The God of my experience

We are working our way through the Pentateuch right now in the Old Testament class that I am taking. I have spent the weekend reading and reading about the book of Numbers. This book definitely does not qualify as a light, entertaining read. At all.

Although this book is a continuation of the Exodus story that we’ve already read in the books of Exodus and Leviticus, I found the narrative in Numbers to be even more disturbing than the two previous books were. Part of this may just be the cumulative horror I am experiencing at re-reading these is catching up with. Part of it is that the stories are becoming even more violent as we continue on.

It’s been almost 25 years since the last time I read the Bible through cover to cover, and I don’t think I’ve spent much time at all reading Leviticus, Numbers, or Deuteronomy during those years since then. It’s a clear reminder to me as I read them again now where the idea of an angry, punishing God comes from. Not only do we have the detailed descriptions of animal sacrifice, we also get the descriptions of mass killings by the Israelites of various other peoples and the mass killings of the Israelites by God.

All of these descriptions of violence are disturbing to me on so many levels, but I find the stories of how God repeatedly kills large numbers of the Israelites for their infractions the most disturbing. In Numbers, many of these mass killings come about because people questioned whether Moses really had greater access to God than anyone else. According to the stories, any questioning or complaining of any kind seems to provoke such anger in God that thousands of people wind up dead.

This violent, bloody, angry God is not one that I can imagine wanting to worship. It probably doesn’t help that by all descriptions, I would not be a person of any value to the God that is described here. I am a gentile, not an Israelite. I am a woman—and worse yet, a woman who has never borne children, which seems to be the only redeeming purpose for a woman’s existence. I am a lesbian. And I ask too many questions, have too many doubts, and am not naturally very obedient. At best, I would be of no value to such a god. More likely, I would have been obliterated early on in the story. It’s hard to choose a god who would treat me like that.

I am well aware that most people’s concept of God—not just among Christians, but also in rabbinic Judaism today—has shifted a good deal from what is described in Numbers, although there do appear to be those within the more fundamentalist circles who still view God in much the same way. I am also aware of the argument that the text describes the concept people had of God at the time the text was written (which may have been much later than the events described), but it is still disturbing that people conceived of their God—purportedly the same one that Christianity worships today—in such a way. What is it, I wonder, that causes people to choose this kind of image of God?

What does it mean for me to reject this kind of image of God? I know that there are those among my childhood faith tradition who would say that I am creating a God of my own invention because I am refusing to believe that God is as he is described in these texts. There may even be some truth to that. I’m sure they would describe me as being unfaithful to God’s revelation of himself in the Bible and would therefore deem me a heretic. There may be some truth in that too. I don’t know.

What I do know is that the God that I encounter personally bears no resemblance to the God that I find described in these texts. Is it wrong to put more weight on my own experience of God than in that which was described by people thousands of years ago? Did God change? Is the God that I have encountered the same one that they knew? Is God always a product of our imaginations based on the cultural context in which we encounter God?

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. I won’t even pretend to. At the end of the day, right or wrong, all I know to do is to rely on what I have personally experienced of God because anything else feels like a betrayal of relationship.

I sure am glad that I only have one more book in the Pentateuch left to go, though. I know there is still much more violence, bloodshed, and angry God stories to come in the rest of the books that make up the Old Testament, but I know that there are bright spots in there too where a God of compassion, mercy, and love is described. I’m more than ready for a few bright spots!

A Note on Comments: A chrysalis is by nature a fragile and vulnerable place to be, so I am committed to keeping this a safe place for me and for my readers. Comments sharing your own journey, even if your experience is different from mine, are always welcome and encouraged. Expressions of support or encouragement are also welcome. Comments that criticize, disparage, correct, or in any way attempt to undermine the validity of another person’s experience or personal insight are not welcome here and will be deleted.

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9 thoughts on “The God of my experience

  1. I think faith is a tricky thing. I know it’s something I struggle with, and I think it’s something I may always struggle with. But I think it’s good that you’re learning. I don’t pretend to understand God at all, but I do think He has changed and can change, and I think there is biblical proof of that capacity for change, so I don’t think you can be accused of being unfaithful to God’s depiction of himself.

  2. There is a common notion that the picture of God provided by Jesus is somehow “softer” and more “loving” than the violent, Old Testament God. But we tend to forget that it was Jesus who repeatedly gave us hell, the eternal fire, in the New Testament (a concept that didn’t exist in the OT). Never ending torture rather negates any amount of “love” depicted in Jesus, and even outweighs all the violence of the OT God.

    There is no god in scripture that seems worthy of worship to me. And, having tried Christianity for 25 years of my life, I can’t say that I have ever had what I would call a “personal experience” of God, though I used to take any naturally good feeling I experienced and (following my Christian indoctrination) give “God” the credit.

    I am content to live without God. My friends and family and the joy of life is enough for me. An afterlife does not concern me. Why worry about the past and the future, when the present is the most meaningful moment we experience?

    • I agree with you, Beau, that there is an awful lot of violence in the NT as well. It’s hard to reconcile all of that. I really appreciate you sharing your experience with me. In particular, your comment about not being sure that you have ever had a “personal experience” of God and attributing your good feelings to God’s credit. I think this is what I struggle with too. How do I know that the experiences that I attribute to being “personal experiences of God” are really that? Might they not just be natural emotional experiences that I am just calling experiences of God? It’s hard to know. But that’s where I wonder sometimes whether I’m just making it all up.

      I’m glad that you have found a way of life that is meaningful to you. I may someday wind up where you are too. It sounds like we agree on so much. I just haven’t quite given up on the idea of a compassionate God who is willing to walk along side me in the present moment. It may or may not turn out to be a figment of my imagination, but I’m open to figuring that out.

      Thanks so much for your comment and for sharing your experience and your thoughts!

    • Beau,
      My youngest son, 26, is one of the most serene, peaceful people I’ve ever had the blessing to share this journey with. His views on the existence of God is compatible to yours. I also find he has no need to “argue” faith and/or religion. His serenity comes from self and a true love that needs no entity to credit. I am so pleased I did not indoctrinate him into organized religion. He is a strong, committed spirit that, like you and your wife, understands love, joy, and living in the present. Your description of your belief is beautifully written. Now…I think I’ll go call my son and tell him how honored I am to be his mother. 🙂

      • Thanks for sharing your story of your son, Lisa! I think we each have our own path to walk through life, and it is more about finding the right way for ourselves than about there being one right way for everyone. It sounds like he has found his path and is living it fully. Good for him!

      • Yes, thank you, Lisa. My children are just a little younger. Like you, we’re doing our best not to “indoctrinate” them, but to give them love and care and (if any philosophy at all) the notion that loving and caring is means to happiness.

        I might add a sense of wonder and curiosity at the universe around us.

  3. You’re very gracious, KJ, and I wish you the best. It’s nice to have a pleasant conversation (as opposed to an argument) about life choices that are quite serious. For what it’s worth, my wife and I have taken this journey together, and we both feel that our marital commitment, our own self worth, and the way that we value each other, – all these things have improved with a movement, which is away from religion, but still toward human altruism.

    • Beau, I also appreciate the chance to talk about these things pleasantly. It is an encouragement to me to hear that you and your wife have found a path that is so rewarding for you both! I may or may not wind up on the same path as you, but I truly think it’s more about each of us finding and embodying our own path than about finding the “one true path.” So I have no problem rejoicing in your discovery of your path through life even as I am off exploring a different path. It’s the beauty of embracing diversity!

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