Like many dads, mine is at times embarrassing*. Whatever it is that is said or done to cause embarrassment might be accidental, it’s just part of parent/child relationship. Other times there is something purposeful to bring about embarrassment, and one thing my dad thinks is funny is to call out “We know what you’re doing!” when someone visits the bathroom. There are certain things in life that we all do, but that we all tend to keep quiet and would prefer not to be announced to the world. We don’t like the idea of someone being aware of what it is we are doing in the bathroom, it’s a private space for personal ablutions. As you might image, at certain times in life, particularly as a teenager and when friends were visiting, having someone call out and draw attention to a visit to the little boys’ room and the thought that everyone was aware of what I was doing was a little embarrassing.
I have been taught that God is all-seeing and all-knowing (omniscient), all-powerful (omnipotent), and all loving. We read Bible passages such as Psalm 139 which includes the words,
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar (vs 2)
Before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely (vs 4)
Daniel 2:20-22 which says,
“Praise be to the name of God for ever and ever;
wisdom and power are his.
He changes times and seasons;
he deposes kings and raises up others.
He gives wisdom to the wise
and knowledge to the discerning.
He reveals deep and hidden things;
he knows what lies in darkness,
and light dwells with him.
And, Psalm 147 saying,
He covers the sky with clouds;
he supplies the earth with rain
and makes grass grow on the hills.
He provides food for the cattle
and for the young ravens when they call. (vs.8-9)
As a Christian, these words can be both reassuring and yet unfortunately frightening. When I am facing a time of struggle it can be reassuring to be reminded that God sees, knows and understands. When I am nervous about something I can be empowered as I consider the prospect of God, by his Spirit, being present and journeying with me, as Psalm 139 also says God is before me and behind me (vs 5), I am surrounded by God’s Spirit, and God knows me intimately, even the number of hairs on my head (Luke 12:7). Whilst God knows me intimately God also determines the number of stars in the sky (Psalm 147:4) and has understanding beyond measure (Psalm 147:5) and therefore knows all of my needs.
These same verses also cause problems for me! Verses that speak of God being all-seeing and all-knowing can be misappropriated to drive fear into people. I have experienced guilt and shame because I thought things I had done or said had upset God. I have heard testimonies of adults who have carried guilt and shame since their childhood because of being indoctrinated with a message that says God sees every little thing you do, judges every action and leaves them at risk of heading straight to hell for the slightest misdemeanour – it is a teaching that becomes controlling and manipulative. I’ve heard the stories of people who do not consider themselves good enough to be loved or accepted by God because at some point in their infanthood they told a lie, said a particular word, disobeyed a parents instruction, or did something in private which they had been taught was dirty or evil. The outcome was a strict reprimand by a parent, teacher or church official that left an indelible mark of shame and guilt because of the sense that God was watching and disapproved. Much like my dad would call out to inform the household and cause embarrassment when I was in the bathroom, there can a sense that God is watching every private moment in order to shame and chastise, even things that aren’t actually wrong.
Whilst there is truth in the all all-seeing and all-knowing God, this must be considered with character of the all-loving God. There is a difference between ‘God watching us’ and ‘God watching over us’ or ‘God watching out for us’. To be watched can give the impression of performance, surveillance or voyeurism. Watching over or watching out for is a responsibility, there is a sense of pastoral care as an act of compassion. Returning to the story of Adam and Eve, it does not tell us that God watched them eat the fruit but that he came walking in the garden to find them and they were hiding because of the realisation that they were naked and ashamed. There is a natural level of shame when we do something wrong or when we do something that is typically kept private but which becomes public, it is natural to want to hide our misdemeanours, and although there are consequences to our actions, God chooses to cover the shame of Adam and Eve and wants to do the same for us. Rather than feeling that the only option is to hide, the message of the Bible is one that teaches us when those things we try to hide are brought into the open, we are freed from the internal torment that can come with hiding them. When we do succumb to temptation or our privacy is made public, God does not want to call out and cause embarrassment, shame or guilt, but to clothe and protect us.
On the whole my dad is pretty good; I know he cares for me and desires the best for me. When I was younger, he will have known things that had happened, things I had done or said, long before I realised he knew, because my childish ways didn’t really hide them well. He didn’t usually embarrass me about these, there were sometimes lessons to learn, times he turned a blind eye, other occasions when there was perhaps a talk to be had or some kind of consequence, ultimately, I knew I was loved, cared for and my dad wanted to protect me. Our all-seeing and all-knowing God, like a good father, already knows because we cannot hide from him,
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast. (Psalm 139:7-10)
God doesn’t want us to carry guilt or shame, but to guide and provide us with freedom that comes with true love – the freedom to accept who we truly are and to love and be loved as we truly are – warts and all.
* NB. I am now an embarrassing dad and am inclined to make similar ‘dad jokes’ to cause my own children embarrassment even though I know I shouldn’t.