When god is not God

I am disturbed by the number of people and organisations who, over the years, have attributed characteristics to God that it seems to me he does not deserve. By that, of course, I mean unholy, unloving characteristics. This is particularly important in a time when many former evangelical Christians are “deconstructing”, at least in part because they cannot live with the god described to them by the Evangelical Church. I suspect that many of them have not realised that calling a deity God, with a capital G, does not make that deity the God Jesus came to show us. But I’m getting ahead of myself!

I did not notice this problem until recently, or possibly ignored it, or maybe I even agreed with them, but now I have come to the conclusion that – and it’s obvious really – saying that “god” possesses characteristic “x” does not make it true.

What’s worse, many capitalise the letter “G” and say that “God” is “x”, implying or even stating that the one and only, true, real and eternal God is just how they describe Him.

That’s not true either.

In fact, often “god” is not “God” at all.

When we describe a building or indeed anything visible, we have objective criteria for our description. We can see the building. But describing the invisible God is more difficult, and who is entitled to say what He is like?

We have, for example, Jonathan Edwards describing his god as angry with sinners, whom he loathes.

The God that holds you over the pit of Hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times so abominable in his eyes as the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.

Zahnd, Brian. Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God: The Scandalous Truth of the Very Good News (p. 3). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Brian used to preach from that sermon of Jonathan Edwards, and it was quite effective in frightening people into some kind of faith. But he does not preach that any more.

Today my handmade copy of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is stored safely away among other memorabilia. I’m no longer mining it for material to terrorize sinners. The monster god has faded away, and today I preach the beauty of God revealed in the face of Christ…The hands of God have been stretched out in love where they were nailed to a tree. The nail-pierced hands of God now reach out to every doubter and every sufferer, revealing the wounds of love. The hands of God are not hands of wrath but hands of mercy. To be a sinner in these hands is where the healing begins.

Zahnd, Brian. Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God: The Scandalous Truth of the Very Good News (p. 22). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

More recently, John Piper claimed that his god “finds us thoroughly unpleasing (sic)” and only likes us as we change to become like Him.

But can this be true? Did he find Matthew and Peter, James and John, Mary and Martha thoroughly unpleasing? Did he not welcome them into a personal relationship, even though they were not yet changed?

“But when human beings, and that’s all of us, fell into sin, God’s human creation was marred, defaced, made ugly, displeasing, even though there is a remnant of natural wonder about the human person that distinguishes us from the animals. But we’re so defaced and so debased that God finds us thoroughly unpleasing when it comes to a personal relationship.”

Desiring God website

Another Christian leader, this time in the UK, preached that because John 3:16 is framed in the past tense – God so loved the world – he no longer loves the world. Apparently we’ve had our chance and there is no more love for us. (I did not misunderstand him, by the way; I queried the statement with his office, and it was confirmed.)

And then, a couple of years ago, a visiting speaker at the church we attended used the following verse to describe the character of God:

The Lord is a jealous God.
The Lord punishes the guilty, and he is very angry.

The Lord punishes his enemies, and he stays angry with them.

Nahum 1:2

He said that this is God’s character. Nahum was talking about God’s anger at Nineveh, not his basic character, but even so it’s pretty harsh. But the speaker seemed to believe that God, the God Jesus and Paul called Abba, the God who “so loved the world that He sent His Son” is like that.

I’m sure you can think of other examples of people maligning the character of God – as we see it. But perhaps we are wrong? How can we know for sure what God is really like?

I think Brian Zahnd has the answer:

God is like Jesus.
God has always been like Jesus.
There has never been a time when God was not like Jesus.
We have not always known what God is like —
But now we do.

Brian Zahnd’s website

If you don’t have a good idea of what Jesus is like, read the Gospels, or watch The Chosen – an excellent, high-quality series portraying the life of Jesus. It’s crowd-funded, and free to watch via the website or app.

But if calling your own version of deity “god” does not make it the real God, might not the reverse be true?

Young Juliet, in Shakespeare’s tragedy that bears her name, famously lamented the fact that her lover, Romeo, was a Montague and not a Capulet. But then realised that his name was not important; a rose “by any other name would smell as sweet.”

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;

So if a Muslim refers to Allah with characteristics we recognise as belonging to “our” God, does the “wrong” name make a difference? Is not Allah called merciful and compassionate?

In fact, Arabic-speakers of all Abrahamic faiths, including Christians and Jews, use the word “Allah” to mean “God”. The Christian Arabs of today have no other word for “God” than “Allah”, and He is the same God English-speaking Christians worship.

Picture from Names of Allah.

For further reading on this subject, I suggest “Allah: A Christian Response” by Miroslav Volf.

The book is dedicated as follows:

To my father, a Pentecostal minister who admired Muslims and taught me as a boy that they worship the same God we do.

But if, on the other hand, a Christian ascribes the characteristics of Shiva or Molech to his deity, calling that deity “God”, is that really God? No!

Yet we have done that.

Here’s a conversation quoted by Bradley Jersak in his book, “A More Christlike Word” that exemplifies the basic problem of a widespread evangelical belief about god, that of Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA).

Archbishop Lazar [of the All Saints of North America Monastery in Dewdney, BC.] put a question to ME [Bradley Jersak] straightforwardly:

You mean to tell me you believe God cannot freely forgive sin but must first appease his wrath through the violent child sacrifice of his firstborn son on the cross?” He knew the script as well as I did and was not about to pretty it up.

“Well, when you put it that way…” I replied, as if he were being crass, “but yes, that is pretty much what I was taught, believed, and preached.”

“I see your problem. You worship Molech—not Yahweh.”

Molech was the Canaanite god who demanded wrath appeasement by the fiery sacrifice of firstborn children. “Something,” Yahweh says, “that I have never spoken or commanded, and which never even entered my mind.”

Abp. Lazar’s rather coarse assessment did not offend me. Rather, his words washed through me like a cold flood, awakening me. Something like scales fell off my spiritual eyes. My credible witness was no namby-pamby liberal—this was a hierarch stewarding the same patristic faith that gave us the doctrine of the deity of Christ, the dogma of Trinity, and the Nicene Creed.

“You mean in Eastern Orthodox churches you don’t have to believe in penal substitution?” I asked, hopeful.

“No, I mean in the Orthodox church you are required not to believe in it,” he replied firmly, adding, “And there are 350 million of us who have never believed it.”

Jersak, Bradley. A More Christlike Word (pp. 48-49). Whitaker House. Kindle Edition.

My point is this: if a well-known pastor or preacher – or indeed anyone – describes their god in a way that does not look like Jesus, don’t believe them.

Too many say, “I cannot believe in that god, so I reject faith in god altogether.”

That would be a sad mistake. For there is a God worth believing in, worth knowing, worth loving and, yes, worth worshipping.

And He looks like Jesus.

There is a God worth believing in, worth knowing, worth loving and, yes, worth worshipping. 

And He looks like Jesus.

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