Conversations with Scripture: The Gospel of Mark by Marcus Borg

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The Character of God

Written By Marcus Borg

I invite you to join me in a moment of centering prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ, you are the light of the world. Fill our minds with your peace and our hearts with your love. In your name, oh Christ, our body and our blood, our life and our nourishment. Amen.

I want to talk about the character of God today, about how we see the character of God, and the effects of this on the Christian life. That is actually the title of my sermon, for those of you who like sermons to have titles: "The Character of God." Or to turn it into a question, "What is the Character of Your God?"

As a prologue, I want to explain a bit more about what I mean when I speak about the character of God. The character of God has to do with the very nature of God. It is deeper than the Will of God, for will flows out of character. And so my question is, What is God’s character? What does God care about? What is God’s passion? Our sense of God’s character, our perception of what God is like, is carried or conveyed by our images of God or metaphors for God. I typically distinguish between concepts of God, which I see as more abstract, and images of God—images or metaphors are more concrete, more visual. Indeed, I sometimes think of metaphors as linguistic art or verbal art. Some of the biblical metaphors for God or images for God include the following: God is like a king, like a judge, like a shepherd, like a father, less commonly, like a mother. God is like a lover, like a potter, like a warrior, and so forth.

These images for God matter, to repeat my foundational claim. They matter because they shape how we see the character of God. I turn now to the main body of my sermon. I want to talk about two primary images or pictures or metaphors for God’s character that have dominated the Jewish and Christian traditions throughout their long history, reaching back into biblical times. They are two very different models for the character of God. A model, as Sallie McFague from Vanderbilt Divinity School puts it, is a metaphor with "staying power." To which I would add, a model is a way of constellating or gestalting metaphors. That is, the biblical metaphors for God gravitate toward one or the other of these two models or primary images for God. Both of these have been present throughout Christian history. Both are alive in the contemporary church. And they are so different from each other that they virtually produce two different religions both using the same language.

The first of these ways of imaging God’s character sees God as the lawgiver and judge who also loves us. This is the one that I grew up with and the one I suspect that many of you grew up with. It is probably also the most common or visible image of God within the Christian church today. As lawgiver, God had given us the Ten Commandments and other laws about how to live. God had told us what is expected of us.

As judge, God was also the enforcer of the law; there would be a judgment someday. (I took all of this very much for granted when I was growing up in the church.) And God also loved us. Because we weren’t very good at being good, we weren’t very good at keeping God’s laws, God provided an alternative means of satisfying God’s law—of becoming right with God. In Old Testament times this was accomplished through temple sacrifice as a way of atoning for our disobedience. In New Testament times, God sent Jesus to be the sacrifice to die for our sins, thus making our forgiveness possible.

God did love us, but it was a conditional love. Namely, God would accept us if—and here again you can fill in the blank: if we were good enough, if our repentance was earnest enough, if we believed in Jesus. And so, even though God loved us, the system of requirements remained. God as lawgiver and judge in a way triumphs over the love of God. The dynamic of sin, guilt, and forgiveness, and doing or believing what we needed to do, were the central dynamic of the Christian life.

It is striking to me how pervasive this dynamic of sin, guilt, and forgiveness is in even liberal Christian settings. A couple summers ago, I was at a week-long event in a classically liberal Christian institution. Each day began with a chapel service at 9:00 o’clock in the morning attended by several hundred people, and every day that chapel service began with a confession of sin. And I thought to myself, dear Lord, it’s 9:00 o’clock in the morning and we’ve already been bad.

Now, I have no illusions about us being perfect or anything like. I’m just commenting that this dynamic of sin, guilt, and forgiveness is directly correlated with imaging God as the lawgiver and judge who also loves us. I have since learned to call this model of God, the monarchical model of God, from the word for monarch or king. I owe that phrase to the contemporary theologians, Ian Barbour and Sallie McFague. This monarchical model of God takes its name from the common biblical metaphor of God as King and Lord.

