We all know the old adage about whether you see a glass as half empty or half full. Take a look at this glass of water and tell me if it is half full or half empty. How many of you think it is half full? How many think it is half empty? I don’t think of it as either half full or half empty; I believe it is the wrong size glass.
What I’ve done in asking the question of half full or half empty is to tell you your options – answer A or answer B. I didn’t just ask you a question – I set boundaries on how you would think about this glass of water. I presented you with only two options, when, in fact, there were others, such as getting a different size glass.
I believe that dynamic shapes our thinking on a daily basis. We are given, without realizing it, a set number of options when considering questions, and we are given boundaries on how we view the world and, even, how we think about God and talk about God.
As we continue our series of Faith in the Modern Age, this morning we come to the topic of Talking About God in the Modern Age. In some ways, the way we talk about God has been determined for us. We have inherited a list of options about the character of God and the way in which God works, and that can limit both our understanding of God and the ways in which he works.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this since the first round of tornadoes in Oklahoma. After those tornadoes struck, there were people who insisted that God sent those storms as a punishment for the acts of some group of people or our country as a whole. I believe that is both wrong and bad theology to make such a statement, and I believe that Scripture backs up my point.
This morning’s Scripture passage is an example of the kind of language about God that is rejected. Our Scripture reading is from the book of Job. The book of Job, you’ll remember, grapples with the idea of suffering, but not just the idea of suffering. The book of Job also deals with the bad theology that people attach to suffering and also deals with the well meaning, but incorrect ways to talk about God.
Job was a very righteous man who suffered the loss of everything in his life. Job had three friends who came to comfort him. They were not much comfort. Job’s friends believed he certainly must have done something wrong to cause God to inflict him with such a terrible loss. But Job would have none of this. Job protested that he was innocent of any wrongdoing and that he had done nothing to deserve his suffering. Listen to what he has to say as he makes his case –
1 “My eyes have seen all this, my ears have heard and understood it.
2 What you know, I also know; I am not inferior to you.
3 But I desire to speak to the Almighty and to argue my case with God.
4 You, however, smear me with lies; you are worthless physicians, all of you!
5 If only you would be altogether silent! For you, that would be wisdom.
6 Hear now my argument; listen to the pleas of my lips.
7 Will you speak wickedly on God’s behalf? Will you speak deceitfully for him?
8 Will you show him partiality? Will you argue the case for God?
9 Would it turn out well if he examined you? Could you deceive him as you might deceive a mortal?
10 He would surely call you to account if you secretly showed partiality.
11 Would not his splendor terrify you? Would not the dread of him fall on you?
12 Your maxims are proverbs of ashes; your defenses are defenses of clay.
13 “Keep silent and let me speak; then let come to me what may.
14 Why do I put myself in jeopardy and take my life in my hands?
15 Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him; I will surely defend my ways to his face.
Wow. Job really lays it on his friends, doesn’t he? Some friends they were. Surely, they were only trying to help, but their help wasn’t at all helpful. That’s bad theology and a bad way to talk about God, I believe.
I want to offer three suggestions this morning for how we should talk about God in our modern age, and I hope you will find them to be helpful.
1. We shouldn’t tell people God is responsible for their suffering.
I think, sadly, that for many people, God has been made into a bully. When we tell people God is anxious to punish them for their sins, God becomes a bully.
Jonathan Edwards was a well-known minister who lived during the 18th century. He preached a famous sermon titled Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God, and that sermon set the template for a lot of sermons to follow, even to our day and time. Jonathan Edwards, in that sermon, portrayed God as an angry, vengeful God who dangled sinners by a thread over the fires of hell, with a desire not to save but to condemn. The study guide for today’s message has a couple of paragraphs that quote from that message, but here is a short bit - The God that holds you over the Pit of Hell, much as one holds a Spider, or some loathsome Insect, over the Fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his Wrath towards you burns like Fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the Fire; he is of purer Eyes than to bear to have you in his Sight; you are ten thousand Times so abominable in his Eyes as the most hateful venomous Serpent is in ours.
I feel better now, don’t you? Does that message resonate with you? It does not with me. To be fair to Edwards, I should certainly say that we should appreciate his awareness of the things of which humanity is capable. But Edwards also, unfortunately, is one responsible for giving us the idea that God not only inflicts suffering upon people, but he seems to enjoy doing so.
We shouldn’t make God into an ogre, one who is anxiously awaiting an opportunity to inflict suffering and harm upon us.
Why do tornadoes happen? Because that is what the weather sometimes does. That is a difficult and sometimes destructive reality. But let us not lay at the feet of God a theology that says God inflicts such things upon people because he wants to punish them.
2. We shouldn’t use language that God favors some people above others.
In too many cases, we have turned God into a partisan God, insinuating – or saying outright – that he loves those of us in the church more than others.
I was on my way to a meeting recently in another community and I passed a church that caught my eye. It caught my eye because of the sign hanging on the front of the church, so I stopped and took this picture.
I received some really strange looks from drivers who were passing by. One driver almost came to a stop as he leaned forward and looked at me like what in the world are you doing?
Sinners welcome! I know the message that church is seeking to communicate – they are, I assume, saying come on in, we’ll take anybody, even a sinner like you. After all, we are all sinners. We are all sinners, after all. But I’m not sure people outside of the church will hear that message in the way it is intended, because people outside of the church have so often been treated as sinners while those inside the church have so often acted as though they are more righteous. What they are hearing is probably something more along the lines of hey! Get yourself in here, where we can tell you how you need to change your life, even if you don’t think you need to change, because we are the kind of people who know how you ought to be living and we think you are living the wrong way.
Why not use, instead of the word sinner, something like fellow child of God, or brother or sister.
I’ve seen churches that tell certain groups of people that until they became like them – like the church members – they weren’t welcome. They drew a line of exclusion for some people, and those in the church were on the right side of the line and the others were on the wrong side of the line.
So I tend to think that sign may be more off-putting to people than it is welcoming. It might have worked in an earlier time period, but in our present day, I think it’s not an effective way to talk about God, because people see it as communicating that we are better than you.
3. God defined himself in Jesus.
If you want to know what God is like, look at the life of Jesus, as he is the expression of God.
Far too often, people point to the wrong people and associate them with God. They point out some flamboyant TV preacher and say that’s what represents God. Or they point to the minister of a church, like me, and say that’s what represents God. We all do in some way and, unfortunately, our shortcomings become a part of the mix, but I say if you really want to know God, look to Jesus. Don’t look to someone on TV, don’t look at your elder or the person sitting next to you, or to someone here in the choir, or to me; look to Jesus.
Years ago I went to a Circuit City store to purchase a new computer. I think it was my second computer, so this was a number of years ago. My previous computer had a monochrome display and a flashing c:\ prompt on the screen. Anyone here remember that age of computers? The computer I was considering purchasing had a color monitor and the new technology of a CD drive. The salesman was showing me this great new feature of a CD encyclopedia that included video clips. This was cutting-edge technology at the time. As the encyclopedia opened on the screen the salesman came to a screen with a televangelist, which pushed him into a rant. Those guys are all a bunch of crooks and that’s why I’m not really into God. I wanted to ignore his rant, but it finally got under my skin, and I responded that televangelists didn’t represent God. If you want to know what God is like, I told him, look to Jesus.
And that is what I believe. It’s easy to point to the failings of another person and accuse them of being a hypocrite and then wash your hands of faith. Except that it’s not really fair, because we can’t expect another person to represent God. I cannot adequately represent him, and neither can you or anyone else. But Jesus does. And that is what really matters, and who really matters.