Yesterday afternoon at the Annual Meeting of the New York Conference of the United Church of Christ we had a break between our afternoon session and our evening meal. I spent the time preparing for the upcoming session of the Academy for Spiritual Formation. I was distracted from my inevitable comparisons between the Annual Meetings of the two denominations I serve. I was distracted by reading through my favorite (and technically only) book on shame, orthodoxy, and orthopraxy called “God’s Unconditional Love: Healing Our Shame.” Here’s what authors Wilkie Au and Noreen Cannon Au write on internalized images of God and perfectionism: (pg. 85)
“As in Jesus’ time, much of the inner suffering that people struggle with today is abetted by an impoverished religious imagination that is unable to envision a God of unfailing love-a love that embraces all of us unconditionally just as we are. Instead, our projections of a harsh and demanding God leave us with feelings of shame and a sense that we have disappointed God. Many of us are burdened by a strict conscience that demands perfection, thinking this what God wants. We have an image of holiness that is out of reach for the simple reason that perfection is beyond our grasp. When we inevitably fail, we feel guilty and ashamed and are confirmed in our belief that we are unworthy of God’s love.”
The honest truth is that I could spend this blogpost talking about the idea of a frustrating and badly-considered image of God from a personal perspective, but I believe this may be a case where personal ministry experience might be helpful. I have walked with many folks who have struggled with understanding a God that accepts them unconditionally with their “warts and all.” A lot of people have difficulty seeing God lovingly walking with them during challenging moments of life. The situation is like trying to see clearly through a broken window.
I remember walking with a brother in Christ who did not understand how God could love him. The man was lonely, sad, and isolated. He wanted to be in a relationship badly, but every relationship ended up in disaster. While he would love to believe God loved him unconditionally, it was hard to believe. God loved him and understood that he was lonely. God loved him even as he felt lonely. I believe God was compassionately and completely in love with this man. That man could neither see nor believe in that love easily.
I remember walking with many people over the years that were absolutely furious over the death of a loved one. Some people were angry with God because their loved one had passed away. Other people were resolutely angry that their loved one had done the things that led to their death. How could God love them when they still feel anger towards someone that they love? How could God love them when they are angry with God? Faith in God’s unconditional love can be difficult to obtain when anger is involved. It can become very difficult to understand that God loves a person despite the anger that they harbor in their souls.
Perhaps the most heartbreaking situations are those that involve abuse. While God is neither male nor female, it can be difficult to trust in the love of God when someone is abused by another person. It can be difficult to believe that God is like a loving and caring mother hen when a woman in your life has engaged in abuse. It can be difficult to believe that God is like a loving and protective father when a man in your life has engaged in abuse. Moving beyond parental images, trust can be difficult to carry into new life with Christ as your brother when a brother has been abusive.
Walking through the challenges of life can make it very difficult to trust in God’s love and grace. The images of God that a lot of people carry around in their lives are often powerful and unjustly harsh. These images do reinforce a lot of challenges that people normally face in their lives. Praying with sincerity after a heartbreaking crisis can be almost impossible if God seems to be stern and foreboding. Seeking forgiveness for situations where everything has gone downhill can become impossible when God seems hard, cruel, and unrelenting. The weight of shame can be overwhelming when you believe that God could never forgive you for what you have done in your life.
So, what do we do with this? Well, I do not want to hamstring a future blogpost, but I will say that my family and I listened to the new NPR podcast “Wow in the World” this afternoon. The very first episode spoke about an article that was recently published by researchers from the University of Montana on the benefits of gratitude. A quick synopsis of the research is that there is a strong correlation between expressing gratitude and a person’s well being.
If a person can make their life better through regular expressions of gratitude then I believe a similar theory can be proposed. I would suggest that there may be a correlation between the health of a person’s image of God and what opportunities that person engages in to experience a loving God. Regular spiritual practices like prayer, Bible reading, and worship might help to reinforce a loving experience of God. The authors of the “God’s Unconditional Love” argue persuasively about the use of imagination to go deeper into the scripture and consequently into God’s love.
I would also suggest that engaging in compassionate acts alongside God might assist in retraining one’s heart to see a loving God more clearly. Volunteering with the hungry, assisting with rehabilitation programs, working to build and repair homes after disasters, and thousands of other opportunities exist to engage in ministry alongside a God who is neither hard nor callous to people’s pain. Partnering in ministry with others to seek God through compassionate acts might allow someone to understand God’s compassion for their own lives and souls more clearly.
In the meantime, my hope and prayer is that God might be gracious to you. May you see the love of God in your life.