God’s Power: Wrath or Restraint?
Smells Like Spirit
by Christian Piatt
(Originally printed in PULP)
When I was younger, there were many stories in the Bible that freaked me out. While the Sunday School classroom walls were covered with cute arks and animals walking two-by-two, the subtext is about an angry God exacting cataclysm on nearly every living . Is this really a kid’s story?
Then we have David killing Goliath with a rock, people being thrown into pits of lions, tossed into ovens … it’s enough to give a kid nightmares, especially if the lesson taken from the tales is “straighten up or God will make you dead meat.”
Two things happened as I got older, though, which helped me appreciate these stories rather than fear them. First, I began to understand Biblical narrative as metaphor, explaining basic truths about human nature rather than recording literal, historic facts. Second, I started recognizing something not pointed out in my youth: the restraint of power.
To me, the real message behind the flood story — incidentally, most world cultures have a similar story of their own — is about God holding back. First, God decides to wipe the whole slate clean and start all over. But mercy prevails and at least a few faithful are spared.
As far back as Adam and Eve, there are stories of people screwing up, despite the threat of dire consequence imparted by God, and then God backing off — changing the divine mind, if you will.
And so it goes, from Sodom and Gomorrah to Jonah and the Ninevites, someone’s always talking God into taking it easy on us humans. Now, I’m not one to believe that God’s actually that involved in daily life, doling out punishment like a high school principal. Actually, it’s we who to try to find reasons behind the bad things that happen to us. It makes it easier to swallow, after all, if we can convince ourselves that everything actually happens for a reason, rather than accepting the possibility that, sometimes, really bad stuff happens, even to really good people.
But back to the underlying theme in so many of these biblical stories. Like all metaphor, we have the opportunity to read any number of messages into them. For those intent on gleaning an image of an angry, vengeful God from the pages of Scripture, they most certainly will find it. I choose, however, to see a God of forgiveness and mercy.
Considering the example we’re presented with in the life and teachings of Jesus, it’s hard for me to conceive that someone who calls him- or herself a Christian would see anything else. At the heart of Jesus’ ministry was replacing a culture of vengeance and retribution with a new ethos of compassion, love and forgiveness.
So, if we’re called by the one who many claim embodies the wisdom of the Divine to be purveyors of compassionate mercy, why would we choose to conceive of a God whose essence is anything but the same?