“I’m not what you think I am.” I never scream, of course, although I do at times feel compelled to act in ways that conflict with their stereotype. Its my way to mess with their pre-conceived ideas. In the end, I just want to do life with them for a while . Then they would get a chance to know me and then they can make their judgements.
The “God” Label
I wonder if it is the same for God. Does God feel boxed in like I do? Does frustration rise when people draw their own conclusions? I’m sure there are times when, even for God, the “God” label is quite unhelpful.
Everyone puts God in a box of their own making. I know I do. We all have an image of God fashioned by our upbringing and experiences. We can’t help it. It’s part of life, Even so, every image we have of God is limited.
I think of the times when my children thought I was the worst father in the world. I can’t remember the actual reasons, but typically it involved them not getting their way. When their expectations of how I should act as their father were not met they ranted and raved and huffed, slamming doors behind them. I’m sure there were moments when they wanted to disown me. I guess there were times when I felt the same about them.
All a father can do is weather the storm waiting for the moment when they grow up, mature and begin to see a bigger picture. They may even come back to apologise.
I think God experiences something similar with every person.
We can’t un-God, God
One of the profound moments in my life was realising no matter what happened between me and my children, nothing could change the basic reality that I am their father and they are my sons and daughters. Even if totally estranged, I couldn’t stop being their father, just as they couldn’t stop being my children.
I guess it is the same with God. We all come with our bag of expectations of how God should act. Then when God doesn’t act as we want, we are like complaining children. Even if we disown God and no longer believe, it doesn’t change the relationship. We can’t un-God, God. In fact, it is quite a profound irony that one can rile against a God they don’t believe in.
I have this suspicion that sometimes God operates a bit like I do when I feel I’m being boxed in by others. As soon as we put God in a box, even the box of non-existence, God is at work breaking out.
At least that is what it has felt like for me. Through life’s experiences I’ve learnt that the God I envisaged is not the God I encounter, and the God of my expectation is not the God I see at work in the world.
It doesn’t matter whether God is named as father, judge, king, wisdom, light, mother, creator, rock, fortress or shepherd, as soon as I appreciate God in one way, God is at work reframing it and introducing me to more. What I’ve discovered is that every name and every metaphor we have for God can be both incredibly profound and hopelessly limited.
Good and Bad Fathers
A friend of ours, an ex-punk rocker, discovered God as father through a teaching series on the Fatherhood of God. At first she was sceptical, almost scathing. The bible passages about sonship were particularly difficult for her. However, as we worked through Paul’s radical statement “there is no male or female” and explored how we are all “co-heirs with Christ”, it slowly dawned. Even she could claim the rights of a first born-son. of God. Whether male or female, we all share the same inheritance in Christ.
In contrast, I heard a story from evangelist John Smith about a conversation he had with a young man. He asked Smith, “what is God like?” Smith paused for a moment before answering thoughtfully, “God is like a father.” “Well, if he is anything like my f@@king old man, I want nothing to do with him,” came the swift retort. Sometimes our metaphors fail badly; and can do more harm than good.
Don’t box me in
The old hymn by Matthew Bridges, Crown Him with many Crown, uses the wonderful phrase “ineffably sublime”. That God is “ineffably sublime” reminds us how all attempts to describe God will only ever be metaphors.
Nevertheless, Bridges almost captures a glimpse of that which is un-glimpseable by labeling the indescribable as indescribable. It reminds me of the Hebrews who historically forbid speaking or writing God’s name. Whenever they wrote it, they stripped out the vowels and made it unpronounceable (YWHW).
It’s a profound tradition, perhaps inspired by the encounter between Moses and God (Exodus 3:1-14). They met in a desert before a bush that burned yet never burnt out. Towards the end of the conversation Moses asks for a name. God responds in what seems like a deliberately elusive, evasive, enigmatic and ambiguous fashion. “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be.” It was as if God was saying, “Don’t you dare put me in a box. Don’t you dare label me. Don’t you dare create an image of who I am. I have no name to give you!”
In many ways, God is a no name God, if for no other reason that every name is just too limited. Instead of giving a name, God invites Moses on a journey. A journey over time and through many difficulties. A journey where Moses will come to know God not by name by through the experience of life.
doing life together
That’s been the story of my life too. In the same way that I’ve fought people’s boxing of me as a Christian, there has been an ongoing fight over my boxing of God. Although God has always had a name, it was fill with my expectations and understanding. God has and is constantly breaking out of my God labels to demonstrate just how limiting they are.
Whatever name with have for God, God knows it will be far too limited. So rather than give a name, God invites us on a journey. A journey of doing life together. That’s the best way to know God. But be prepared for many surprises along the way.
In doing life together with God, our best mentor and guide is Jesus. He has been my constant companion. As the author and pioneer of our life of faith (Hebrews 12:2) he has taught me that God is still God and always with me, even in my moments of deep despair.
Jesus demonstrated it with his own life. His murder on a Roman execution stake fuels my darkest nightmares and my wildest dreams. How can God allows awful things to happen and how can God bring life out of death? Jesus trailblazes the way. He kept believing even when God seemed incredibility cruel, even non-existent.
Jesus was on the same journey we are all on. It took him to death and back again. And, in that process, if nothing else, Jesus demonstrated how God doesn’t our limited understandings, categories, expectations and boxes.
Stephen L Baxter