Great Misunderstandings (About God)

28 08 2010

“Labels are devices for saving talkative persons the trouble of thinking.” — John Morley

Being understood is hard work, I find.  Conversations crash and burn when the wrong word takes dialogue sideways; I slip up in something I say, or I have a “look” that is misinterpreted, and it is hard to get the whole thing back. Sometimes it is impossible; some people are excellent at remembering everything I said, and there is no undoing.

Writing; you’d think that would help. Sometimes it does, if I am patient in the writing process and truthful and unselfish.  But there too; so much room for error.  How a sentence sounds in my head is not how someone else might read it and how someone might read it is also dependent on the mood they are in. Writing comes without a look in my eyes, without gesture or body-language; so the person is left with the print and it can seem cold, no matter how many warm words I try to put on the page.

It frustrates me when I am misunderstood. I know who I am in my heart; I know what my intentions are, but sometimes things go haywire and I wonder, “How did we get here?” Or, “How do you see me like that? I’m not that way at all.”

We all add to people or take away from them based on very little information and often on misinformation; we see a little, we hear a little, we understand a little and we profile. We do the same to God.

I see this in my own life, how I have theories about who God is and how He thinks and operates: I see a little, hear a little, understand a little and I create Him as I see Him. I often read the Bible, looking for what I want to see about God; hiding from what I don’t. And yet Proverbs 30:5-6 says

“Every word of God is flawless; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Do not add to his words, or he will rebuke you and prove you a liar.”

I have been proven a liar about people; some I thought too much of, some I thought too little. I have misunderstood God in a similar way. I have made God big for some things and inadequate for others (I prove this every day by how I live and by what I worry about). I have read some of His words and like those, but the words I don’t like I try to make sense of, but with my sensibilities. I can’t imagine a God I cannot imagine so I shrink Him down so He can be written about neatly in a pamphlet, or handed out to people like a sedative.

Some people turn their back on God when they misunderstand Him. I am thinking of Oprah and how one word derailed her.  She was sitting in church and the pastor, quoting Scripture, said, “We serve a jealous God.” She could not, nor cannot, wrap her head around that word “jealous” and her whole spiritual journey took a turn over that word. How can God’s Word be so flawless, when that word seems so flawed?

God’s Word creates a tension in us. C.S. Lewis grappled with how to understand God in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (where Aslan the lion represents God):

“‘Is – is he a man?’ asked Lucy.

‘Aslan a man!’ said Mr. Beaver sternly. ‘Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion, the Lion, the great Lion.’

‘Ooh,’ said Susan, ‘I thought he was a man. Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.’

‘That you will, dearie, and make no mistake,’ said Mrs. Beaver; ‘if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.’

‘Then he isn’t safe?’ said Lucy.

‘Safe?’ said Mr. Beaver; ‘don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the king I tell you’.”

I think this may be the finest description of God by a writer outside of the Bible: unsafe, but good. Can’t you see, though, how this might leave a lot of room for misunderstanding? As I grapple with God’s flawless words I try to understand Him as my shield and refuge, but often my experience makes me feel MORE exposed, not less. I prefer life to have a sense of balance and order and predictability, yet the journey He takes me on feels wild instead. Is this good?

Misunderstandings about God, His words and actions, can cause a range of reactions from outright rejection to muddling about in confusion. It isn’t like I have come to a place where I am comfortable with God. I am mostly uncomfortable, to be honest. Every day I wrestle in some way, trying to understand God; trying to understand His “flawless” words and His goodness in the middle of what doesn’t always feel good.

Recently I heard Donald Miller describe the tension of trying to follow this God who still is so mysterious, whose actions are still so hard to understand, and it connected with me. Following God, he said, is a “difficult challenge that is going to create a beautiful story.”

It is in the middle of this tension I seek to understand God, and it is this story that my life is trying to write.

— Teresa Klassen

Afterword: Back to Oprah, I would love to ask her, did you really sit with that word a while before you created a new God that suited you better? Because “jealous” takes on a whole new meaning when the underlying characteristic of the jealous one is “goodness” not “selfishness.”  One of the most untamed passages about the most committed kind of love includes the word jealous (Song of Songs 8:6-7):

Place me like a seal over your heart,

like a seal on your arm;

for love is as strong as death,

its jealousy unyielding as the grave.

It burns like blazing fire,

like a mighty flame.

Many waters cannot quench love;

rivers cannot wash it away.

If one were to give

all the wealth of his house for love,

it would be utterly scorned.

I wonder how God feels to be misunderstood about His jealousy? His love for us is zealous, passionate and fiercely pure; protective and loyal and unconditional. His love goes to the grave and then beyond it. There is no corner left in us that His love does not fill.

Would we prefer something less? Something a little shakier? Would we like just a little of that and not to be engulfed by it? God is not some petty, insecure man who can’t let his lover have a life. God’s jealousy is quite the opposite; His jealousy thunders, “don’t you dare!” to any evil thing that wants to steal life when God promises to give us life and give it to us abundantly (John 10:10). His jealousy cannot fathom anyone separating the two of us. His love is about giving to, not taking away.

Please God, love and guard me jealously!

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