Okay, so I finished reading Rob Bell’s Love Wins, and never got through it a second time because it was due at the library, and I already owe them, like, $10 in fines. Considering the late fee is only 10 cents a day per book, you can imagine how much the librarian dislikes me.
While reading Love Wins, I was (and am) participating in a Bible study at church on James Bryant Smith’s book The Good and Beautiful God. Smith’s book is written as a training module, sort of, under the premise that we can be trained to be better followers of Christ, the same way an athlete trains to be awesome. By studying Jesus’ depictions of God, then we can begin to think differently about God and His intent in our lives. Smith calls it “Adopting the narrative of Jesus.”
To be fair, I have no idea what Smith’s theology is on the whole Heaven/Hell existence, and since Bell basically blew up the American Evangelical stance on it, it’s fair to say that a lot of Christian leaders are at odds on this. But regardless, reading those two books simultaneously only affirmed to me the true nature of God.
For the record, I did not get from Bell’s writing that he believes Hell doesn’t exist, or that everyone is going to Heaven regardless. He does pose the fundamental question that believers and non-believers alike have: Can a God who claims to be good and loving really send someone to Hell for eternity? And that’s a pretty big question. I think, maybe, what caused the whole brouhaha with Bell’s book, is that people are afraid that the question might be bigger than God.
One of the chapters in The Good and Beautiful God is “God is Good” (duh. That had to be in there somewhere, yeah?) and last night’s chapter was “God is Generous”. If God is a good and generous God, then He longs to bestow His favor on us. Right?
But what does “His favor” look like? Blessings on earth? Health, beauty, an easy way of life? BUZZER SOUND! (In case you missed it, survey says WRONG.) His favor is His presence, His interest in our tiny little lives. When we begin to truly understand God as He IS, when we adopt Jesus’ narrative of His Father, then we can understand how gracious it is for God to even want to know us, much less invite us to know Him, not just a little, but intimately. The rest is just cream cheese frosting.
And for me, that was kind of where Bell’s book came into play, as he described a God who not just wants that relationship with each and every one of us, but that He is One who will eventually get it from you, whether during this life, or after smacking you around a bit in Hell. (Not really, sorry, I have a hard time being serious for an extended period.) Whether or not Hell is real, eternal or on a sliding scale, is a question we’ll all be asking until we get to the gates. (And as my pastor said, “As Christians, we certainly have to hope that everyone gets into Heaven.”) But the main point I got from Bell’s book is the truly generous nature of God. It’s real, and it’s spectacular. (Anyone?)
Okay. BACK ON TRACK. The narrative that so many people have of God is that is He is wrathful, prejudiced, stingy with His favor (guilty, too often). But if someone were to ask me outright if I believed God would strike me with lightning for lying when I told Bug that there were no more Reese’s cups left so that I could have the last one (just kidding, honest), then I would definitely say no. Loudly and with conviction.
Yet in my heart, that is how I tend to approach God. I know I do.
If I pray more consistently for something, a tiny (okay, not-so-tiny) part of me thinks God will be more inclined to answer my prayers. If I am more deliberate about reading my Bible, then maybe the bad stuff that happens to other people won’t come close enough to me. If I tithe more faithfully, then maybe I’ll win the lottery. (Just kidding.)
And why wouldn’t I think that? Isn’t that how we interact with other people? If Bug asks me something 500 times, I’m more inclined to answer him (sharply, and sometimes wishing I had a lightning bolt handy). If Bug is more deliberate about cleaning his room, then I’d be more likely to let him watch TV more often. If he acts intentionally kind and attentive to his little sister, I don’t automatically say no if he wants to get ice cream after school. It’s a give-a-little, get-a-little world that we live in, isn’t it?
And that is a false narrative of God’s nature. We are imposing our image on Him, instead of the other way around. God is generous. So generous. In ways that we can’t imagine, because we, truly, are not generous. You have to earn my trust. You have to earn my friendship. You have to prove to me that you are kind and funny and worth hanging out with, and then maybe I’ll pay for your #1 combo at Chick-Fil-A (but only if you don’t upsize). And that is based on the narrative that my favor is worth something, and that yours is not, until proven otherwise.
I’m learning through Smith’s book that every false narrative that we have of God is rooted in a false narrative of ourselves. I mean, we’re a pretty self-centered people, aren’t we?
We don’t see ourselves clearly. We don’t see ourselves as God’s delight. We don’t see how vast the chasm is between our undeserving and His extravagance. When the standard of Heaven is a heart and life like Jesus’, it becomes clearer how wretched we are.
Like, Usain Bolt is fast. If he were to race against, say, John Goodman, there would be no contest. We would clearly know who to label Fast and Slow, because we are comparing within our own capacity. But Usain Bolt isn’t supersonic. He can’t race against a stealth jet. That comparison would be absurd, and one we wouldn’t even bother with.
That is the narrative I cling to, that I’m a good person. I’m not Mother Teresa (that’s Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, to you), but I’m certainly not Hitler. I’m not even as bad as someone who cheats on her husband, leaves a stingy tip at a restaurant, or spanks her kids in public. (I mean, that’s what restrooms are for. JUST KIDDING.) We don’t allow the comparison between ourselves and GOD, His standard, because that comparison would be moot.
But if we do, if we allow that narrative to become more of a reality, that our very best is still wildly depraved, then we can begin to understand, maybe a little, the genuine generosity of God, the abundance of favor He longs to bestow on us, the freedom He encourages us to live under.
Knowing that we are utterly incapable of earning — and, for that matter, losing — God’s favor?