Today I post the second in my series on God.
2. A Benevolent God
In September, 2006 the first findings of a major new survey into American religious belief was released. The most interesting of these to me was the finding that Americans do not believe so much in one God as four Gods. Equally interesting was that these four Gods were not Gods of different religions - for America remains predominantly Christian, but four types of God believed in by people within each religion. Christians themselves believed in four different Gods.
Last week, I wrote about the first: the Authoritarian God. This God is a God who gives commands and expects them to be obeyed, and if they are not he punishes those who are disobedient. I argued that there was truth in this because God, in the Bible, undoubtedly does give commandments: the ten commandments, for example. And he does punish. Yet if we stop here our religion can quickly become judgemental, cruel, and harsh with God himself appearing very unattractive.
It is, perhaps, because of this that many today have turned to the second type of God identified by the researchers. This they describe as the Benevolent God. ‘Like believers in the Authoritarian God, believers in a Benevolent God tend to think that God is very active in our daily lives. But these individuals are less likely to believe that God is angry and acts in wrathful ways. Instead, the Benevolent God is mainly a force of positive influence in the world and is less willing to condemn or punish individuals.’
This picture of God is very popular. It is I would venture to suggest the most common in the part of the Church that I originally come from. It takes its lead from the example of our Lord himself. After all, did not Jesus welcome sinners and eat with them? Didn’t he challenge the upholders in his own day of the Authoritarian God: the Pharisees? He came to call sinners not the righteous to repentance. He told us to ‘judge not lest we be judged’. He urged forgiveness. And when challenged to condemn a woman caught in adultery, he refused to do so. By his words and actions, Jesus was showing us what God is really like.
It is easy to see why such a view of God would be popular. We all know we fail. We don’t need anyone to tell us we make mistakes. A God who accepts us, in Bridgette Jones terms, ‘just as we are’ is surely a God for today: a touchy feely sort of God. More a friend than a God really!
And there can be no doubting the truth of much of this. Jesus, after all, really did do and say all these things. I have to admit that most of my ministry this is the God I have believed in and taught, perhaps because I have been in contexts where I have felt this is what people have needed to hear. I have to admit, however, of late that I have seriously begun to doubt the adequacy of it. Not because I doubt the truth of what Jesus said and did, but because, clearly, it is not all he said and did. I am increasingly convinced that instead of the God of the Bible, we are creating a God of popular culture. A God who is one of us, but because of that very fact is of no use to us.
For if that is all that he is, why is he of any more use to me than say my friends who are always there for me? Better the friend I can see than the God I cannot. And do we always need a God who understands, condones, and overlooks our behaviour? As with child-rearing doesn’t such an approach simply turn us into spoilt brats who think that they actually can do anything because at the end of the day there are no rules or consequences?
The time has perhaps come for some of us to review our view of God, accepting those parts of it which are true, but accepting too that it may not be the whole truth. Jesus did forgive sinners and eat with them. And thank God! - for we are all sinners too, but he did challenge the sinner to repent, to change their way of life and follow his teaching. He also more than anyone else spoke of a day of reckoning and judgement when the sheep would be separated from the goats, and when those not accepted would be thrown into outer darkness ‘where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth’.