Years ago, I was shopping with an older relative. After a clerk rang up her purchase, my relative realized there was a mistake and she’d been given 75 cents extra change. This must have been in the days before the idiot-proof checkout machines that allow folks who can’t add to nonetheless successfully complete a transaction.
When my shopping companion saw the mistake, she alerted the clerk and handed back the extra change. I thought this was the honorable thing to do because I believe in the old adage that the person who is honest in small matters is also honest in large ones. I must have made some comment to that effect.
“Well,” my relative replied, “I wouldn’t want to go to hell for 75 cents!”
I was taken aback, and asked her if she really thought God would send her to hell for 75 cents. Yes, she said.
For me, it was a revelatory experience in which I got a glimpse of the kind of God that someone had created for herself. What kind of relationship could you build with such a vengeful God? But perhaps the concept of a relational God was also not within this person’s sense of faith. God was simply a stern taskmaster, to be obeyed and feared.
However, knowing this person as I did, I also believe she saw a loving a merciful God. But I think these two images of this mystery we call God were at war within her, two conflicting views that made growth in faith more difficult.
We all have an image of God, and for some that means the old, white guy with the beard whose biggest job is to sit in judgment. Part of this image, as well as our visions of heaven and hell, have been formed in us by the great artists of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Some of this art is magnificent and aids us in contemplation. But we have to keep in mind that our image of God shouldn’t be confined to the imaginative interpretations of others.
God is an infinite horizon, an eternal mystery. And yet our faith teaches us that we are called into an intimate relationship with God. This requires openness, prayer and stillness. It asks us to discard stereotypes as we deepen this relationship, just as we would set aside stereotypes as we grow in relationship with a human lover.
The New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, in his book “Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship,” asks if we know what the most frequent command in the Bible turns out to be. Could it be, he asks, “‘Be good,’ or ‘be holy, for I am holy’? Or, negatively, ‘Don’t sin,’ ‘Don’t be immoral?'”
No, Wright says. The most frequent command in Scripture is, “Don’t be afraid.” Fear not. Wright says this is perhaps the hardest commandment to keep. We all live in fear of something, or usually of many things. How much deeper would be our capacity for love if we were able to banish fear? And yet how difficult. We fear the unknown, the Thing That Might Happen Tomorrow.
My spiritual director — when I worry, feel unnecessary guilt and fear many things — tells me to just sit with the image of myself being held in the arms of God much as I held my own children when they were babies.
I remember how deeply I loved them and cherished those moments. Imagine a God who loves us in the same way, only with an infinite love, a God who whispers to us, “Fear not.”