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Three Simple Questions
Knowing the God of Love, Hope, and Purpose
By Rueben P. Job
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2011 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Who Is God?
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Now Jesus himself was and is a joyous, creative person. He does not allow us to continue thinking of our Father who fills and overflows space as a morose and miserable monarch, a frustrated and petty parent, or a policeman on prowl. One cannot think of God in such ways while confronting Jesus' declaration, "He that has seen me has seen the Father." —Dallas Willard
Who Is God?
In the past, God spoke to our ancestors in many times and many ways. But in these final days, he spoke to us through a Son. God made his Son the heir of everything and created the world through him. The Son is the light of God's glory and the imprint of God's being. He maintains everything with his powerful message. (Hebrews 1:1-3a)
"What you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you. God, who made the world and everything in it, is Lord of heaven and earth. He doesn't live in temples made with human hands. Nor is God served by human hands, as though he needed something, since he is the one who gives life, breath, and everything else. From one person God created every human nation to live on the whole earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their lands.... In fact, God isn't far away from any of us. In God we live, move, and exist. As some of your own poets said, 'We are his offspring.'" (Acts 17:23b-28)
She waited near where I was greeting people as they left the service of worship, and when most had left the sanctuary, she came up to me, shook my hand, and said, "Can you tell me more about God?" I soon discovered that her name was Anna and she was twelve years old. Her question was sincere; she really did want an answer.
I suggested we sit down and talk about her question while her parents waited for her in the area just outside the sanctuary. Racing through my mind were other questions. What had I said or failed to say in the sermon that prompted the question? What was missing in the liturgy, or present in the liturgy, that prompted the question? Had she raised the question in other places and at other times? What was her experience in confirmation class or Sunday school or in her home? One thing was clear: She was looking for guidance, direction, truth, light, and understanding, and she was looking to me to provide it.
In the brief time we had, I attempted to tell her of the God who is always beyond our ability to fully understand, who is greater in every way than anything we can imagine or comprehend, and who loves us always and in greater depth than we can describe. Since the One who created all things is always beyond us, we look to Jesus to see who God is and what this mighty and loving God is like.
Soon we moved toward where her parents were waiting, and I learned that they were supportive of their daughter's quest and grateful that her questions were taken seriously.
This conversation with Anna took place more than forty years ago, and it still informs and shapes my thinking and my living. Who is God? It is a question each one of us answers every day. Everyone reading these words, no matter your age or circumstance in life, follows someone or something. Each of us has our own image of God as personal and present, or absent and beyond us. Or we have some principle or practice that guides our thoughts and our actions.
We Name Our Gods
We may name God with our words, or we may choose to remain silent. But either way, each of us names our God by our actions—by how we choose to live. All of us live according to some principles we have adopted as our way of living. We may have thought carefully before making a decision about whom or what would guide our lives; or we may have pulled in behind someone else whose lifestyle, rhetoric, or reward system appealed to us or matched our hopes or prejudice; or we simply may have followed the path of least resistance and drifted to our present condition of following that path without question. But no one really escapes answering the question Who is God? Even agnostics and atheists follow some person, some value, some principle, some thing, or some overarching goal that determines the direction of their lives. They, as some of us who claim to believe in Jesus and the God he called Abba, may choose to remain silent. But their lives, like ours, betray the one who determines the direction of their lives. All of us give witness to the god or God who leads us and whom we follow.
You may remember the book Your God Is Too Small, by J. B. Phillips. As I look at my own ministry that began nearly sixty years ago, I am forced to admit that, far too often, I and the people I have led have been content with a god too small to be of any real consequence.
Far too often we are content with a god too small to be Creator of all that exists. We are content with our own form of a "tribal god" that belongs to us rather than a God who belongs to no one but who gives love, grace, and blessing to everyone.
Far too often we are content with a god too tame and domesticated to shake us to the very roots of our being and send us out of worship trembling in awe and amazement, clearly headed in a radical and countercultural direction.
Far too often we are content with a god who offers a band-aid for our wounded souls rather than the God of radical mercy, justice, and love—who forgives our sins and wipes them away just as soon as we offer that same forgiveness to those who may have wronged us; who not only forgives our sins but also heals our wounded souls, mends our broken relationships, and sends us on our way full of hope, confidence, trust, and strength to transform the world by living in the kingdom of God already being formed "on earth as it is in heaven."
