Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Definitions of God (and how our own definitions change)

Everybody has their own definitions about God. Even if your definition is “something imagined by humans that doesn’t really exist”, that’s still a definition. Those who believe in God may have more complex definitions. They have their own ideas about who God is, what he does and how he has acted throughout history.

There are no doubt some people who have never had those definitions challenged. They go their whole lives believing certain things about God and never experience anything that might suggest those beliefs may not be completely accurate. However I would think that these type of people would be few and far between. Most people have had their definitions of God challenged – sometimes on a fairly regular basis. On a minor scale, it might just be a slight disturbance on the faith radar – a minute or two when you wonder whether you definition of God is really right. On a major scale, it could mean a complete overhauling of your entire belief system.

In Christian circles, we hear a lot about doubt. Everyone has doubts occasionally, we are told. But doubt is not good. When a person has doubts, they should just keep believing anyway. Keep pressing on and our doubts will disappear.

I have spoken to many Christians who have had lengthy periods of doubt – what might be called a time in the wilderness. Their definition of God has been challenged so much that they begin to doubt what they know of him. Does he really love me? Does he answer prayers? Am I really saved? I’ve had times like that myself. As someone who constantly questions and challenges, my definitions of God seems to be under constant attack.

When I’m in this position – or when I am talking to someone who has gone through a similar thing – the presumption is made that a person having those kind of doubts wants to have those doubts removed. They want to leave the wilderness and get back to the faith and belief they once used to have. They want God to fit their old definition again.

But what if he can’t? What if God has failed to do the things we once believed he would do? What if the church’s teachings fail to work out in our lives? What if we can’t reconcile the bible with what we know to be true? What if our definition of God just doesn’t match up with reality?

Some people choose to pray and get prayed for until their doubts go away. Others spend years in the wilderness, never seeing an end in sight. Perhaps on the surface they appear to believe all the things they’re meant to believe, but underneath it all they know that their definition of God no longer makes any sense. Others refuse to acknowledge the doubts the continue to have – even to themselves.

Then there are those who simply leave – whether it’s church, religion or even God. If they can’t believe in a God who fits their definition, then they won’t believe in God at all.

Not that long ago, I had my definition of God challenged in a big way. God failed to act in a way I thought he would. God’s love, compassion and control were all question-marks in my mind. The God of my definition no longer seemed to exist.

But just because the God who fit my definitions didn’t exist, doesn’t mean God didn’t exist at all. And just because I was questioning God’s love, compassion and control doesn’t mean that they were no longer there. It’s just that my definition was wrong. I needed a new definition.

I no longer think of God the same way I did when I was a child. Nor do I think of him the same way I did when I was a new Christian. God hasn’t changed. But my way of defining him has. In another ten years, my definition of God may have changed again. I don’t want to go back to my old ways of looking at God. Doubt, in a way, has been good for me. It has moved me onto new ways of looking at God. And I would prefer to do that than simply have my doubts prayed away until God fits my definition again. 

I don’t imagine I will ever get to a perfect definition of God. In a way, God cannot be defined – even though this doesn’t stop us wanting to define him. But that’s okay. For as long as I am prepared to redefine God – instead of expecting God to fit my definition – then I will continue to grow. And maybe my definitions of God will get closer and closer to the truth. 

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