A couple of weeks ago I wrote about a youth group I once had the privilege of working with. I shared the story of our first meeting for discussions about the Bible, faith, Christianity and life in general and a girl who played a significant role in shaping that group by admitting she wasn’t sure what she believed when everyone else was giving the answers they thought I wanted to hear. A year or so later there was still uncertainty and I remember sitting in the church as we discussed God. The tension was between whether God is angry and always frustrated and disappointed with humankind, seeking to destroy or whether God is loving, caring and compassionate.
This of course all assumes that there is a God or at least just one God. Different belief systems hold different views about God. Plenty of people do not believe in God (Atheism), others believe there is something beyond us as but don’t know what, and others believe that nothing is known or can be known about the nature of God (Agnosticism). There are people who believe that everything and/or everyone is a god and then others believe in many gods (Polytheism) as well as those who believe the universe is a manifestation of god. The Bible speaks of many gods but refers to one supreme God, the God almighty, creator of heaven and earth and it is this God which those young people were discussing and asking about the tension between loving and vengeful.
Whichever translation of the Bible you choose to read and whether you read it all as literally happening and true or take into consideration different forms of writing, both the angry God and the loving God can be shown. We put our own filters into the reading and interpreting what we read so the meaning for each of us is influenced by those things we have seen, heard and experienced before we read or hear the words. One description of God is ‘Father’. The word father conjures up different ideas for different people depending on the experiences we have of our own fathers or the people who have been father-like to us.
Some people do not know their father’s because they were never around, gone before they were born, perhaps not even known to the mum. Some people have wonderful relationships with their dad’s and remember childhood with fondness. Some people know dads who are hard-working to provide homes for the family but who are rarely home themselves, whilst others know dad’s who are unable to work and for whom they have to provide care. Some of us will know dad’s who we once idolised but as we grew older had to deal with them falling off their pedestal and still others will know a dad who has taken on both parental roles because mum is not around. Some people know dad’s who constantly put them down, others who constantly build them up.
Just one word, one term, one title has an immediate impact on how we read the whole of the Bible because of our own experiences (or lack of) of our own father’s or own expectations and experiences of fatherhood. Add into that all of the other ideas we have about life, what constitutes good and evil, what expectation we have for what we consider important or what it means to lead a successful life. There are cultural differences and expectations for parents and children, none better or worse than another, but certainly different. When we come to reading the Bible, it is important to realise we bring our own perspectives, ideas, experiences and expectations.
Just using the example of Father God, if we bring our own negative experiences and expectations into reading scripture we will read about a God’s wrath and destruction. The story of Noah (Genesis 6-9) tells of God destroying the earth and everything in it (save for one family) because God is sorry for creating humankind and is grieved. The towns of Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed (Genesis 18:16-19:29) by God who rains sulphur and fire upon them. Then there are the plagues against Egypt (Exodus 7:14-12:32) including a river turning to blood, unhealable boils, diseases of all livestock and the death of children. There are challenging passages that can be interpreted to speak of genocide, such as the destruction of the city of Jericho (Joshua 6), when God favours the Israelites over the citizens of the town, destroying the city so the Israelites can enter the land that has been promised to them. It is easy to find death and destruction in the Bible and passages about an angry God who seeks to destroy everyone and everything that is not part of his plan.
On the other hand, those with loving fathers or an image of a caring dad can easily read the Bible which speaks of God as caring, loving and compassionate. Genesis 1 and 2 describes a creative God; “In the beginning God created…”. In seeing the suffering of the people of Israel God promises to deliver them of their oppressors (Exodus 3:7-9). Psalm 145:8-9 says “the Lord is gracious and compassionate” and 1 John 4:7-8 says “… love is from God… God is love”. There is not a God of the Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament) and a God of the New Testament, there is one, unchanging God.
How we view God will view how we read the stories about God. If God is love then we come to the passages about wrath and destruction seeking to understand love in these passages. If we view God as angry and full of vengeance, we will have reservations about the passages which speak of love or read of a tough love that includes pain and punishment, a love that is selective and has favourites and rejects others. This impacts on how we understand how God is at work not just in the Bible but in our current times and in our understanding of a future time.
The impact of how we read scripture and the way we view God is demonstrated in our actions and shown in our churches. In James 2:14-26 it speaks of faith and works, expressly, “faith without works is dead”. Works do not win us favour with God or somehow get us closer to heaven, however, our works (the things we do) show what and who are faith is in.
My reading of scripture and understanding of God is that God is love, love without exception. I read that nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39). God is creative, life giving and just. God provides freedom, hope and peace. God gifts relationships of family and friends and longs for us to know the fulfilment of belonging as we are without masks or filters. I believe the same is true for all humankind. I get this understanding from the Bible. I know that this is the filter through which I read the Bible and yet it also comes from the Bible and I am constantly challenged on my ideas of love and life because of this. It means I have to wrestle with passages that don’t appear to back up my ideas of love, it shapes how I understand Jesus’ death and resurrection, it determines what I think church should be like and what church should offer. It does not mean it isn’t messy, confusing, complicated or difficult – life is all of this and more.
When I sat chatting with those young people and explained the filters through which we come to reading the Bible I had no idea if any were listening or taking it in. About 15 years later I met that girl (by now a young woman) who had been honest about her doubts and questions about the Bible. She reminded me of our conversations and explained that she started to look again at the Bible through the lens of God as a loving Father. It led her on her own journey of faith and discovery.
I don’t know where all the other young people ended up. I don’t know what they all believe. It is not my place to force a belief or religion upon anyone. My hope is to share my own understanding of God and for that to continually develop as I read and study scripture and allow it to shape my thinking, which in turn shapes my actions and my words. Such words and actions are a witness of the God I believe in. If the God I believe in is creative, compassionate, just, life giving and loving then the people who follow and worship this God should demonstrate this through the way they worship and the way they live, including myself.