Home > Uncategorized > The Ever-Changing Idea of God

The Ever-Changing Idea of God

“The path to growth is through disruption.”
Rob Bell as interviewed on the You Make It Weird podcast.

For me, and maybe for you, the idea of God is one that is ever-changing.  Allow that thought to sink in for a minute.  The idea, the conception, of God is ever-changing.

Like I said, for me it is.

The tweaks may be slight at times, quite significant at others.  These changes in my thinking have evolved (if I can use that word in connection with God) over time, not by the day or the month or even by the year.  It takes longer than that.  The process usually begins with some sort of disruption- a “better” understanding of myself (my ambitions, but more likely my limitations), exposure to new ideas, a different stage of life, a mellowing of emotions, or even the heightening of other emotions.  One of these things or some combination of them causes me to reconsider how I think of God.

The challenge in coming to grips with our ideas about God is to figure out which of the perceptions are accurate and which are the creations of our own minds and experiences.

The struggle is to see God beyond ourselves, beyond our needs and wants and limitations, beyond the idea of a God we have created to justify our actions and to aid with our own shortcomings.

Often what we learn about ourselves reveals a great deal of how we think about God.

***

While growing up, the existence of God never seemed an impossibility to me.  Those considerations would come as an adult.  God just was.  Or should I say “is.”  I’m not sure if my “beliefs” in the existence of God were the result of attending kindergarten and the first grade at Northside Baptist Church or if the credit should go to those early years spent in Sunday School at Grace Baptist Temple.  Perhaps it was a combination of the two.  Or it might have been the work of my mother’s father, my grandfather, who was particularly religious.  Maybe it was a person I don’t even remember.

The first major disruption of my life occurred in the second grade when my parents divorced.  From the moment they separated and for the next ten years, I never stepped foot inside a church.  There was no explanation or reason given at the time for this change.  One week we were there and the next week we weren’t.  Despite not spending Sundays in church, despite the dramatic shift in my life, my belief in the existence of God never wavered.  I do not know why.

Yet, I wouldn’t characterize myself then as spiritual or even religious.  If there was any praying taking place, it was for the shot to go in or the information in my textbook to miraculously appear in my mind while taking a test.  I didn’t engage in reading the Bible or any other sort of religious activities.  I read books, rode bikes, and played basketball.

If I’d been asked, “Do you believe in God?” I would’ve answered, “Yes.”

But what sort of God did I believe in?

The one in the Bible I would’ve answered as that’s the only one I knew about.  I was somewhat familar with the stories, at least the ones they teach the young kids (Noah and the ark, David and Goliath, Jesus and the children).  One of my parents had given me a Bible, but it remained on a shelf, the spine never cracked.

If someone were to have pressed the question about the God I believed in, I would’ve described God as someone who existed out there, up there, somewhere else, probably heaven, likely on a throne of some sort, who kept a watchful eye on people, and executed judgment against those who went against him.  God would get you for what you did, probably when you least expected it.

And that was the sum total of my idea of God.  Do right or else.  You might not see him, but he saw you and knew everything.  EVERYTHING.  He was more powerful than Zeus and his punishments were far worse than Santa’s bag of coal at Christmas.

You could make the case that the idea of a God like this was beneficial to a young boy as he travelled through middle school and into high school and college.  I might have my doutbts about that now.  For one, this God idea of mine tended to keep me from doing the wrong things, not because I wanted to do right, but because I feared the cosmic consequences.  When others did wrong, I took comfort in the fact that eventually they’d get their due from God.  Looking back, my theology appears to have been infused with a bit of passive-aggressive sadism.  You’ll get yours!  Not a whole lot of love your neighor or anything like it in my early views of God.

The few times I ventured over onto the wrong side, I would be plagued with guilt, waiting for the big black boot in the sky to fall on me.  When I avoided disaster, I would count myself fortunate.  I’d heard people toss around the word “grace” and I figured this must be what they meant.  But, there were the occasions when bad things would happen, when I would suffer the consequences of my actions.  (And yes, I might have seen a flat tire or blown transmission as God’s form of justice.  Sheesh.)  I would feel guilty for a day or two as I promised not to make those sorts of choices again.

