What is God like?

by Sheryl Anderson.

Whilst commemorating 500 years since the Reformation, I have been exercised by Luther’s understanding of God and the relationship God has with humanity through Jesus Christ. Luther came to his understanding of justification by grace through faith after much struggle.

‘Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God, and said, “As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the Decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!” Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience.’[1]

Personally, I do not recognise ‘the righteous God who punishes sinners,’ or God, ‘also by the gospel threatening us with his righteous wrath!’ Initially I attributed this to historical and cultural difference. Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) lived in a very different time and circumstance from me. Even so, Luther seems to have been a deeply troubled man.

Then I discovered St Pierre Favre (Peter Faber) 1506 – 1546[2], a contemporary of Luther and a close companion of Ignatius Loyola and Francis Xavier. Favre is arguably the 16th Century’s least known saint. He came from Savoy; his parents were working farmers and he grew up herding sheep in the high pastures of the alps. As a young man, he studied at the university in Paris and was a gifted scholar. However, like Luther, he was a deeply troubled man. He struggled with his sense of his own sinfulness, with indecision, and with a permanent deep-seated fear of offending God.

It is worth noting that, when Favre was engaged in his theological studies, the teachings of Luther and his contemporaries would have been hot topics for debate in the lecture halls and rooms of the universities. However, this would not have been an abstract discussion. As a university student, Favre would have been obliged to attend the public execution of heretics. Given his personal insecurities, such brutality could have had a deep and potentially traumatic impact on him.

It was through his relationship with Loyola, that Favre slowly came to terms with his fears and anxieties. Years later he wrote:

‘… he gave me an understanding of my conscience and of the temptations and scruples I had had for so long without either understanding them or seeing the way by which I would be able to get peace’[3]

Favre kept a journal for the last four years of his life. The reason we have any insight into his understanding of God and the relationship God has with humanity through Jesus Christ is largely because of this. His Memoriale is one of the main texts that documents the spirituality of the early Jesuits. In it he imagines his life as a journey, following the example of Christ: traveling for obedience, always alert to seek God’s will and not his own. Unlike Luther, Favre’s attitude is founded on his belief that people are changed more by those who love them in God’s grace than by those who seek to coerce, outsmart or overwhelm them.

Simplicity and goodness should eventually get the upper hand over our natural way of thinking. That is to say, though on a natural level we might think it right to be angry or depressed over something, nevertheless goodness and simplicity ought to put up with it. Sometimes we are interiorly anguished; and though this spirit may speak what is true, reproving us for our many failures, nevertheless if it robs us of our tranquillity it is not the good spirit. The spirit of God is peaceful and gentle, even in reproof.[4]

These profoundly contradictory notions of what God is like have led me to wonder: to what extent is our understanding of God, and the relationship God has with humanity through Jesus Christ, determined not so much by our world, but by our world view?

[1] Luther’s Works, Volume 34, P336-337.

[2] I am grateful to Edel McClean who introduced me to Pierre Favre. More about him can be found here http://www.thinkingfaith.org/articles/20130802_1.htm

[3] Memoriale: The Spiritual Writings of Pierre Favre (Saint Louis: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1996) §9, p. 65.

[4] ‘Instructions for Those Going on Pilgrimage’ in Spiritual Writings, p. 342, my emphasis.

3 thoughts on “What is God like?”

  1. ‘The Spirit of God is peaceful and gentle, even in reproof.’
    That sounds like my God.
    How often do we project our own anger, indignation and frustration with the world onto God?


  2. True faith lies not in doctrines about God or descriptions of God but in the transforming wordless experience of love and trust, of commitment and faithfulness that comes from our own personal encounter with God. “The truth that will set you free” is not a series of factual statements about God and salvation, but the knowledge of God’s love and creative power that you feel from the very centre of your being. Since we are all unique individuals and have very different life experiences, each relationship with God will be different, even if many of us describe it in a common religious language. If we are to help each other by sharing our experiences of God and encouraging one another, we have to recognize and respect those differences and honour each other’s faith.

    Although the little boy who told his teacher that he was painting a picture of God was quite confident that he was producing an accurate picture of God, he wouldn’t be have been at all fazed if other children produced their own pictures of God that were quite different. Young children can cope with that quite happily; it’s adults who feel the need to impose their perceptions onto others or are convinced that they have the only truth. We lack children’s openness, imagination and sense of wonder and so now we see only “a dim reflection in a mirror”. Perhaps that’s why we’re told to be like children in our approach to God – they trust without expecting to have all the answers, and they happily amend their ideas as they broaden their understanding. Then we might see faith as a journey of exploration into God rather than an arrival at a fixed set of beliefs, as an adventure and a challenge rather than a refuge from harm or a ticket into Heaven

    Liked by 1 person

  3. ‘to what extent is our understanding of God, and the relationship God has with humanity through Jesus Christ, determined not so much by our world, but by our world view?’

    My answer to that is how could it not be? Should notions of ‘God’ remain static? I think not. That is one of the things which has left the church in its current position. Sometimes we seem afraid to explore.


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