(This is part 1 of our new series, “Lies We Believe About God” where we’re exploring ideas or thoughts about God that can hold us back from drawing closer to God and closer to those around us.)
A few weeks back I interviewed William Paul Young on the podcast, who also wrote a book called “The Shack”. You’ve probably heard of the book, but if not a quick Google search will tell you pretty much everything you need to know and reveal the MOUNTAIN of controversy surrounding it most of which comes from (you guessed it) the more conservative branches of Evangelical Christianity.
When the movie came out I remember going back and forth with a few people on Facebook because they were outraged that the William Paul Young portrayed God the Father as a black woman named Papa. I’m not sure if they were more offended about the “black” part or the “woman” part, but let’s just say – they were TIIIIIICKED.
Maybe God can be black.
He definitely can’t be anything other than a HE.
And, confession: Since I knew how ticked they were, of course, I had to defend William Paul Young. Like, he could have portrayed God as a Martian or a Zombie or a Wolf in sheep’s clothing, I would have gone to bat for him just to rattle some cages a bit.
Seriously, though, the book has received a lot of pushback and a lot of hate especially revolving around how Young portrays what we call (in the church) the Trinity …
God the Father as a woman.
Jesus the Son as a young Middle Eastern man.
And the Holy Spirit as a young Asian woman.
The push back was loud as people insisted that God (specifically God the Father or God the Creator) is a man. And many insisted that not only is a He man, but He’s a white man … like that image so many of us have in our mind of God being an old white man with a long white beard who resides somewhere up in the sky.
To throw an exclamation point at the end of their arguments they pointed to verses where God is referred to as a “Father” and as a “Shepherd” and as “He” and how God came to earth to reside within the male body of Jesus and the various other ways that God is referred to as a male throughout the Bible and other ancient books.
“God is a man”, they said, “there’s no other way.”
But, I’m here to ask – “WHAT IF?” What if this isn’t the case?
Like, what if God isn’t a man?
What if “He” and “Him” and “His” aren’t the best words to describe who God is? And what God represents?
What if reading the Bible in such a literal way where we point to the pronouns of “he” and “his” and the descriptors of “father” and “shepherd” and “warrior” as evidence for God’s “manliness” … what if that isn’t really the way the Bible is meant to be read and used?
And what if our insistence upon reading it that way is actually creating an inaccurate and unhealthy view and understanding of who God is?
Better yet, what if our insistence on seeing God as a man and only a man is giving us a limited view and limited understanding of the depth of God’s nature, of who the Divine is, and how the Divine can relate to creation?
One of the things I’ve recognized throughout my time in the church (and this is going to be a very unpopular idea) is that when it comes to Western Evangelical churches that are often made up of male dominated leadership teams, the idea that God is a man gives a sort of unspoken and maybe even subconscious permission for those male dominated teams …
To put men in control.
To muzzle women.
And to let decisions be made and visions be cast by groups that are largely influenced by (you guessed it) men.
And, in my experience, the idea of God being a man isn’t an idea that those churches and those leadership teams are willing to loosen their grip on and rethink because if they do and if they recognize that perhaps God isn’t a man or is more than a man or whatever, then they would have to rethink their structures of power and restructure their teams so that other genders are given the same voice and the same influence.
About 10 years ago I pastored an old Dutch Reformed Church. I’ve mentioned it on the podcast before, but if you do some research you’ll discover that the Reformed Church of America has some elements and branches that are super forward in their thinking, but (like anything else) also have some branches that are …
And super unwilling to open themselves up to the idea that there might be another way to understand and think about God apart from the usual male descriptors.
I remember when I interviewed to be their pastor one of the questions they asked me was whether I thought women should be permitted to teach and preach and lead in the church. I was fresh out of seminary and so I knew both sides of the argument pretty well and I knew that they (being a conservative church) would stand on the side that said women are not permitted to teach.
I told them I didn’t have a problem with it – let women teach, let them preach, let them lead, and let them do everything else that men do (because they’ll probably do it better anyways). I got a few weird looks and then they asked me why I thought that way and how I would respond to the passages in Paul’s letters in the New Testament where he pretty much “forbids” women to teach and even speak in the church.
“This is what the Bible says!”, they reminded me, “So what do you say about THAT?!”
We went back and forth a bit about culture and context and things like that, but one of the things the board member who was present brought up was his belief that God is a man and since God is a man and since Paul (in the Bible) seems to have had a lot to say about women not being able to teach … those 2 things merged together must mean that men are to be the decision makers and the teachers and the authority figures.
And yet they still hired me. God’s sense of humor, I guess.
And so again, one of the things I would ask my old church and other Christians who think along these lines is what if this view of God is not only limiting our understanding of God, but is also severely handicapping our ability to fully function as God has intended the church to function?
Like, what if my old church’s insistence that God is a MAN and therefore women should be forbidden to teach and lead and transgender people shouldn’t even be allowed to participate in certain elements of the church (i.e. Communion / The Lord’s Supper) … what if that low view of God is causing us to outcast and fence off and even muzzle women and transgender people, and thus completely closing us off to a whole deeper layer of understanding God and our spiritual lives?
What if God is a man?
What if God is a woman?
What if God is both male and female?
Or what if God is without gender altogether?
Like, what if God was right when He told Moses that His Name is “I Am” and what if that means that HE is capable of being whatever SHE needs to be for whoever HE / SHE needs to be it for?
And what if we could be faithful readers of the Bible and believe this to be true?
