The Problem(s) With a Personal God
In seminary, one of the key concepts which was hammered home was that as Christians, we serve a personal God. He is not « The Force. » He is not cosmic energy. He is not an Absolute, Unchanging, Unfeeling, Unmoving Reality/Idea or Truth. He is a real person, which means He has an ability to think, feel, make choices, laugh, cry, move, feel, and the like.
Recently, I have been thinking more deeply about this concept of a « personal » God. It turns out, there are more problems with it than I previously thought.
I have never met anyone who disliked electricity. Electricity simply « is » and we contour our lives around it. We believe it exists (actually, there are probably some people, somewhere who do not believe electricity exists. They are the electricity atheists!) and we live accordingly. We don’t get offended at electricity, we don’t get excited or grateful towards electricity. Four years ago, electricity almost killed my wife. However, it did not even cross my mind to be angry towards electricity. Rather, I compacted and hurled into the dump our out-dated and poorly-grounded freezer. A non-personal energy-source cannot be liked or disliked. It simply, « is, » and my use or disuse or it, and the benefits or harms received from it reflect only on myself, or on some other rational/personal being.
Sometimes I wish God were like that – and I must say that some Christians (myself included!) certainly act like He is sometimes.
(For example, if we truly believe that we will always get what we want from God – and if we do not receive it, we have not asked loudly, or correctly, or passionately, or informedly enough – do we not demonstrate that we believe God is nothing more than a cosmic electric outlet, into which we can plug our prayers and receive power sufficient to our whims and desires?)
But I know He is not. He is real. He is a person.
When Jesus came, He cried, He laughed, He learned, He suffered, He thought, He reasoned, He asked questions, He made decisions. Jesus is a person – if you wish to follow Jesus, you must follow a person, not an energy source.
But when once we grasp this fact, it opens up a whole new, potentially uncomfortable set of questions. First and foremost: « Do I like God? » This is a simple question. Disconcertingly simple. It is the sort of question a child might ask, which would throw his theologian-daddy for a loop, and send him off thinking for the next two weeks.
« Is Jesus nice? » « Will I like God? » « Do you think Jesus likes to laugh? » « Will we have fun in Heaven? »
These are no no small questions. In fact, they are probably the most important questions we could ever ask.
When our first child came into the world, he came over three weeks late. Through a blur of hospital mix-ups and high-stress situations, our journey was finally coming to an end in a large hospital in Winnipeg. I was beginning to believe that my wife and child might make it through after all – but that was by no means a sure thing (stress tests had shown my child was already suffering from being too long in utero). With my young familys’ life on the line, I quickly and involuntarily developed a system of evaluating whether I liked and trusted the nurses and doctors wizzing in and out of our room. Very quickly, within the first minutes with a new person I would find myself cracking some sort of a joke. Usually something very cheezy. Sometimes nothing more than a sigh and a smile which said, « Isn’t it ridiculous to be three human beings, in this room, under these circumstances? »
A joke, just a joke. But it was deadly serious to me. All I wanted to know was, « Am I real to you? Is my wife real? Are we just a number? Or do you see us as people with real souls, real feelings? Can you laugh with us? »
Most of that gracious and professional staff was kind enough to oblige me with at least a smile and a warming of the eyes. I distinctly remember the primary doctor who birthed us. She was east-indian, young, very professional, petite, obviously intelligent, and she smiled a lot. To this day I am eternally grateful not only for the high-quality work, but so much more – for that bit of humanity she offered us. I still remember one old nurse, however – heavy-set, caucasian, mid-40’s, white tennis shoes, pink/blue flowered scrubs – who not only did not snicker, but would not even acknowledge my attempts at humor and humanity with a nod or a brief eye-contact. She merely soldiered on. Efficient, quick, decisive…and insufferably cold. Words cannot describe how glad I am that we did not have this woman as our doctor! I would have been terrified to have lives in her hands – for a person who cannot laugh can make a cold decision, and at that moment a wrong decision could have been the difference of life or death.
I think God has a sense of humor. I think He smiles every time we crack a joke – even when we joke only to hide the pain. But more importantly – and this really is the important thing – He regards us as people. Individuals. Real, living, breathing, personal beings. With hearts, feelings, emotions. And He loves us.
Not in the vague, etherial sense that many of us imagine when we hear the words « God so loved the world… » But He really, really loves us. Like a mother loves her children, like a shepherd loves his sheep.
(I do not want you to believe that because He loves us, we are not lost. That misses the point ENTIRELY! Jesus speaks of Himself as a shepherd whose sheep have run away, or like a mother-hen whose chicks will not come home. He loves us dearly – and that does not mean that we do not need finding, but rather that He cares so much for us He is willing to pay any price to bring us back to Himself. Only, we must be willing to make that journey of grace along with Him – He neither forces nor brain-washes, and we must be cleansed of our rebellion and sin before we are allowed to enter the Holy City.)
He is God, and so you must believe that He exists. (Psa. 14:1)
He is personal, and so you must learn to trust Him. (Heb. 11:6)
He is loving, and so you can come to know that He is worthy of your trust. (Psalm 34:8)
I distinctly recall a conversation with a troubled friend a number of years back. He had been rejected, abused, taken advantage of…and now, what good could God do for him? After all he had been through, how could my words possibly keep him from falling back into the pit of despair, alcahol, drugs and immorality which had been his cocoon and casket for so long? The climb out seemed so painful, so hard. The pay-off seemed distant and pale. God’s people were fickle and weak. The call to return to his lifestyle of death was oh, so so strong…
I botched the conversation – I know I did. It was a divine appointment, but at the last moment I decided that I could handle this one on my own, and I neglected to bring the Holy Spirit along for back-up. I tried to help in my own strength and whatever I said, I am quite sure I was no help at all.
But after the fact, the Spirit told me what I should have said – and I hope it fits nicely here.
The image of a hunting-dog (with big, floppy lips and ears) came to mind. The dog was on the kitchen table, lights shining brightly in his eyes, owner holding him down. All over, outside and inside of the dog’s mouth were dozens if not hundreds of porcupine quills. The owner had told the dog not to chase it…and when he was stung, he chased again and again…until his strength was gone and the owner had to carry him back, barely able to swallow his own blood and drool, so terrible was the onslaught of quills.
Now, with pliers in hand, the kindly owner’s head was haloed in the bright light of the kitchen lights. The next two or three hours would be sheer agony – and how could a dog understand what was going on?
The decisive question at that moment, for that poor beast is precisely the same question which confronts each one of us on our best and darkest days. « Will you trust me? Will you trust me? Will you trust me? »
It is the cry of a loving God. It is the cry of the personal God.
Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your heart.
Do not resist. Do not cry out. Do not accuse Him of malice. Do not lash out in anger.
But howl out your devotion and love and worship to the God who is big enough to love us, even when it hurts, and to care for us even when it stings, and who is committed to our ultimate good, our very best of best, no matter what it will cost us, no matter what it will cost Him.
We love Him because He first loved us (1 John 4:19).
And because He loved us, we can trust Him.