For many years I have lived as a Christian confused by the conflict of loving and fearing God at the same time. One part of me knew God loved me, but another part of me was afraid of him.
Living with God as the lover of my soul and my judge, was living like a yo-yo – in and out of favour with God. When I was good I felt God loved me; when I was bad I felt he condemned me. Sometimes I didn’t know whether what I was doing was what God liked or disliked and so I didn’t know whether I was safe or in trouble.
The Linn’s tell a story in one of their books, of a family visiting a so-called favourite uncle. A good, wise and godly uncle whom they are told loves them very much and whom they must love in return. However, this same uncle tells them that if they do anything ugly, or are unloving or disobedient, he will take them down to his cellar where he will torture them till they change their ways. Is this the type of uncle they would love to visit? Yet many a person with this kind of image of God is called to love and serve God.
If you feel I am exaggerating, think about the doctrine of heaven and hell, where the good sheep and the bad goats go? If you have lead a mostly good life and adhered to the teachings of your church’s requirements and its interpretation of God, count yourself lucky, you are a sheep and heaven-bound. But, if you have erred on these and other sacrosanct principles you are a goat who will land up in hell unless you repent. However, maybe the statement: “I have been and done good and bad – I am both a sheep and a goat” is closer to the truth.
As mothers, who of us have not thought to some degree or other: “I’d rather go to hell than ever think of one of my children going there”. What does this say of God, when we say, ‘but God will, he will allow you to go to live in hell if you don’t choose him and his ways”? Can a mother’s love be greater than God’s love?
I believe that whist many people are living in hell here on earth, maybe as a result of their or other people’s choices, God is there in their midst, loving them and encouraging them to know how his love can help them through to a better place. And I don’t think it’ll be any different if it were hell in the hereafter. Saint Augustine conceded that there may be a hell in the hereafter – but it is empty. If we believe God’s love will overcome evil with good and reign victorious, how can we believe in the eternal survival of evil?
Isn’t it true that God created all things beautiful, including us, his most beloved of creations? Our very creation in God’s image is the core of our being which can never be separated from God. If we are condemned to hell for what we have or haven’t done, then God to whom we are eternally connected, will surely go there with us. Can God dispense with or obliterate that which is a part of him?
There are many stories in the Bible and examples in life, about the effects of what a severance from God results in. But I believe they are reminders to us of God’s graciousness and goodness – and what our fate could be if God were not, first and foremost, a God of love.
Is ‘heaven’ or the fullness of life, earned or is it a gift? What is a gift – like the air, and the sun and the moon? Do we get them only if we have been good; or maybe because God feels obliged to give them to us, having created us; or because we’re a mixed bunch of sheep and goats, good and bad together and so in order to bless the good, the bad get his gifts as well?
Christianity, I believe, is portrayed as very conditional. We only become children of God if we are baptized, if we believe certain things, if we live lives of obedience and service, if we accept God’s offer of love and forgiveness, if we …., and if we …. and if we ….
Yet Jesus the initiator of Christianity lived, served and ate with the unholy, those living in darkness, the outcasts, the marginalized, the downhearted and the down and out. He didn’t ask them to first repent, but by visiting them, being with them wherever they were and spending time with them, he showed them a better way to live and invited them to join him in discovering this way. If they did reject him and his offer, I’m sure that like me, they had many more visitations, exhortations and invitations to join him.
Isn’t it the nature of love to pursue its beloved until its love is returned? Does love ever stop; does it ever fail? Even if I go down into the underworld, Psalm 139 vs 8, says God is there with me. There is no place, or sin, where God will fail to be with me. God is always present with me, even in my darkness, – which is not darkness to him (Ps139: 12). Isn’t love the greatest of the three things First Corinthians 13 says will remain forever – hope, faith and love? Evil will be overcome by love, just as light overcomes darkness and the sun dispels the night. If this happens in creation, surely it must happen in us, God’s greatest creation? God tells us to love our enemies and undoubtedly God practices what he preaches.
Of these two conflicting natures of God – judge or lover, one has to take precedence over the other consistently, for us to understand or make any sense of scripture, life and God.
I have far more hope, faith and love stirring within me when I dwell on the life-giving, unconditional love of God, than when I envisage him condemning and convicting me for my rebuttal of him and his ways.
I choose to believe that everything is determined by God’s love and not by our sin; by God’s unconditional love which is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow; and that his sustaining love will bring us all through to a better place.