Rather than engaging the actual story of Jesus, we have a way of projecting onto the character of Father-God our own personal histories and our theological assumptions. In this light, God as Father doesn’t fare well and looks much more like the dysfunctional fathers we have known than the Father we would aspire to be.
It is so easy to introduce into our theology our own damage, and from those assumptions perceive that Father God is of a different nature and character than Jesus, the Son.
It is into this disconnect that Randall Benson, a friend of mine, speaks to in his following thoughts. I think many of us will recognize ourselves in this helpful piece.
What we believe about God has a profound effect on how we live our lives and express our faith.
When I say believe, I don’t mean our confession of faith – the doctrinal idea stuff we throw around about God. Rather, I mean the deep-down-been-programmed-into-me-since-I-was-a-baby kind of feelings that we have about God. There’s the God we say we believe in and then there’s the God we really believe in. Who is that God and what’s he like?
Last summer, I read a book by Bradley Jersak entitled A More Christlike God: a More Beautiful Gospel in which he points out several different deep down beliefs that we project onto God that aren’t Christlike.
First, he talks about God the doting grandfather. This is the God who spoils us with whatever we want and ignores are misbehavior. This is the God who gives us the desires of our hearts if we just delight in him. If you believe, he’ll give you whatever you ask for. The doting grandfather God works until tragedy hits and you find your prayers aren’t being answered. Then we must ask how God can allow suffering to happen.
The second projection that Jersak defines is God the deadbeat dad or God the absentee landlord. This is the God who abandoned me, the dad who walked out shirking his responsibilities. This is the God who created the universe and gave it laws to govern how it functions, but then left it to fend for itself. He’s the God-of the-gap whom we blame for everything that’s wrong. This God leaves us feeling like orphans. He’s simply not there when we need him. The Atheists can’t see past this god.
A third common image that we project upon God is that of the punitive judge, the God who gets us when we’re bad. He is a “meticulous micromanager” of our behavior and a “harsh taskmaster.” This God has given us a law and we must obey it or else. He seems to like us best when we are feeling guilt or regret about our behavior. We try to tell ourselves that he “hates the sin, but loves the sinner” yet there’s no escaping the pervasive feeling that if he hates the sin, he hates us too and will only “pardon” (we have to use legal language because he’s a judge) us if we can find someway to make ourselves right with him, someway to appease him and avert his angry wrath.
Jersak’s last un-Christlike image that we project onto God is that of the Santa Claus Blend. This is the doting grandfather blended with the punitive judge. Like the doting grandfather it’s, “Ask me for anything and I will give it to you…as long as you’re good.” And, like the punitive judge he’s keeping a list of everything we do so don’t let your naughty list grow longer than your nice. Blended Santa falls apart when the good get only socks when they’ve prayed for ponies while the bad get the ponies. There’s also nothing called grace here because its all about how good or bad we have been.
Although these examples may seem a bit trite in my portrayal of them, I think we can all raise our hands and say “those sound a lot like the god I grew up with.” We can confess God as Trinity, as the loving communion of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who has made us participants in their loving communion which biblically and theologically is correct. But, what we really mean when we say God is God the Father the punitive Santa who under scrutiny initiated by the cold hard fact of suffering in the world is just a deadbeat dad who, although his only begotten Son died to appease his anger towards us, is still ready to pour the wrath out on us because no matter how hard we try we only keep discovering we’re not good enough. I left out the Holy Spirit because that one’s for crazies and it’s just easier for us to say we’ve been touched by an angel.
This distorted projection of our own devise is the God we functionally serve. This is why guilt is the number one motivator for church participation. If you want something done around the church, just find the person who will feel guilty if it doesn’t get done and that’s your bunny, your Easter bunny. So my point is that our deep down beliefs about who God is ain’t necessarily the God we find in Jesus.
And so we come to Luke 13:1-9 (read here if you care to, but not a must to understand the rest of this article), which is admittedly a very difficult passage to swallow. It seems here that Jesus is making God out to be the punitive judge we met earlier. It seems he is saying “Get yourselves right with God, repent, or God is going to get you too just like he did those other miserable sinners”. But, that’s not what’s going on here.
I think what Jesus is doing here is confronting a false image of God that was common in his day and then tries to counter it with an image of how God really is…a more Christlike God.