Far too often we are content with proclaiming and following a god who is too unexciting to capture the minds and hearts of a world seeking healing for its deepest wounds, peace for its incessant wars, direction for its future, and companionship for its deep loneliness.
Far too often we are content to follow a god we can order around, insisting that our will be done and hiding from the truth of the gospel that teaches so clearly that what we pray for in the prayer Jesus taught is what we must practice in our daily lives. Unfortunately, "your kingdom come" is not a slogan or sound bite that has much appeal; so we choose to follow a god of our own making rather than the God revealed in the Scriptures, the Creation, and the life of Jesus.
Far too often we forget and need to be reminded by ancient and contemporary prophets that this loving God is a just God:
The God of love is also the God of justice. The two are related, for in the Bible justice is the social form of love. Thus the God of love is not simply "nice" but has an edge, a passion for justice. God loves everybody and everything.... To take the God of love and justice seriously means to take justice seriously and to be aware that prolonged injustice has consequences."
Far too often we do not hear the simple call of Jesus, "Follow me," and we become lost in following lesser gods. We know that consistently and faithfully teaching and living the gospel that Jesus taught and lived puts us in danger of being labeled too radical, too progressive, too peace-loving, too naïve, too much like Jesus. Unfortunately, our experience mirrors what has been a less than fully faithful pattern throughout the church.
Jesus Is the True Image of God
Despite our tendency sometimes to follow lesser gods, we know that, as Christians, the God we profess to follow is a particular God. We know that the call of Jesus to follow him is a call to follow the God he lovingly called Abba and to whom he fully gave his own life.
It is in Jesus that we have the clearest picture of who God is, what God does, and how God invites us to live as God's children. The writer of Colossians put it this way:
The Son is the image of the invisible God, the one who is first over all creation. Because all things were created by him: both in the heavens and on the earth, the things that are visible and the things that are invisible.... Because all the fullness of God was pleased to live in him, and he reconciled all things to himself through him— whether things on earth or in the heavens. He brought peace through the blood of his cross. (1:15-16, 19-20)
This is the God revealed and made known to us through the Creation, the prophets, the events of history, the sacred word, the saints of God, and, most clearly, the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the life of Jesus we explicitly see this incomprehensible God who is not bound by our limitations or imprisoned in our preconceived ideas— a God who is greater than anything we can think, imagine, or fully comprehend.
The God Jesus reveals shatters all our little ideas about God and reveals a God who is author and creator of all there is. In Jesus we see a God who reverses the values of our culture and turns upside down our scheme of priorities, leaving us gasping at the sight of such bone-deep love, justice, and mercy. In Jesus we see such bold and radical truth that we tremble in awe and then cry out for help as we try to practice the faithful way of living he demonstrated so splendidly.
In Jesus we see a God who does the unexpected and the unpredictable. We see Jesus choosing to be the friend of sinners and being just as comfortable with the very wealthy as he is with the homeless beggar. We see a God who refuses to accept the boundaries that culture establishes and who moves with ease among scholars, religious leaders, soldiers, prostitutes, farmers, fishermen, tax collectors, and demon-possessed men and women—inviting them all into a new way of seeing the world, a new way of living, a new kingdom.
In Jesus we see a God who is not swayed by popular opinion, loud adulation, or noisy rebellion. In Jesus we see clearly a God who is not controlled by any ideology, philosophy, concept, force, or power. In Jesus we see a God who is never under our control but always free of any control, and who may act and create as it seems wise and is in keeping with God's will.
Jesus reveals a God who is always and forever beyond us, completely other than we are, and yet who wants to come and dwell within us (John 14:23). Jesus reveals a God of love.
A God of Love
Everything that came from Jesus' lips worked like a magnifying glass to focus human awareness on the two most important facts about life: God's overwhelming love of humanity, and the need for people to accept that love and let it flow through them in the way water passes without obstruction through a sea anemone. —Huston Smith
The Bible is filled with passages about a God who is best described and experienced as love. Psalm 25 and 1 John 4:7-12 declare this truth in powerful and memorable words and images that we can understand and relate to our own life experiences.
Who of us does not need the forgiveness, steadfast love, and faithfulness of God?