If you’re still listening, props to you. Thanks for hanging with me as I think through this. But, to be honest, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that we need to rethink this stuff and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the Bible supports and maybe even draws us or lures us into this rethinking process.
Sure, the Bible paints a very manly view of God – there’s no arguing that. God is often referred to as “He”, God came to earth in the form of a male body, Jesus called God “Father”, etc, etc, etc. One could very easily open the Bible, read any 10 random pages, and come away believing that God must be a man.
And all of that should be expected, really. Right? Because, after all, the Bible was written in a very patriarchal culture where women were uneducated and men were seen as the more powerful, dominant, and valuable sex. The Biblical writers wrote about and viewed God in their own image and though the lens of their own culture just like we so often do today.
In the midst of all the “He’s” and “Father’s” and male descriptors for God …
There’s that time Jesus told the parable of the lost coin. The Pharisees were mad because He was eating with various “tax collectors” and “sinners” and they couldn’t wrap their minds around why in the world a Jewish Rabbi of His supposed caliber would be seen hanging around with such riff raff. And so Jesus responded by telling a series of parables about how God goes out looking for the lost and refuses to come home until He’s found them and in one of those parables He shared a story about a WOMAN who lost a coin, but refused to stop looking for it until SHE found it.
God, His point was, is like that WOMAN.
And then there was that time when Jesus was looking over the city of Jerusalem and cried out, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you – how often I longed to gather your children together, as a MOTHER hen gathers HER chicks under HER wings, but you were not willing.”
Jesus. God. Is like a Mother hen trying to gather her chicks.
Or all the way back in the book of Genesis when God created the universe the storyteller says that God “created mankind in His own image, in the image of God He created them, male and female He created them.”
God created humanity in His image.
She made males – in His image.
He made females – in Her image.
And so this must mean that God has masculine qualities, God has feminine qualities. God is male, but She’s also female. He’s both genders and yet She’s neither gender. And yet, somehow, He/She transcends gender altogether and (dare I say) becomes … trans-cendent-gender?
God is intimately connected to males.
God is intimately connected to females.
God is intimately connected to transgender people.
He is reflected in them.
She is mirrored in them.
He/She is living in and speaking and acting through them.
Here’s what I’m trying to say – it’s possible to read the Bible and come away holding strong to the idea that God is a man and nothing else. But, I’m not sure that’s the best way to read the Bible and I’m not even sure that’s what the writers of the Bible were trying to portray.
Sure, we see places where God is described as a man, but then we also see places where God is portrayed as a woman and as a mother. And in Jesus we see a man who was dominated not by the masculine qualities of strength and dominance and fortitude, but the more feminine qualities of meekness, gentleness, and peace.
And then in the creation story I see a God who creates two genders in His own image, which tells me that God contains both genders as opposed to one and prefers neither over the other, but transcends them to be … God, the God who IS whatever He needs to be, whenever She needs to be it, to whoever He/She needs to be it too.
And I think that if we’re willing to open ourselves up to this possibility, I think it can only widen our scope and understanding of who God is.
In Young’s book, “The Shack”, God the Creator or God the Father is portrayed as a black woman named Papa. But then at the end of the story when the main character (Mackenzie) needs to go back and face the place of deepest pain in his life, Papa appears to him not as a black woman, but as an old grandfather-like man.
Because early on in the story Mackenzie needed a God who was more like a mother who would embrace him, cry with him, mother him, sit with him at her kitchen table as he wept and processed through his pain, and almost coddle him in a protective kind of way.
Towards the end of the book, Mackenzie needed to leave his mother’s kitchen table, so to speak, and go face his pain. And to do that he needed a God who had been through some things. He needed a God whose hands were dirty and rough. He needed a God who was scarred and weak and tired. He needed a God who had been there and done that. He needed a God who could show him the way to navigate the pain he had only recently come to accept in the kidnapping and murder of his young daughter.
When Mackenzie needed a mother, God was there.
When Mackenzie needed a father, God was there.
God was who He was when Mackenzie needed Her to be whatever was needed in the moment.
You see, when we reject the lie that God is only a man and nothing else, we open ourselves up to this wonderful and beautiful opportunity to experience God in new ways and hear God’s voice through new people who we might never have before expected to house the voice of the Divine. And when we do that it brings us all the more closer and bonds us all the more tighter to the people around us.
In his book “Lies We Believe About God” William Paul Young touches on this topic himself and says something quite helpful. He says that …
“Imagery (in the Bible) was never intended to define God; rather, imagery is a window through which we see aspects and facets of the nature and character of God.”
This is an important thing to remember. Because the Bible not only paints a picture of a God who has masculine qualities and feminine qualities and a God who transcends those qualities altogether, but it also paints a picture of God who is …
In other words, the Bible is continually using different words and ideas and pictures in an effort to describe a God who is bigger than any one label, bigger than any one gender, and whose nature is just as complex as our lives so that the Spirit of our Divine Creator can come and meet us and be whatever we need Her to be in the midst of whatever situation that we’re in.
And so don’t be surprised, today, if God’s voice comes to you in the form of a black woman named Papa or an old man who has been through some ups and downs in his life or a transgender person who’s gender you don’t understand, but yet has a unique perspective on your own life’s troubles and questions and problems.
God transcends all the labels we put on Him and She’s more than capable of coming to us in whatever complex way our life might call for at the moment.
Who will you see God in today?
I dare you to look deeper than you normally would.
Much love to you.