The Dangers of Domesticating God

One of my friends was attending a monastic convocation, when one of his brothers handed him a coin sold in the monastery gift shop.  Passing it to him with one side turned upward, he read the famous Pauline maxim, “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.”  But the other side of the coin referred to a Christian cheerleaders’ training camp.  My friend found it very difficult to focus before they began praying again.

For any number of reasons, spiritual and theological, I am a great believer in looking for the presence of God in the world — not least of which is the abiding conviction that God is here, whether we acknowledge it or not.

But I am also convinced that we can push that conviction to an extreme, arguing that God serves as a caretaker for the most mundane of human activities.  When that happens, we run the risk of domesticating God and trivializing what it means to say that God is active in our lives.

Worse, yet, we run the risk of shrinking our vision of God’s purposes in the world to the dimensions of a household deity — and with it, our vision of what it means to be companions of Christ — leaving God playing a role not unlike the one played by the gods in the Greco-Roman world that were charged with protecting the owner’s dwelling.

How do we nurture a lively sense of God’s presence and, at the same time, avoid domesticating God?

One, find the center of gravity in the task of discernment.  Give yourself to asking God questions first.  Where is God at work?  How is God at work?

Two, to do this you will need to explore your assumptions about who God is for you.  What are the names and images that figure prominently in your understanding of the divine?  What is the source of those images?  How do they participate in the mainstream of the tradition?  To what extent are they life-giving?  To what extent are they broken, distorted, and distorting?

Three, rest in and trust God’s judgment about what is important in our lives and the way in which it is important.  The prayer of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Not my will, but yours be done,” is not simply a record of Christ’s one, unrepeatable, redemptive effort, it is also a model for our own prayers.

Four, preserve a healthy humility and a sense of humor about what is really important.  We are finite creatures.  Not everything that we take to be important really is.  We are often driven by fear and trivialities.  We need a God who can transcend both.

Five, look for the intersection between God’s redemptive purpose and your life’s relationships and work.  The surest guide to what is important in any situation lies in that intersection where we draw closer to God and to others in love.

Nothing else matters nearly as much, even in those moments we think it does.


About Frederick Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Rueben Job Institute for Spiritual Formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and consulting editor at Church Publishing in New York. He is the author of numerous published articles and reviews, as well as several books: A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009), and The Dave Test (Abingdon, 2013). He and his wife, Natalie (who is also an Episcopal priest), live in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, with their Gordon Setter, Hilda of Whitby. They have four children and five grandchildren: Henry, Addie, Heidi, Sophie, and Drew, with a sixth on the way.