This post is the second part of, “God: Neither Self-sufficient nor Needy.” Part one is here.
Who in the world thinks of God as needy, especially among people not cynical about religion? Sure, in his poem, “The Latest Decalogue,” the English Victorian poet Arthur Hugh Clough wrote:
Thou shalt have one God only; who
would be at the expense of two?
That snarky comment, however, seems pointed at the comfortable practitioners of religion rather than at God as such. Truly, that distinction should be made throughout this post because the real issue in considering any neediness in God is the religious desire of human beings to satisfy themselves that they have met the need and so have the God-question securely in hand and well managed so their practice of religion serves their comfort and security in life as they are living it.
In the ancient world, it was common for people to assume that it was to a god’s advantage to defend and prosper his (or her) city or land because upon that security and prosperity the god’s status depended. Even the God to whom the Bible bears witness was said to be “enthroned on the praises of Israel” (Psalm 22:3, NRSV), and a typical piece in the prophetic argument for mercy for Israel or Judah is to ask God what the other nations will think and say if divine judgment is executed upon Yahweh’s own people. Why should the nations be given reason to mock Israel by asking in scorn, “Where is your God?” as though that God were weak.
In addition to the implied need of God for a secure and prosperous people to reflect their God’s glory, there is the whole matter of sacrifices and other prescribed forms of devotion employed to satisfy the needs or demands of God. At issue is the question of what pleases or delights God. The ritual of sacrifice, at its best, was meant to express an inward reality of repentance, contrition, and remorse, with the intention to do otherwise in the future. Of course, making the proper sacrifice devolved into a sort of magical safeguard against divine displeasure and currying of favor. What does one do after having done some evil, made some mistake, or merely been imperfect and fallible as all humans are? One offers a sacrifice to appease God. A modern Christian might similarly offer a prayer of confession or receive the sacrament.
A young husband speaks hurtfully to his wife, but seeing her reaction decides to express his remorse in an apology supported by a pretty bouquet. Sensing his sincerity, his wife accepts the apology (and the flowers), and so the trouble dissipates. But, having seen (he imagines) how well the flowers “worked,” he fails to take her feelings and her dignity to heart and question himself. Instead, he simply sticks with what works: if she’s upset, give a bouquet. Soon enough, she detests his flowers and is ready to shove them into his face.
Of buying off God with sacrifices meant to appease the divine ego without the bother of rethought living and changed behavior, a psalmist gives words to God’s desire for integrity.
If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and all that is in it is mine.
Do I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats?
Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and pay your vows to the Most High.
Call on me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.”
(Psalm 50:12-15 NRSV)
More than a few biblical scholars and theologians have noticed that the Bible frequently speaks negatively of religious practice, not for its forms, but for its motives that drain those forms of meaning. Yahweh God will not be appeased! Like the young wife at the sight of more quick-fix flowers, God gets disgusted by religion intended to mollify the divine sensibilities without effecting a change of heart or changing the treatment of others.
When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New Moon and Sabbath and calling of convocation – I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1:12-17 NRSV, amended with capitalization of Jewish observances)
I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:21-24 NRSV)
And it is not just the Old Testament but is every bit as much a Christian problem of integrity, of attitudes and motives, and of regard for other people. It is relational, not merely religious.
If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful . . . . (The apostle Paul in I Corinthians 13:3-5 RSV)
So, when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. (Jesus in Matthew 5:23-24 NRSV)
God does not need our offerings, praises, or doctrinal correctness. Jesus Christ, who emptied himself of power, pride, and prestige to take the form of a servant and, for the sake of the world and its people, endured shame, agony, and death does not need the pride, power, or prestige of churches or of cultural Christianity in American society. Christ does not need a Christianity that is powerful, let alone dominant.
The biblical insistence is that compassion must rise above the self-regard of power and prestige. Empathy, compassion, and respect are to come especially from those in positions of power over others; the powerful are called to set aside that power for the sake of love, justice, and respect.
God has chosen to need us, but with love’s need for love in response. Human love in response to God’s love must turn not only “upward” but also outward to the rest of humanity and to the whole creation. Religion (including Christian religion) without justice and compassion is rotten to God.
To religious people griping about the demands made upon them by a supposedly peevish and needy Deity, the prophet Micah speaks for God:
What is good has been showed to you, human. What does Yahweh require of you but to do and make justice, to love chesed (a Hebrew word for steadfast love, kindness, mercy, covenant loyalty, and more that is profoundly relational), and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)
I think Christians often focus on justice or on compassion but have a hard time with justice AND compassion. It seems we go back to walking the path between the extremely “hard” God and the extremely “soft” God.
Thank you, Debbie. I think you’ve given me a start on another post. As long as justice is understood as retribution, as giving each whatever he or she deserves (or someone with authority presumes is deserved), then, yes, it will be justice OR compassion. Certainly, that retributive view of justice is present in the Bible, but so is another understanding of it. In our terms today, justice can also be restorative. Overall, the Bible does not favor the reward or punishment scheme but looks toward a more healing, restoring, and reconciling way of justice, but that way isn’t really soft.