The Issue of a Personal God

The Issue of a Personal God

By Rev. Dr. Thomas D. Lynch

The God in the Torah seems quite different from the God of the New Testament and even of later portions of the Hebrew Bible. Yet, Christians and Jews consider that God to be the same. That difference centers around the question is if God is personal to the believer or not. What follows is a discussion of this issue that for many believers is central to how they approach their belief in God.

This essay is divided into four parts. The first section discusses the God of the Torah. The second section discusses the issue of a personal god. The third section discusses the challenge presented by the fact that bad things happen to good people. The fourth section discusses a rational for believing in a personal god in spite of the challenges discussed earlier.

The God of the Torah

The Torah is a story of how God picked a particular person (Abraham) and over many years took the descendants of that person and shaped them into not only a distinctive people but also a chosen people. Looking at the history of the Jews, we can easily see that being God’s chosen people does not mean living in great splendor or having ultimate political power over the world. However, it does apparently mean that such a people will have a remarkable and disproportion influence on the dominant civilizations of the world.

The God of the Torah is not a personal god except to only a few people such as Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses. This God is interested in a people and their evolution as a people. He makes sure that they have rules of moral conduct, that they worship in particular manner, and they have unique practices that sets them apart from the other peoples of the world. He helps them win battles.

This God is willing and does kill many enemies of the Jews but also many Jews that do not follow his word. Although this God includes in a moral code a clear statement against killing, he actively and commonly kills and sometimes approves demonstratively those that kill and even murder furthering his purposes.

In the times of ancient Israel, Gods were not personal with some notable exceptions. Gods had their lives and normally took little interests in the affairs of humans. However, if humans begged and employed them enough with the proper prayers and offerings, sometimes one or more Gods did affirmatively answer human prayers such as give them an advantage in battle.

Just like the Hebrew God, other gods of the region had their human favorites and did occasionally help them in extraordinary ways. However, the Hebrew God and the other gods did expect the humans to also help themselves as well as being loyal to their respective Gods.

The Hebrew God was different than the Greek and Roman gods but some similarities are important. Jealousy was a noticeable trait of the Gods. Killing and war were common activities. Worship was expected from humans. Nevertheless, the Hebrew God was significantly different beyond being one rather than many. The Hebrew God was a teacher of a people.

The Torah shows us that the Hebrew God tending His “sheep.” They were His identified group of humans that He called His chosen people. Clearly, He had his favorite sheep among the flock such as Jacob, but he was also teaching all of his sheep to be a moral and to identify themselves as a distinct people who worshipped God in particular ways.

His sheep did often go astray and were very stubborn, but he flocked them back and culled some of the more dysfunctional sheep from the flock. As God helped them grow into a nation from their slave period in Egypt, He helped them locate in what we today call Israel.

A Personal God or Not

For many of us in our times, God is very personal. By personal, I mean that God cares about you as an individual and interacts with you individually on a constant basis. Many believe that God sends his angels to watch over them and that God directly intervenes for each person in his or her daily life.

Yes, such believers think God lets bad things happen to good people, but in their minds there is always a good reason for such actions even if they do not yet understand those reasons. For some, that reason is to punish others or themselves for past misdeeds. For some, that reason is to help them grow spiritually into a better person. For some, they just do not know the reason but they assume God has a good reason beyond their understanding for those “bad things” happening.

At the beginning of the American republic, leaders such as George Washington confronted the question of how God could let bad things happen to good people by reasoning that God was not a personal God. God created the universe; and except for very unusual circumstances, God merely let his creation operate on automatic with humans given the important gift of free will and the resulting good and bad consequences that stemmed from those free will choices.

Bad Things Happen to Good People

The question of how God could let bad things happen to good people is troublesome for people of faith. It is particularly troublesome for those that believe in a personnel God that does care for them. At this point, what I offer now is an insight that might be useful to those believers. I do not claim to have a final and undisputable answer but possibly what I offer might be useful to some that do struggle with this difficult questioning of faith.

As much as possible, my wife and I live in Mexico. As I approach and leave our rented house, I experience almost daily kids asking for “mo-nee.” When we first moved in and afterwards, I made the mistake of giving some small change to one nine year old. Now, I have ten kids — aged from four to fourteen — begging for money when I am outside my house and continually ringing the doorbell asking for money.

I am sure that if I gave them “mo-nee” that I would soon have one hundred or more kids asking for handouts. Of the one kid who I have given money for “work,” I noticed he used his earnings to buy candy, cokes, and other immediate consumable junk foods. I assume the other kids would do the same as when they ask for “mo-nee” that mention it is for junk food.

