Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God
and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.
--1 John 4:7-8 NRSV
I was born with a voice inside my head telling me I wasn’t good enough. Good enough for what? I’m not sure. I was born into a loving family with caring parents. Yet, my earliest nightmares were of someone—whom I didn’t know—being disappointed in me for something I had no control over. I don’t know where that voice came from.
My grandfather must have had the same voice in his head. He is said to have wrestled with shame and anger all his life despite nobody ever describing him as having done anything bad enough to deserve such lifelong pain. At middle age, I’ve decided that I have whatever he had, whatever negative self-critical gene lived in his DNA was passed down to me.
Since that harsh critical voice was always there inside of my consciousness, it was pretty easy for me to ascribe that negative judgment to God. From my earliest age I was taught about God’s love, but I always gravitated to the stuff about God’s judgment. I felt like God was always looking over my shoulder shaking the divine head in disappointment. I could never please that God. I soaked up theological messages about what a lousy sinner I was and how I deserved God’s judgment and wrath. That God supposedly loved me, but I could never please that God.
Over time, my beliefs about God changed and I began to realize that the negative voice in my consciousness was something other than God. Whatever it was, wherever it came from, it was something I was projecting on to God but really wasn’t God after all. I now know that “God” was emotionally abusive. That “God” was filled with hate. I’ve had a long journey learning to mistrust that harsh critical voice. When my wife can tell I’ve been listening to it again, she tells me, “It’s time to pass the talking stick to another voice in your head. We’ve heard what it has to say, but now somebody else gets a turn.” I smile and try to relax and let kinder thoughts roll through my mind. I’m far from perfect, but I’ve never been as bad as that voice always said I was.
I tend to think psychological critiques of religion that claim God is only a projection of our need for a parent or some other unconscious desire are reductionistic in the extreme. Yet, there is some validity to the view that we project onto God our misconceptions. Decades ago, my father gave me a small thin book by J.B. Philips titled Your God is Too Small. It describes unhealthy concepts people tend to have about God—God as policeman, God as stern parent, God as taskmaster, etc. I have hung onto that book, because of its simple declaration that the harsh, unloving and angry God many people have is not really God.
For some people like me, this misconception of God comes from a kind of psychological predisposition, but for many more it is because of the religious setting they were raised in. I’ve spent most of my adult life in ministry working to proclaim a loving and gracious God, yet it never ceases to shock me when I regularly encounter people who have attended churches for decades where this disapproving wrathful God is never preached but who nonetheless still hang onto the judgmental God of their childhood. When a crisis comes or a person is near death, all the messages about God’s love fly out the window and they return to a God who is punishing them in the present and who will continue to do so into eternity. Why can’t we let go of this—I’ll say it—hate-filled God?
In his incredible book Tattoos on the Heart, Gregory Boyle writes these astounding words:
God’s unwieldy love, which cannot be contained by our words, wants to accept all that we are
—nothing of our humanity is to be discarded. No part of our hardwiring or our messy selves is
to be disparaged. Where we stand, in all our mistakes and imperfection, is holy ground. It is
where God has chosen to be intimate with us, and not in any way other than this. [Our]
moment of truth isn’t in recognizing what a disappointment [we] have been all these years. It
comes in realizing that God has been beholding [us] for all this time, unable to look anywhere
else. . .The desire of God’s heart is immeasurably larger than our imaginations can conjure.
This longing of God’s to give us peace and assurance and a sense of well-being only awaits our
willingness to cooperate with God’s limitless magnanimity. Behold the One beholding you and
I admit that the idea that God is beholding me and smiling seems far-fetched. Really? The Being who knows me better than I know myself, who knows my faults and mistakes, isn’t at least looking at me with some divine doubts, a raised eyebrow, some measure of disapproval?
It’s bad enough that we transfer our negative thoughts about ourselves to God, but that inner hostility exudes out into our treatment of others. The remarkable statement in the First Letter of John, “God is love,” also comes with this truth that our lack of love for others reveals our lack of knowledge of God. It says, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” Our projection onto God of our critical self-judgment inevitably manifests itself in unloving thoughts, words and actions directed towards others.
Terence Grant writes in his book The Silence of Unknowing about the cost to our relationships that comes from viewing God as anything other than love.
God [comes] so we might finally get the picture of the incredible love that has always been
given to us. The only real problem here is that we don’t believe this good news. In fact, it’s too
good to be true. And because we don’t believe that such a love can exist for us or for others,
we hold on to grudges, we repay hurts, we destroy relationships, we commit acts of violence
and war. We separate ourselves from the God who can do nothing but love…. As it was from
the beginning, God is forever reaching out to us.
For many people, the hate-filled God is the only God they know. They recognize what loving such a God costs them and others, so when faced with the choice of believing in a hate-filled God or no God at all, they choose the latter option. If that was my only option for understanding God, I would choose atheism too.
A number of writers and ministers have asked an interesting question when they meet people who say they don’t believe in God. Instead of arguing with or judging this nonbeliever they ask a simple question, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in. I might not believe in that God too.” I’ve had similar discussions myself. It is often a grace-filled moment when I can confess to someone that I don’t believe in a hate-filled God either.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
6601 Northwest 72nd Street, Kansas City, MO 64151 | 816-741-1851