I find this week’s first reading particularly challenging. While we see the mercy of God in God’s response to Abraham, what we know in the next chapter of Genesis, is “the Lord rained down sulfur upon Sodom and Gomorrah, fire from the Lord out of heaven” (19:24). Why I find this challenging, is I don’t see God in this way at all, as a punishing and annihilating God.
When I was a fourth grader, our class began attending a private showing of The Ten Commandments at a local movie theater, about four blocks from the school. It would become an annual event, one I always looked forward to, first because I loved going to the movies and also because we got a break from our regular classes. The movie, which starred Charlton Heston as Moses, had a part where God punished the Hebrews for their idolatry in a fiery, chaotic scene. An angry Moses flung the tablets of the 10 commandments at a golden calf, which set it ablaze. The visual was etched in my mind.
As a student in Catholic school, we memorized the Catechism. We learned about sin, venial and mortal, purgatory, limbo, hell, and heaven. My sense was God that wanted us to obey, toe the line, fast during Lent, honor our parents, follow the rules. Failure to follow the rules meant we needed to get to confession, to atone for our sins. So, watching the movie year after year reinforced the idea of a fire and brimstone God, a punishing God, the God who wanted us to stay on the right path.
Fast forward two decades and my experience of God changed entirely. It was a troubled time in my life that woke me up to the presence of a loving God. All the messages during my time of distress were about forgiveness – forgiving myself and others. I knew God loved me even in moments of wrongdoing, of rule-breaking, of failing to stay on the path. My God was not that God, the one who punishes, keeps people in a box, hovers over us watching every move, or rains sulfur and fire down upon us. My God is more a God of understanding, of unconditional love. My experience aligns with the Psalm reading for this week – Lord, on the day I called for help, you answered me; You built up strength within me; though I walk amid distress, you preserve me; Your kindness, O Lord, endures forever.
As we look to the Gospel reading for this weekend, Jesus speaks of God as a benevolent Father, ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.
Many of you know I’m a fan of Fr. Greg Boyle. In his newest book The Whole Language: The Power of Extravagant Tenderness, he notes, “Nothing is more consequential in our lives than the notion of God we hold. Not God. But the notion of God”. He quotes Meister Eckhart who says, “It’s a lie, any talk of God that doesn’t comfort you”. Fr. Greg tells us that God is never toxic, but our notion of God, which we hold on to, can be. Many believe in a God that judges us, that God is cruel in some way by sending illness and pandemics, climactic catastrophes, or even death. If we believe this, don’t we have the wrong notion of God? If we believe God is disappointed in us, or if we feel unworthy, is our notion of God the right one?
Fr. Greg’s notion of God, one that has helped many gang members find their inherent worth, is to know God as a tender God. God’s love for us is not dependent on whether we’re “good”, God is not transactional – do this and you get my love. God’s love is unconditional – no consequences, no expectations, no second thoughts about loving us!
Do we choose to see God as someone who judges or is embarrassed by us, or do we choose to see a God who notices and delights in us? Fr. Greg reminds us that God wants to lavish us in tenderness, but we convince ourselves that God wants us to be better, do better, act better.
It seems to me that God wants us to love – to love others in the unconditional the way He loves us. If we do, there’s no need for “rules” like the 10 Commandments, because loving unconditionally would mean we’d never cause harm to another, we would lovingly honor our parents, and we would sit in the presence of God before the Blessed Sacrament often. In my view, being created in the image of God, a tender, loving Father, helps us to understand that deep in our hearts, no matter what, we are loved, and that notion makes it easier to love and accept others. I like that notion. So, what’s your notion of God?
I like this stream of thought. Jesus came largely to break down the barriers erected by the High Officials of Judaism at the time — telling us that “Thou shall love the Lord thy God with thy heart and all thy mind and thou shall love thy neighbor as thy self” On these two great commandments, hang all the law and the prophets. So, I suppose God always wants us to do better, and laws and rules can be helpful, but God isn’t sitting around waiting to pounce when (not if) we mess up!