A series inspired by Skye Jethani’s excellent book “WITH”
How do you relate to God? What is your primary image of God? What is your posture with God? Some live in fear under God. Some live over or apart from God. Some seek to take blessings from God. Some live for God. Christians believe life is to be spent with God!
My childhood image of God is not reducible to one picture, but at times I lived in fear of God. I remember nervously walking from our high school football stadium to the car wondering what lurked in the shadows. I was about eleven and my church was taking part in a city wide revival at the local high school. The evangelism had written a book entitled “The Witches Are Rising.” He said Casper the Friendly Ghost, the Adams Family, and I Dream of Genie were part of a Hollywood plot to inoculate our culture with the occult. I sat wide-eyed and terrified as he spoke of a literal devil. The final service focused on hell. I went back to sleeping with a night light for months. Fear is a powerful force.
Sermons designed to scare the Hell out of us were not the normal preaching material in my comforting childhood church. However, an underlying theme of God’s wrath was woven into many mostly gracious sermons. Judgement, Fear and God’s Anger are familiar supporting arguments for American evangelicals. Jonathon Edward’s 1740 sermon “Sinners In The Hands of An Angry God” fueled the First Great Awakening and still seeps into the church culture today.
What is your image of God?
I grew up hearing one theological fact in almost every sermon: “I was a sinner, unworthy of God’s grace and love.” “Being a sinner” was the lynchpin, the cornerstone, the heart of our approach to God. We did not usually begin with a Holy, perfect, gracious, and loving God but with the knowledge that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”(Romans 3:23). Today, do you focus on a holy God or sinful people? It is harder to change when we focus on what we have done more than what God calls us to become. Where we start matters! Does your personal theology begin with your sin, others sins, or a holy and loving God? If we hear more about our sins than God’s love, we may focus on the wrong things. Christ did not come to earth in order to point out our sins. Christianity is not about who we are as sinners, but about God- who is transforming, gracious and forgiving. Indeed, Christianity may be more about who God calls us to be than who we are right now! It is true, that I am a sinner, but that is not the end of my story or God’s plan for me.
Put the word “sinner” in your Bible App and read the various passages in Mathew, Mark, Luke and John. You might be surprised to find that the Book of Roman’s uses the word “sinner” more than Matthew, Mark and John put together! Read how Jesus uses the word “sinner.” Most of the Gospel passages say things like, “The teachers of the law complained to Jesus’ disciples, why does Jesus eat and drink with sinners?” Or “Why is Jesus a friend to sinners?” Jesus answered them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” Luke 5:31. You see, Jesus loved sinners. Jesus ate dinner with sinners. Jesus cared deeply about sinners’ souls.
Jesus’ acceptance was a very different image than the one I absorbed as we went to church camp. At camp they measured the length of girl’s shorts, long pants were required for chapel, and basketball was never to be played as shirts against skins. Our mischievous/gracious pastor encouraged us to wear our flip flops with our long pants “just too irate” the chapel rule makers! The Gospels record no story where Jesus made friends with the sinners by enforcing a dress code. Rules are not bad, but Jesus did not come to bring us more rules.
“Sinner” is a label. “Sinner” is a noun. “Sins” is a verb. I may “bake,” but no one would call me a “baker.” I may sin, but God calls me “child,” “beloved,” “friend,” “forgiven,” and “loved.” My son Caleb plays the trumpet so well I get chills at times. When he first picked up the horn we hid the fact his joyous honks and toots made the hair crawl up our necks. We named him as “trumpeter” before Caleb produced beautiful music. God names us as beloved, forgiven, saint, and child before we produce anything lovely for God. If we focus on being sinners, we may never live into God’s true identity for us.
Perhaps this is why I so love John Wesley who speaks of the Love of God. “We see the light of the glorious love of God in the face of Jesus Christ. …We behold the Lamb of God taking away our sins.
…Here end both the guilt and the power of sin… Here ends also that bondage unto fear… We cannot fear any longer the wrath of God; for we know it is now turned away from us and we look upon God no longer as an angry Judge, but as a loving Parent.” John Wesley “Spirit of Bondage and Adoption” (adapted). Even in the sermon title, Wesley contrasts two competing images of God.
Even if we no longer live with a literal fear of an angry God, we may get caught in a second kind of life under God. The prosperity Gospel peddles this moralistic worldview, where God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked.
Jethani writes “Live according to God’s righteous expectations, we are told, and (God) will bless you and answer your prayers.” Do the right things and God will take care of you! Why do Christians, who believe that Jesus died on the cross for our sins, think that if we do the right things then blessings must automatically come? God promises to be with us in suffering. God promises to redeem even evil situations. Still the Cross indicates that we may even be called on to suffer for righteousness sake!
Here is a LIFE UNDER GOD WITH STRINGS ATTACHED test. (with thanks to the With appendix)
Do you “bargain” with God?
Do you get angry at God when your good behavior is not rewarded?
Is it okay when sinful bad people suffer?
Do you imagine God as a loving parent or an Almighty Judge?
What motivates you to obey God’s commands?
Are some sins considered much worse than others in your community?
What kind of “heavy burdens” have you experienced in religious communities?
Is a little hypocrisy okay inside your living?
Do rules or prayers guide your relationship with God?
Do you think “If I am good then God must bless me”?
Jethani, “Live according to God’s righteous expectations, we are told, and (God) will bless you and answer your prayers.… The irony of a LIFE UNDER GOD is that we are seeking to exert control over God through strict adherence to rituals and absolute obedience to moral codes. …Through our obedience we put God into our debt and expect (God) to do our bidding in exchange for our worship and righteous behavior.”
