God is like a good parent, not a dictator
by John Wijngaards, Mission Today, Autumn 1998
MANY people see God as a Super Parent who knows what is best for us and who has laid down from A to Z what we should and should not do. Small wonder that some people feel uneasy in God’s company. But good parents do not dictate – they guide their children, and help them think and decide for themselves. Good parents glory in the independence and maturity of their children, wanting them to grow up. God treats us as adults and wants our full adult cooperation – which demands deliberation rather than unquestioning compliance. God’s will always presupposes our own considered involvement. After all, God gave us a mind and a personality.
Let us take Jesus Christ himself as our example. Jesus did not have a detailed action plan dictated to him by the Father. Jesus knew the Father’s will in general – that all people should be brought to salvation (1 Timothy 2:4) and that he should help all people find resurrection and eternal life (John 6:38-39). But Jesus himself needed to work out on a day-to-day basis how he should do this. After all, Jesus was like us in all things but sin (Hebrews 4:15).
When the disciples expressed surprise at Jesus’ interest in the Samaritan woman, Jesus replied that his food was to do the will of his Father (John 4:34). He meant that he had discovered a new opening through his casual meeting with her. He realised that these Samaritans, too, even though they were not orthodox Jews, needed the Father’s love and salvation. So, he responded by accepting their invitation and stayed in their village for an unplanned spell of ministry (John 4:34-42).
At each turn of events Jesus reflected on what would please the Father. He measured his own response against the yardstick of love. This is how he discerned the will of his Father from moment to moment (Isaiah 50:4-5).
Contrary to some popular misconceptions, this also applied to Jesus’ death on the cross. The Father had not laid down how and when Jesus should die. He could not have – the Father could never have sanctioned a sin like the murder of Jesus. As Jesus himself explained, he died because he refused to leave his disciples in the moment of peril.
As the Good Shepherd, he was ready to give his life for them. ‘No one takes my life from me, not even the Father. I give it myself (read John 10:11-18). The Father accepted Jesus’ act of love as the sacrifice that reconciled humankind to himself.
Now we understand Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane. When he said: ‘Not my will but your will be done’ (Luke 22:42), he did not mean that he submitted to a foregone decree, settled long ago, that condemned him to death. Rather, he discerned that the Father wanted love and that, in this instance, such love implied giving up his life.
As St Thomas Aquinas wrote: ‘The Father did not force Jesus to be killed, which would have been cruel indeed. No, the Father inspired Jesus with love so that he freely died for us.’
The same applies to us Christians today. Through the Gospel and the teachings of the Church, we receive guidelines. These present the ideal. They contain precious advice and helpful suggestions. They are not rigorous laws to be executed in blind obedience.
Rather, they are road signs that help us when, on the strength of our considered judgement, we discern God’s will for us in our specific circumstances.
Take the recent suicide of Bishop John Joseph of Faisalabad, a man I knew personally, who was a real champion of the oppressed. God does not normally allow us to take our own life. But in the extreme situation of Pakistan, where one Christian after the other is condemned to death on trumped up charges, the Bishop felt he needed to give his life in protest. He shot himself because he was convinced that was what God’s love required of him at that moment.
Christians do not live under law, but under grace and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (Romans 6:14,18-23). ‘For freedom Christ has set us free. Do not submit again to a yoke of slavery!’ (Galatians 5:1). ‘I do not call you slaves,’ Christ said, ‘for slaves do not know their master’s intention. I call you friends, because I have told you all I have heard from my Father. The one command I give you from him is this: love one another as I have loved you* (see John 15:12-15).
God’s will for us is that we are holy (I Thessalonians 4:3) and that we live blameless lives (1 Peter 2:15). God wants us to give priority to love in all that we do – the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘love your neighbour as yourself (Galatians 5:14).
With the help of the Spirit, we are able to discern God’s will so that we do whatever is good and pleasing to God, and therefore perfect (Romans 12: 2).