Summary: Which cup have you chosen to drink from? The love of God, poured out in Jesus Christ, is complete, unlimited and unmixed; the wrath of God is simply what’s left over when his love is refused.
One of the things that still divides our denomination is the matter of “inclusive language.” It’s a difference that lines up pretty much the same way as all the other hot-button issues, with theological liberals on one side and theological conservatives on the other. But there are exceptions. My predecessor, Laura Smit. Who was as conservative as I am on most issues if not more so, changes the words in dozens of our choir anthems to take out “he” and “his” and “men” and
“mankind” and so on. I don’t think she was quite as touchy about referring to God with the masculine pronoun, though.
Anyway, one of the reasons for this change in the way we handle language is because using the masculine pronoun to mean both sexes has been blamed for past mistreatment and marginalization of women. I don’t think that changing the words was the right solution, myself, but that’s another story. But having pretty much won that argument, the language police then got started on trying to change the way we refer to God. Some Presbyterian congregations don’t even use the
classical trinitarian formula “Father, Son and Holy Spirit“ in baptism, even though that’s what both Jesus and our Book of Worship require. Instead, they say :Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.”
There are really two ideas behind this push to de-personalize the deity. The first is again to undo past misuse. God is spirit, not flesh, and is certainly not an old man with a long beard sitting on a throne surrounded by fat little cherubs playing harps no matter what Michelangelo did in the Sistine Chapel. Again, I think that changing the words doesn’t help matters at all. The Bible uses metaphors
because we need them, to make the invisible world real, to help our relationship with God come alive.
But the second reason for changing the language is a little more sensitive. Some feminist theologians argue that many women are unable to resonate to the image of God as father because their own fathers were absent or abusive or otherwise inadequate. Well, again, it is certainly true that fathers in our society have not lived up to the heavenly model. Although in my opinion it is the absent father, rather than the abusive one, that is the larger problem in our society. But in
either case, substituting either a mother god or an impersonal force for the Father God Jesus gives us access to isn’t the way to handle the problem. And of course it ignores the fact that there are just as many abusive mothers out there as abusive fathers. God’s solution for wounded spirits is much more creative and powerful than to avoid the risk of being in relationship.
I’ve talked to a lot of people about this issue, because it does divide our denomination and it shouldn’t. And frankly some of them have accused me of being insensitive to the pain abused women have experienced. But that is not true. Like many of you - both men and women - I had an abusive father. My sister was just down from New York a couple of weeks ago, and as we usually do we spend some time peeling back some more layers of our common experience. It
turns out that we have yet another thing in common. Neither one of us can handle having people being mad at us. Our palms sweat, our hearts pound, and our minds go blank as we wait for the world to end. We never knew what would set him off, and we never knew if he’d stop before someone got really hurt.
And when I became a Christian, it took me years before I even realized that this father-fear got in the way of my relationship with God. Every time I read one of the passages about the wrath of God I was absolutely convinced that I was right smack in the crosshairs of the celestial bazooka. The text I particularly remember was from Revelation 21 “But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death." [Rev 21:8] Because I recognized myself particularly as a coward but had more than a nodding acquaintance with the rest of the sins on the list. Today’s text got to me, too, not so vividly but it still took me a long time before I could handle most of the book of Revelation.
But what I finally figured out was that I had it all backward.
How many of you have heard someone say, “How can God allow such suffering?” when looking at the devastation in, for instance, the Congo - where at least 2 million people have died in the latest civil war? Or the endless tragedy of the AIDS epidemic, or - well, you know what I mean. Do we really want a God - or a father - who isn’t outraged at dishonesty and injustice and cruelty? Do we really want a father - or a mother - or a God- who doesn’t really care what we do, who just cleans up our messes after us and never lifts a finger to put us back on the right track? Do we want a blindly doting sugar daddy or an impersonal traffic cop? Do we really want a world where there is neither meaning nor justice?