[Back in the mid-1990s, I co-pastored with my wife Kathleen in a rural Mennonite congregation in the Midwest. Not long before we moved to Virginia for me to begin teaching I did a series of sermons trying to state in concise terms what I understood to be key Christian beliefs. I am going to post excerpts from those sermons here as an exercise in reflection. I will follow each post from 1996 with a post looking briefly at changes (and lack thereof) in my convictions in the past 15 years.]
What Do We Believe About God?
Ted Grimsrud—January 7, 1996
At our 1995 General Assembly, North American Mennonites approved a confession of faith. The Apostle Peter wrote that we are responsible “always to be ready to give an answer to anyone who demands from us an accounting for the hope that is in us” (1 Pt 3:15). We are responsible to explain about our faith. Use of our new Confession of Faith can help us to answer for our faith.
For us to be able to talk about our convictions with others—be it our children and grandchildren, our neighbors who are Christians and those who are not—we need to have clarity within our own hearts and minds about those convictions. Here are some of the most basic questions for Christians: What do we believe about God? What do we believe about Jesus Christ? What do we believe about the Holy Spirit? These are the questions I will be dealing with.
What do we believe about God? That is today’s issue. I will read from the very first paragraph of our Confession of Faith. “We believe that God exists and is pleased with all who draw near by faith. We worship the one holy and loving God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit eternally. We believe that God has created all things visible and invisible, has brought salvation and new life to humanity through Jesus Christ, and continues to sustain the church and all things until the end of the age.”
As I thought about this statement and about my own experience of faith, I noticed especially the first sentence. “We believe that God exists and is pleased with all who draw near by faith.”
I grew up in a tiny town in western Oregon. As I understand it, Oregon is probably the least churched state in the United States. Surveys of our county here in the highy churched Midwest show that church attendance here generally is about 102% of the county’s population, or something like that. That is, just about everybody in our county goes to church, and people from outside the county go to church here, too. In the county where I grew up, in Oregon, church attendance was probably about 33% —on Easter Sunday.
I did not grow up with a strong consciousness of God’s existence. Few of my friends were Christians. My parents went to church when I was young, but they quit going when the town’s Methodist Church folded. They rarely talked about their faith. So, I was pretty much left to my own devices. When I was in my teens, I began to be interested in life’s big questions. I had one friend with whom I had many discussions. We would sleep over at one another’s houses and talk long into the night. When I was fourteen or so, I told him that I had concluded that I did not believe in God. That wasn’t because I was rejecting anything (I wasn’t anti-Christian). It wasn’t because I was a wild sinner who just wanted to do my own thing (I imagine I was the most straight-laced person among my friends). It was just that God’s existence didn’t make sense to me. But I wondered about it a lot. I really did want to know the truth.
I remember the precise moment when my thinking changed—or maybe I should say that I remember the precise moment when I began to be aware that indeed God does exist.
I was friends with a guy in his twenties named Charlie. Charlie was a real good-time kind of person who worked in a saw mill. He was popular in our town. And he had cancer. You could see him simply disintegrate over time. He had a leg amputated and underwent various kinds of treatment. But nothing worked. Through this all, he remained upbeat, jovial, positive. He was always fun to be around. Finally, to the sorrow of everyone, including me, he died. He was twenty-five years old. His funeral packed the high school gymnasium.
Charlie had a death-bed conversion. He died at peace with God. The pastor who led the funeral service talked about Charlie’s last days. As he spoke, my heart was touched. I wouldn’t say that I became a Christian on the spot. That still took some more time. I had more to learn. But from that moment I never again have questioned the reality of God. I realized that God exists as a comforting, life-giving presence even in the face of death. I realized that God exists as the answer to my quest for meaning and understanding.
At that moment I experienced God pulling me toward faith, pulling me toward life. I experienced God affirming my existence as a person he cares about. I experienced God as a positive force, one who desires my wholeness. I realized that “God exists and is pleased with all who draw near by faith.”
