Ramblings on Grace, Life, and Theology, in Light of This Morning’s Sermon

At church this morning, the pastor made five points that especially stood out to me.

A.  The pastor said that God has shown us love through Jesus Christ, and now it’s on us.  God has done all that God can do to show us God’s love.  It is now up to us to decide what to do in response to that.  We can disregard God’s grace and throw it to the side.  Or we can accept it and let it change us.

B.  The pastor said that God may be surprised by how we act.  God is surprised that we reject God’s love and grace.  To do so makes no sense.

C.  The pastor was talking about the Christmas card and the barn.  Both of these are literal, yet also symbolic.  The Christmas card represents the warm feelings that people have on Christmas.  Pictures on Christmas cards, even pictures that make no sense (such as a church surrounded by snow with no path to get to it), encourage a sense of warmth within people who see them.  The barn, on the other hand, represents the less pleasant aspects of life.  Mary had her baby in a barn, a place that was smelly and was not particularly clean or comfortable.  The pastor talked about the importance of balance: the Christmas card without the barn is problematic, but so is the barn without the Christmas card.  According to him, Mary and Joseph went through stressful and uncomfortable times as Mary was pregnant and having her baby, but they eventually arrived at some sense of calm, purpose, and warmth.

D.  Does God truly have free choice?  The pastor said that God is loving by nature—-as if God cannot help but love us.  Yet, the pastor was saying that God became incarnate in Jesus Christ even though God did not have to do so.  God expressly chose this path of identification with the human race.  The pastor also talked about the tension within Jesus’ will in the Garden of Gethsemane: Jesus did not want to die on the cross, but he voluntarily submitted to God.

E.  The pastor was presenting a definition or a conceptualization of God’s love, and it included God liking us.

Now, I’d like to offer my brief reactions to each point.

A.  I have often felt that God could do more to show his love for me concretely, to show me that he is and that he knows my address and loves me.  I am also skeptical about the idea so pervasive in evangelical circles that accepting and believing in God’s love can automatically transform a person, making that person more loving to others and more accepting.  Often, at least speaking for myself personally, there is a disconnect between head and heart, or between head and actions.  Even what I tell my head may not permeate it.  Plus, I struggle with whether the Bible and Christianity actually portray a God of unconditional love.  They do present God’s love, on some level, but they also seem to attach a lot of conditions!  But I need some foundation on which to build, and seeing God as loving is more constructive than not seeing God as loving.  Seeing God as loving is consistent with the Bible’s portrayal of God, for God in the Bible sent Jesus Christ to suffer and die for us, plus God patiently put up with people’s sins.

B.  Is God surprised by how we act?  On the one hand, there does seem to be bafflement on the part of God and Jesus.  In Micah 6:3-4, God asks sinful Israel how exactly God has burdened her, and he refers to the good things that God has done for Israel: the Exodus and sending Israel leaders.  God appears to be perplexed by how Israel is acting, especially after God’s benevolence and kindness towards her.  In Matthew 23:37 and Luke 13:34, Jesus laments that Jerusalem has stoned God’s messengers and has rejected Jesus’ offer (or God’s offer) to gather her as a hen gathers her chickens beneath her wings.

On the other hand, there are indications that Jesus was not particularly surprised by how people were receiving him.  Jesus even had an idea about why people were rejecting him.  In John 3:19-20, Jesus said that people were not coming to the light because their deeds were evil.

I know that I am afraid of coming to the light because my attitudes are evil.  I am afraid that people would judge me as petty, selfish, and unloving, or that I would feel compelled to do things that I cannot do, or may not even want to do.  The context in which one places that thought in John 3:19-20 is important and makes all the difference: one can put that within the context of God telling us that we suck, or one can put that within the context of God’s love.  Humans, including many Christians, will often do the former, at least when it comes to how they view other people’s sins: so-and-so is afraid of the light because that person sucks and is deficient in character, and that’s basically it!  Hopefully that is not how God approaches the situation!

C.  I do not have much to say about “C,” but it is a good insight.  I need the bad times to appreciate the good times.  Plus, I should not rest in my own good times while ignoring other people’s bad times.  Bad times may or may not be a part of God’s perfect will, but they are there.  They are a part of real life.  They should be acknowledged, but hope should be part of the equation somewhere in a person’s attitude.

D.  I have been reading John Frame’s A History of Western Philosophy and Theology (and I received a review copy through NetGalley, just to make that clear).  Frame talks about how different thinkers interacted with the question of whether God has free will.  Some believed that God did what was rational and could do no other.  Others thought that God’s choices are not determined by rationality and that God could do all sorts of things: that God could have done other than what God did.

I cannot say that I have arrived at a solution to this that satisfies me entirely.  That latter option, in which God has libertarian free will, does not set right for me because I cannot envision a choice having no basis in at least something.  I believe that, when God makes a decision, there is a reason for it, and God’s decision is not arbitrary, nor does it just pop into existence out of nowhere; it is motivated by something.  At the same time, I do believe that God can select among a variety of righteous options, that there is not just one righteous or rational path that God by nature has to follow.

E.  I know that I often try to justify myself, from a Christian or ethical standpoint, by saying: “I love so-and-so, but I do not like so-and-so.”  Often, I say that even though I cannot stand so-and-so and my stomach churns when I think about so-and-so!  Some well-meaning Christians—-the ones who do not tell me that I suck—-may try to reassure me by saying that God loves everyone, but God does not like everyone.  There may be something to that.  Personally speaking, I would not feel good if God loved me but did not like me.  Can I view others as I would like God to view me?  Not really.  I can try to see the good in other people, but, again, the head does not always reach the heart.  What I tell the head does not even penetrate the head!  What can I do but go to God in prayer about this?

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About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting.
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