God on God’s terms

Apr 13, 2017 by

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As human beings, we tend to want God on our own terms. We want what we want from God when we want it. We want God to validate our assumptions, our preferences, our view of how the world works or ought to work. We want to drape all of our aspirations and self-understandings and projects and identity constructions with divinity. Anne Lamott once remarked that one sure way to tell if you’ve created God in your image is when he ends up hating the same people you do. I suspect that the opposite is also true. I am suspicious when God ends up loving only and always the things that I do in precisely the ways that I love them.

So, yes, we want God on our terms and we have been busily setting ourselves about the dreary task of ensuring that the god we want is the god we worship ever since Eden. What this holiest week of the year does is give us God on God’s terms.

It gives us a God who turns over temple tables in protest and judgment of those who had commercialized what was supposed to be a house of prayer. It gives us a God who weeps over a city and sweats in a garden over the price of peace and our refusal to pursue it. It gives us a God who washes feet in response to the jostling machinations of power-hungry followers. It gives us a God who speaks silence to accusation and truth to power. It gives us a God who breaks bread with his betrayers and who forgives his torturers. And, of course ultimately it gives us a King whose throne is a cross and whose coronation is a crown of thorns.

It gives us a God who is simultaneously less than we would like him to be and more than we could ever understand.

When I was younger, I often imagined that the events of holy week were little more than a divinely choreographed salvation-accomplishing transaction that allowed God to forgive me and drag me off to heaven one day. There was little else that mattered besides the cross (oh yeah, and the empty tomb). Yes, Jesus was born once upon a time to give us Christmas to celebrate; yes, he did some pretty cool miracles; yes, he taught some neat, if bewilderingly impractical, things and, yes, he would very much like it if I would try to follow his advice periodically; yes, the whole spectacle of Jesus’ tears and arrest and trial and execution seemed to be drenched in pathos and humanity at every turn, but this was mostly just a sort of sad and inevitable charade. In the end, it was all mostly peripheral noise to the main event, which was God dealing with my sin on the cross and making it possible for me to be forgiven. In principle, Jesus’ life was mostly unnecessary because the point of the whole show was for the God-man to die and rise from the dead to balance the forensic ledgers and allow little old me to be justified before God.

Leaving aside the woeful incompleteness, incoherence and general silliness of the preceding sketch of the Easter event, it occurred to me that it also represents little more than another version of God-on-my-terms. If I perceive that my main concern in life is securing a post-mortem guaranteed inheritance, then I will frame this week’s narrative in such a way as to secure this result. If individual imputed guilt is what I consider to be my primary existential concern, than the story of Holy Week will be told to fit the need. If the cross is mostly about dealing with my sin, than the story of Jesus will — surprise! — mostly be about dealing with my sin.

I spent some time reading the Beatitudes and was reminded once again that the seeds of Holy Week were planted very early in the story. The cross is, in an important way, the logical culmination of how the world so often deals those Jesus called “blessed.” It’s not difficult, of course, to interpret this week of weeks as Jesus’ final enactment of his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount:

  • Blessed are the poor in spirit (My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?)
  • Blessed are the those who mourn (Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me…)
  • Blessed are the meek (But Jesus gave him no answer…)
  • Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing…)
  • Blessed are the merciful (Today you will be with me in paradise)
  • Blessed are the pure in heart (If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?)
  • Blessed are the peacemakers (Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come with swords and clubs? … Put your sword away…)
  • Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake (For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth)
  • Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely (He saved others, let him come save himself!)

The cross is a theological mystery whose depths we will surely never fully plumb. But whatever else we might say by way of “explanation,” we must surely start by observing that Jesus died the way he did because he lived the way he did. There is more than this going on, certainly. But there is surely not less.

At any rate, the preceding has me wrestling with an inconvenient and unsettling question during this week that we call “holy”: What does it say about human beings that when God comes on God’s terms, to show us truly and finally what God wants and what a truly human life looks like, our response is to say, “No thank you, we prefer god on our terms”?

And to scream, “Crucify him!”?

Ryan Dueck is pastor of Lethbridge Mennonite Church in Lethbridge, Alta., Canada. He writes at Rumblings, where this post first appeared.


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