Words About God Matter

The last few weeks, we’ve been talking about how the words and phrases we use about God really do matter. How we talk about him and represent him to others and even to ourselves, makes a difference in how we understand who he is and how he interacts with us. The way we think about him affects how we think of ourselves and others; it affects our behavior and how we treat each other.

I thought this series would last only a month, but more ideas kept popping up, which shows how many words and phrases we use that misrepresent him. It also shows the need for discernment in what we read, how we speak and how we think. When everyone is vying for attention, everyone wants to influence us to buy their product, and all the voices seem so loud they almost drown out each other, let’s think about and examine what we read and hear. We don’t have to listen to all those voices and we certainly don’t have to let them influence us to our detriment.

I hope this series has been helpful, but most of all, I hope it has encouraged you to think about what you read, hear and sing and ask yourself if it aligns with Scripture and Trinitarian understanding.

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God, Please Forgive Me

Sometimes we read or hear about our need to pray for God’s forgiveness. I just read that yesterday! It was in the context of how we need to confront our sins (as if we can do this on our own), and when we do, the Lord promises to forgive them, forget them and cleanse us. While there’s nothing wrong with being sorry for our sins and even asking for God’s forgiveness, do we need to be concerned he will withhold it? Depending on how it’s phrased, statements like this could leave one wondering if that’s the case. Is being forgiven dependent on how soon, how loudly, how heartfelt our prayers? And can we, as some believe, perform acts of penance to lessen the punishment or improve our chances of being forgiven?

When Jesus asked God to “forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing” (Luke 23:34, MSG), he was including more than those who screamed for his crucifixion and nailed him to the cross. He was asking forgiveness for all of us – everyone who has ever lived. When the Father answered that prayer, we were all included in his immeasurable grace, all covered by his blood of reconciliation.

Those who have accepted God’s love and forgiveness and are disciples of Jesus, learning and growing in grace, have no worries about whether God will be forgiving. We live under the sheltering wings of his forgiveness and grace. Those who have not accepted it need simply turn to him and away from their old, earthly selves and then revel in the love he poured out at the cross. No doubt about it!

Do We Deserve God’s Love?

Do we deserve God’s love? A Google search will quickly reveal the consensus is no, we don’t. But is this even a valid question?

When God created humans, he did so because he wanted to share his love and relationship with us. Whether we deserved to be created and loved wasn’t part of the equation. And I’m pretty sure he wasn’t surprised when sin happened. He knew it was the highly probable, if not inevitable, result of free will. Before it happened, he already had a plan for salvation and redemption.

Do we deserve God’s love? Wrong question. How much does God love the world? He gave his only son for us. How wide and long and high and deep is God’s love for us? His unfailing love is as vast as the heavens and nothing can ever separate us from his love in Christ (Psalm 36:5 and Romans 8:35).

Because God is love (1 John 4:8), we don’t have to worry about deserving, earning or losing his love. He loves us unconditionally and forever, simply because of who he is.

The Man Upstairs

Ever since Adam and Eve hid in the garden, we humans have been coming up with ways to make sure God doesn’t get too close. As we’re still discussing words and phrases that may misrepresent God, I thought we should look at those we use to keep him at a distance. Those of us who are a little older remember hearing God spoken of as the man upstairs. People don’t say this much anymore but they still think of God as being “in heaven,” somewhere out there and far away. Even though it’s used in the Lord’s prayer, thinking of him as only residing in heaven also works to do this. Sometimes using reverential language meant to exalt him can make us feel he keeps his distance from us.

While God is holy and “other” from us, he is not out in space somewhere. He’s right here, as close to us as our own heartbeats. We make a mistake when we relegate him to someplace other than beside us, before us, above us, below us, in us (to paraphrase the meditation of St. Patrick). Or, perhaps as has been portrayed in some of my favorite Star Trek episodes, he occupies the same space in another dimension. Well, not quite I suppose, but it might help to think of him in a similar way.

We who understand how close God is, can, through the way we speak of him, help others understand that he’s not the man upstairs or the God who is far off and observing us from afar. Rather, he’s closer than we realize and desires to be even closer, as close as we’ll let him.