My being found by God had to do with me finding an answer to my quest for life. I can identify a little with C. S. Lewis. He wrote the story of his conversion, and called the book “Surprised by Joy.” For him, finding faith was a matter of being pulled forward by God. It was a positive experience of finding deep, genuine joy. The picture of God which emerges from C. S. Lewis’s autobiography, the picture of God that I see as I look back over my life, is of a God most centrally characterized by love, a God most centrally characterized by his desire that human beings know joy and wholeness.…
In our Mennonite tradition, the main ways of talking about God have been telling stories about how God brings salvation. Mennonites haven’t talked a lot about abstract attributes of God, such as omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence. More so, we find meaning in telling of God’s acts, of God’s compassion, of God’s never-ending love.
We think of God’s involvement with our faith-ancestors in the sixteenth-century, giving profound insights into the ways of peace and discipleship. We think of God’s comfort and encouragement, of God giving people strength to face terrible hardships and persecutions, and yet remain faithful to the gospel of love. We think of God’s involvement over the generations, through migrations, through new starts, through trials and temptations. Somehow, through all of this, God’s care has continued. We know about God because of God’s involvement in our history, because of God’s faithfulness across the ages.
This is also how God is portrayed in the Bible. In the Bible from start to finish, we do not so much find abstract theological systems. We find, much more, stories, stories about God’s faithfulness, stories about God’s love, stories about God’s patience, stories about God’s mercy.…
I want to mention four biblical passages which are crucial in helping us to understand what we believe about God.
The first passage is Exodus 20, where God gives the Ten Commandments. God spoke to the people of God’s expectation for their lives. Thou shalt not…murder, lie, commit adultery, steal, misuse the Lord’s name, covet, worship idols. Thou shalt…observe the sabbath and honor your parents. However, before giving these commands, God speaks of what kind of God he is. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (20:2). What kind of God is God? The kind who liberates slaves. The kind who loves and acts to save people who are powerless to help themselves, people who are without status in the world.
What is the first thing which comes to mind here about God? Why are God’s laws worth following? Not so much God’s almighty power. Not so much God’s perfection. Not so much God’s hatred of sin. The first thing which comes to mind here about God is God’s saving love. This point is crucial to understanding the biblical notion of God. Most of all, God is a God who loves us and desires that we be whole. God is a God who wants our faithfulness not out of terror of God’s wrath, not out of a sense of utter helplessness in face of God’s over-powering might. God is a God who wants our faithfulness most of all as a response to his love for us.
A second passage from the Bible I want to mention is Hosea 11. Hosea speaks words of judgment. Israel has departed from God’s ways. “You have plowed wickedness, you have reaped injustice.…Because you have trusted in your power [and not mine] and in the multitude of your warriors, therefore the tumult of war shall rise against your people, and all your fortresses shall be destroyed” (Hos 10:13-14).
In Hosea eleven, we are reminded that Israel was to God as a child. “I loved [Israel], and out of Egypt I called my son” (11:1). But Israel did not live as children of God, and God’s anger is kindled. Judgment is at hand. Then, though, something else enters in. “My heart recoils within me,” God cries. “My compassion grows warm and tender. I will not exercise my fierce anger” (11:8-9). My compassion grows warm and tender. Even after Israel rejected God’s ways, God’s compassion grows warm and tender. God’s love continues. God’s basic character, seen when God freed the slaves from Egypt, God’s character is one of seeking healing, persevering in love, offering forgiveness and hope for healing.
Hosea tells us that God does not prevent unfaithful people from reaping the consequences of their actions. The tumult of war did rise against Israel. All Israel’s fortresses were destroyed. This talk about God’s love and mercy does not mean that our rejection of God’s ways is not costly.
Hosea also tells us, though, that our unfaithfulness, the wages of sin, the suffering and pain we bring upon ourselves by our turning from God’s ways—all this hurts God too. God is not out there taking grim satisfaction in our pain. God suffers with us. And God’s love continues no matter what we do. God’s compassion grows warm and tender no matter what we do. God remains there, asking us simply to return, simply to say no to the ways of brokenness, simply to trust in God’s mercy and healing compassion for genuine life.
