Over roughly half-a-century as a pastoral counselor, I’ve listened to people speak of God--stated or implied—in at least three different ways. Unfortunately, the first two are more common than the third, the last being the kind of God I advocate and seek to promote, perhaps even more implicitly than explicitly. These three different kinds of God, as I’ve come to term them, are Punitive Parent, Capricious Caretaker, and Gracious Presence.
Whether I hear the Punitive Parent God referenced more often than the Capricious Caretaker God is debatable. Either is, nonetheless, an equal opportunity offender. And neither seems preferable to those, however sad or proud, most devoted to announcing the God they “don’t believe in.”
The Punitive Parent God is, of course, not only difficult if not impossible to please, and just as pernicious in reminding whomever that she or he is of questionable worth. Two examples come to mind. Some years ago, I saw a couple who were in a stand-off marriage. The wife was seemingly devastated because, as she put it, “my husband won’t forgive me.”
“For what?” I asked. To which neither the woman nor the man could seem to account for anything I, nor surely any reasonable person would consider a failure or flaw needing to be forgiven. As I proceeded to gently engage this emotionally fragile couple, who seemed to be walking on proverbial eggshells around each other, two characteristics emerged. One was how emotionally dependent on her husband for approval, much less appreciation and affection, the woman appeared to be. And how—as in a carefully choreographed dance—her husband was just as unwilling, if not incapable of embracing his wife anywhere close to being accepting, appreciative or forgiving.
However painfully unattractive, the woman’s emotional neediness was trumped only by her husband’s arrogance. That’s when I asked the fellow, referencing Jesus’ model prayer in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6: 9-13), if asking God to forgive us meant anything to him with respect to our being as well forgiving of others, including his wife. To which he coldly replied, “I don’t believe in God.”
If indeed believing in God may often seem hard, not believing in God is surely harder still. Because then one has to be God. And that’s a big job. Or as someone once declared to William Sloane Coffin, “God’s just a crutch.” To which Coffin replied, “S/He sure is. What’s yours?”
When I asked the husband how he had drawn such a conclusion, if not such a premise, he proceeded to offer his rather unabridged religious autobiography which was, of course, replete with critique and complaint and had everything to do with the Punitive Parent God he claimed to no longer believe in.
Perhaps you’ve noticed? How so many who “don’t believe in God” are just as militant in promoting such ostensible un-belief as their contrasting counterparts, those whose supposed “belief” borders on idolatry. Those who would so piously claim to have their hand in God’s, when it is patently obvious that what they have instead is God’s hand in their own. Not to mention, how often those who claim “dis-belief” in a Punitive Parent God tend to be, however much in denial, quite as critical, judgmental, and legalistic as one might expect. As it were, its own form of secular Phariseeism.
On a more constructive note, I have a young friend who has managed to escape the damage a Punitive Parent God can unfortunately inflict. I say “escape the damage” because when the Punitive Parent caricature is the only God one has to “not believe in,” the consequences can be tragic. This young man, for instance, grew up in the repressive and oppressive culture of a works-righteous fundamentalist family and church and even attended a comparable “Christian” college.
Ironically enough, however, he thankfully cites some “underground professors” in that college who introduced him to such writers as Graham Greene and Frederick Buechner. They “saved my life,” he says. “I was chronically, habitually, and just as pathologically never good enough, until I discovered a different kind of God from the only one I’d ever known, the God I had grown up with.”
I’ve listened to too many people over the years for whom the only God they seemed to “not believe in” has been, tragically, the caricature of a Punitive Parent.
A comparable caricature is the Capricious Caretaker: the God who didn’t show up for work today; the God you can’t necessarily count on; the unreliable, if not unfair God who isn’t where or when you need him; the God who seems too often too busy or distracted or even unconcerned to be available PRN.
You may have noticed how those who “don’t believe” in the Punitive Parent or Capricious Caretaker God rarely, if ever, refer to him as her, a God who transcends gender.
