Who is your God?
I don’t mean, what religion are you—you’re here, so I’m going to assume you worship the Triune God of the Christian faith. But who is that God for you? When you think of that God, what comes to mind? How do you experience God? If you could boil God down to one word, what word would it be?
I think we can all agree that, as Christians, one of the primary places we go to know God is the Old and New Testament. But if we were all to grab Bibles right now, open to different passages of scripture, and start reading, we would all come out with some very different understandings of who God is. In some passages God seems to be jealous. In others, God is a trickster. In still others God seems to be a heart-hardener. Sometimes God appears to be generous and just, and other times God seems downright violent. In some passages God seems to be merciful, and in others God seems to be completely absent.
The Bible says a lot of things about who God is. And all of them very well might be true, but I think that each of us carries deep within our heart a sense of who God is at God’s core. We can describe God with all kinds of adjectives, but for each of us, one of the adjectives hits home harder than the rest.
So who is God to you? Is God fair? Generous? Angry? Holy? Loving? Merciful? Vindictive? Just? Good? Mean? Close? Far? Violent? Aloof? Gracious? Inscrutable? A trickster? A tester? An inspirer? A punisher? A shepherd? A moral-watchdog? A judge? A companion? A parent? A fighter?
If you had to pick just one word to define God in your experience, what would it be? And be honest: don’t pick the word that you think you’re supposed to pick. Who have you experienced God to be?
If you were to ask me, I’d probably tell you that, for me, God is grace or mercy or something, but I would be lying.
Because the truth is that, lately, I’ve felt like God is expectant. That’s been my word. I’ve felt as though God has all of these expectations of me: who I’m supposed to be, what I’m supposed to do, what I’m supposed to think and believe and say. I’ve felt as though God dumped all these expectations in my lap and said, “Well? Don’t just stand there. Get to it!”
And what awaits me if I fail this expectant God? Not punishment or hellfire or an eternity alone, but something far worse—disappointment. That’s right. It turns out that one of my biggest fears is to be disappointing. I can’t stop picturing myself at the pearly gates (which I don’t even believe in) and having God look at me and sigh, and say something like, “I really expected more.” In this scenario God might even let me into heaven, but I have to live in heaven with the knowledge that I had disappointed God, that I hadn’t quite measured up to all of God’s expectations for me here on earth.
It might sound crazy, but that is my God.
To be fair, that’s not the God that my professors taught me about in Seminary. That’s not the God my parents taught me about as a child. I learned about this God not in the classroom, but in my life experience. Who I believe God to be and who I experience God to be are two different things entirely. I may believe God to be grace or mercy, but I experience God as expectant.
I wonder if the people in John’s community struggled to understand who God is for them. Perhaps some of them thought that God was unknowable, completely shrouded in mystery and obscurity. But John disagrees. He says, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.” John declares that we can know both who God is and who we are. We are children of God. And we are children of God because God has claimed us as such. And why has God claimed us as such? John says that it is out of love. Because that, for John, is who God is at God’s core. God is love.
In the next verse, John will address his community as “beloved.” Now, if I call you beloved, I am making the statement that you are loved, but I’m not saying exactly who it is that loves you. In order to specify that, I’d have to call you “my beloved.” John doesn’t do that (though surely he loves his community). When John addresses his people as “beloved” he is pointing them again to the one who loves them most, that is, God. Even if you don’t feel like anyone cares about you on this earth, each and every one of you is “beloved” because you are all God’s beloved. John is driving home the simple truth that, at God’s core, God is love.
But all of this is intellectual, isn’t it. I can preach at you that God is love all day long but unless you experience that reality for yourself, you’ll never really know it. I can tell you that God is love and you can say that you believe it, but unless you experience God’s love in a profound way, “love” will not be the word you attribute to God. Christian psychologist David G. Benner says it like this, “Having information about God is no more transformational than having information about love…Knowing God’s love demands that we receive God’s love—experiential, not simply as a theory.”
He uses marriage as an example. If a perfect stranger walked through that door right now and told me he loved me, I’d be happy to believe that it was true, but I couldn’t know it because I’ve never experienced his love for me. If Isabel were to stand up right now and tell me she loves me, I’d know that to be true because I’ve experienced it. I can go to Bucknell or Susquehanna University and listen to a three hour lecture on love and I might come out knowing all kinds of things about love. But unless someone actually loves me and shows me their love, unless I can experience that love for myself, I will never truly know love.
Theoretical knowledge isn’t enough. We have to have an experience. And for most of us, our life experiences end up being the biggest teacher about who God is. I imagine everyone in this room would agree with the statement that “God is love,” but I think that, for so many of us, if we’re really honest with ourselves, that’s not the God we think we experience on a daily basis. Those who were abused frequently may come to see God as a punisher and themselves as deserving punishment. Those who have been abandoned may come to see God as distant and themselves as insignificant. Those who have been constantly reminded of their sinfulness may come to see God as unapproachably holy and themselves as irreparably wicked. Me, I have been so achievement-driven that I have come to see God as expectant and myself as a disappointment. These experiences don’t mean that God is actually vindictive or distant; they simply mean that we have let other experiences cloud our knowledge of who God really is. So who is your God?
I must admit to you that I am on a journey. I wish I could say that I don’t see God as expectant anymore, but it’s only in the last few weeks that I’ve even come to this realization. I believe, or at least I want to believe, as John does, that God is love and that I am a child of God. But until I really experience such love, that knowledge will sit in my head and never travel down to my heart.
I’m sure that I’ve experienced God’s love before. I know that I am surrounded by love. But all of my thoughts and experiences of expectation have become like white noise, drowning out the love. It’s like I’m wearing expectation blinders and the love that surrounds me is always just out of sight.
So maybe the first step is to try to take the blinders off. Maybe the first step is to open myself up to the possibility that God is something other than I’ve assumed. Maybe God isn’t as judgmental or unapproachable or expectant as we’ve come to believe. Maybe if we open ourselves up to the possibility that God is something other than we’ve always assumed, we might come to find that God is something far better than we’ve always assumed. Maybe we’ll find that God is love and that we’ve been surrounded by God’s love all along.
I can’t say one way or the other what will happen. The only way to know is to experience it for yourself.
So, beloved, who is your God?