I build my case on a minor point of Greek; twice Jesus uses the phrase “do you think” which can also mean “do you suppose” or “do you believe”. With this conjectural kind of questioning I think he is pushing into their belief system to expose the false idea they had of God.
A predominant belief back in Jesus’ day was that God punishes sinners and the worse of a sinner that you are, God will get you all the more. Birth defects, accidents, horrible deaths, diseases were all things they believed to be punishment from God for sins committed, secret or otherwise. Therefore, they would have believed those Galileans had to have been really bad for God to have used Pilate who massacred them and mixed their blood with sacrifices; so also the Jerusalemites upon whom the Tower of Siloam fell.
If I had to paraphrase here and read a bit between the lines, I think Jesus is saying,
“Do you believe these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans (and we all know that all Galileans are dreadfully sinful). Is it because they were especially bad sinners that God punished them in such a way? Is this the God you believe in?” Jesus answers his own question with an emphatic “No!”
No, they were faithful people on pilgrimage to Jerusalem to worship God rightly and for some reason of Pilate’s whim they died a horrible death. Sometimes bad things happen to even the most faithful of people. So, also, with the eighteen Jerusalemites who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when the Tower of Siloam fell, do you believe they were worse sinners than anybody else in Jerusalem and so God was punishing them? Is this the God you believe in?
No! Accidents happen. Well, if this is the God you believe in, then you better get yourselves right with this God because you’re going to get it in like manner because you’re all sinners too. So tell me, is this really what God is like?”
Jesus then tells them a parable in which he contrasts their false image of God with one that is more Christ-like.
The first image is the vineyard owner. He is like a blend between God the punitive judge and God the deadbeat dad. He planted a fig tree in his vineyard and left it to grow on its own coming back only at harvest time when there was something in it for him only to find that the tree bore no fruit. Since he couldn’t have a tree wasting his good soil, he wanted it cut down. The vineyard owner, I think was at much at fault here as the tree itself for there being no fruit. You just don’t plant a fruit tree and go off and leave it. They need tending. And, why plant a fig tree in a vineyard? The grapevines were probably too much competition for it. You can’t punish something for your own neglect. This not the way God is, is he?
Maybe God is rather like the Gardener in this parable. The Gardener won’t cut the tree down. He knows better. He knows it needs tending. He sees that the tree needs some fertilizer and gets his hands dirty with poo to make the tree able to bear fruit. I think this is the God we see in Jesus.
Jesus, God the Son, got right into the sewage waste of what it is to be human and suffered as we do in every way. He shared our every weakness. Though innocent of any crime he was condemned to death for treason. His closest friends abandoned him and denied knowing him. He died a horribly painful death (and this is not to diminish the suffering of so many who die horribly painful deaths). Yet, God the Father did not pour wrath out on humanity for its ultimate crime against God…No! He raised Jesus from the dead and then poured the Holy Spirit out upon us, that we may participate in his very life.
God is like this Gardener. The Holy Spirit, God’s very self, is the fertilizer that seeps into us through our roots and restores vitality to us and makes us able to bear the fruits of righteousness.
I bring up all these images of God because as I said at the very beginning that what we believe about God has a very profound effect on how we live our lives and express our faith.
To take Jesus’ warning to heart, unless we repent of our misplaced faithfulness to these false images of God that we project onto God and serve instead of the True God, we will perish within the confines of a bankrupt religion. The Greek word for repentance is “metanoia”. “Meta” means “with” and “noia” means “mind”. It is to be “with-minded”, “with-minded” with Jesus. It means to think, and pursue the things that he thinks and pursues which is adoration and faithfulness to God his Father that expresses itself in the humility of suffering servants.
Paul tells as at 1 Corinthians 2:16 that we have the mind of Christ which means we have the Holy Spirit in us helping us and empowering us to choose and live by means of the way of the cross. The Holy Spirit makes us able to live together as a community of disciples who love each other as the Trinity loves us and who relate to our surrounding community with compassion and the utmost hospitality. The Holy Spirit makes us willing and able to get outside these walls and soil our hands with the “poo” of the lives of of real people to whom we can minister in Jesus’ name. This punitive, deadbeat, Santa that we serve only leaves us with boundaries between us and the hurting world out there.
If we persist in clinging to the false images of God that we project onto him, we will quench the work of the Holy Spirit in us and we will not be Christ-like but something rather sinister that claims to be.
So, what do you think? Do you think God is really like Jesus?
This article was originally published on Dr. Benson’s blog.