I actually remember hearing a sermon once in which the preacher was extolling the God, to whom he had prayed, who caused a municipal judge to dismiss his wife’s speeding ticket. As thankful as the guy was for such timely divine intervention, I couldn’t help but think, as he was relating his triumphant testimony, of all the gravely ill and just as innocent people for whom I have so fervently prayed who have died, too many too young, including my own daughter.
So does my life-long best friend claim these days to not believe in God, after his young wife died of colon cancer, leaving him the grieving widowed father of three children. “I watched her read her Bible and pray, asking God to heal her. How can I believe in God?” he asserts rather than asks. Unfortunately, the God he, understandably, no longer believes in is a Capricious Caretaker.
So what about God as Gracious Presence? When someone asks to see me professionally, he, she, or they are usually in distress. And the God they reference, in whatever way or other, if at all, isn’t typically a Gracious Presence God. Whatever the varied reasons, that is hardly the God most people seem to have grown up with or discovered along the way, however supposedly spiritual or secular such folk may claim to be.
In fact, my own story isn’t all that different. What in this world—and certainly in the culture that has shaped my life—isn’t conditional, if not competitive? So, like mostreasonably successful Americans, I’ve gotten pretty good as well at striving and grasping, achieving and acquiring, while absorbing at least my share of the anxiety such an aspiring and driven way of living tends to evoke.
Except that’s hardly a Christian definition of worth.
Often, when someone tells me that she or he doesn’t believe in God, instead of inquiring what sort of God it is that he or she doesn’t believe in, the wise guy in me will reply, “Then get a dog!” For that’s how the power who God is loves—not unlike the devotion of one’s beloved pet, “man’s best friend”--just that un-conditionally. Or as a sign in the office of my colleague, a local hospital chaplain, says it: “I want to be the person my dog thinks I am.”
Which reminds me of a quote I once read by the late Samuel Miller, a Baptist pastor and dean of Harvard Divinity School: “It is not our faith in God, which may be fickle or faint, that saves. But God’s faith in us.”
That is at least the God we Christians claim to know best in the most human of ways in Jesus, the Christ of Christian faith. For to love, and thus to know, much less to trust and rest in a Gracious Presence God, is to live out of the conviction, if not fully an understanding, that the power who God is, how such power is after all the love who God is. A love in fact that never lets go—in this life and beyond it, in our best and worst of times, our successes and our failures, our accomplishments and our disappointments, our joy and sadness, our winning and losing, when we “get it right” and when we don’t, in our health and illness, our living and dying. Again, as the late Reverend Coffin put it: God is that transcendent and immanently Gracious Presence who “offers, not protection, but support.”
Such a God of ethical monotheism, according to Exodus 3:14 and Paul Tillich, unlike the rest of us, such a God is no mere being (however “supreme”), but being itself--indeed, personal being—himself, herself. Not a noun, but a verb; dynamic, not static. Unlike God, we exist, even as because God is we are (Acts 17:28). Or are becoming? Is “I am who I am” better translated “I will be who I will be”? As anthropomorphic as whatever the biblical image, God is nonetheless Spirit, Gracious Presence (John 4: 24). Not God as object, but God as subject. Neither an adversarial, a passive, emotionally detached, nor a “fix it” God; rather, in the words of the poet, Frederick Morgan: “It’s not so simple. Somehow he’s mixed up in all this with us; cares, participates, while holding all the while his ancient realm . . .” (Poems From a Book of Change, 1972).
My mentor, the late John Claypool, used to say: “The power of love who God is doesn’t seek value; rather, such a way of loving confers value.” For finally, is that not the most important question in life? Who or what tells us who we are and what we’re worth?
Put another way, we aren’t ultimately embraced and defined by the power of love who God is because of who we are or aren’t, because of what we do or don’t. As they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, “whether you’re from Yale or from jail, from Park Avenue or the park bench.” We are instead loved in such a powerfully unconditional way because that is the Gracious Presence who God is.
Monty Knight is a pastoral counselor in Charleston, South Carolina