Don’t Make Me Come Down There: A Statement of Fear, Not of Faith

God spoke: “Don’t make me come down there!”—or so said the billboard at the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel, which connects New Jersey to New York City. This quotation can be found on church signs, billboards, and media posts all across the country. The implication is clear: God is an upset father who has had it with the disobedience and debauchery of his children. And God is threatening to come down from his heavenly perch and straighten us out. Punishment will no doubt be administered, and the intensity and pain of that punishment will depend on the egregiousness of our sins. So we had better listen—and obey.

When I was a young boy, God was not distant, but very close to me, even standing on my shoulder and watching every move I made. As a child, I cowered before God, who I saw as big, stern, and quick to anger—a divine presence out to get me. Without having heard of Jonathan Edwards, whose “sinners in the hands of an angry God” sermon was first preached nearly two hundred fifty years ago and has in large measure framed American Protestant Christianity, I knew his warning; and I made every effort to comply. Because I believed that God could not only hear me, but also had access to what I thought, I felt the need to curate my thoughts, and I tried to keep myself as pure and obedient as possible so as to avoid God’s considerable wrath.

Over the years I have moved away from a concept of a punishing God, to a relationship with a divine presence that is at every moment eager to offer hope, blessing and love.  It has not been an easy journey; there are still moments, when I am afraid or under stress, that a menacing force can still settle on my shoulder with all sorts of recrimination and resentment.  But I have learned to acknowledge that the arrival of such negativity has more to do with fear, and is not of God.  Yet that is what we, the human family, have done over the centuries, regardless of the religious framework we were born into, and may or may not still observe.  We project our fear into and onto a vengeful God, who we hope might take the fear away, but instead the projection just makes it worse.

I had a parishioner once whose husband was an adamant non-believer.  She would frequently say to him, “the God you don’t believe in doesn’t exist.”  Indeed.

But much of the world still insists on that projection of God, in part because it can serve to justify similar vengeful behavior.  God punishes, so we can too.  With self-righteousness and certainty, always a dangerous combination.  I don’t have specific evidence, but I am reasonably convinced that the man who stabbed Salmon Rushdie, and the gun-toting man who threatened an FBI office in Cincinnati each carried a religious self-righteousness and certainty with them in their attacks.  Not to mention the vengeful legislative proposals on abortion that are being brought to state legislatures all across the country.  Just beneath the surface – or right on the surface, there is a fierce commitment that these actions are doing God’s will.

Hardly.

Fear can’t be boiled down to faith.  Faith requires an ongoing journey, of going beneath our fears and certainties – and wrestling with doubts, and nuance and ideas, and various layers of understanding.  It is hard work.  And incredibly rewarding.

Several years ago, while visiting a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Katmandu, Nepal, I came across a book which featured an interview between a Christian author and the lama of that large monastic community.  The interviewer asked the lama about John 14:6: “Jesus said, I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”  Seemingly a rather restrictive statement; that salvation can only come through Jesus.  What did the lama think of Jesus’ words?

“He is absolutely right,” came the immediate reply.  Jesus is inviting people to a deeper way – beneath self-righteousness and certainty and stark binary choices.  That is indeed the only way to God, the lama pointed out.  Jesus pointed the way.  We should all follow, he went on.  Not that everyone needs to become a Christian, but that we all need to work to get beyond our prejudices and pre-judgments and surface reactions to a place of hope and blessing and love.  That is where we can more easily find God.

God doesn’t need to come down here.  God is already here.

 

 

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