Guarding God’s Reputation: Is God a Moral Monster?

By: Brian Harris

Like many who went to school in the sixties and seventies, my day started with an assembly at which the Lord’s prayer was said.

We’d rush through it, and I can confidently affirm that it is possible to say it in well under 8 seconds. Not that I’d advise it. After all, the sentiments are so rich, you don’t want to miss them.

Do you remember how Matthew 6:9 starts? “This then is how you should pray: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.’” In my sub-eight-second scramble I never paused to reflect on what it meant. If you had asked me I suspect I would have said, “Oh, it’s just affirming that God is amazing and holy or something like that.” While not wildly out, it isn’t an adequate answer, largely because “hallowed be your name” is not so much a statement as a request. Put differently, in a prayer full of petitions (give us the bread we need today, forgive us our sins, deliver us from evil) this is the first of the requests. Paraphrased we could say: “Our Father in heaven. We ask that all will hallow your name. Ensure that people think well of you. Guard your reputation.”

Matthew 6:9 is a request that God would guard God’s reputation. And to be clear, whenever we ask God to do something, we need to ask what our role is in helping the prayer to come true. The implication is that if we ask that God’s reputation be guarded, we should participate in this by ensuring our actions and thoughts make it easier for others to think well of God.

“Fair enough, but I’m not sure why you are going on about this,” you say.

“Think more deeply,” I reply. “Just as the words we speak about others and the stories we tell about them impact their reputation, so the words and the stories we speak about God impact God’s reputation.” The same is true of the actions we take in God’s name.

God Has a Reputation

It’s not just Matt 6:9 that has this implication. Psalm 23 might well be your favourite psalm. It’s certainly right up there on my list. Have you pondered verse 3? “He guides me along the right paths for his names sake.”

We often celebrate the gift of guidance along right paths, but then overlook the purpose. It’s “for his names sake.” In short – it is not so that people will say that we are amazing (look at the incredible paths you get to walk, you are astonishing) but “for his names sake”, or so that people will say, “God is amazing.” There it is again. The concern is around what people think and say about God. And whether we follow the right paths that God guides us along (as well as if we don’t), in some way, God’s reputation is at stake.

Jesus was conscious of this. Have you noticed how often he rails against the prevailing attitudes to what could and couldn’t be done on the Sabbath day? People were shocked because Jesus healed people on the seventh day. They thought God considered it morally superior to obey the command to refrain from work on the Sabbath than to heal someone on that day. Why? Well, presumably because God had told them not to work on the Sabbath and didn’t want this disobeyed, no matter what. It makes God sound distressingly petty, doesn’t it, as though the rule is so much more important than the person and their desperate need? It’s why Jesus points us back to first principles: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). In other words, Jesus reminds us to stop thinking of God as an insecure tyrant who throws a temper tantrum and sulks indefinitely unless we unquestioningly accept every letter of what was said, instead of leaning into why it was said. The Sabbath has a role. It is to bless us. To imagine that God would give it to us for any other reason is to insult the kindness of God.

When We Let God’s Reputation Down

In the history of the church we have sometimes guarded God’s reputation well – and at other times we have defamed it. Convinced of God’s love and mercy for all, slavery was opposed, children protected, the rights of women championed, labour movements started, education opened for all – and the list goes on. You read it and think, “the God who inspired such incredible good is obviously amazing.”

But in the name of this same God the Crusades were undertaken and people were forced to convert or be slaughtered. Or think of the Inquisition where heresy trials shut down even a sniff of alternate thinking. A few weeks back I wrote of the terribly misguided response by the Church to those who had suicided, and how they were refused a burial on church land. Often a stake was hammered through their heart, supposedly to prevent any kind of resurrection. Imagine the additional pain this added to their already suffering family members. When people hear of the god who was deemed to require this they say, “such a god is a moral monster.”

“Ah, all these lessons from history,” you say. True, but I wonder if they aren’t as relevant for today. When the Gospel is reduced to law it becomes a terrible burden (we might be saved by grace, but we are often cajoled into thinking that unless we follow the sub culture of our church group we are not really ok.)

Too often I hear people speak about God in a way that paints a picture of a god who is obsessed with our sex lives, a god who has neither the imagination nor the compassion to tolerate difference, a god who requires total conformity to whatever rules are being peddled (no matter how absurd), and who has no understanding of what it’s like to be on the margins. This god comes across as petty, insecure, intolerant and fussy. Worse, this god seems cruel and vindictive. This god seems so unlike Jesus. We should guard God’s reputation better.

I read a Facebook post recently that probably meant well, but in the end painted a really odd portrait of God. In summary it said things like “if you just speak of God’s love, but not God’s justice, this is not the God of the Bible. If you just speak of God’s mercy, but not about God’s wrath, this is not the God of the Bible. If you speak of a God who forgives, but not of a God who condemns, this is not the God of the Bible.”

Now at one level this is true – but it’s a half truth, isn’t it? It’s presented as if the one balances the other out. There is love – but be careful, there is also justice. In the end you land up with blah – a kind of neutralised nothingness.

“God is absolutely just in a way that is absolutely loving… no exceptions.”

Theologian Karl Barth has great insight here. He argues that God is at all times all of God’s perfections. So is God just? Of course. But God is also the perfectly loving One, and therefore God’s love is not suspended for a moment of justice, but God’s justice is loving justice. It’s not a begrudging, “Yes, God is love, but don’t forget there is justice as well.” It is that God is absolutely just in a way that is absolutely loving – and that always. No exceptions. Perfect love, perfect justice – well that’s the Cross, isn’t it? Perfect love because it is love doing whatever it takes to win us over. Perfect justice because it transforms us, and deep justice isn’t about tit for tat but about transformation. And perfect love transforms.

“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” May people experience you as the transcendent yet incarnated One… may people think you are great. God, please guard your reputation, and in some small way, help me to be a part of this.

Article supplied with thanks to Brian Harris.

About the Author: Brian is a speaker, teacher, leader, writer, author and respected theologian who is founding director of the AVENIR Leadership Institute, fostering leaders who will make a positive impact on the world.

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