Editor’s Note: “This is the first in a three-part article discussing the nature and character of God.”
Part 1 – The Changing Face of God.
My oldest son is now reaching the age where we’re starting to have more in depth conversations about the concept of God, and in doing so, it has driven me to think back to my earliest understandings of God. Surprisingly, my understanding of God at 10 years of age and my understanding of God at 25 years of age were not that much different. But the God that I understand and know today is completely different from the God of my youth. I’ve questioned myself on this. Do I actually serve a different God than I did in my youth or that many of my friends and families do today? Was I simply misguided in my earlier understandings, or have I actually accepted bad doctrine and become misguided today? I’ve heard many others raise similar questions as they too move through their deconstruction or reconstruction of faith. And yet, when I look to the Bible, I find that I’m not the first to experience this evolution, nor do I suspect that I am the last.
Like the God of my youth and the God I seek today; the God of the New Testament and the God of the Old Testament couldn’t be further apart in character and approach, and this seems to be an issue that strikes many as odd. In the Old Testament we often find a God of anger, threatening wrath and destruction, swallowing sinners into the ground, and demanding vengeance against His enemies. This makes the introduction of Jesus all the more unexpected. Is there any surprise that the Jews were skeptical of the claims of Christ? God and His character seem to be flipped on its head. Where God once demanded vengeance against His enemies, Christ demands love and service; where God once poured out wrath on sinners, Jesus pours out mercy; where God once declared Himself invincible, Christ freely dies… out of Love? And with Him, the promise of the Earthly Kingdom dies as well.
So what gives? We are told that Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever. (Hebrews 13:8) That all scripture is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness. (2 Timothy 3:16) And finally that everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, that we might have hope. (Romans 15:4) But where is the hope in wrath? Where is the disconnect between anger and love, vengeance and service, life and death? Why the seemingly schizophrenic nature of an unchanging God?
The simple answer?
Maybe there isn’t…
Maybe we’ve simply had it wrong all along…
Maybe this God of wrath was simply our expectation of God. God’s demand for vengeance simply an embodiment of our own. And maybe this God who dies for us is far more representative of the God of Heaven and Earth than the one who demands death in His name.
As discussed in previous articles, my take on the Bible allows for an incomplete truth, and an allowance for error, while also maintaining a tension found in the search for and understanding of the beautiful growth found while contemplating the essence of God. I believe that humanity’s understanding of God has never been complete, that it’s constantly in motion, and that this dance of humanity with divinity is still ongoing. We haven’t arrived into the full consciousness of God, and thank goodness for that. I would hate to believe that our current limited understanding is all that there ever was and ever would be.
So if the God of the Old Testament wasn’t an accurate or complete portrayal of God, what was it? And if that is the case, why would God allow it? The answer to the second is far simpler.
I simply don’t know.
Maybe God has found humanity’s search for Divinity amidst the mystery far more compelling than a finished and refined work. Maybe the story of how we get there, how we choose to keep searching, keep asking questions, and keep refusing to settle is where the real beauty is found. Maybe this is where the real growth is unveiled, and where real divine connection is made.
But even if that is the case; why the calls for violence? Why the tone of wrath? Why the fear of God? And why the promises of love and devotion? Simply put, I believe it’s the best that Moses or Israel could grasp at the time. And that’s OK. Think about it; Moses’s understanding of God developed as a child of Egypt, amidst one of the most terrifying and vicious religions on the planet. The Egyptian God’s were fierce, they were violent, and there was no love for the lowly humans, only disdain and amusement. Even when living your life to their fullest command and whims, the best one could hope was a gloomy life in the underworld with Osiris. That’s certainly not a death or a religion worth celebrating. But then Moses discovers his heritage and hears the whispers of His God. And then he finds Him; in the wilderness, in his fear, and in the strangest of places — a burning bush.
To Moses, this God is simply a mystery claiming to have heard the cries of His people on whom He has taken compassion. As Moses leans into this new God, he discovers a God of power and protection who grows into a conqueror of the most fearsome gods he has ever known. Later a cloud by day and fire by night, a giver of laws, a light on the mountain, and eventually The God of Israel, who not only reigns above all Gods, but who is The Only God. And each step of the way, Israel’s understanding of God and their response grows slowly, one step at a time.
So is it surprising that Israel’s first understanding of God is that they are found unworthy by God? No human had ever felt themselves worthy of the gods. But over time, this God proves different. This God says that they can trust Him, that He is not against them, that He is for them and that He even has a plan for them.
Is it any surprise that their only understanding of worship was through animal sacrifice? It’s the only way humanity had ever shown their obedience to the gods. And when the sacrifice of animals didn’t placate the anger of their gods, those cultures had to raise the stakes, sacrificing their very children. To the people of Israel, this was simply how one connected with God. And even though it had it’s limitations, God accepted it, redeeming it in the process. There would be no human sacrifice, and there would most assuredly be no sacrifice of Children. This God would not allow it and He would certainly never demand it.
The list could go on and on. Of course the Israelites would see God’s hand of approval in military victories and feel his anger in their defeat. Of course they developed a system of religious laws and requirements to secure God’s approval. Of course they saw women as the property of men just as everyone did at the time. But just because God allows for these practices does not mean that God commanded them or that He even approved of them all. It simply meant that He understood the limitations of mankind and was willing to accept what they could give or understand at the time. But acceptance does not mean God left them there. Even in their limitations God continued to slowly draw them forward towards a more loving, more inclusive, and more egalitarian worldview.
Through these laws, women gain status, the foreigner protection, and the widow and the poor are cared for. This was considered extremely progressive for their day. In their connection to the God of the Universe, Israel’s understanding of God and their understanding of humanity continued to grow and change for the better. And through our connection to the God of the Universe, we continue to grow, to be changed, to be drawn forward one step at a time. We’re not that much different than Israel ourselves? Sure, we’ve come a long way as society over thousands of years, but we’re still hurting people, still choosing self over others, and still falling short of the beauty God envisions for us. But God hasn’t given up on us yet, He hasn’t stopped calling, pleading, pushing, and pulling us forward to a more inclusive, more serving, and more loving tomorrow.
The work of God is not complete, and for that I am thankful. I hope that my understanding of God is incomplete. I hope that I never stop learning, never stop growing, and never stop unveiling new truths of God today, tomorrow, and forever.
As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:12, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.”
So may you, my dear friends, continue to seek the fullness of God, leaning into the mystery, accepting His grace, and growing in His love from today, till tomorrow, and forever. And may we never find ourselves, or our understanding of God complete.