As King, God is both lawgiver and judge, and we don’t measure up very well in relationship to God as lawgiver and judge. Who are we in relationship to God as shepherd? We are sheep, of course. Who are we in relationship to God as lawgiver and judge? Well, we’re a defendant. We’re on trial, as it were, and this life, the life we have right now, is about getting it right or doing what we need to do. Depending upon the particular form of Christianity with which we grew up, getting it right might be some combination of right behavior or right belief, with the mixture put together in various ways.

This model is softened somewhat, but not much, when parental imagery is substituted for king imagery. Of course, it’s usually father imagery that gets substituted for king imagery. But when the monarchical God is imaged as a parent rather than as a king, it is as the critical parent. God as the disappointed parent, the parent who loves us yes, but on the whole isn’t all that pleased with how we’ve turned out. The monarchical model is thus God as the divine superego in our heads. That voice that ranges and rages along a spectrum from you’re no good, to you’re never quite enough.

This way of imaging God’s character, this model, has several effects on the Christian life. I will very briefly mention four. And as I mention them, ask yourself if you have known forms of Christianity like this. The first of these is that the monarchical God is the God of requirements. It suggests that the Christian life is about measuring up, of doing or believing what God requires of us.

Secondly, this way of imaging God’s character leads to an in-group and out-group distinction. There are those that do measure up and those who don’t. There are those who are saved and those who are not. Thirdly, ultimately the monarchical model of God is a God of vengeance. It’s a strong statement, but think about it for a moment. In this way of thinking about God, God is going to get all of those people who do not measure up, who do not meet the requirements. There will be a judgment, either after death with the prospect of heaven or hell, or at the second coming.

To cite a memorable and provocative phrase from my colleague, John Dominic Crossan: the most common Christian vision of the second coming is as "divine ethnic cleansing." Of course, they would never speak of it that way. But think of those visions of the second coming that basically amount to—God is going to get all of those people who are not like us. Finally, fourthly, rather than liberating us from self-preoccupation, this is the God who focuses our attention on our own salvation; on making sure that we have done or believed what is needful.

There is another image of God, another primary model for imaging God’s character in the biblical tradition as well as in the post-biblical Christian tradition. To give it a shorthand label, I call this one the Divine Lover model. The image of God as lover is very interesting when you think about it; and it’s deeply rooted in the Biblical tradition. It occurs frequently in the prophets of the Hebrew Bible. To cite just one example from the prophets, from Isaiah 43, that wonderful chapter of gospel in the Hebrew Bible, God is portrayed as saying to Israel, "You are precious in my eyes and honored and I love you. Do not be afraid."

The image of God as lover is the central image in the Song of Solomon, that collection of erotic love poetry also known as the Song of Songs. By the way, a phrase like Song of Songs or Holy of Holies, it’s the Hebrew way of doing a superlative. The Holy of Holies is the holiest place. The Song of Songs is the best song understood by Jews and Christians alike through the centuries as an allegory of divine love. It is striking that the Song of Songs was the single most popular biblical book among Christians of the Middle Ages. More manuscript copies of that book survived than of any other book in the Bible.

The image of God as lover is also widespread in the New Testament. It is found in the best known verse, John 3:16, which as you all know begins, "For God so loved the world…," and Jesus is seen as the embodiment, the incarnation of the love of God, of God as lover. To image God as lover changes the dynamic of the Christian life dramatically. God is "in love" with us. We are precious in God’s eyes and honored. We are the beloved of God. That’s who we are in relationship to God as lover. God yearns for us.

As the contemporary author and theologian Roberta Bondi, from Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta puts it in one of her books, "God is besotted with us." That single five-word sentence stood out in neon lights for me when I first read it. "God is besotted with us." For just a moment think of the difference in your life if you knew that at the deepest level of your being that God is besotted with you, that God yearns for you, yearns that you turn and be in relationship with God as the beloved of God.

