Dear Donagh,

…. Do I have to stay on the right side of God to stop bad things happening in my family?  Maeve

Dear Maeve,

I'm glad you asked this question, because I tremble at the thought of anyone trying to live with that idea of God.  There is a terrible thought lurking in this question – a chilling image of God: God as the enemy, God as the punisher.  This image persists despite the revelation of God in Jesus.  The Christian revelation is that God is love.  “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:8).  “We have known and believe the love that God has for us.  God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 John 4:16).  Meister Eckhart added, “All God's commandments come from love and from the goodness of His nature, for if they did not come from love they would not be God's commandments.”  In the minds of many, it was not this loving God, but instead a terrible caricature, that became flesh in Jesus.  Jesus, in the minds of many, is the accuser, the judge.  But in the New Testament the accuser is not Jesus but the devil!   “The accuser of our brethren has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God” (Rev 12:10).  So you would do well, Maeve, to banish that idea of God from your mind. 

(There are people who feel that all this is now too easy – that it must be leaving out everything that is difficult and challenging.  As if anything could be more challenging than love!  Love is death to self.  “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).)

The common understanding in the time of Jesus was that suffering was God’s punishment for sin.  With this understanding, one would have to say that God punished Jesus in spectacular fashion.  But Jesus himself had emphatically rejected this understanding of suffering.  This is plain from the gospel accounts.  “Jesus’ disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned…” (John 9.2-3).  “Jesus said, ‘Those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?  No, I tell you…’” (Lk 13:4-5).

In a perverse way it is almost a relief to see that we Christians are not the only ones who are capable of falling into this trap.  Even the great Gandhi slipped.  He was a passionate advocate for the Dalits, the ‘Untouchables’, and when an earthquake hit Bihar in 1934, killing thousands, he said it was divine retribution for the oppression of the Dalits.  Rabindranath Tagore took him to task for suggesting this. 

Maeve, I would like to recommend that you read the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15).  That is a story told by Jesus to show us what God is like.  God is represented as the father of the wayward son.  Don’t just read it once.  Try to read it so intently and so often that you are living inside it. 

I'd also recommend Julian of Norwich’s book to you.  It is a perennial classic, easily available.  It is usually given the title, Showings. (You will find passages from it on this website.  If you go into the page called ‘Wisdom Line’, you will find passages in 2001, 2010, and 2011.)  She would be a great one to comfort you.  She is a voice from the distant past – the 14th century – so no one could say that her teaching is some sort of dumbed-down modern version of the Christian faith.  All our suffering, she says, is the suffering of Christ, because we are his body.  Not only does God console us for our suffering, she said; God even consoles us for our sins! 

Her language is very special – particularly feminine in feeling.  Take this brief passage: I have emphasised the words that make it especially feminine and motherly.  “Our good Lord showed a spiritual sight of his familiar love.  I saw that he is to us everything that is good and comforting for our help. He is our clothing, who wraps and enfolds us for love, embraces us and shelters us, surrounds us for his love, which is so tender that he can never desert us.  And so in this sight I saw that he is everything which is good, as I understand.”

I'll leave you in her warm company, Maeve. 


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