This got me thinking: what if God gave all human being in the world all the “mo-nee” we asked for when we asked for it. Given the powers we attribute to God, He could be an unlimited ATM machine who simple spit out “mo-nee” when a request was made. My guess is that most of us would use that largess to buy the equivalent of adult junk food in the largest sense of that concept.

If God were an ATM machine, why work? Interestingly, no one would make any kind of junk food or anything else, as that would be work and they would see no need to work. Unless God provided the goods by some miracle, it and nothing would be available for purchase. Everyone would have the “mo-nee” but no one would be able to buy anything with it. Clearly, God would be stupid to be an ATM machine and I do not think God is stupid.

So if God is a personal God, what makes sense? I immediately thought about the old adage about teaching a person to fish rather than giving him a fish. If you give a person a fish, they have enough for one meal. But if you teach them how to fish, they have food for a lifetime or something like that.

I then thought about the over fishing that currently exists in the world. Clearly, the impact of teaching how to do fishing or “better” fishing has been dysfunctional. Something more is needed than teaching fishing or its equivalent in our life endeavors.

To me the answer is still teaching “fishing,” but it is more than teaching a useful skill or trade. It is teaching that includes ethics and wisdom that goes well beyond the “me, my, mind” attitude that prevails in much of the world today. For example, it is teaching fishing but also a concern for the environment that prevents over fishing the oceans.

Yes, learning is important but learning useful knowledge and skills clearly is not enough. As a person makes daily decisions, each person must think beyond him or herself to the oneness, which that person is but a part. The fishes of the oceans are part of that oneness, and our over fishing does diminish that oneness and thus does diminish us.

What Makes Sense?

Let me repeat myself: If God is a personal God, what makes sense? God must create the circumstances including the motivation so that each of us can learn and that learning must include an ethic and wisdom that focuses on the oneness of which we are all a part.

Anyone who has been a teacher knows that the students who learn the most and gain the most from education are those that freely choose and want to learn. Thus, freedom of choice is an important element of learning. Another element of learning is appreciating the negative side of doing something wrong. Many of us learn more from our mistakes than we do from our successes.

To illustrate, let us consider learning the ethical virtue of gratefulness. If we use the Aristotle concept of virtue, we realize that virtue is not an on and off switch but rather a rheostat that moves the light up or down. Like light, we can turn the light to low or high. What we need to do is adjust the light to the needs of the particular moment.

On either side of a virtue, there is too little and too much. Both are “sins.” For the virtue of gratefulness, I shall label the first sin as “ingratitude” and the other as “fawning.” Thus, if a person shows no appreciation for a gift, we can say the person acts with ingratitude. If the person shows excessive appreciation for a gift, we can say the person acts with fawning.

Thus, the learning challenge for the student is to learn to show gratefulness that for any given situation is not ingratitude or fawning, but rather the correct level of appreciate for the given situation. When my Mexican young friend does some “work” for me such as walking our dog, I expect some small measure of gratefulness such as a smile.

When my wife and I give him a bike, I expect a larger display of gratefulness such as saying “gratis” and a smile showing thanks. I do not need or what gratefulness but I do want him to function correctly in a larger society and learning the virtue of gratefulness is important for his development as a person.

Looking back on my life, I felt that I have continually been taught wisdom and ethical lessons if I but opened by eyes to what was happening around me. However, the reality is that often I was blind to many of those lessons. No one should blame a person for being blind. It just is. I should not blame myself and nor should anyone blame me for that blindness. Nevertheless, we need not continue living in the world of the unsighted.

We can choose to see what is happening around us and to learn those lessons taught to us by God. In the process of learning, we grow as a person. Sometimes we easily learn those lessons. However, too often we learn those lessons the hard way and the cost of that education is very high, such as the lost of a friendship or even a spouse.

When those easy or hard lessons occur in our lives, the wiser among us reflect on what happened and seek to gain greater wisdom so that he or she grows as a person. I look upon those occasions as gifts from a very personal God. Each of us is a co-creator with God. We must accept each gift from God with gratitude but we must also unwrap the gift and apply it to the rest of our life.

I believe the God of the Torah is the God of the New Testament. God is shepherding the chosen people but also watching over every person – past, present, and future. Yes, certain sheep are more important to the larger task of herding all the sheep to the correct destination, but shepherding includes trying to help cooperative sheep to be the best one he or she can be. Each is important but never to the point of endangering the flock or not attaining the ultimate destination for the whole flock.

To me, I expect that bad things will always happen to good people. This reality is merely a very personal God helping others and me to grow and allowing me to be a co-creator in that growth process. Sometimes, bad things have and will happen to me. My challenge is to open my eyes, reflect, and gain from each and every such experience, as it is a gift. God is infinite and my growth potential as a co-creator is also infinite. I must keep my eyes open for the light and be eternally grateful for the gifts that I am always receiving.

July, 2008

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