Wednesday, November 28, 2012

What Is God's Name? (Part 3)

Is God a male person?  Why do the descriptions of God in the Bible seem male instead of female?  Why is God called a "father"? Can we use feminine concepts
for God also?  We've started on some important questions here:  whether the names and descriptions we have for God are adequate and if not, what to do about it.

Last week I wrote about whether being wounded by a father figure (or any male figure) means we shouldn't try to think of God as a father, substituting some other word instead.  We recognized that idea as "anthropocentric" or human-centered reasoning, which is basically idolatry.  It starts from the basis of who we are, what we understand, and what we feel our needs are, then projects our ideas onto God, like he was a big movie screen.  But God is far greater than our ideas of who he should be, so we need to use "theocentric" or "God-centered" reasoning instead. 

Since God describes himself to us in the Bible using the word Father, then we should use those concepts to describe and define for us what a physical father should be like.  God is not often referred to in the Old Testament as a father, but Jesus describes him right from the start as "Our Father" (Mat. 6:9) and he speaks of God as Father 16 times in Luke's gospel and at least 93 times in John's Gospel!  We would do well to review John's writings, especially, to see more of the Fatherhood of God as Jesus showed it to us.  But in summary, we could say that the Father is an infinitely loving Person who plans and provides good for us, looks out for us, and always works out what is best for us, even to the point of sacrificing himself for us (see John 3:16).  In fact, he loves us as much as he loves the Son of God (John 17:23) -- which shows us that the infinite and eternal love that is characteristic of the Father-Son-Spirit God is now being shared with us!

If we are willing to trust that Scripture has come to us as it was inspired by God, without changes in its meaning, then we also have to accept that the names for God are what he actually calls himself.  Can God be Father even if we have similar terms in human life, and some of those terms leave us with negative images?  Yes, if we're willing to think in theocentric terms:  admitting that God is Father of all, and that he defines for us what Fatherhood is, therefore we can re-define what fatherhood should be!  Our own fathers fell short of that ideal, no matter how good they were, but we can choose to see them through the eyes of grace just as our heavenly Father sees us.  More on all of this next time.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

What Is God's Name? (Part 2)

Last week we introduced some of the questions about how God is named in the Bible, and whether we should add
to those words or change them, with the goal of understanding God better and loving him more.  These goals sound noble, so let's see if the strategy is a good one. I am indebted for this material to the work of James B. Torrance and his brother Thomas F. Torrance, Gary Deddo and Roland L. Frye, among others.

My dad and I didn't get along well when I was growing up.  Until I began to understand and appreciate both God and my father better, I had difficulties accepting God as a father figure -- no surprise, right?  In fact many (not all, of course) of us in the Western world have strained relationships with our physical fathers.  So it seems logical to us that we should want a different word for God, that doesn't remind us of that wound.  Some evangelists have even substituted "friend" for "Father" to be a more acceptable idea to those who don't know God yet.  Others focus on Jesus, who seems more palatable than the Father, thus avoiding -- for the moment -- the issue of God's fatherhood.

So here's the first problem we're going to look at:  this strategy is "anthropocentric" or human-centered, rather than "theocentric" or God-centered.  We've created ourselves as the center of the universe.  We allow our pain to define and determine who we are for the rest of our lives, not believing that God can heal any wound.  That's idolatry.  Instead, when we look to Jesus we find the love and healing of God expressed toward us.  Jesus took on our sins, our weaknesses and our pain (Isa. 53:3-5).  When he touched a leper, he didn't contract leprosy -- the leper was healed!  When he spoke with people, he didn't leave them in their sin and selfishness, but confronted their anthropocentric ways, challenging them to turn away from themselves as idols, and toward God (the Sermon on the Mount, Mat. 5-7, is a good example of that idea, but there are many others). 

Here's the point for today:  your pain, the abuse in your past, your personal or public wound, does not define you.  Only God can define you -- and God says you belong to him, he loves you just like you are right now, and he will love you forever!  Even though you've been wounded by a father figure, God is the perfect definition of all fatherhood, and he knows how to help you perfectly.  Hebrews 12:10 says "For our earthly fathers disciplined us for a few years, doing the best they knew how. But God’s discipline is always good for us, so that we might share in his holiness." 

