"God is always bigger than the boxes we build for God, so we should not waste too much time protecting the boxes." -Richard Rohr
I used to worry that if I asked too many questions about my faith, God would punish me.
I grew up hearing how illness in a Christian was God’s discipline: depending on a person’s “walk with God”, illness was either punishment for wrongdoing or a trial-like test of faith.
How can we know whether our suffering is a punishment or a trial, I wondered?
My son was born premature and had to remain in the hospital for six weeks. One night, the doctors were concerned about him. Not to be dramatic, but we spent that night terrified our son was going to die.
I searched my heart.
Was I not trusting God enough?
Had I sinned in a big way recently?
How could I know which types of behavior constituted punishment and what sort of faith warranted trial?
I heard many cautionary tales over the years: so and so was gay, and they died in a car wreck; someone was filled with faith-questions, and they were diagnosed with cancer; such and such a city was carnal, didn't care about God, and was hit with a hurricane.
I was taught fear was a good thing:
First, because fear of hell forced me to see I needed a savior. Fear was an excellent tactic for rescuing people.
Second, because fear kept me on the “straight and narrow”. It encouraged me to obey God without question.
What the people who instilled a healthy faith-fear in me failed to realize was that fear gave me a skewed view of God which kept me from fully experiencing God’s love and acceptance.
It also gave me a judgmental stance toward “others” who weren’t "walking with God".
Then I had children.
I vividly remember when my oldest child, a son, reached 18 months of age, the prescribed spanking age a la Focus on the Family.
I recall gazing into that little boy's clear blue eyes and imagining the pain, betrayal and hurt I’d see there if I spanked him.
I stepped into his little world and pictured life from his point of view.
Here was his mommy, who he ran to when he was in pain, or hungry, or tired, or anxious. His safety net.
What if one day, Mommy hit his hand because he became curious or distracted and touched something mommy said not to touch.
He would snap to attention, smarting, stung, and look into mommy’s eyes, wondering why she hurt him, wouldn’t he?
He would still love mommy, but he would feel a teensy bit scared of her.
Over time, and multiple repetitions, he would either become terrified of accidentally not hearing his mommy’s commands and therefore getting punished, or angry and vicious and ready to fight in his own defense.
Fight, flight, freeze would become the rhythm of his childhood.
And though perhaps his mommy would tell him she always loved him, unconditionally, he would know experientially that unconditional love did not, could not, in fact, exist in the face of Perfect Justice.
Therefore, he would never feel 100% safe with mommy.
He would never fully rest.
Additionally, when he messed up, he would wonder if he needed to be punished first (or even punish himself??) in order to be welcomed back to his mother’s arms.
While I pondered my son’s emotional reaction to corporal punishment, a verse went ‘round and ‘round my head, a veritable ping pong ball spouting truth:
“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.” (1 John 4: 18)
So I chose not to spank my son.
Over the years, I was touched again and again by the vast profundity and power of God’s love as I parented my children without wielding fear as a parenting tool.
But some things still confused me.
Though I believed God’s grace was wrapped around me tightly and that God loved me unconditionally, God still scared me:
You see, I believed in a punitive God who demanded death as payment for my sins.
Yes, I believed Jesus paid for those sins by offering his life on my behalf, and that I was forgiven. It's just that some things didn't add up.
Why did Jesus have to hide me from God?
As I understood it, if Jesus ever so much as stepped out of the way, God’s wrath would be pouring like hot lava all over me, right?
This is the reason we sang songs every Sunday thanking and thanking and thanking God for saving us, wretched wriggling bottom-feeding worms that we were.
I couldn't wrap my mind around a Trinity seemingly at odds with itself, wrapped in a vortex of wrath and appeasement, bloodthirst and forgiveness.
Why were God and Jesus so different in their attitudes towards people?
The Punisher and The Martyr.
I felt as though I was in the middle of some ancient Greek myth.
Must I, should I, ought I be afraid of God?
When I was repentant and weary, I ran to the forgiving arms of Jesus, while simultaneously wondering where the punishing blow would land.
Was God really this punitive and bloodthirsty?
Did God demand my death in recompense for my sins?
Some scriptures seemed pretty clear on this subject.
Yet, what about this verse (John 3:17):
“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him?”
This verse sounded like God and Jesus were about doing the same thing: saving the world, not condemning it.
In fact, if God was about redemption, renewal and restoration, and not about insatiable wrath, then I needn’t fear.
But how could I reconcile God’s wrath, which never stopped pouring out, with God’s redemption?
Not that long ago, I discovered there were multiple theories of atonement (aka why did Jesus die?).
The theory which I had always held to was called Penal Substitution, but that was not the oldest theory.
As it turns out, there were several other theories which were even older than Penal Substitution.