Jesus also tells us that God is like this—one who loves and desires our return. We see this in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son in Luke 11. Jesus repeats themes from Hosea, that we are God’s children, that we may well turn from God, that when we turn from God we will suffer the consequences, but that God is always there awaiting our return.
The son in the parable takes his inheritance and heads for the bright lights, thinking that by doing so he is leaving his home far behind. He wastes his inheritance and ends up poverty-stricken. Leaving home far behind did not prove to be life-giving at all. Instead, it saps him of life. In desperation, finally, he turns back. He thought maybe he could be a servant for his father at least and thus have food to eat and a place to sleep.
The returning son discovers something amazing, though. He remains his father’s child. He had rejected his father, but his father had not rejected him. The father welcomes the son back with open arms. In the father’s heart, the son had remained his son. The father could have written the son off. That would have been fair enough, since that was what the son had wanted. But then the father would not have been ready for the return. The son does return. That is all it takes. Before the son can even speak the father embraces him. My son, who I thought was dead, is alive. Let’s celebrate his return.
Jesus tells this story to show what God is like. To describe God, Jesus does not talk about almighty power, all-knowingness, or any other abstract attribute. Jesus tells a story. What does Jesus believe about God? That God is merciful above all else, that God awaits our return from the ways of sin, that God will make us whole as we but trust in him.
The final Bible passage I want to mention is from Romans five. In these verses, Paul gives us words of encouragement. We have peace with God, those of us who trust in Jesus. Therefore, we may know that suffering will produce endurance. Endurance will produce character. Character will produce hope. “And hope does not disappointment us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts” (Rom 5:3-5).
This is all based on who God is. God is most of all a God who acts to bring about salvation. God is most of all a God who acts to bring about healing. “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (5:8). We were God’s enemies (5:10), but God worked to change that. God worked to open the way to life. We were God’s enemies, but God still loves us and continues to wait for us to return. Like with Israel of old in the time of Hosea, like with the prodigal son—so also for each of us. God’s compassion grows warm and tender.…
As Christians, what do we believe about God? We believe that God is love. We believe that God’s love extends to all creation, to all people, to each of us. We believe that God simply waits for our return, for our confession of our sin, for our opening our clenched fists in hope and in trust. And God responds to our return with celebration and with the gift of the Holy Spirit.…
What does our belief about God have to do with how we live? This is a Mennonite question. Our faith isn’t simply something we talk about. Our faith has to do with real life. Our faith has to do with what we do, with how we act. What kind of lifestyle emerges from the beliefs I’ve been talking about? What kind of lifestyle emerges from our belief that God is love?
In one direct way, we can learn from Hosea’s words and the story Jesus told about what God is like. As parents, how do we respond to our children when they wander away? And when they come back? Our children are quite likely to disappoint us sometimes. Our children are quite likely to fail sometimes to live up to our expectations.
I read recently about a man driven relentlessly by his inability ever to satisfy his father. He was a star athlete and a straight-A student. After a game or a report card, he would ask his dad, “Well, whaddya think, Dad? Was I good today? Are you proud of me?” The father would never say yes. He would respond, “Doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is, did you do your best.” The son could never answer yes to that. He knew he hadn’t been perfect. He hadn’t tried his best every second of every day. So he keeps trying and trying, years later, after his father is long dead, even after two heart bypass surgeries.…
Do we find it difficult to show mercy to our children? Do we find it difficult to forgive their failures? Do we find it difficult to accept their imperfections?
The father in Jesus’ parable was not looking for perfection. He was not even looking to give an A for effort. He was simply looking for his son to return. He loved his son simply as his son.
What do we believe about God? We believe, at bottom, that God loves us simply as his children. That is the only way we can stand before God—not as people who achieve, not even as people who try hard. Only as people who God loves simply as his children. When we understand that, when we know that only God’s mercy makes us whole—then we will find genuine freedom. That is, only then will we find power truly to love. Only then will we find power to help others to know God. Only then will God be our vision, our inheritance, our beginning and our end.