God is asking you, right now, to let go of whatever you think keeps you from his "YES" toward you.  Even if you've been saying "No" to him all your life, God says "No" to your "No" and "YES" to you.  His love as a perfect Father will completely make up for any lack of love from your own dad -- and you will find healing in him (Mat. 11:29).  (Next week, we'll look at why the Bible uses the word "father" for God.)

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

What Is God's Name? (part 1)

If you want to get in trouble fast, try calling a loved one by the wrong name.  Those of us from large families sometimes got called a sibling's name by Dad or Mom, especially if we were in trouble -- and that just made it worse.  But what do you call God?  In the Bible, he's
Father, Son and Spirit, but a modern movement wants to neutralize these names because they're thought of as sexist.  I think you'll see that, far from being an esoteric argument by theologians in a back room somewhere, this discussion is key to truly understanding God, and resting assured in his love for us!  And for this series, I am indebted to the work of Dr. Gary Deddo, who has written clearly and with a deep love for God and others on this topic.

First, let's look at the objections, conscious and unconscious, to naming God with male terms.  Then, we'll look carefully for Biblical answers to each one. Finally, we'll see what difference it makes in our lives and our relationship with God, when we understand him for who he is, using his true names.  Ready?

When I was in college, desiring to know more of God, I ran into a roadblock:  a broken relationship with my human father leading me to mistrust God as a father.  Sound familiar?  I was afraid that God would be angry or impatient with me, as my dad often was, and it took many years to learn that he really wasn't that way.  That broken relationship with a father figure, so common in our society today, leads some to believe the cure is to change our words for God.  More about that in our next installment.

Another major argument is that the Bible was written in a society dominated by men, so descriptions of God were obviously male in character and ignored the needs of women and the true nature of God, who must have feminine traits and perhaps a female person.  If all that is true, it creates a lot of additional concerns for us!  We'll answer that too.

Finally, the argument goes, if the Bible really does ignore a female side of God and the needs of women, as some say, then the Bible and Christianity is simply another method for oppressing women.  If that's the case, then the whole foundation of Christianity -- including a male Savior -- is in a lot of trouble.  Would you like an answer for that?

Please bear with me!  We'll see that there are solid answers for all these concerns, answers that actually tell us a lot more about who God is.  By doing that, we will learn to trust his love for us more than ever! 

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Can the Gospel Change Your Life?

Romans 12:2 - Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn
to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.

The Bible isn't just a chapter of history told from a particular perspective, or a series of letters to a long-gone church, or a bunch of poems from a prophet to ancient Israel, or even an instruction manual for human life.  It's a telling of human struggles, and the love story of our rescue from those struggles by God himself, as he gives imperfect and messy humans a new way of living with him and with each other (and even with ourselves). 

The critical moment for each of us is when we can see the Bible as the words of God to us, personally, individually, for right now, even though they were written two thousand or more years ago.  But please notice, taking God's words personally doesn't mean saying "Yes, that's right, I have to try harder to do these things so God will be pleased with me."  It's more like a cry of wonder and awe:  "Is God really saying that he loves me and wants my love in return?  Is God really offering me a new life in what he says here?  Can God really take away my old habits, unclean desires, and horrible memories of my past?  Can I trust that God will help me change?  Will I ever be able to say that in my life I'm reflecting the image of Christ?"  The answer to all those questions is "YES!" 

The Gospel -- the Good News of God's love for us -- really does have the power to changes your life.  I know that because I've seen people changed from the inside out once they learn it.  I know a man who was once self-centered and abusive, who came to see the love of God for him.  He is now a stable, loving man who has renewed relationships with his children, and who expresses God's love through the gifts of the Spirit in the body of Christ.  The love, peace, patience and other fruits of God's love in his life (see Galatians 5:22-23 for one list) are directly from God's heart to our hearts -- God condescending to live in us and express himself through us -- not from our broken methods of trying harder.

How does the Gospel change our lives?  When we look to the Son of God, Jesus the Christ, who has already made it possible for us:  "So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image."  Let the glorious Gospel of Jesus Christ change you