The most ancient theory is called Christus Victor. This theory depicts Jesus and God working together to defeat the powers of Satan, sin and death.
Here is a brief summary of the main atonement theories across the history of the church: https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2018/29-march/features/features/is-there-one-doctrine-of-the-atonement-ransom-substitute-scapegoat-god.
I urge you to study these theories and ask these questions (as well as others):
How were these theories influenced by the culture of their times?
What do they have to offer? What do they tell us about God? What do they say about us as humans?
What are their drawbacks?
When all is said and done and the dust of your queries settles, what is left?
For me, what was left was this: Jesus crucified and risen; the Godhead working to redeem me from sin, evil and death.
The more I read those New Testament books, the more convinced I became that the focus ought to be on resurrection, not death, on peace, not wrath, and on restoration, not judgment.
When all was said and done, what did the risen Jesus mean for this whole wide universe?
What did God want, ultimately? I'm still pondering this one.
Sometimes, while I was wondering about God, asking if there were things I had gotten wrong, I would have the strangest experience.
I would be thinking, and my muscles would all tense in anxiety. My stomach would ache. Fear would grip me so tightly, I’d lose my breath.
What was I so afraid of?
I could not put my finger on it.
I was talking about this fear with my husband one day when he said, “If God does not allow God’s people to question God, then God is a fearful God and not really all that powerful in the end. God should be able to handle our questioning.”
I sat with the questions.
I began to embrace the inevitable mystery that comes with “I don’t know” answers.
Meanwhile, I imagined God, holding all those answers.
I let go.
It was not my job to know everything, to have it all fit neatly into a box.
After all, if God could be perfectly explained, why should I pursue knowing her? Why should I ask her hard questions?
Didn’t God invite and encourage a yearning after him?
“As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.”
The truth was, I yearned after God more when I was questioning then when I was holding on to a God I could explain.
I realized my version of God had become a sort of idol.
For so long, I stood at the ready, armed with arguments to defend this god in case anyone tried to attack it.
I had forgotten that the true God was so much bigger than me.
God didn’t need my apologetics.
God needed me.
I decided it was time to let go of the god I had fashioned from my own limited understanding: the god who threatened me and scared me, the god who would be out for my blood if I went too far off the beaten path.
If God said God was love, it was time for me to embrace that.
If the Bible seemed to be wrestling with an issue, it was time to acknowledge that, to realize that faith involves struggle and dissonance, that there aren't always easy answers, but that the questions can lead us to wisdom.
There is this story about Jacob, who received a blessing and a new name after he struggled with God.
“Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”
What if God didn’t ever want to be fully defined, other than with the fullness alluded to in the phrase, “I am who I am”?
What if God wanted endless quest, endless wonder, endless relationship-desire?
I had to let my version of god die.
Then I stepped back and gazed in awe at the shadow, the enigma, the great loving mystery before me.
Of late, I have been reading The Universal Christ by Richard Rohr. I have been in awe of the many ways God steps into our world to be known by us:
“Most of us understandably start the journey assuming that God is “up there,” and our job is to transcend this world to find ‘him’. We spend so much time trying to get “up there,” we miss that God’s big leap in Jesus was to come ‘down here’. So much of our worship and religious effort is the spiritual equivalent of trying to go up what has become the down escalator. I suspect that the 'up there’ mentality is the way most people’s spiritual search has to start. But once the real inner journey begins—once you come to know that in Christ, God is forever overcoming the gap between human and divine—the Christian path becomes less about climbing and performance, and more about descending, letting go, and unlearning. Knowing and loving Jesus is largely about becoming fully human, wounds and all, instead of ascending spiritually or thinking we can remain unwounded.”
One day soon, I will write a post about everything this book is teaching me, but for now, that is an excellent intro.
I no longer live in fear of what God will do to me because of all the faith-questions I have. I do not worry that if I’m wrong about something I believe, God will strike me with some sort of punishment.
God’s love has to be love in its purest form if it is really love. And I believe it is.
Breathe in, breathe out,
Focus on your breath as it enters and leaves
Allow distraction to flow past you like water
I am in a barren brown-dirt land
A peace rests in me and around me,
It sits in the air,
Mouth-watering and tangible
I watch as
Leafless gray vines knit a dome over me
Leaving gaps for the light
I feel warm,
So safe and secure,
My body tingles in anticipation
Then I hear it,
All my secrets,
All the hidden doubt and insecurity,
And the myriad things I haven’t yet discovered
The voice speaks.
Is it deep?
It is a well filled with water…
Is it soft?
Oh yes, yes it is,
Tender on my ears,
Mother with newborn babe,
“I know you,
I know everything about you,”
And though I understand The Voice sees my awful ugly
And all the hurt I’ve ever caused
I feel no shame
I swim in the ecstasy of
And I know something too:
This is what Love tastes like.