When I started working on this essay I gave it the title “God,” and it then became “What I know about God,” which I quickly realized was not something I felt comfortable claiming (for many reasons), so I changed it to “What I think I Know about God.” (Which feels a lot better, and more honest!)
As it turns out, I don’t have all that many confident thoughts on God, and before I jump into them I want you to watch another video that serves as a disclaimer for my thoughts.
I don’t like framing things in a negative light, but I think that video does a nice job of covering who God is not, which allows me to turn my attention to who God is.
By the way, did you catch the contradiction in the song? (It’s starts with the line “God is not a man” but then the chorus includes the line “He loves everyone”) – using words to describe God is tricky!
I have two basic beliefs about God…
1) God is present
2) God is love
If you’d prefer a description of God with more words and some punctuation, here’s one I like from Frederick Buechner:
“God is the loving, creating, everlasting and renewing presence; deeply concerned with the well-being of the earth and all its creatures.”
I can’t tell you more than this about God with any certainty, but I can tell you what I believe – what I hope to be true – about God, and honestly, that’s as much as anyone can tell you…regardless of how many theological degrees they have, because the reality is we each possess a combination of beautiful experiences and troubling questions that lead us to our own unique understanding of God.
It’s very natural to want a deeper understanding of God, or even just to know for sure if God exists, but as Buechner says…
“It is impossible to prove or disprove that God exists beyond the various and conflicting ideas people have dreamed up about God as it is to prove or disprove that goodness exists beyond the various and conflicting ideas people have dreamed up about what is good…All-wise. All-powerful. All-loving. All-knowing. We bore to death both God and ourselves with our chatter. God cannot be expressed, only experienced.” (Buechner, Beyond Words)
Similar to how you don’t fall in love with someone simply because they possess a list of desirable qualities, when it comes to our beliefs about God, there also needs to be a connection…
Which explains why our understanding of God is shaped by our experiences.
One of my favorite seminary professors says “There’s no experiencing the world without an experience of God, because there’s no world apart from God.” (Terrance Fretheim)
I can’t talk about God without talking about my faith, because they’re intertwined.
I’ve had a good life so far; by the world’s standards my life has been great. I hope most of you can say the same about your life. Sadly, this isn’t true for everyone. We live in a world where many people have struggles in their daily life that we can’t even imagine.
The fact that I’ve had such a good life makes it easier for me to have a positive image of God. Quite simply, my faith is based on the beliefs that God is present and loving, and because my life has been fairly “easy” thus far, these beliefs haven’t been challenged much.
Many of you already know this, and the rest of you will learn it soon enough, but there are plenty of Christians willing to tell you exactly who God is, even down to the details of who God doesn’t love. Rob Bell mentioned a few examples of people like this in the video above. But in my opinion, you should be cautious of anyone who make claims that seem to limit God’s love, because I’m just not sure how those people could know what they think they know about God…ya know?!
To quote my seminary professor again, “The narrower our understanding of God is, the more vulnerable we are to being disappointed by God.” (Fretheim)
Throughout human history we’ve used metaphors to describe/understand God. We’ve talked about God as…
- Father (protector)
- Lawmaker and Judge (law enforcer)
- Rock (strong foundation)
Some metaphors fit with (and enhance) our understanding of God, while others clash with (and disrupt) our image of God.
Embedded within many of the most common God metaphors is the assumption that God has a gender, nearly always male, representing the masculine view of God which has been the dominant understanding of God throughout history.
I have to confess that for much of my life I thought of God as a man, or at least referred to God as “He.” It’s probably something I picked up in church while listening to adults talk about God, and it wasn’t until college that I thought about it and realized it no longer made sense for me to think of God as a man. Not only because it seemed odd for the divine creator of all things to have man-parts, but also because I began to realize how harmful and unfair this belief is to women, since it creates a system where men are seen as being more like God, which obviously isn’t true (example: any guy, including myself).
But it’s hard to talk about God without using gendered pronouns, and metaphors can often be helpful. I’m thankful to be among a growing number of faithful people seeking to use “expansive language” when speaking about God, either balancing the use of masculine and feminine language to describe God, or going to great lengths to avoid using gendered pronouns at all, opting instead to use multiple versions of the name “God,” often several times in the same sentence, which can often lead to ridiculous statements like “God, in God’s loving nature, is reconciling all people to God’s self.” (Which is to say, God is in the business of loving people back to life – or at least back to lives worth living).
Regardless of how basic or expansive your understanding of God is, it will eventually be challenged, since just as our positive experiences of life help to build and shape who we understand God to be in positive ways, difficult experiences can lead us to question if God cares about us or even exists.
We’re all living in the shadow of something painful and difficult. I’m not sure what it is for you, but about six years ago my sisters were both pregnant with their first children. You should have seen how excited everyone in my family was…my parents were about to become grandparents, my sisters were going through their first pregnancies together, my brothers-in-law were thrilled but also nervous, and I couldn’t have been more excited to become Uncle Andy!
While we were all at our cabin near the end of that summer my oldest sister told us she was having a boy and they were going to name him Emmanuel. The perfect name for a baby due on Christmas.
A few days after getting back from the cabin my sister went to the hospital because of stomach pain. She ended up having surgery for an intestinal problem, and not long after, while she was still recovering from surgery, she began going into labor because her body couldn’t take care of both her and the baby. She was only 20 weeks pregnant and there was nothing they could do to keep Emmanuel alive.
This was almost six years ago and we’ve had time to accept what happened, but if you’ve ever gone through something really difficult and disappointing you know that accepting it doesn’t make it any less painful.
When I think about my nephew, I remember his name (Emmanuel). I remember what it means (God with us), and it’s a reminder that God is with me. And this is no small thing, because it reminds me to acknowledge God’s presence when God feels most absent.
God was with my sister and her husband, and with me and the rest of my family during the most difficult moments of that painful experience. God’s presence doesn’t always feel like God’s love, and the belief that God was with us didn’t make things any easier, but it at least brought us some comfort, and that is what we most needed.
In the Jewish tradition, when someone dies the people closest to them show up at their home to mourn for seven days. They don’t try to talk or cheer them up, they simply come to be with them. It’s called “sitting shiva,” and in many ways, I think this is Emmanuel…it’s God pulling up a chair and sitting quietly with us during our most difficult days, not to take away the pain, but to remind us we’re not alone.
Fear and sadness are as much a part of having faith in God as peace and joy.
Think about how Jesus’ followers must have felt after he was crucified. They were probably freaking out, right?!
There’s a story in Luke’s gospel about a couple of disciples who are walking to the city of Emmaus just after Jesus died. They are so distracted by what has just happened that when a “stranger” joins them (spoiler alert: it’s Jesus), they somehow don’t recognize him. It’s actually not until they get to town and he sits down to have dinner with them and breaks bread Last-Supper-style that they finally figure out who it is.
Like those disciples, we can so easily get caught up in the tough stuff going on in our lives that we don’t even recognize that Jesus has been with us the whole time.
To confess that we believe God is present and loving is to have faith that God is with us, meeting us along the way, seeking to bring us hope and peace. In other words, God, in God’s loving nature, is reconciling all people to God’s self.
I pray that no matter what is going on in your life, you can find peace and comfort in the words that Jesus spoke to his disciples when he appeared to them after being resurrected: “remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)
And regardless of what you think or believe about God, may we trust that Paul’s blessing to the Romans is true, “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)
God loves you and God is always with you, and maybe that’s all we really need to know about God.