I had a friend in high school, whose home life was a wreck. I am sure a well-meaning youth leader said “pray about it, and live for God and everything will be fine.” My friend, prayed an hour each morning, read 5 chapters of the Bible each day, memorized Scripture, judged a lot, talked about God constantly, and hit the road telling youth groups about Jesus. He worked so hard to do the right things. However, when the wheels came off at home my friend zealously abandoned his righteous living. He lived like hell, convinced God had failed to uphold his Divine bargain. I do not blame my 16 year-old friend. Some leader might have said “Son, God was with Paul in Prison, Stephen during his stoning, and Jesus on the cross, and God will be with you.” In many ways my friend was living into his theology, that God punishes the wicked and blesses the righteous. His home life a wreck, he fulfilled the prosperity theology, but not in the way the teachers of the law intended! Indeed, Jethani asserts that many young evangelicals are leaving the church, because the promises of a Divine bargain for their good behavior has not panned out!
In Matthew 23, Jesus offers another LIFE With Strings Attached quiz. Jesus hollers “watch out” for a crushing moralistic legalism that grinds us down our souls and robs us of love!
“Watch out- for folks who tie up heavy religious burdens, but never lift a finger to help carry people the load. Watch out when Church folks do good stuff for people to see. Watch out when you are called teacher or father for God is our only Teacher and we are all brothers and sisters. Watch out for teachers of the law, who shut the door to God or Heaven. Watch out when people major in minor religious laws and neglect the more important principles—justice, mercy and faithfulness. Watch out when people clean the outside of the cup, but their insides harbor greed and self-indulgence. Oh People, first, clean the inside of the cup and then the outside will get clean. Watch out when people act righteous but inwardly they are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. Watch out when folks build shrines for the ancient prophets but then usually attack any contemporary voices for God.” (adapted from Matthew 23)
Life under rules creates a crushing legalism that kills the soul. Jesus did not come to give us a moral code. Jesus said you can sum the rules up with just two rules: “Love God with everything you got and Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus did not come to give us more rules. Jesus came to save us from sin and rules. More than rules, Jesus came to show us how to live. As a result, Jesus usually butts heads or hearts with the moral enforcers, who relate to God primarily through rules.
We see this in John 9. “As Jesus went along, Jesus saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ ” Think about that question. Ask what sort of God might punish an unborn child? What does the disciple’s question imply about God? Is God seen as an angry judge?
Jesus answers “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed.” Jesus rejects that popular notion that God always blesses the righteous and curses the wicked.
Jesus heals the man’s blindness. How will church folks react to the now-seeing-man? Will everyone rejoice in the miracle? Unfortunately, the now-seeing-man is dragged before the local church elders for questioning because Jesus healed on a Sunday. You see, that Sabbath healing broke their established rules of how and when God works. The religious folks focused on the rules, not the amazing miracle unfolding in their midst! They boxed God in. They could not imagine God working outside of their prescribed theological boundaries.
It gets worse. The law-keepers aren’t simply concerned with their walk with God, they want to judge everybody else’s faith and practice. Jesus did not fit into their theological paradigm so they conclude “This Jesus is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath. …We know this Jesus is a sinner.” And after concluding that Jesus is out of theological bounds, the law-keepers judge the now-seeing-man saying: “You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!” Instead of embracing God’s healing in their midst the law-keepers throw the now-seeing-witness out of the church. It is too familiar a story. Will the church be a safe place for sinners or the self-righteous? Will we stop tossing sinners out? Will we remember that Jesus was a friend of sinners, drunks, prostitutes, deniers, and betrayers?
Jethani writes: “Through both his words and actions, Jesus revealed the bankruptcy of the LIFE UNDER GOD posture. It does not deliver us from fear. It cannot reconnect us with God. And in most cases it only burdens people under the weight of guilt, fear, and empty religiosity.”
Life under God is oppressive. The rules dry up our souls. The legalists crush faith and new insights into God. The letter kills. The Spirit gives life. Life under God drains us. Life with God nourishes, heals, and renews us.
Now the LIFE UNDER GOD posture is not all wrong.
God is the Ruler, the Judge, the Sovereign, Our King, Our father, Our Savior, Our Lord, and Our Creator. We live under God. God will judge us. The question is what kind of God stands over us? What is our image of God?
Do we really believe “that God loves the world”? Do we trust Jesus, who from the cross cried out “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing”? Do we follow the Good Shepherd who leaves the 99 righteous and good sheep to find one lost sheep? Do we believe in the stream of grace that runs through the prophets and culminates in Jesus? Do we long to be with Christ?
Jesus often told stories instead of making new rules. Jesus tells a story about how to think about God. It begins simply saying “a man had two sons.” It is a story about a selfish young person who leaves home and squanders his inheritance with dissolute living. But then “he came to himself” and decides to come home. He is out of work, smelling of the gutter, owing his dealer, eating pig slop, when he comes limping home. “But while the son was still a far way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed his son. The wayward son tries to say, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father shouts to the deacons and elders, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger (a sign of authority and belonging) and sandals (a sign of the freedom) on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate.’ ” And they begin to feast, rejoice, play music and dance! Is this your image of God? This is the Christian image: God, who embraces, forgives and calls us “son,” “daughter,” “child,” “forgiven,” and “beloved” while we still reek of the gutter! This is our God who throws parties with dancing whenever sinners come home. Is that your image of God?
Hear the Good News “This is love: not that we loved God, but that God loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. …If we love one another, God lives in us and God’s love is made complete in us. …. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because God first loved us.” 1 John 4 Has God’s love been spread about in your heart? Is your image of God one of Love or fear?
Oh friends, let us hear Jesus calling us not into a life under a bunch of rules, but into a life of prayer with Jesus. Let us hear God calling to we who are crushed, tossed out, hurting, still-not-seeing, and broken, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30.
Come, let us walk with God! Let us live with Christ, who loves us. Amen!