I’ve been dragging my heels on writing this post because referring to God as a “victim” and “rebel” elicited a fierce visceral reaction and pile-on from my conservative evangelical friends on Twitter a couple of weekends ago. But I had a realization the other week as I was contemplating the way that evangelicals like me end up with a banal “Mr. Rogers God” despite the best efforts of our youth pastors to make God appear as mean and strict as they possibly can. Basically, I think the problem is that even though Christians say propositionally that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in practice many of us only relate to God as Father, that is, the all-powerful, completely in charge sovereign of the universe who implicitly endorses our power and privilege because of his uncomplicated omnipotence. I would contend that our conception of God’s sovereignty needs to include the subversive ways in which God’s reign dismantles our power and privilege through Jesus Christ as the crucified victim of our sins and through the unpredictable rebel wind that “blows where it chooses” which we call the Holy Spirit.
This reflection began at the closing worship service of the United Methodist campus ministry institute at the Candler Divinity School in Atlanta a couple of weeks ago. I had just written my “Mr. Rogers God” post, reflecting on the way that I am more moved and convicted to repentance by the weak, crucified God revealed on the cross of Jesus Christ than I ever was by the angry Father I tried really hard to believe in who was supposedly pouring out his wrath on his Son from the clouds above the cross.
In any case, as part of the opening set of this worship service, we sang “How great is our God.” I really try not to critique worship songs as I’m singing them, but I’ve never been able to get into “How great is our God” when it’s sung in the context of a triumphalist praise stadium filled with rich white suburbanites. It feels like cheering “U.S.A.!” at an Olympic basketball competition where everybody knows the Americans are going to win again because they always win. Of course our God is great because we’re successful and happy and safe, so we’ll just keep on being fabulous as a way of showing the world how great our God is. For a bunch of privileged people to sing about how great God is seems kind of like telling everybody how “blessed” I am as a way of putting a divine stamp of approval on my material blessings that I wouldn’t have if I just labeled them the product of “luck.”
Now I realize that this reveals my funky race issues as a guilt-ridden, privileged white guy, but for some reason, when the all-black worship team from Atlanta’s Impact church led us in “How great is our God” at the campus ministry conference, it made sense to me in a way that it wouldn’t have if they were white people. And when I saw my black colleagues prostrating themselves and crying out to God during the song, I begged God to open my heart so that I could worship the way they were worshiping.
It made me think of how James Cone wrote in The Spirituals and the Blues that black people have never had the luxury of pontificating philosophically about whether or not God existed, because they needed a deliverer, and so they cried out to the deliverer they desperately hoped was out there. The Old Testament God who delivers Israel from their oppressors gains credibility for me in the black church context that he doesn’t have when privileged white people are coopting him to validate our manifest destiny. I realize that I’m probably offending white and black people alike by the way I’m talking. I’m just being real about what’s gotten in my head, whether it’s right or wrong.
In any case, God reminded me in that moment of worship of all the times I have cried out to him as my Father to deliver me, even though I’m a child of privilege and I’ve never really faced the desperate needs that many others have. There are so many times I’ve been lost, due to mental illness or sin or a cancer scare or simply a lack of self-confidence, and I have needed to believe that the One who is completely in control of the universe has my destiny in his hands. So in response to the question I had asked a few blog posts ago about whether Christianity can “work” with a Mr. Rogers God, God said very loudly nope, that doesn’t do justice to who I am. I’m a mighty Father when my people need me to be their deliverer.
I absolutely believe in this heavenly Father, but I don’t believe that his absolute omnipotence is the only form of sovereignty that God uses to relate to his people. For instance, God the Father isn’t the one who convicts me of my sin. God the Father throws his arms around me like the prodigal son and says welcome home. His omnipotence means that I can’t really do anything to hurt him. When we talk about God the Father, we’re talking about someone who can handle anything, like a daddy who is completely unsurprised and unscandalized by whatever craziness his children throw at him, but simply responds with discipline according to their best interests.
Whenever people says that God the Father cannot “stand” the presence of sin as though he has an allergy to it or something, they are speaking in a way that diminishes his sovereignty. The most that we can say about sin in relation to God the Father with respect to his omnipotence is to say that sin offends him since nothing can actually harm him. And when we reduce sin into something that merely offends God, we’re starting on the road to Rob Bell’s universalist conclusion that God’s love ultimately overrides his offense at our sin.
It’s very hard to maintain the belief that God wants to torture people forever in hell because he’s infinitely offended by sin. So many evangelicals like me end up with a Mr. Rogers Gods after being taught that sin is bad not because it causes actual harm to other people God cares about, but because it offends God as an abstract insult to his honor. The infinitely offended God just doesn’t hold up conceptually in our world where earthquakes and hurricanes have “natural causes” other than God’s wrath.
To really get the devastation of our sin, we need to see the God who became a weak and helpless man on a cross. Because when God’s Word became flesh in Jesus Christ, the sins of the world didn’t merely offend him; they crucified him. Through his victimhood at the hands of our sin, God the Son convicts us in a way that an “angry” God who only has absolute power and lightning bolts at his disposal could not.
Yes, Jesus triumphs over death and our sin, but he remains eternally wounded as a vindicated victim, presiding over heaven as a slain lamb throughout the book of Revelation. Every time we do anything to hurt the least of our brothers and sisters, we crucify Jesus. That’s what he says quite plainly in Matthew 25:31-44, which is not just an exhortation to engage in acts of justice, but a commentary on what we are supposed to recognize in the cross he talks about immediately after that passage in Matthew 26.When we say that Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead, we’re not talking about an aloof, transcendent judge like the dispassionate, blindfolded Roman goddess Iustitia with her scales. Jesus judges as a plaintiff who has been directly harmed by our sin and has the authority to drop the charges and forgive the defendants. He’s not the only plaintiff. It is the people of the world versus Morgan Guyton in the heavenly courtroom because I have contributed with my personal sin to the demonic forces in the world that bring oppression and misery to all.
