That neither/nor statement in my heading very likely would be controversial if not downright offensive to many Christians, including many in the Reformed Tradition within which I am a minister. What Reformed Protestant Christian would suggest God is not self-sufficient? For that matter, what Christian of any stripe would propose that God is needy? Nonetheless, I am saying we need to consider this neither/nor argument to gain biblical help finding a path between the all-everything, utterly detached God of much philosophy and the sweetly benign blessing-dispenser God of much currently popular Christianity.
How could God not be self-sufficient and still be God? My own tradition of Christian faith insists most adamantly upon the absolute sovereignty of God. That insistence is meant to protect us from all notions of obligating God in any way – by our virtue, our charity, our doctrinal correctness, our religious devotion, or our giving to a church. “Nothing in my hands I bring” (the evangelical hymn, “Just As I Am, without One Plea”). We cannot obligate God! I concur and so, I believe, do the biblical witnesses from start to finish.
But God can obligate God. That is, God can self-commit to human beings and to the whole of creation, and the biblical message insists that God has done so.
How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? [Legendary cities representing total annihilation for unalloyed evil] My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. (Hosea 11:8 NRSV)
Is Ephraim [the northern kingdom of Israel] my dear son? Is he the child I delight in? As often as I speak against him, I still remember him. Therefore I am deeply moved for him; I will surely have mercy on him, says the LORD. (Jeremiah 31:20 NRSV)
And when the LORD smelled the pleasing odor, the LORD said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done. As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” (Genesis 8:21-22 NRSV)
The Bible has words to share, stories to tell, and appeals to be made because (and only because) God has self-committed to the creation and to the human creature meant to represent God’s love and care to the rest as well as to each other. If God remained self-sufficient, there would be no Bible. The biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann comments on Hosea chapter 11:
Yahweh will cast aside all reasonable objection and act on this powerful sense of yearning and caring that runs directly against the self-regard of this God who has been profoundly affronted. The judge-king speaks now as mother-father, who in this moment acknowledges that the relationship counts for more than self-regard, and that sovereignty is decisively qualified by pathos. (Theology of the Old Testament, p. 301).
If we are going to relearn Christian faith, we need to start realizing that passion for justice and healing, compassion for creation and all people, desire for reconciliation with God and among divided peoples – these overriding concerns of God – matter far more than the self-regard of the churches and infinitely more than the pride of American Christians in their crumbling position of power and privilege in our society. While people cry out (many crying out silently) for the salvation of human dignity and hope and while the creation itself cries out silently (or in violent weather events) for deliverance from destruction, Christians and barely nominal Christians rant and rail against a trumped-up war on Christmas and pathetically phony “persecution” feelings.
To relearn Christian faith, we need to acknowledge the matters that truly do matter to God, and we need for them to matter to us. If love can turn the sovereignty of God away from self-regard and toward empathy and compassion, then surely it must turn Christian pride in that same direction. We need a Christianity that becomes self-committed, because it is Christ-committed, to this created world and all its people. Christian faith is not about Christian prestige, privilege, or power; it is about God’s self-commitment to this world God loves.
This post is now long enough, and so I’ll save part two of the neither/nor statement for the next post. Does anyone really regard God as needy? Is that a real danger to Christian faith? Next time.