Pleasing God

Last week I talked about how we don’t have to worry about offending God. The flip side is wondering if we are pleasing him and how to please him more. When you’re always concerned about how to please God you are also concerned that you may displease him, which can create tension and anxiety. Many Christians waste time and energy on this. But God isn’t like us, who are quick to take offense, get our feelings hurt and feel put out when someone either mistreats us or doesn’t meet our expectations. And he’s not constantly concerned about whether we please him or not, as if that’s all that matters. He’s much more mature than us!

God is pleased with us in the same way those of us who are parents are pleased with our children. Sure, they do things we don’t like; they are sometimes naughty and disobedient and even defiant. But do we love them less? We might be displeased for a little while, but as I recall, it was hard to stay upset with my kids for very long, no matter what they had done. In no time at all, it was hugs all around and many expressions of love going back and forth. I was not a better parent than God. His patience and kindness toward us go far beyond ours.

It’s possible for God to be displeased with our actions, and of course, grace is not a license to sin, but we need to remember he’s not like us. We don’t have to walk on eggshells with God because pleasing him isn’t something we need to be concerned about. As my favorite verse tells us: “The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing” (Zephaniah 3:17, NIV).

Along this line are thoughts from David Seamands, a missionary to India:

“The servant is accepted and appreciated on the basis of what he does, the child on the basis of who he is. The servant starts the day anxious and worried, wondering if his work will really please his master. The child rests in the secure love of his family. The servant is accepted because of his productivity and performance. The child belongs because of his position as a person. At the end of the day, the servant has peace of mind only if he is sure he has proven his worth by his work. The next morning his anxiety begins again. The child can be secure all day, and know that tomorrow won’t change his status. When a servant fails, his whole position is at stake; he might lose his job. When a child fails, he will be grieved because he has hurt his parents, and he will be corrected and disciplined. But he is not afraid of being thrown out. His basic confidence is in belonging and being loved, and his performance does not change the stability of his position” (David Seamands, quoted in Neil T. Anderson, Mike Quarles and Julia Quarles, One Day at a Time: The Devotional for Overcomers [Ventura, CA: Regal, 2000], 231).

Offending God

Everyone seems to be offended at someone or something these days. Some even define themselves by what offends them or the degree to which they are offended. Some think God is often offended too, by what we humans do or say. But is that the case?

It’s true God hates sin. He sent his son to become a human and die to rescue us from our sins. Jesus took all our sin upon himself, and through his death, he conquered it and reconciled all humanity to God once and for all. He loved us while we were enemies, while we hated and cursed him. Was he offended? No, he loved us. Is he offended now, as humanity continues to hate and curse him? No, he loves us.

God isn’t like us, but for some reason, we continually try to make him over in our image. We can’t understand him so we assume he must be like us, and since we are so easily offended, he must be too. God still hates sin, but he’s not easily offended. We don’t need to always be on our guard, afraid of upsetting or offending him. In Christ, we can be sure he loves us even when we mess up, because his love will never let us go.

God, Have Your Way in Me

A popular praise song, one we’ve all sung and which I like, talks about God having his way in us. Well, I like all of it except that phrase. It reminds me of how it was used in old books and movies. I guess it’s not part of modern vernacular, which makes me feel old, but I remember when a man had his way with a woman, it meant he was selfishly getting what he wanted from her, usually without her consent.

Does God really want to have his way in us or with us? Most Christians probably think this is another way of saying we submit to his will. He does want us to submit to his will, the same way Jesus did when he prayed not my will, but yours. But this phrase can paint God in the wrong light, making him sound more like humans, who in our me-first, I-demand-my-rights culture, want to have their way at the expense of others. That’s not who he is. God doesn’t work in our lives like that and this isn’t what he wants from us or for us.

When we submit our wills to his, we are saying we love God (because he loved us first), we trust him and we choose to be led by the Holy Spirit in every aspect of our lives. He helps us by his grace to lay aside our wills in favor of his, and eventually our wills merge. As we grow in grace and knowledge and as we become more in sync with Jesus, he works more in our lives and we participate more in Jesus’ life. Our relationship with him becomes a beautiful dance, just as the relationship of Father, Son and Spirit is a dance of love, sharing, communication and giving of self to the other.

God doesn’t want to have his way with us, he loves us and wants us to love him back. From now on, when I sing that song, I’m going to change the words to say, “Every breath that I take, every moment I’m awake, Lord, let our wills be one.”