Early in college my life was dominated by doctrine, what people believed or didn't believe about God, church and religion generally. But in college two things happened. First, I began working through the implications of the various doctrinal positions I held. Mainly I struggled with the problem of evil in light of classic doctrines regarding the nature of hell. The conclusion I reached was that, if the various doctrines of my childhood were true, God was mean, petty, callous and irascible.
This view of God clashed sharply with the second important theological experience of my college years: A prolonged engagement with the gospels. In college I began to read the gospels over and over again. I'd start with Matthew and read through to the end of John. I'd read Matthew-Mark-Luke-John, Matthew-Mark-Luke-John, over and over and over. And as I read I just couldn't square the God of my doctrine with the person of Jesus I encountered in the gospels.
My encounter with George MacDonald around this time gave me the courage to jettison the God of my doctrine and to embrace the God of Jesus Christ I found in the gospels. Basically, MacDonald got me to the point where I said, "Screw it, God is like Jesus. End of story."
In one sense, that conclusion is completely bland and banal. Of course God is like Jesus.
But on the other hand, if you've really internalized this truth, you know just how revolutionary and seismic that claim truly is.
Practically, what this meant was that when I faced two rival interpretations of God I'd always go with the interpretation that revealed God to be more loving, more merciful, more fair, more "for us." Basically, I'd side with the interpretation where God looked more like Jesus. If a view of God moved in the other direction--God as petty, mean, cold, unjust, grumpy, vindictive--then I'd reject this god. In short, MacDonald convinced me that I couldn't think too highly of God. I became free to imagine the most noble, kind, generous, loving and self-sacrificing person who ever lived and know, with ironclad certainty, that God was way, way, way better than that. Humans can't be more loving than God. In fact, the most loving humans who have ever lived--think Gandhi, a loving grandparent, St. Francis, or Mother Teresa--are but pale shadows of God's own love and justice.
God is, simply, better than you can imagine.
Not that God is some kind of sweet, cotton candy pushover. Just that even God's wrath and judgment, in its steely harshness, is always noble, generous, merciful and, ultimately, "for us."
Here are some of the passages in Unspoken Sermons that gave me the courage to risk thinking the very best about God. From the sermon The Higher Faith:
...the dull disciple [says]--"God has said nothing about that in his word, therefore we have no right to believe anything about it. It is better not to speculate on such matters. However desirable it may seem to us, we have nothing to do with it. It is not revealed." ...For [the dull disciple] all revelation has ceased with and been buried in the Bible, to be with difficulty exhumed, and, with much questioning of the decayed form, re-united into a rigid skeleton of metaphysical and legal contrivance for letting the love of God have its way unchecked by the other perfections of his being.From the sermon It Shall Not Be Forgiven:
Sad, indeed, would the whole matter be, if the Bible had hold us everything God meant for us to believe. But herein is the Bible itself greatly wronged. It nowhere lays claim to be regarded as the Word, the Way, the Truth. The Bible leads us to Jesus...The one use of the Bible is to make us look at Jesus, that through him we might know his Father and our Father, his God and our God. Till we thus know Him, let us hold the Bible dear as the moon of our darkness, by which we travel towards the east; not dear as the sun whence her light cometh, and toward which we haste, that, walking in the sun himself, we may no more need the mirror that reflected his absent brightness.
"But is not this dangerous doctrine? Will not a man be taught thus to believe the things he likes best, even to pray for that which he likes best? And will be not grow arrogant in his confidence?"
If it be true that the Spirit strives with our spirit; if it be true that God teaches men, we may safely leave those dreaded results to him. If the man is of the Lord's company, he is safer with him than with those who would secure their safety by hanging on the outskirts and daring nothing. If he is not taught of God in that which he hopes for, God will let him know it. He will receive something else than he prays for. If he can pray to God for anything not good, the answer will come in the flames of the consuming fire. These will soon bring him to some of his spiritual senses. But it will be far better for him to be thus sharply tutored, than to go on a snail's pace in the journey of the spiritual life. And for arrogance, I have seen nothing breed it faster or in more offensive forms than the worship of the letter.
[God] is not afraid of your presumptuous approach to him. It is you who are afraid to come near him. He is not watching over his dignity...
To accept as the will of our Lord which to us is inconsistent with what we have learned to worship in him already, is to introduce discord into that harmony whose end is to unite our hearts, and make them whole.This notion ("But to care so little for him as to receive as his what the noblest part of our nature rejects as low and poor, or selfish and wrong") is what finally set me free. I could no longer accept a vision of God that was low, poor, selfish and wrong. A view of God that violated the noblest part of my character, and not just my character, the noblest part of humanity.
"Is it for us," says the objector who, by some sleight of will, believes in the word apart from the meaning for which it stands, "to judge the character of our Lord?" I answer, "This very thing he requires of us." He requires of us that we should do him no injustice. He would come and dwell with us, if we would but open our chambers to receive him. How shall we receive him if, avoiding judgment, we hold this or that daub of authority or tradition hanging upon our wall to be the real likeness of our Lord?...
...To mistake the meaning of the Son of man may well fill a man with sadness. But to care so little for him as to receive as his what the noblest part of our nature rejects as low and poor, or selfish and wrong, that surely is more like the sin against the Holy Ghost that can never be forgiven; for it is a sin against the truth itself, not the embodiment of him.
Am I, then, in danger of pride, of making God into human likeness? Yes, and MacDonald well admits this as you saw above. But his response is clear. You cannot help but make God into your image. So you have a choice. Will you imagine the most noble, merciful, and loving person alive (Jesus, for example) and posit that God is like that? And more than that?
Or will you believe that humans are more forgiving, more loving, and more just than God himself? That humans are better than God? That while I might forgive the wrongs against me (as Jesus forgave those who crucified him) God cannot? That while I recoil at the thought of torturing my child God will torture his children for all eternity?
No, the answer has to be no. God is better than me. Better than you. Better than we can possibly imagine.