Are We Trying to "Out-God" God?
“So why are you now trying to out-god God, loading these new believers down with rules that crushed our ancestors and crushed us, too? Don’t we believe that we are saved because the Master Jesus amazingly and out of sheer generosity moved to save us just as he did those beyond our nations? So what are we arguing about?” (Acts 15:10-11, MSG)
What does it mean to try to “out-god” God?
Out-godding God may be one of the biggest obstacles to our own ability to reach new people with the gospel. We’re familiar with the consistent reports that young people think that the church people are hypocritical, judgmental and boring…maybe it was too political rather than boring. But too political, according to the reports, means that one side of things is proposed as the only way to believe if you want to be a Christian, on the right side, with the insiders. I think that’s out-godding God.
How easy it is to fall into the trap of out-godding God! Recently a pastor in my home town told his congregation of farmers that unless they farm organically, they’re not really Christian. (He’s not long for that world…) Not to get engaged in how nearly impossible it is to make a living farming organically in eastern Washington state and how complicated the whole American agricultural system has become, given the US Farm Bill, etc., what was he thinking?
Abraham Joshua Heschel, my favorite prophetic voice of the Hebrew scriptures, warns his readers in The Prophets, that prophets can go beyond God’s judgment, destroying instead of disciplining. Heschel calls it a hypertrophy of sympathy for God, or out-godding God in judgment. Jeremiah had a tendency to out-god God in his condemnation, reprimanding without reminding people of God’s love; judgment instead of grace, forgetting God’s love for the victims caught in the mire of complicated issues. A hypertrophy of sympathy for God is to outweigh love of God for love of neighbor; they’re meant to be in balance (a trick if you can do it).
Obviously out-godding God isn’t an exclusively early church phenom!
But equating any political, social, religious or economic agenda–or anything for that matter–as the only way to be Christian is to out-god God! It’s simplistic and only adds burdens to those who are often the most vulnerable, even the victims, of the injustices that we decry.
Acts 15 demonstrates that the complicated issues of our religious, economic, political, and cultural lives aren’t easily discerned, lived out, and finalized. In our present economic struggles, given the federal deficit, states’ need to balance budgets, and the pinch on congregations to be in ministry (and federal and state leaders calling on the faith communities to pick up the slack), how do we find our way forward to make wise and faithful decisions based on our biblical and Wesleyan traditions of economic justice? And avoid out-godding God when we do? How do we find a gracious prophetic voice?