What was I thinking?

But what was right and what was wrong?  Where did these rules come from?

If asked, I probably would’ve said from the Bible.  If you’d pressed me as to where in the Bible, I would’ve been unable to show you.  The truth of the matter was this:  I made up the rules.  I was the arbitrator of what was right and what was wrong.  Stealing and cheating were wrong, but cursing and fighting were fine, except when I was around my parents or other adults.  When they weren’t around, the words and the fists flew.

I can’t tell you where this idea of God  and these rules came from.  Had I learned it from the very conservative churches we’d attended when I was young?  Was it a reflection of my parents or a projection of what I wanted from them?  Was it embedded somewhere in the culture in which I was raised?  Was it the need for order and control in the midst of a chaotic childhood?  I don’t know.

Whatever the reason, the result was an idea of God, one with some token elements of truth, but modified to benefit me.  Yet, as I grew, as I had different life experiences, as I tested the boundaries of my own rules, this idea of God was no longer sufficient.  It was lacking.  I was flooded with guilt when I did wrong and confused when I saw others getting away with doing wrong time after time.  The world wasn’t as simple as I thought it to be or wanted it to be.

So my perceptions and ideas of God were breaking down.  I don’t recall if there was a specific precipitating event, but there was a disruption taking place.  Something had to give.  Some might have given up altogether on the idea of God.  I considered the thought as well.

I’d taken an image of God and refashioned it into what I wanted or needed.  “This is how it would be if I were God.”  Such is the age-old problem, always making God into what we want him to be, distorting the images we have until we find one that suits our own agendas.  The first step was eliminating what I thought or even wanted God to be like.

How we think of God, no matter how much we might want to deny it, can sometimes be found in how we view ourselves and the world around us. 

So I’ve learned to ask “Why?”  Why do I think or believe this?  Why are my ideas changing?  Is it because I’ve learned something new?  Have I been challenged by something I’ve read or heard?  Have I experienced something new or moved on to a different stage in life?  Death and grief and the birth of a child have certainly altered the ways in which I think of God, ways in which I never would’ve imagined without those experiences.  One thing I always try to ask is this:  is there an ulterior motive lurking beneath the surface for this change of thought?  Am I trying to make God about me?  Am I attempting to turn God into the promoter of my ideas and wants?

***

The first draft or two or three of this post was well over five thousand words and I wasn’t anywhere close to being finished.  (I try to keep these posts between a thousand to fifteen hundred words.)   Even I was bored reading about every single tweak to my thinking of God, so I deleted most of it and started over.

Part of me was a hesitant to publish this post.  Over the years, I’ve engaged in more than my fair share of “God conversations,” be it in school while studying theology or the churches where I’ve worked.  One common thread I’ve found is this:  people want, sometimes even insist, for you to agree with them and what they think about God/religion.  Divergence of opinion and differing ideas are seen as a threat.

I don’t get that.

I tend to agree with the late Dallas Willard who said something along the lines of “I will search for truth wherever it leads.”  (And I’m pretty sure I butchered his words, but I got the general idea of what he was saying.)

Even thought I have an education in this stuff and have been paid to talk about it at times, I wasn’t sure I wanted to wade into these waters here on my blog.  But this one came out, not easily though.  I’ve revised it to the point where it was either publish as is or delete it and move on.  There might be more.  There might not.

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Debbie Miller
    May 30, 2013 at 3:29 pm

    Thanks for being honest with your thoughts. I am really trying to understand how different ideas and/or opinions among Christians can help us to grow and even how the differences can bring us together as a community. And…I am really struggling with how can we live together with the differences without judging. Instead, how do I extend grace and love them (this is my current prayer for me and my life).

    I would be interested in what you find out about getting rid of the threat that comes along with differing opinions.

    • Chris
      June 5, 2013 at 2:06 pm

      Very, very difficult. Sadly, in this day and age, with the proliferation of polarizing views, it seems less likely that people and groups are able to look past their differences. Some are. Perhaps the key in looking past distinct differences in belief is to look at the sort of people we’re becoming. We might disagree on a point, but are we becoming better people individually, are we becoming people who are contributing to make the community a better place?

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