Why I Don’t Believe God Is Harsh
By Beth Demme
If you had to describe God in only one word, what word would you choose?
Go ahead, say it out loud. I’m waiting.
Seriously, I’m listening. Go ahead and say it.
Ooooh, good word! (I mean, probably. You probably chose a good word. I can’t actually hear you.)
I worry too many people think of God as harsh, demanding, and unforgiving. They make sure their exterior lives have a façade of respectability because they think that’s what God wants. They draw sharp moral lines and build fences out of them, trying to keep themselves in the safe zone. They live as if God’s judgment has a radius they can escape if they obey enough rules.
If we think of God as harsh, we end up like the Third Servant in the Parable of the Talents—the one who is not praised as “good and faithful.” (Matthew 25:14-30).
In this parable, the master is going away so he gives “talents” to his servants “each according to their ability.” He gives the first servant five talents, the second receives two talents, and the third servant gets only one. The first and second servants double what the master gives them and they are called “good and trustworthy (faithful)” servants. But the Third Servant, well, he wasted his chance to do something good and, instead, he buried what he was given and waited for the master to return.
In other translations, the “talents” are “bags of gold” (NIV), “bags of silver” (NLT), or “gold coins” (CEB). We can read the parable with that understanding; that Jesus is talking about actual money here. It is also true, however, that our English word talent, meaning special aptitude or ability, comes from this parable. We can read the parable to mean that we should recognize our talents and abilities as gifts from God and we shouldn’t waste them.
I think those are both valid, and valuable, readings. But what if? What if this parable is also telling us something important about how we should (not) see God? Listen to the third servant’s explanation for why he hid the money:
Master, I know you have high standards and hate careless ways. I know that you demand the best and make no allowances for error. I was afraid I might disappoint you, so I found a good hiding place and secured your money. Here it is! Safe and sound down to the last cent.
Think about who this servant is and who the servant is talking to. The servant is a God-follower and the master is God.
Who is the Third Servant talking about? Not the God I know.
I can’t imagine saying to God, “God, I know you have high standards. That you hate careless ways. That you demand the best and make no allowances for error.” I’ve received too much forgiveness and love from God to describe God that way.
If I had to describe God in one word, I would say LOVE. And if I had to describe the Bible in one word, I would say REDEMPTION.
In the Old Testament, the Israelites know they have a relationship with God. That’s the whole point of circumcision and the Ten Commandments, they are signs of the Israelite covenant with Yhwh. Despite this knowledge, they have cycles of disobedience where they worship idols or do evil. (See e.g., Judges 3.) And yet, when they cry out to God for help, God helps them.
In the New Testament, God becomes incarnate in Jesus as an act of love for humanity. As we read the Parable of the Third Servant today, many centuries post-crucifixion, I hope we see a stark contrast between the God revealed in Jesus Christ and the god described by the Third Servant. Rather than a harsh god who “makes no allowances for error,” Paul writes: “God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:9). Similarly, John writes: “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).
There’s a certain irony in the Third Servant’s approach. Because he thought of God as harsh and unforgiving, that’s exactly the reaction he elicits. The master calls him “wicked and lazy” and has him thrown into “the outer darkness.” I guess that makes me even more certain I don’t want to fall into the trap of seeing God in the wrong light!
The most heart-breaking part of the parable is that because the Third Servant didn’t know God’s forgiving love, he was already in the outer darkness. When we find ourselves there, it’s definitely time to re-check our ideas about God.
Do you think of God as harsh and unforgiving? If not now, have there been times in your life when you thought of God that way? What changed? What do you take from the Parable of Third Servant? Tell me about in the comments, in an e-mail, or on Facebook.
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