IS YOUR GOD TOO SMALL?

MY GOD IS an awesome God, full of majesty, power and might, grace, mercy, kindness and care. I haven’t always known him like that. For many years he was frightening, somebody to be feared and shunned, a judge who sat upon a lofty throne glaring down at us mere mortals who, no matter how hard we tried, could never attain his standard of  perfection or righteousness. Though I was fascinated by him and wanted to know more about him, my childish comprehension kept me from ever getting to know him. I am not alone in what was my faulty, fictional understanding of who God is.

J.B. Phillips, in his book Your God is Too Small described the different perceptions God on throne 2people have about God. Many still hold the view of him that they had in Sunday School, a benevolent old man in the sky meting out blessings to those who were good and punishing those who were bad. Others see him as a “resident policeman” making sure they obey the myriad rules placed upon them, while others understand God as the “managing director” of their lives making decisions for them and taking away any responsibility for what they determine to be “God’s will”. Many others have placed God in a box that has been created by their brand of Christianity, Protestant or Catholic, or by their individual life story. None of those concepts, Phillips states, is adequate when one experiences the challenges of today’s society—and he was writing more than sixty years ago!

My understanding of God leapt out at me many years ago when I was speaking with a pastor about some persistent concerns that had nagged me since childhood. He suggested that I visualise myself as a little girl running towards God in his throne room and experiencing his loving acceptance of his daughter. I guess the pastor thought it would be rather like how JFK Junior would rush into the White House to be with his father. He had unprecedented access to the most powerful man on earth, the President of the United States of America. But for me, I was terrified and blurted out, “He says he won’t!” And my God remained even more distant than I had already known him to be. I have come a long way since then.

Where do I begin to explain who God is? So awesome, magnificent, majestic and mighty, ruler of the universe, our sovereign Deity, bursting with glory and wonder, power and might; all knowing, ever present and in supreme control of this world we live in. And yet this breathtaking Being who holds the world in his enormous hands, is so cognisant of the pinnacle of his creation, humankind. The Psalmist of old captures the dilemma we have:

LORD, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory
in the heavens.

When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them? (Psalm 8:1-4)

How can we make sense of our majestic God’s desire to have a relationship with us mere mortals, particularly when for many of us our comprehension of him comes from distorted teachings flowing from the pulpit that have failed to represent the reality of our loving God?

God is love. The whole message of his creation is that of love. Despite mankind’s disobedience and rebellion, God’s message remains that of love. Throughout the ages, as he interacted with the Israelites—his chosen people—his message was that of love. And his plan of salvation, the sending into our sin-sick world of his only, dearly beloved Son to demonstrate in tangible ways the reality of God’s love for all peoples, was an unarguable message of extreme, extravagant love. The suffering and brutal crucifixion of the Lord Jesus Christ on that wretched cross at Calvary was the ultimate message of love for humanity and God’s creation. The resurrection brought with it the triumph of that message of love, culminating in the awesomeness of his ascension followed by the promised empowerment of the Holy Spirit upon those who chose to receive him.

God is love. And his message for all people everywhere, regardless of colour or creed, gender, race or religion, social standing or marital status, is that of love.

Jesus and lambThe message of salvation begins and ends with God. God is love. God loves me with an unconditional, welcoming love that accepts me just as I am—just as I was when I first met him and began to understand something of who he was and is. Just as I was in the mire of my life when chaos ruled, when my faith in him was as fragile as that of a lost lamb who had wandered far from her Shepherd’s care, when my anger at what others had done to me through their atrocious abuse, betrayals, lies and the distortion of God’s truth raged. God loves me. And because God loves me with that pure, unadulterated love—unconditionally and with no holds barred—I want to love him back, and love others in that same exquisitely perfect way.  I have much to learn.

Reference:  J.B. Phillips, Your God is Too Small, London: Epworth Press, 1952

MY CHAINS FELL OFF

I HAVE STRUGGLED with church for decades.  So much of what was preached from the churchespulpit and lived out in the congregation did not gel with my understanding of the life and teachings of Christ.  However, to question the contradictions I was experiencing was met with disdain and left me feeling like a heretic, a backslider and sinner who lacked faith and was disrespectful of authority.  So I tried to get along, toe the line and believe that my involvement in the church was commendable; after all, I was working for the Lord and extending his kingdom here on earth.  The “kingdom” that was labelled “Baptist”, “Assembly of God”, “Pentecostal”, “Charismatic”, “Anglican”—whichever church I happened to belong to at the time.

