Site icon Jake Owensby

What Do You Mean by “God”?

In everyday conversation people say “God” a lot.

They say “Thank God” and “Praise God.” “For God’s sake” and “Good God.” When my maternal grandmother was surprised or astonished she used to press her palms against her cheeks and say, “Mein Gott!” in a sort of Austrian version of “ay caramba!”

Sometimes I can only mutter “Oh God” in grief or regret or horror.

I could only moan “Oh God” when news of the shootings at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and the Living Tree Synagogue reached me. Each time one of my friends died by their own hand or I come across pictures of Auschwitz, Dachau, or Mauthausen. “Oh God.”

Lately I’ve been wondering what people mean when they say, “God.” Actually, I’ve been increasingly concerned about who people think God is. 

The source of my concern is not the growing religious pluralism of America. Neither do I spend time worrying about how to think about God in order to get into heaven or to stay out of hell. 

Instead, I’m convinced that what we will make of our lives together on this planet will be guided by our idea of God. That’s what the Bible means when it says that God created us in God’s image. 

And the rest of Scripture’s long and winding testimony makes it clear that we humans can make a wreck of things when we harbor a distorted and even toxic idea of God. To riff on something John Pavlovitz said, depending upon the God-concept we harbor, “The world will be either more or less kind, compassionate, generous, funny, creative, and loving.”

All of us have inherited a fractured world. We face broken hearts and disease, poverty and racism, hunger and greed, vicious governments and deadly addictions, garden variety personal sins and genocidal violence.

This is the world you and I inhabit. What we are going to do about it will turn—unconsciously for many of us—on our idea of God.

For some people “God” is a supernatural being. For others a higher power. Whether you believe in spiritual beings or not, all of us have what the theologian Paul Tillich called an ultimate concern.

That ultimate concern can focus on the common good, for example you may be fundamentally motivated by a desire for justice or peace. Or you may serve your own self interest in the pursuit of money, power, fame, or your substance of choice.

History and the daily news are littered with individuals and tribes and peoples and nations coping with the world’s aching chaos by finding somebody to blame. A scapegoat to vote off the island, to lock up, to lock out, to crucify.

Whether these people believe in a supernatural being or not, they’re adopting strategies remarkably similar to those who seek to enlist or at least to appease an angry, blaming, punishing god. Their “god” is wrathful and they need to do whatever it takes to stay on its right side, including throwing somebody else under the bus.

Jesus came to show us that God isn’t like this. As Richard Rohr likes to put it, Jesus came to change our mind about God, not to change God’s mind about us. God is a loving healer, not a blaming punisher. When we follow Jesus’s example, we are leaning into our true selves as the image of God. 

Jesus put it this way: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)

Jesus healed the sick, ate with outcasts, and fed the hungry. He taught us to forgive, to give the shirt off our back, to love even our enemies. This is the image of God on planet Earth. And that image comes especially clear in the cross. There we see simultaneously God’s relentless love and the cost of that love. God suffers with the world to heal the world.

Jesus died on the cross. The Romans executed him. Jesus had seen it coming. That’s what Empires do. They eliminate threats. 

And nothing could be more threatening to a militaristic, status-craving, power-driven, possession-obsessed Empire than someone who says that God blesses the poor and the meek. The weak and humble. Jesus resisted the might of Empire with the compassionate reign of God. 

Yes, the Romans killed him for it. But they couldn’t really take his life away from him. He had already been giving his life away. 

He had been giving his life away for the sake of the world from the moment of his birth. His life was the perfect embodiment of healing love. The perfect image of God. Even and especially in his dying Jesus showed us who God is. Who we most truly are.

J. Philip Newell puts it this way, “We come closest to our true selves when we pour ourselves out in love for one another, when we give our heart and thus the whole of our being.” (Christ of the Celts, 85)

I hope that my life, in its best moments at least, says that God is love.

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