Friday, June 30, 2006

Is God Nice?

Since I am on "sabbatical" and I am sick (bad cold/flu), I have had some time to read and think. This afternoon I read an essay called God is Not Nice" by D. Stephen Long. This essay is found in a book edited by D. Brent Laytham called God is not ... Religious, Nice, "One of Us", An American, A Capitalist. Now, I know that this title will more than likely offend a number of people and also help one make assumptions about the content of the book. But, just like Greg Boyd's The Myth of a Christian Nation, the title doesn't always reflect the content of the book (more about this book later).

Now to get to what I am thinking about. Several years ago I read a book entitled The Missional Church (Darrel Guder). One of the statements in the book that has been influential in my thinking over the past while is this one

more often than not, the church has become a dispenser of religious goods and services."

If you honestly look around at the North American church, we have to admit that this is by and large true. Churches provide funerals, weddings, youth programs, children's programs, good music (in any one of the styles you find most appealing), good sermons, lots of entertainment, etc. Now, in and of themselves, most of this is not wrong -- but we all know that people leave one church and attend another one because the religious goods and services that the former church offers are not as good as those of the new church. In essence, one of the things we have been doing is developing religious consumers rather than disciples of Jesus.

Why has this happened? I am sure that there are scores of reasons, but Stephen Long said a couple of things in his essay that may make some sense. Long suggests that we have turned the God of the Bible into a "nice god". One that does things for us -- heals us, makes us happy and fulfilled, provides for us financially, etc. And, we have created this "nice god" because we have allowed our therapeutic culture and some of the theology of the Reformation to infiltrate our modern/post-modern church. In essence, we have molded the God of the Bible into a nice god that is acceptable in our materialistic, self-absorbed culture.

The nice god we worship emerges from our therapeutic culture where self-esteem and narcissism rule. I don't have to add much to this -- if we have open eyes, we know our culture is ruled by these two things -- and I more than suspect that the evangelical church has bought into these two values as well. Our nice god makes us feel good about ourselves (after all if He didn't, imagine what it would do to our self-esteem) and is there to provide us with everything we need and want.

If you add to our therapeutic culture the Reformation idea that we can primarily know God for what He does "for us" and "in us", you end up with churches that are primarily dispensers of religious goods and services. As Guder indicated in his book, and McLaren clearly states in A Generous Orthodoxy Jesus becomes our personal Saviour (a religious commodity), our healer, provider, etc. It almost sounds like it is "all about me" despite the fact that we sing a song that says "it's all about you Jesus".

Long says it even more bluntly. He suggests that churches sell people a product they want or need for their own fulfillment. Now we use religious words for our products -- but our "sales pitch" is that one of the primary purposes of the Christian faith is to give our lives "meaning" and to satisfy our individual souls. Our evangelism says "accept Christ, He is good for you." We are thrilled by the fact that people "make decisions" for Jesus (somehow I can't remember the word "decision" in the Great Commission). Our discipleship often concentrates on a "benefits package" that come by following Jesus. We preach sermons that tell us that Jesus is the means to a better life or marriage or job or attitude. These all turn Jesus into an expression of that nice god who meets my spiritual needs.

Is it any wonder then, that when Jesus doesn't meet all our needs or wants, or we lose a job, or get sick, or have marriage challenges, etc. that we begin to wonder about God's existence, His reality, etc.

Is it any wonder, that if we have been sold a religious commodity (Jesus), and if that commodity doesn't "work" we discard it and look for a better one?

Hmmmmmmm? Makes one think, doesn't it?

It also explains a lot about the church in the developing world. Whether I am in the mountains of Guatemala, the slums of Africa or in India, Indonesia or Turkey, I find "ordinary" Christians making extra-ordinary sacrifices to follow Jesus. Somehow it hasn't hit them that Jesus is to provide them with personal satisfaction, money, health and happiness. I wonder why?

Could it be that they know the God of the Bible rather than the "nice god" of the North American church?


SocietyVs said...

The thing is poor people understand the 'need' for God, especially when you have absolutely nothing to fall back on. Middle class churches don't see this about God, but he really is the God that cares about the poor and oppressed.
Is God nice? Yes. He is loving and compassionate as exemplified in the life of Jesus. People should tailor programs to human needs and try to solve those needs, since we are all messed up in some way. God came to heal the sick and we as Christians should take the same attitude. Sometimes healing means dealing with past issues (counselling).
I love the post, very thought provoking. I always like to hear what one of God's children is writing about, the words God puts on his heart.

chris said...

Great post! We really have turned God and Jesus into a commodity. The sad thing is Jesus stated his kingdom is not in or of this world. So why would a kingdom that doesn't operate on our level monitarily use our love of money to reach our souls.
Wonderful thoughts, keep it up!!

Milton Stanley said...

I enjoyed your post, too (through a link at SmartChristian). I quoted and linked to your essay on my blog today. Peace.

Andrea said...

I just ordered another book you might be interested in. It is called Jesus Mean and Wild.

Anonymous said...

Well stated and sadly, very true. When I hear God is "nice" comments, it communicates as you said, and also implies God is not necessarily just in all matters... that wouldn't be nice.

Todd said...

I know this is an older post, but I just had this same conversation with a friend last night, since I myself have been struggling with this very question in my ministry.

We came to the conclusion that God is good, which means he can't always be the nice guy we think he should be.