If someone asked you, “What is God like,” how would you respond? I think we all have a sense of how we might describe God, based on our own ideas and experience, but perhaps the most honest answer might be, “I don’t know.”
I think we understand that knowing the essence of God is not possible. God is too “other,” too distant, too intangible for us to grasp directly, and the scriptures acknowledge that challenge when describing encounters with God.
Nevertheless, we believe there are some ways we can know God. We have the record of God’s actions in the world and interactions with humans over thousands of years. We have the words of angels and prophets – those who communicate with us in God’s name. We have the words of Jesus, who also presents us a human image of the divine character. And we believe that God has given us the gift, through prayer, to communicate directly with God, as difficult and sometimes confusing as this may be.
Since it’s impossible for us to know God “face to face,” we use analogies and images to understand the divine nature. The risk in doing this is that we create images in our minds that make God seem like what we would like God to be, not necessarily what God really is. It’s easy for us to imagine a comfortable and reasonable God, not too scary or demanding. But the record of scripture tells us that God can be terrifying, threatening, confusing, seemingly irrational.
One of my favorite images of God in literature is the character of Aslan, from C. S. Lewis’s novels, The Narnia Chronicles. Aslan is a great lion, representing the divine in the stories. On the one hand, he is a comforting and reassuring figure for the children who are the heroes of the story. You might say he’s like a big pussycat. But Aslan can also be terrifying and demanding, powerful and threatening. And he’s quite unpredictable. Definitely not a pussycat.
We have two examples from the scripture readings this morning of people who think they know what God is like but really don’t. The first is Job. Job is someone who is a righteous and God-fearing man, who thinks that because of that he deserves the prosperity and blessings of family and friends that he enjoys. Then he has all of that taken away, and he cries foul on God. In an extended argument with God, Job claims that God has been unjust in taking away the blessings he has had.
God’s response is an angry one. Job knows nothing about what God is like. Who is Job to challenge the creator of all things, when Job is a mere creature? Job can make no claim on God, who is free to do what God likes. It goes on and on like that, as Job persists in asserting his complaint.
The second example is the gospel story of the rich young man. When he comes to Jesus, Jesus perceives that the man thinks of God as basically a rule maker. If you follow the rules spelled out, then you get to enter God’s kingdom. Jesus’ response is essentially to say that God doesn’t just want the man to follow certain rules, God wants EVERYTHING from him. The man doesn’t argue but just goes away quietly, unwilling to make that commitment.
This story is one of those considered “difficult” in the Gospels. When Jesus tells his followers it will be more difficult for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, it shocks people. Can he really have meant that? The tendency to want to water down these “hard” sayings of Jesus is illustrated by several historical attempts to tone down his message. One interpretation says that there was a small gate in the Jerusalem wall called “The Eye of the Needle,” that a camel could get through if it got down on its knees and its load were taken off. There’s no evidence of such a gate. Another interpretation argues that the saying was probably a textual error. The word in Greek for “camel” is similar to the one for “rope,” so Jesus was really talking about a rope going through the eye of a needle – a somewhat less challenging image than the original.
So the risk is when we’re confronted by a God who makes extreme demands or who seems frightening or confusing that we try to make God seem more comfortable, perhaps more like us. And in doing so, we may miss the real God.
Perhaps the better approach is to identify for ourselves those things about God that seem “too much.” Perhaps it’s Jesus’ statements about wealth that we find alarming. Or perhaps Jesus’ demands that we forgive those who have done us harm. Or the idea of table fellowship with social outcasts, who in our own day might include drug addicts or the homeless or those with severe emotional disorders. Instead of trying to interpret these demands in ways that make us feel better, perhaps it would be better to confront them directly and examine why and how they seem too difficult and unsettling.
Finally, I want to return to the figure of Job. The surprising end to the Book of Job is that God says essentially, “You’re right – I have treated you unjustly,” and he restores to Job everything that was taken away. It’s not a unique story in the scripture: both Abraham and Moses, for example, are able to win arguments with God and have God change God’s mind. It’s an affirmation of the closeness of the relationship between God and humans, as well as of human persistence. We may find God frightening and demanding and confusing, and yet through our ongoing discourse with God in tough situations we may come to a deeper understanding of what God is like and what God wants. Amen.