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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Are We Trying to "Out-God" God?

"So why are you now trying to out-god God, loading these new believers down with rules that crushed our ancestors and crushed us, too? Don't we believe that we are saved because the Master Jesus amazingly and out of sheer generosity moved to save us just as he did those beyond our nations? So what are we arguing about?" (Acts 15:10-11, MSG)

What does it mean to try to "out-god" God?

Out-godding God may be one of the biggest obstacles to our own ability to reach new people with the gospel. We're familiar with the consistent reports that young people think that the church people are hypocritical, judgmental and boring...maybe it was too political rather than boring. But too political, according to the reports, means that one side of things is proposed as the only way to believe if you want to be a Christian, on the right side, with the insiders. I think that's out-godding God.

How easy it is to fall into the trap of out-godding God! Recently a pastor in my home town told his congregation of farmers that unless they farm organically, they're not really Christian. (He's not long for that world...) Not to get engaged in how nearly impossible it is to make a living farming organically in eastern Washington state and how complicated the whole American agricultural system has become, given the US Farm Bill, etc., what was he thinking?

Abraham Joshua Heschel, my favorite prophetic voice of the Hebrew scriptures, warns his readers in The Prophets, that prophets can go beyond God's judgment, destroying instead of disciplining. Heschel calls it a hypertrophy of sympathy for God, or out-godding God in judgment. Jeremiah had a tendency to out-god God in his condemnation, reprimanding without reminding people of God's love; judgment instead of grace, forgetting God's love for the victims caught in the mire of complicated issues. A hypertrophy of sympathy for God is to outweigh love of God for love of neighbor; they're meant to be in balance (a trick if you can do it).

Obviously out-godding God isn't an exclusively early church phenom!

But equating any political, social, religious or economic agenda--or anything for that matter--as the only way to be Christian is to out-god God! It's simplistic and only adds burdens to those who are often the most vulnerable, even the victims, of the injustices that we decry.

Acts 15 demonstrates that the complicated issues of our religious, economic, political, and cultural lives aren't easily discerned, lived out, and finalized. In our present economic struggles, given the federal deficit, states' need to balance budgets, and the pinch on congregations to be in ministry (and federal and state leaders calling on the faith communities to pick up the slack), how do we find our way forward to make wise and faithful decisions based on our biblical and Wesleyan traditions of economic justice? And avoid out-godding God when we do? How do we find a gracious prophetic voice?



Darlene said...

Only when we fully understand the grace and unconditional love of God will we be able to put all the foolishness aside and love all of our neighbors as God loves us. Giving up our will of thinking we as humans have the answer to another human's condition is our largest task. Once we know that God is the only one who has the answer to any human condition we may be able to direct people to God through Jesus Christ so they can see for themselves that God is their answer. We spend more time trying to convince each other that we have the answer than we spend opening doors for our neighbors so they can find their own path to becoming whole. Thank you for broaching the subject, Bishop Sally. It has been an issue for me for a long time. Perhaps now we have an opportunity to open those doors.

Dan said...

First of all, we should acknowledge that we are hypocritical, judgmental and often boring - we are far from perfect. It is only through Jesus' grace that we are saved. Maybe when we truly humble ourselves to ALL of those around us by becoming a servant, will we finally understand that it is not about us.
We so often make a big deal about the day or time we accepted Jesus into our hearts (don't get me wrong it is a big deal), but I think we forget that accepting him is just the beginning of the journey.

Jennifer Amy-Dressler said...

Two thoughts come to mind in response. One is the recognition of how much "political" disagreement (in church, society, or any other social setting) is over means rather than ends. The current budget debates in Minnesota state government is one example; most people want a decent standard of living and economic opportunity and flourishing for all, but how we get there is rightly debated. Christians vary widely on how to achieve such ends, but share common goals.

Two, the recent lectionary study of the Sermon on the Mount proves a challenging reminder that we are called to move beyond entrenchment, litmus tests, and "winning" that does not invite both self and other to transformation. When we do our best, speak truth in love, and really trust the Spirit to be at work, we are putting faithfulness ahead of "success.". The United Church of Christ reminds us all of pastor John Robinson's words to the Pilgrims: "God hath yet more truth and light to break forth from his holy word." The Quaker practice of discernment also teaches us to listen for something beyond our opinions and even our best thinking, to hear "that of God" coming through the very one with whom we disagree. Humility and graciousness, even as we struggle to articulate a prophetic position, is core to a gospel witness.

Brent Olson said...

"That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn."

Once we master this, maybe we can start something else.

Lausten North said...

It has been interesting to read “The Message” version of passages that you have been using. It opens my eyes to the meaning of my NIV texts. Acts 15 has become one of my favorite chapters because it such a clear story of leaders rethinking their faith and applying it to their new situation based on their real experiences. Something we desperately need to do today.

Significantly, they had been out in the world and are coming back to discuss their experience. They spend some time listening to each other first, then bring up a controversy. They wait for an opinion from the elders. In this case it is Peter. He reminds them that God does not discriminate. Other comments are heard then they decide as a whole.

Then, perhaps most important, they apologize for their past miscommunications. They craft a letter that clarifies the decision they made and send trusted representatives with it.