What is your basic truth about the nature of God? Is God good? Happy? Angry? Close or far away? Does God like you? Dislike you?
These may seem like silly questions, but the answers we give determine how we do, or don't, relate to God. It also determines how we read the Bible and the answers we find, or don't find, about life, God, salvation, heaven and hell and a host of other things.
A wise theologian once said, "Where you enter the Bible is also the place where you will exit." I heard that phrase at a lecture years ago as the speaker encouraged us to engage in theological wresting over a contentious point of order: whether or not women had a place in church leadership, especially as ordained clergy or in the senior pastor role.
For example, do we assume that from the beginning women are supposed to be subordinate to men? Do we assume that hierarchy and "chain of command" reside within the very nature of God and therefore that human society must be also also be arranged in such a way? If so, we will read that assumption into the the Bible to support that idea.
Alternatively, do we assume that such subordination emerged as an aberration from the ideal of the experience described in the Garden of Eden? Do we think that male and female were both created fully in the image of God and are meant to partner with each other and with God in the unfolding of creation? Then our reading and interpretation would lead to very different conclusions. Both beginning points can claim biblical support--we have to choose which one we stand upon. Then we must see if that stance is consistent with what else we knew about God from our years of Bible study and the practice of living as faithful Christians.
In the last few days, I was thinking about those questions and others because of an email conversation with a dear friend. She is quite certain I've gone off the heretical edge. Her words express significant concern that I may lose my salvation and end up in hell. As she and I write about our respective positions, I find another set of assumptions that must be surfaced, examined and tested to see if they hold together.
Those assumptions go back to the questions I wrote at the beginning of this article: what DO we think is true about the very nature of God? What is our starting point when we think about God?
For example: Is God's main purpose to save only the few who manage to figure out exactly the right words and right beliefs to allay God's looming wrath? Does God then send everyone else to eternal damnation and punishment? Or does God genuinely like the created world and the beings inhabiting it and so is interested in offering to all opportunity of healing, salvation, wholeness and eternal life, which is defined by Jesus as knowing God? In other words, is God in love with us or is God in anger with us? The starting point determines the end. If we start by believing that God is angry and only willing to let a few in, we end by condemning anyone who doesn't believe like us, since pretty well any person with any belief in God or an afterlife is sure he or she is going to make it to heaven.
Recently, a young man sat in my office explaining why he avoids attending worship services. He related the story when as a teen he brought a modern translation of the Bible to church one day. His pastor took it and held it up as though he were holding a snake or some other despised object. He then soundly berated the young man for having such a horror in his possession.
Now, that's a great picture of a God who starts with anger. Basic assumption: There is only one tightly defined way to God. That one way has to be understood and communicated only in archaic language using a Bible which was translated from less reliable manuscripts than more modern and scholarly translations now use. In other words, don't use your brain, don't think very hard, and learn the moves to the dance that please this angry God before it is too late.
That really loves 'em into the kingdom of heaven, doesn't it?
I grew up certain that God was angry with me. Many people I know have that same experience. That kind of thinking leads to a life of fear and apprehension, little joy or confidence and almost no courage to make bold decisions. What if I'm wrong? What if I make a choice that displeases God? What horrors will await me then? Best to play it safe and make no mistakes.
What a shut down life that is! The Bible narratives tell us of people making bold stands for God, of challenging fights against injustice, of arguments and disagreements that eventually led to greater understanding. How can one be bold for God while living in terror than one wrong step or one's questioning of the "approved" belief structure will lead to the uttermost darkness and everlasting torment? It is the power of love that encourages boldness and the redemption of the world, not fear-producing anger.
Examine your own starting place. If your starting place indicates that God is angry with you, consider the possibility of re-thinking that. Awareness that God really does like us is a big step to loving God in return, and that really is eternal life.