Is God Really as Mean as People Say He Is?
Many Christians have been taught a message about God that is not true, beautiful, or good. These messages leave scars that need healing in order to enter into the divine presence of God feeling safe and treasured. In her book, Contemplative Vision: A Guide to Christian Art and Prayer, Juliet Benner writes:
“Christian spirituality is a journey into a loving communion and union with God. It is learning to look in the face of God and rather than experience guilt, fear, or shame, know our belovedness.”
Unfortunately, my own original introduction to God was riddled with lies. At five years old, a Sunday School teacher told me that I would go to hell because my agnostic parents had not baptized me while at the same time being taught to sing “Jesus Loves Me.” In my child’s mind, I had no way to understand or make sense of these two very conflicting messages.
I recently finished reading The Magnificent Story: Uncovering a Gospel of Beauty, Goodness and Truth by James Bryant Smith who intends for the book to be used in the context of community. Each chapter concludes with a Soul Training Exercise and I chose to explore this book as a way to reflect on the issue of spiritual abuse.
A premise of Smith’s thought is that we are “story-making people.” He writes:
“Our stories help us to make sense of our world. The big questions of life are, What is God Like? Who am I? What is the meaning of life? What can I count on? What is a good life? What are my deepest needs?” The answers to these questions are what tend to run our lives; even at an unconscious level.
Smith’s desire is for us to “start living the right story.” I see this as being a story that differs greatly from a story that is woven with spiritual abuse. He suggests that our story needs to meet these criteria in order to be a “magnificent story.”
- Is it beautiful? (Does what you are experiencing fill you with a sense of awe?)
- Is it true? (Truth is what matches reality.)
- Is it good? (Smith says, “That which is good makes us better, heals us, restores us, improves us, strengthens us and makes us right.”)
Two false narratives that Smith describes, if believed, can distance us from God. The first false narrative is the “Do-good-works Gospel.” In this story, we have a God who is uninvolved and distant, and so it is up to His people to make the world a better place.
The second untrue story is “The Shaming and Scary Gospel.” This is where we believe we are a terrible sinner who can easily lose salvation. Every sin must be confessed. Hell is preached with fire and brimstone. Here we see a mean God and Jesus’ purpose was to “take your beating.”
Several remedies to these lies are presented. The first suggestion is to “bathe in beauty.” Smith feels that we have lost the love for beauty as a way of encountering the love of God. “God is speaking to us all the time through beauty and complexity and diversity in his created world.”
The second idea is to “embrace our goodness.” The true narrative is that each are us are made in the image of God. We must remember that at creation God declared what He created as “very good”—original sin came later. When I approach life in this way, I want to move closer to Jesus so that I might take my sin seriously. Then sin does not become an obstacle to my relationship with the Divine.
The third recommendation is to “discover truth.” Seeing Jesus just as a teacher or just as a savior limits our ability to have abundant life. There is a much bigger story here. Smith explores the idea of trinity, incarnation, the reversal of the values of this world, experiencing the kingdom of heaven now, and Jesus as the New Adam and New Israel. In other words, he looks at the biblical story through the lenses of beauty, truth, and goodness.
Paul instructs us to “take every thought captive” (2 Cor 10:5). I believe that blind faith is not deep faith. Part of our spiritual development task is to question what we have been taught and find truth. I appreciate Smith giving us the above three criteria for evaluating what we believe.
Paul instructs us in 2 Corinthians 10:5-6 (MSG):
The world is unprincipled. It’s dog-eat-dog out there! The world doesn’t fight fair. But we don’t live or fight our battles that way—never have and never will. The tools of our trade aren’t for marketing or manipulation, but they are for demolishing that entire massively corrupt culture. We use our powerful God-tools for smashing warped philosophies, tearing down barriers erected against the truth of God, fitting every loose thought and emotion and impulse into the structure of life shaped by Christ. Our tools are ready at hand for clearing the ground of every obstruction and building lives of obedience into maturity.
I highly recommend The Magnificent Story as that tool to abolishing the barriers that spiritual abuse can erect.