After a particularly unpleasant incident in a small church in Outback Queensland, I gave up completely on my quest for a spiritual home.  I was over it.  I had tried so hard to find a place to belong and had failed.  Nonetheless, deep within I held on to a thin thread of hope that maybe one day I would find that elusive faith community that would accept me as I am, just as I would accept and love others as they were.

Eventually a horrid situation erupted from the depths of my mind, shattering my spiritually stifling fundamental evangelical faith and tearing it apart.  Gone were the constricting constraints that held my black and white, cut and dried beliefs together.  Gone was the narrowness of my understanding of God’s love and acceptance of people that set me apart from the “sinners” who did not know him and those of us who belonged to his chosen few.  Gone were the thick iron chains that had bound me to the belief that I was never good enough to be part of the “really chosen ones”, those in church leadership; the understanding that I had no right to think through life issues on my own, let alone make decisions for myself on matters that affected my life and future.  All of that was gone.  Flung off in a flash with chaos reigning and any sense of normality flying out the window.  It really was a time when “my chains fell off”, as that old hymn says, but in those early days my heart was definitely not free.

dust stormOne of the many challenges I experienced was that I felt so alone with what I was going through.  I thought I was the only one to have walked this path.  I was frightened that I was letting God down, and I was so afraid to even think of reading non-evangelical writings lest I be led further astray.  I was dreadfully confused, particularly because all I had tried to believe in, all that I had given my life to, had turned to dust and been blown away by a mighty gale, never to be gathered together again.

God in his graciousness led me to several organisations that addressed the issues I was going through.  Each one has contributed to my journey, and I am so grateful for them.

Richard Rohr’s Centre for Action and Contemplation[i] and his extensive teachings helped ground me when the storms of confusion battered my soul.  J.B. Phillip’s book, Your God is Too Small[ii], simplified my comprehension of why I had never felt comfortable with what churches had tried to instil in me.  The website Mindful Christianity Today[iii] has been a source of encouragement with many of its messages resonating deep within, strengthening my understanding of God and teaching me how to be still in his presence and in the process learn more about his character, his love, grace and mercy.

In the early weeks of my intense rage at the church for what I had been caught up in, I came across Greg Albrecht’s book Rejecting Religion: Embracing Grace[iv], an incredible eye-opener if ever there was one.  Using the words of Jesus in Matthew 23, Greg Albrecht broke open the lies of the church and her leaders and the resultant bondage they placed upon their congregations.  When I first read that I was dumbfounded.  How dare this man write as he did!  Gosh, if I had have said what he was saying I would have been kicked out of the church for heresy.  But here he was, writing about the very concerns that had all but destroyed my soul and had left me so spiritually bereft.  Greg Albrecht did not leave the book there; he went on to demonstrate that each one of us has a responsibility to forgive those who have hurt us and live a life of grace and mercy, just like Jesus did.

While reading through Rejecting Religion: Embracing Grace a second time, I decided to contact the publisher and was pleased to have Greg respond to my email.  Through that connection I am appreciating the work of Christianity Without the Religion/ Plain Truth Ministries[v], and I look forward to more involvement with both.

Over the past few days I have come across a Facebook site that has been such an encouragement: Progressive Christians[vi].  Like other members, I was  hesitant about becoming involved with this group.  After all, doesn’t “progressive” mean liberal, anti-Christ, ungodly, accepting of all people—including gays and lesbians?  Oh dear.  What was I getting myself into?  What I have been experiencing on this site has been acceptance—that elusive sense of belonging that had evaded me for decades—love, grace, compassion, kindness, care.

Belonging to this group is so far removed from the narrow, bigoted, restricted view of God that I had found so difficult to embrace—and had felt so guilty for being rebellious and lacking in faith for not embracing—and the abiding peace and unfathomable freedom that God has promised for those who love him.

