RELIGION: The Bible can sometimes put two completely opposing ideas together


The Bible has a tendency when talking about God to place side by side two statements that are almost contradictory but that are certainly jarring and make you stop and question what exactly is being said. I think it comes from our experience of life; at times it is full of great joy and at other times it is full of tremendous sadness. Usually these experiences are separated in time, but occasionally we experience something and we don’t know whether to laugh or cry, to be happy or sad. When it speaks of God the Bible can sometimes put two completely opposing ideas together. It’s as if it wants to say God is this and yet at the same time he isn’t this, he goes beyond what we can know and yet we know him. That is something of what it means when we talk of God as a mystery: we know him and yet we also realise that what we know of him falls far short of who he is. One of the most famous of those Bible passages is the first reading today, which unfortunately has been simplified in the reading by cutting out the opposing statement. We heard God reveal himself to Moses as, ‘the Lord, a God of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in kindness and faithfulness.’ But the passage then goes on to say, ‘keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.’ Without the second part, God comes across as nice wholesome guy who wouldn’t hurt a fly. The second bit makes your hair stand on end a bit and you think, here is someone not to be messed with. Some people have tried to deal with the apparent contradiction by talking of God of the Old Testament and and God of the New Testament as two different people and St Paul talking of the God of love and peace in that second reading might lead you to believe that, until, that is, you hear the Gospel speaking of those who refuse to believe being condemned simply because they do not believe in God’s only Son.

But is not the difference found in us, rather than in God. A Parent can be stern one moment because stern is called for, and loving the next because love is the underlying truth of who one is as a parent. Confusion enters in only when we imagine God as we want God to be rather than accepting God as he is, as he reveals himself to us in Christ. If we want someone as a god who allows us to do what we want and affirms us whatever we do, then that is a figment of our desires and not God as he is. If we accept God as loving the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life, then we are confronted with a real person to whom we must relate on his own terms. Is that not what belief is? Accepting God as he is and not what we would like him to be? We can either find life in him or blindly and foolishly say we will make up our own idol to suit our own needs. You cannot change a real person to be something you like; either you like the real person or you don’t. You either accept them for who they are or you don’t. You either have a relationship with them or you don’t.

God has revealed himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit; three persons, one God. There is a mystery there that defies our full understanding, yet we relate to God and accept his word. We know him, yet fail to fully grasp him. How human is that! But then knowledge isn’t everything; sometimes it is enough to know someone.

Canon Conroy is parish priest of St Patrick’s and St Peter’s, Dumbarton

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