I was watching ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. the other night on Netflix. One the episodes that caught my attention was the where a young woman was being harassed by demons because “God was upset with her.” At some point in the episode she’s talking with one of the SHIELD agents about God. Does he exist? And if so, is he a spiteful tormentor or loving and kind? And I noticed that this wasn’t the first time that I had heard this question of whether God was a wrathful deity or one of love. The Nostalgia Critic, from channelawesome.com, asked it during his comparison of The Ten Commandments and The Prince of Egypt. It was brought up when I was at Asbury, and it came up as a subject for many sermons I’ve heard. And almost always, the question is answered with: “God is love.”
But is that all he is? In fact, why do we consider the two possible answers to be antithetical to each other?
I suppose it has to do with our own experiences. We know of authority figures who believed we could never do anything right, even when we did, and therefore punished for every little misstep. We then hear about God, his aversion towards sin, and his command to be perfect. We figure that God is the same authority type: abusive and unrelenting. For this reason, some claim, many leave the faith. Why spend more time in their lives trying to please someone who can never be pleased?
As a response, some churches have emphasized I John 4:8b, “God is love.” In this instance, we see God as the doting parent who is either oblivious to or willfully ignorant of our shortcomings. We can do no wrong because ultimately God just wants to shower us with his blessings and grace. He might get disappointed every once and a while, but don’t focus on that too much because God is love. And if God is love, why worry about him ever getting angry for when we mess up?
Thus we have two very different images of who God is. Because they are so different, we think they cannot be connected in any way. However, that seems to be far from the truth provided to us in Scripture. Think about it. In Genesis, we see God giving mankind rules and commands. “Have kids. Be sure your kids have kids. Don’t have your children and your grandchildren in one spot. Spread out. Oh, and don’t eat the fruit of that tree over there.” And of course, we know that in Genesis 3 mankind starts to screw up resulting in God cursing mankind with hardships, pain, and a separation from the immediate presence of God. Sounds very much like the authoritarian figure mentioned above. However, we also see God in a manner that is quite merciful.
Remember he said that if Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit, they would die. However, God does not kill them outright. Nor does he strip them of their pitiful attempts to cover their nakedness and rub their faces in their shame. Instead the Lord kills an animal to cover the shame of their misdeeds and simply drives them out of the garden. This is not in accordance with a God who by nature is cruel and legalistic. Nor is it what one would expect from a God who is at worst disappointed in our mistakes and at best unconcerned because he is so concerned about loving us.
Again, in Judges we see God decrying the wickedness of his people and allowing them to be subdued by foreign powers as punishment. Yet when they repent and call for his mercy, he sent them judges to deliver them from their oppressors. God loved David, but took David’s child from him and allowed one of David’s sons to rape his half-sister and another to kill his brother and start a rebellion. The Lord was angered by the sins of Nineveh, but allowed the city to repent through the teaching of Jonah. But when they fell back into sin, he judged them for it. Jesus highly praised Peter’s faith when his disciple confessed he was the Son of God. But Christ also was quick to admonish him, going so far as to call him Satan, when he rebuked the Lord for predicting the events on Good Friday. Jesus also did not condemn the woman in adultery to death, but he did tell her to sin no more.
In short, we have many stories where God is both a figure of love and of discipline, a merciful deity and a just one. Trying to put God into just one of these categories simply doesn’t fit with his description from Scripture because he is both. Doing so creates a false image of who he is and creates a false gospel. Now most pastors, Christian writers, and others who perpetuate one image of God over another may not be doing so intentionally. They may be just parroting the version of God they were taught in seminary or grew up with in Sunday. But whatever their intentions, because only God knows, we must ask if not demand that the fullness of God be taught and not just a part. Because it is not just the God of wrath who hurts the faith of others, the God of “love” does not teach us the fullness of the gospel. And without the fullness of the gospel we are faith is incomplete and does not save.