Be mindful of your mercy, O LORD, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old. Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness' sake, O LORD! (Psalm 25:6-7 NRSV)
Who of us does not need to hear the comforting words of the prophet Hosea declaring God's tender love?
I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them. (Hosea 11:3b-4 NRSV)
And who does not need the frequent reminder that we are created in the image of God, and that God is love?
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. (1 John 4:7-8 NRSV)
Jesus reminds us that love is our connection to him and his beloved Abba. Our relationship to God and to each other is found, centered, and maintained by love:
"As the Father loved me, I too have loved you. Remain in my love." (John 15:9)
The apostle Paul reminds us that we are to imitate this God of love in our own lives:
Therefore, imitate God like dearly beloved children. Live your life with love, following the example of Christ, who loved us and gave himself for us. (Ephesians 5:l-2a)
It is clear from the experiences of the prophets and poets, Jesus, the apostles, and all the saints that have followed them—as well as from your experience and mine—that this way of love is neither easy nor strongly supported by our culture. It is a costly way, but also a deeply rewarding way. It is costly because we will find ourselves at odds with our culture and its practice of using violent words and acts to settle issues and to attempt to carve out "safety" assumed to be found in confrontation and violence. It is rewarding because there is the inner confirmation that it is the way of Jesus and the way for those who seek to follow him. And it is rewarding to experience the power of love in our lives to see the impact of the way of love in the lives of others.
Our culture, families, congregations, and everyone reading these words do not need more hatred and violence. Rather, we desperately need and deeply yearn for love and grace to heal our brokenness, mend our relationships, sustain us day by day, and light our path forward as we seek the way of peace and plenty for all of God's children.
Some have suggested that I speak and write too much about a God of love, and I confess that I try to hold ever before me the image of the God that Jesus followed, proclaimed, and knew as beloved Abba. It is this God who found me in the isolation of the North Dakota prairie; beckoned me to come near; and then offered redemption, companionship, guidance, opportunity, grace, and strength beyond my capacity to describe or explain. For sixty-five years this dance of love has grown; and today my relationship with the God of love made known in Jesus continues to confound me, delight me, challenge me, urge me on, and embrace me in a growing level of peace in the midst of a turbulent world.
A God Revealed to All
It is this loving, steadfast, unshakable God who hovered over all creation and declared that it was very good (Genesis 1:31). This same God, revealed in Jesus, calls all to come home and intentionally dwell in God's presence. It is this God who chooses to move all that is toward justice, peace, harmony, and plenty—not just for a few, but for all. In Jesus we see a God who is moving all things toward the kingdom of righteousness, the kingdom of God. This is the God we see at work in creation and in the lives of the faithful. This is the God we desire, the God we long for, the God we want to follow in Jesus Christ.
Our Christian creeds all declare our belief in one God while pointing to numerous sources of self revelation by this God. We Christians worship a God who is revealed in many ways. That constant presence and quiet inner voice can speak as clearly as any voice we hear. And the Creation itself is an enormous gift of revelation of who God is and how God acts.
The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. (Psalm 19:1-4 NRSV)
Scripture continues this revelation of God, which is most clearly and completely given in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Today that revelation is sustained and continued through the power and presence of God's Holy Spirit.
"The Companion, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I told you." (John 14:26)
So, we confidently trust the revelation we have of this one and mighty God and open ourselves for the continuing unfolding of truth as we choose to walk in companionship with the One who gives us life, promises never to leave us alone, and remains the One to whom we belong.
This God made known in so many ways has chosen to be revealed to each of us in ways that we may best understand. Is it any wonder, then, that we have different concepts of God and how God is known, followed, worshiped, honored, encountered, and companioned? In her book A History of God, Karen Armstrong reminds her readers that the rabbis taught that God could not be described by a formula as though God came to everyone in the same way.
While we joyfully follow and bear witness to God made known in Jesus, we also must remember that Jesus was born, lived, and died a devout Jew. This reminds us that the God we have come to know in Jesus Christ cannot be fully contained in any creedal statement, no matter how carefully constructed. God is always beyond our limited capacity to understand or experience. While we proclaim faithfully and boldly our own experience of and trust in God, we do so with humility and gentleness as we learn to live in a community of earnest God-seekers who may have experienced and come to know God in ways different than our own.
Excerpted from Three Simple Questions by Rueben P. Job. Copyright © 2011 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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