woman come to God, and are renewed up into his image, righteousness, and holiness by Christ, thereby they come into the paradise of God, the state which man was in before he fell; and into a higher state than that, to sit down in Christ who never fell. Therefore, the Son of God is to be heard in all things, who is the Saviour and the Redeemer; who hath laid down his life, and bought his sheep with his precious blood. “(Works of Fox, Vol. III, p. 144)

  2. Your wrote that “it takes guts to believe that God is love, because to do so calls into question the punitive behaviour which characterises our species.”

    The type of belief that you refer to throughout this piece and specifically in this sentence is intellectual rather than experiential. Such “belief” can neither access nor fabricate the love that is of God’s nature. In lauding the act of speculating/accepting that “God is love,” you hold up cultural expectation and personal hope, thus substituting a man-made placebo (idol), and the Physician of your soul is not called upon.

    You’ve done well to catalog the nature of fallen man, man as he bears the Serpent’s image, rather than his Creator’s. It is this burden of sin that so dismays Paul, and all of us who’ve had the guts to stare into the abyss of our emptiness, weakness, and aggression, for that is the truth of our being–prior to being raised to Life. That much you’ve done well to see and describe, but then you over-stepped.

    Like all the stories where the blind, deaf, lame, etc. have cried out to the Son of man for healing, we, too, as did George Fox, have faced the reality of what we are, and have then heard one speaking to our lamenting condition. It is the stalwart determination to honor the truth of what we see of ourselves that is the work of using our God-given talent as it was meant to be used–to see, know, and feel our attenuated condition. God’s “strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). Christ, alone, will have the glory.

    You would do well not to encourage the consumption of a bowl of comforting pottage.

    1. Pat, I like your differentiation between intellectual and experiential belief. Deuteronomy 5 details the boundary between these two states. When we encounter the living God, we find our intellectual belief to be completely inadequate. We cry out, “Why should we die, if we see this fire and hear this voice any longer we will die.” Yet God calls us to live in this fire and by every word proceeding out of His mouth (Deut. 8:3). We are called/required to live in that which is beyond human ability. This is the beginning of experiential belief, where we experience God, through Jesus Christ, to supply that which is necessary for life as he supplied food, water, and clothing for the Israelites leaving Egypt. Our part is to hear his voice and follow; to behold the light of Christ correcting us and showing us the way forward and believing in the authority of that light. Thus Edward Burrough wrote, “And in all things we found the light which we were enlightened withal, (which is Christ,) to be alone and only sufficient to bring to life and eternal salvation…” These are the things I have seen in your distinction. Thanks for bringing this up.

    2. I agree patradallmann. An intimate relationship requires all facets of soul (my term of understanding for the connecting bridge between Mr God and me). An intimate relationship requires a letting go of “taught” in order to become with and of by grasping Truth. An intimate relationship is not based on It what the world thinks is gooey love but in the trenches of life where the valleys are the peaks and the peaks the valleys in God’s world.
      It does not take guts but a parched seeking soul.
      There is an Buddhist (?) saying that there are only two mistakes on the path to Truth: one is not starting and the other is not going far enough. It is not a human journey to God but an enticement of God not guts but Glory.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s