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Misunderstanding God

Ann Spangler
Ann Spangler
2018 27 Feb

  An image of a misty forest.

Even with the best intentions, it’s easy to misunderstand the God we seek. Part of the problem is that sin clouds our vision, distorts our view. We want a God we can control, one we can manage and use. But God won’t be reduced by our selfish aspirations. Another issue has to do with our limited capacity. We are like children trying to scoop the ocean into a bucket, finite beings trying to comprehend the mind and heart of an infinite God.

At times we doubt God, perhaps not outwardly but secretly. We judge his motives, particularly when things go wrong, suspecting him, of being unkind, unfeeling, or even cruel. He doesn’t act the way we think he should or according to our timeline. Or he fails to act at all. We pray and pray and hear no answer. Only silence.

Our judgments, harsh and incomplete, based as they are on faulty and inadequate knowledge can lead to feelings of disappointment, hurt, anger, and confusion. How, we wonder, can a good God tolerate the cruelty and violence that often characterizes our world? Because we don’t understand, we begin to question God’s motives, his power, and his goodness. We wonder how an all-powerful God has not yet managed to clean up the universe. Though Christianity has had 2,000 years to spread, and though it has made enormous contributions to the world, there is still so much darkness.

Catherine the Great was one of the world’s most powerful rulers in the second half of the eighteenth century. Reigning from 1762 until her death in 1796, Catherine longed to bring Russian culture and government in line with the Enlightenment principles of Western Europe. But it was a daunting task. Here’s how she replied to Diderot, a French philosopher who pressed her to transform Russia along more enlightened lines:

I have listened with the greatest pleasure to all the inspirations of your brilliant mind. But all your grand principles, which I understand very well, would do splendidly in books and very badly in practice. In your plans for reform, you are forgetting the difference between our two positions: you work only on paper which accepts anything, is smooth and flexible and offers no obstacles either to your imagination or your pen, while I, poor empress, work on human skin, which is far more sensitive and touchy.

Reading Catherine’s response reminded me that God has deliberately chosen to work through a rather intransigent medium—the medium of our human skin.  As Catherine so archly observed, this is a medium which is “far more sensitive and touchy.” It does not quickly yield to abstract solutions, good as they might be. Because God is working in and through broken people, whose souls are neither smooth nor flexible, his activity may seem obscured and obstructed at times. He doesn’t “live up to” our idealistic notions of how he should act or what he should do. As Paul says, we see but through a glass darkly.

Whenever you are tempted to draw the conclusion that God is less than loving remind yourself that God is much bigger than any ideas you may have about him. Then ask him to lead you into a deeper, more confident understanding of who he really is.