It’s very different from the monarchical model. The monarchical model puts us on guard. There are requirements to be met, rewards and punishments to be considered. We are defendants on trial. But the Divine Lover model changes the way we see the character of God. Rather than God being the one we need to please, whether through good deeds or earnest repentance and faith, God as lover is passionate about us, yearns to be in relationship with us. Yet there is a danger to the Divine Lover model. The danger is that it can become too individualistic, too sweet, as it were, as if it meant primarily that God loves me. We need to guard against sentimentalizing and individualizing this image, for the image of God as lover means that God loves everybody, not just me and not just us, but everybody.

So the image of God as lover is very much associated with a concreteness and particularity of life in this world. As lover, God is liberating. This is the central theme of the most important story that ancient Israel knew, the story of the exodus from Egypt, which meant liberation from an oppression that was simultaneously economic and political and religious. Images of God as liberator continue through Israel’s history and into the New Testament. It is not God’s will that we be slaves in bondage, whether internally or externally.

As lover, God is compassionate. This is God’s character. Compassion, as many of you know, is an unusually rich metaphor in the Bible. It’s related to the word for womb. To say that God is compassionate is to say that God is like a womb or womb-like, life-giving, nourishing. Compassion in the Bible also has resonances associated with the feelings that a mother has for the children of her womb. What are the feelings that a mother has for the children of her womb? Tenderness, of course. Willing their well-being, hope, concern.

And feelings from the womb aren’t simply soft. They can become fierce, as when the children of a mother’s womb are threatened or treated dreadfully. Just as a mother feels compassion for her children and wills their well-being and can become fierce in the defense of her children, so God feels compassion for Her children and wills their well-being and can become fierce in the defense of Her children—all of Her children.

As lover, God is not only compassionate but also passionate about social justice. God as lover is passionate about social justice with a simple reason that its opposite, systemic injustice is the single greatest source of unnecessary human social misery, of unnecessary human suffering in history. Social justice is the way our well-being is attained in this world. Indeed, God as lover is "in love" not only with us as human beings but even with the non-human world, with the whole of creation. Thus both a passion for justice and a passion for the environment flow out of imaging God as lover.

Depending upon which of these ways of imaging God’s character is emphasized, the character of God is seen very differently and the Christian life is seen very differently. Is it about meeting requirements so that we might be saved someday, or is it about a relationship in the here and now with God as lover? The ethical imperative that goes with each is quite different. For the monarchical model the ethical imperative is, be good because you will be called to account. There will be a judgment. For the divine lover model the ethical imperative is, love that which God loves. So what is the character of your God?

One of the most wonderful post-biblical expressions of God as the divine lover is from George Herbert’s poem, "Love Bade Me Welcome," which some of you will recognize. Herbert was a 17th Century Anglican poet, one of the great Anglican lyrical spiritual poets. I want to close by reading this relatively short poem to you, "Love Bade Me Welcome." The poem is set up as a dialogue between Love, which is Herbert’s word for God, so when you hear the word "Love" here you might also think, "God." The other partner in the dialogue is an imaginary person, perhaps Herbert himself.

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.

"A guest," I answer’d "worthy to be here";
Love said, "You shall be he."
"I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah, my dear,
I cannot look on thee."
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
"Who made the eyes but I?"

"Truth, Lord, but I have marr'd them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve."
"And know you not," says Love "who bore the blame?"
"My dear, then I will serve."
"You must sit down," says Love "and taste my meat."
So I did sit and eat.

There are many ways of thinking about that journey of death and resurrection…. Today I want to suggest that one of its meanings is dying to life under the lawgiver and judge and rising to new life as the beloved of God….

Life is short and we do not have too much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel the way with us. So be swift to love and make haste to be kind. And the blessings of God, Creator, Christ, and ever-present Spirit with us, go with you this day and forever more.


Copyright ©2000 Dr. Marcus J. Borg
Originally delivered at Calvary Episcopal Church, Memphis TN as part of the Lenten Noonday Preaching Series.