Putting all these contacts together I feel that at long last I have found what I have been looking for.  I feel so content in this fresh awareness of my God who has been with me throughout what has been at times an unbearable journey.  Standing at the threshold of this New Year, I can sing afresh the words of that old hymn that have now taken on such an invigorating new meaning:

Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray,
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.[vii]

chains broken

 

[i] Center for Action and Contemplation, https://cac.or

[ii] J. B. Phillips, Your God Is Too Small.  New York: Macmillan, 1953

[iii] Mindful Christianity Today http://www.mindfulchristianitytoday.com

[iv] Greg Albrecht, Rejecting Religion – Embracing Grace.  Pasadena: Plain Truth Ministries, 2010

[v] Christianity Without the Religion/Plain Truth Ministries https://www.ptm.org

[vi] Progressive Christians, Facebook

[vii] Charles Wesley (1707-1788)

 

FRESH INSIGHTS

The Shack bookGOD HAS BEEN showing me precious truths about who he is. Through the movie The Shack I learned that his concept of vengeance differs so much from mine. Just as he chastises me for my misdeeds with love and grace, so he deals with all people fairly and appropriately. Vengeance is his, and I can leave the way he deals with others in his hands. That is none of my business.

From J.B. Phillips’ book Your God is Too Small I learned of the need to have a focussed view of God, as presented through the person of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ—his life, teachings, suffering, death and resurrection. Otherwise, for us mere mortals, we would each hold a very distorted, wishy washy image of the awesomeness of who God really is and how, in his majestic wonder and power, he could possibly care for each one of us intimately and individually.Almighty God

From Come Sunday, the movie about Oral Roberts’ disciple Bishop Carlton Pearson and his revelation of God’s deep, profound, all-embracing love for all people—regardless of race, colour or creed—and the falseness of the bigoted teaching that God only loves those who have accepted Jesus as Saviour and the rest were going to hell, I learned more of just how distorted my understanding of God’s love was.

And from Richard Rohr’s book Falling Upward, in which he demonstrates how the first half of life is about forming the container of who we are, the second of focussing on what needs to be in there to be an expression of the True Self we were born to be.

This has been a lot to take in, but what a privilege to have the time to reflect upon this and particularly to have the Holy Spirit as my Teacher and Guide, so patient and so willing to reveal his truths to me.

Oh how I love Jesus—in this journey called life, he takes my breath away!

Worship the KingReferences:

Wm Paul Young, The Shack. Newbury Park, California: Windblown Media, 2007.
J.B. Phillips, Your God is Too Small. New York: Macmillan, 1953.
Come Sunday, Netflix, 2018.
Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011.

IS YOUR GOD TOO SMALL?

JUST AS I began reassessing my understanding of God that had largely been formed from pulpits of fundamental evangelical preachers, I was reminded of J.B. Phillips’ book, Your God Is Too Small[1].  Written in the early 1950s, Your God Is Too Small has as its premise that most people’s understanding of God is far too inadequate to cope with the challenges of the 20th Century. Phillips describes different perceptions people have of God—unreal gods—that fail miserably in the midst of life’s trials:

• Resident policeman
• Parental hangover
• Grand old man
• Meek-and-mild
• Absolute perfection
• Heavenly bosom
• God-in-a-box
• Managing director
• Second-hand God
• Perennial grievance
• Pale Galilean
• Projected image

Christ's handPhillips then goes on to demonstrate the rationale of how and why God chose to show himself to humanity, in the form of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. The enormity of Almighty God is beyond comprehension for mere mortals who, since the beginning of time, have sought to know him, the Creator of this vast universe. By having his Son come to earth in the form of man, live alongside humans in a way that reflected his character being worked out in relationships, through his teachings, resultant abuse, suffering and execution on a cross, enabled people to have a focussed understanding of what had otherwise been indefinable.

Had the story ended with the crucifixion, Jesus would have faded into history. However, to complete the revelation of his uniqueness, Christ rose from the dead, overcoming the powers of death and darkness. There is significant historical proof of the resurrection, including not just that his grave stone had been rolled away, but that after his death he had been seen alive, in bodily form, by hundreds of witnesses. Anticipating that those who would follow him, mere men and women, would fail miserably on their own, God provided the Holy Spirit to continue his mission of redemption in the world.

Phillips captures the essence of Christianity, not shying away from the question ofJesus..prophet suffering, and giving the argument for and against following Christ, and the failure of the Church to present him in all his glorious, life-changing reality.

Your God Is Too Small is a timely book for the 21st Century, particularly with church attendance being seen as irrelevant leaving many people floundering in their faith and grasping for meaningful direction and purpose. A great read.

[1] Phillips, J.B., Your God Is Too Small.  New York: Macmillan, © 1953.