Jesus stands in solidarity with all the people I have hurt directly through my participation in the world’s injustice and indirectly through my idolatry which is the source of all injustice. While Jesus’ forgiveness is unconditional, it is my choice whether or not to accept it. If I say thanks for forgiving me, Jesus, but I really didn’t do anything wrong, I am rejecting eternal communion with him and the other victims of my sin. It is only in falling on my face before him and saying, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner” that I join in the fellowship of those who live under God’s mercy and are thus a completely safe community for each other.
In two of the most important conversion stories of the New Testament, Jesus convicts the converts into repentance as a victim of sin rather than the triumphalist warlord that many Christians today want him to be. Peter concludes his first sermon on the day of Pentecost in the Jerusalem Temple in Acts 2:36 by saying, “Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” It says that the three thousand who were baptized that day were “cut to the heart” by these words (Acts 2:37).
In other words, they were convicted by their participation in the murder of their messiah, which is completely different than being overcome by fear of some kind of looming punishment from an omnipotent warlord. Peter didn’t say anything remotely resembling today’s sidewalk evangelism question, “If you died tomorrow, would you go to heaven or hell?” He convicted his listeners based on their personal crime against Jesus, not any threat of God’s omnipotent power to punish eternally.
Likewise, when Saul, the first great persecutor of the church, is thrown from his donkey by a bright light on the road to Damascus, Jesus doesn’t say, “Do you know how powerful I am and what I can do to punish you eternally?” He says, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4). Jesus confronts Saul not as a triumphant heavenly warlord, but as the victim of his persecution.
By choosing to make himself a victim of our sin, Jesus extends the dignity of his lordship to the people we step on. On his cross, he writes in blood the fact that “just as you did to the least of my brothers and sisters, you did to me.” When we allow ourselves to submit to Jesus as the victim of our sin, our hearts are wounded by his mercy towards us in a way that they could never be if we only see ourselves as sinners in the hands of an angry, omnipotent God who has never put himself into the hands of angry, murderous sinners.
Through Jesus, God handed himself over to be victimized by our sin, so that in Jesus’ resurrection, he could defeat our sin and liberate us from it in a way that he couldn’t if he merely tortured sinners eternally after they died. God could have chosen to reign over us merely as an omnipotent Father, but he deemed it more effective to let us crucify him as God the Son and thus have our sin crucified and exposed before us so that its chains could be completely broken.
The dimension of God’s sovereignty that I see expressed in the Holy Spirit is God’s rebellion against the boxes we try to put him in. I say rebellion because we in the church are always building a self-validating, slightly corrupted order in the name of God that perpetually needs to be disrupted and dismantled by God lest we come to a place of total epistemic closure and idol worship. Yes, we are the ones who are actually in rebellion against God, but we believe so zealously that we are in the right that it is appropriately offensive to call God’s rebuking of our idolatry an act of rebellion against us. We have never stopped building towers of Babel up to the heavens that exist for the purported purpose of honoring God but ultimately serve to legitimize and glorify ourselves as his royal priesthood. And so God will continue to knock our towers down with holy Pentecostal wind that refuses to be institutionalized.
If we talk about the Holy Spirit, we are talking about the one Jesus was describing when he said in John 3:8: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” That wind cannot be reduced to church tradition, nor can it be reduced to the Bible. It blows where it chooses. The Holy Spirit is allowed to say new things to us if she wants to, even things that seem to contradict what she’s said before. That’s precisely what happened when the Holy Spirit said to Peter, “Do not call unclean what I have made clean” (Acts 10:15), so that Gentiles no longer had to get circumcised as Jews to be clean, in complete contradiction of the Abrahamic covenant in Genesis 17.
Why would we think that the way the Holy Spirit behaved in the book of Acts completely stopped in the book of Acts as opposed to showing us examples of the same way that God continues to rebel against the boxes that we put him in today? The only reason not to draw analogies between the way the Holy Spirit rebelled against the early church’s presumptions in the book of Acts and what the Holy Spirit might be doing today is that it creates an authority crisis for those who want their mastery of the Bible and church tradition to give them power over other Christians.
Insofar as we are appealing to God’s sovereignty as a means of establishing our own sovereignty, God will continue to rebel against us through the Holy Spirit even though we are actually the insolent rebels who need to repent just like the older brother of the prodigal son who slaved away for his father in order to have the authority to tell his father what to do (Luke 15:29-30). So many of us are exactly like that older brother; we are so zealous about how much we honor God with our holiness because we think it gives us the authority to tell God who’s in and who’s out of his kingdom. But God will not abide any use of his name to prop ourselves up. We should always assume that in any “us vs. them” dichotomy we try to establish, God is always with “them” and not “us,” because God rebels against our us vs. them’s.
So basically my claim is this. The One who is the source of all being accommodates our humanity by reigning over us not only as a sovereign provider but also as a victim of our sin and a rebel wind who knocks over our Babel towers and forces us into the holy confusion where we actually submit with open hands. God is not a bureaucrat. He’s capable of far greater sophistication in his tactics to gain us for his kingdom than many of his handlers give him permission to use. Critique away, but please do so without scorn, so that if God has given you a correction to share with me, then you will not be responsible for my not taking you seriously.