You’ve all heard people say, “Don’t believe everything you hear.” Today I want to explain why I no longer believe everything I hear about something in particular—God. What we believe about God—about who he is and how he works in the world—is hugely important. It forms the basis for how we view ourselves and the world and how we live every day. I want to introduce you to some fresh ways of thinking about God that have been liberating and encouraging to me. These aren’t ideas that I came up with myself, but they are nevertheless eclipsed by more commonly held views of God today.
Here is a widespread picture of God. God is the unique, all-powerful being who is perfect in every way. God is infinite, he exists outside time, and he is unchanging. God’s will for the world is ultimate and fixed and beyond questioning—“his ways are higher than our ways.” God, above all, is sovereign. He created the heavens and the earth to display his glory, and he is in control of everything that happens.
This is often presented as the definitive and incontestable picture of God. For most of my life, including my time at seminary, I was, for the most part, presented with this view. But where exactly do these ideas about God come from? They don’t all come straight out of the Bible. Some of them, like God’s changelessness, come from Greek philosophy. This way of thinking was influential in the early church, and it remains the traditional view of God today; and it influences the way we read the Bible. But this isn’t the only option for us. I’ve come to believe that in some respects the traditional view of God is not helpful on a personal level and that it does not match the God revealed in the Bible and above all in the person of Jesus.
Here is a different picture of God—one that is being recovered today and which is, I think, more in line with biblical thought.
God created the heavens and the earth out of love, for God is love. God endowed human beings with real freedom to make choices and to act. He created them in his image, making them caretakers and rulers over the world and mediators between God and the rest of creation. In giving real freedom to his creation, God chose to limit his own power and involvement in the world to a relational power of persuasion, while retaining his own rights to freedom as Lord of the universe. In wisdom and power and love, God guides his creation to his desired end—not overriding our freedom but working with us, and sometimes in spite of us.
In this picture of God, God is not removed. He has an active relationship with his creation. He is involved and interested in what takes place in the world. He feels joy when we rule the creation well, do good, and demonstrate love to God and to other human beings. He is grieved when we destroy, do evil, and demonstrate hate toward God and others. He is influenced by our action, and he adapts accordingly. God is dynamic, not static. God’s purpose is to right all wrongs and restore his creation to its original good intent.
Let’s look at some specific examples. God says in the Bible, “For I the Lord do not change” (Mic. 3:6). In the traditional view of God, this statement is taken as evidence that God cannot be influenced or affected in any way by his creation—everything that happens results from God’s eternal decrees. Another verse says, “God is not a human being, that he should lie, or a mortal, that he should change his mind” (Num. 23:19). But does that really mean God never changes? Doesn’t God respond and interact in a real way with his creation? Exodus 32 describes just such a situation, when God, as a result of Moses’s pleading, decides not to wipe out the Israelites who have just started worshiping a golden calf instead of the God, YHWH, who delivered them from Egypt. Verse 14 says, “And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.” Those who hold to the view that God cannot change do interpretive gymnastics to say that God didn’t really change is mind, but it just appeared that way. For them, God’s changing his mind would imply some sort of weakness or deficiency in him. But a more natural way of reading the text suggests that God honors the freedom he gave to humanity and interacts with us in a truly relational way—he did change his mind.
For this reason we pray. Jesus taught his disciples to ask, seek, and knock and promised that our Father in heaven will “give good things to those who ask him” (Matt. 7:11). If, on the other hand, God has completely mapped out the future and cannot be influenced, why would be pray? I’ve come to see prayer as a genuine interaction between two free beings—me and God. I don’t mean to blur the distinction between Creator and creature—I don’t think for a minute that I am equal to God. So it is humbling to know that God values me and takes me seriously. When we pray, we pray to a God who is open to us in the way that God was open to Moses when he pleaded for his fellow Israelites. Prayer can make a difference because of the way God designed the world and because God interacts with us.
A related topic is miracles. I have a theory that no miracles occur without some form of human involvement. God doesn’t change events or circumstances in the world out of the blue. He works with people to accomplish his purposes. Examples of miracles are Moses and the ten plagues, Moses parting the Red Sea, and Elijah praying for rain after years of drought. Perhaps the most amazing miracle and evidence of the need for human participation with God is the virgin birth and Mary’s consent. Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” We are reminded of our own role in God’s plan every time we pray in the Lord’s prayer, “Your will be done.”
Another thing often said about God is that God is not vulnerable, that he can’t feel emotion or suffer. Recently on the Catholic radio station (though it could just as easily have been a Protestant one), I heard someone say flatly, “God cannot be sad because God doesn’t have emotions.” This does not match the God pictured in Scripture.
Take, for example, the story of the flood in Genesis. The text says, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth. . . . And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart” (Gen. 6:5–6). In the traditional view of God, God, the Supreme Being, can’t be affected by finite creation; he is completely independent. But this verse clearly states the opposite. God took a risk in creation. He took a risk in creating people with true freedom. He risked being rejected, and he risked things going wrong.
God clearly interacts with us and responds to us—and in that sense God changes. But there is a way in which God is unchanging. God’s character does not change—he is always loving and faithful. He creatively brings about his redemptive purposes in spite of people’s disobedience. This God, in my opinion, is more good and more great than a God who rules like a divine dictator to accomplish his incontestable purposes, whether they seem good or bad from a human perspective. I personally breath a sigh of relief knowing that God is not the cause of all the bad things in the world or in my own life.
God demonstrates his care for us and his vulnerability in the most profound way in the incarnation. The Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us. Jesus is the image of the invisible God, and he was tempted like us, got hungry and tired like us, and felt sadness and anger. In his death, Jesus suffered humiliation and the cruel injustice of the world. At the same time, God the Father suffered the murder of his beloved child. The cross of Christ reveals a God who enters into the depths of human suffering and the darkest times of human existence, including the holocaust during World War II or the current devastation in Gaza, Central Africa, Iraq, or Syria. The book of Hebrews sums this up well: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). In the incarnation, God identified with humanity in an ultimate and permanent way, showing beyond a doubt that God does feel and that he even suffers with us in our suffering, both as our loving Creator and as God with us and for us.
I’d like to conclude by discussing a word that sums up a lot of this for me: participation. We have an opportunity to participate with God in his work in the world. Paul says, “We are God’s fellow workers” or “laborers together with God” (1 Cor. 3:9). There is synergy between God and us.God acts, and we act. He responds, and we respond. The future is not locked into place; it is open to change. It depends on our working together with God.
We also have an opportunity to participate in the very life of God. An early church father speaks of God’s two hands. God’s one hand is his Son, who sets us free from our bondage to sin and death and unites us to God. God’s other hand is his Spirit, who dwells inside us, showing us the way of Christ and empowering us to act. The Christian belief in the Trinity—that the one God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is nothing other than a recognition of the way that God works in the world, which in turn tells us something about God’s identity. In seeing and experiencing God as Father, Son, and Spirit, we come to recognize that God is relational. Participation is part of God’s very nature, and God calls us to participate with him every day—every time we wake up in the morning, get ready, and step out into the world.
To me this is extremely motivating. It makes my relationship with God more meaningful to know that I have an open invitation to participate with him in what he’s doing in the world and that what I do on a daily basis actually has consequences for the future. As I said in the beginning, none of this is my own thinking. What I’ve hoped to convey to you is that there are valid views of God beyond the one we often hear. And these views have encouraged me to seek God more.
~ Ryan D.
Beloved Talk: “Participating with God”
July 27, 2014 @ Church of the Beloved