Good God

It’s fair to say I was an impressionable child with an active imagination. Add a traditional Catholic education into the mix, and a few nightmares were bound to emerge. In one religion-inspired dream, remembered for its emotional impact, I stood alone in a large room. It was an art gallery with rows of free-standing walls you could zig zag your way around. On the walls hung paintings that were all slightly different yet depicted the same essential thing: a crucified Jesus. I didn’t like the paintings. They were dark and gruesome, yet there was no avoiding them. Suddenly I was overcome with the sense that a murderer was in the room. Terrified, I began running down every aisle, trying to get away from the unseen threat. That’s when I awoke in a cold sweat.

This childhood nightmare reflected my thoughts of God as a persecutor, a murderer. I was terrified of Him. ‘God sent Jesus to die for your sins’, is the Christian teaching. Jesus was the ‘sacrificial lamb’ God sent to be dragged through the streets, jeered at and tortured, all because someone had to pay for our guilt.

But it wasn’t just Jesus’ crucifixion that gave God His fearful reputation. The Bible is full of stories depicting a wrathful God. As a child I was gripped by the Passover story in which God sends the Angel of Death to kill first-born males to persuade the Pharoah to release the enslaved Israelites. My childhood imagination was spinning with this one. An ANGEL OF DEATH striking people dead at midnight, lambs’ blood smeared on doorposts so the angel would pass over Israelite homes… This God sure knew how to build drama.

Yet, you don’t have to be Christian, or brought up in an ‘old-school’ Catholic environment, to fear God. You just have to believe that you are a person, in a body, vulnerable to forces beyond your control. You just have to see an unkind, uncertain world. If God is the Creator, He must be cruel to make us endure it.

Many Christians have tried to argue the opposite — that the suffering inherent in life is allowed by God for our own good. Indeed, the English poet John Milton wrote his epic Paradise Lost to ‘justify the ways of God’. In particular, he wanted to reconcile the idea of a loving God with one who sentenced His own creation to death and a life of toil and suffering (Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden), and His only Son to be nailed to a cross. It’s a great poem, but even so, no one can justify the unjustifiable. As A Course in Miracles says of this world:

‘If this were the real world, God would be cruel. For no Father could subject His children to this as the price of salvation and be loving. Love does not kill to save. If it did, attack would be salvation, and this is the ego’s interpretation, not God’s’ (T-13.in.3:1-4).

In a television programme I saw recently about a maternity hospital, a doctor was standing at a humidicrib as a premature baby breathed their last breath. The doctor held back tears and looked very stern. Later when interviewed, he said he’d just felt angry. I had also felt angry as I’d watched that scene in the neonatal care unit. Why did such a young, ‘innocent‘, being have to die? Somewhere in the recesses of my mind was the idea of a cruel God letting this happen.

In the Course’s metaphysics, the world exists apart from God — He did not create it — yet we can express God’s Will here by practicing forgiveness, thereby extending love. A major part of this process involves becoming aware of, and reassessing, our ideas about God.

Cruel to be Kind

To say God sacrificed his only Son, His innocent Son, for our sake is like saying He was ‘cruel to be kind’. We likewise take this line of thinking on board, thinking it’s okay to lash out at someone when they appear to be doing the wrong thing, reasoning it will do them good or they might learn a lesson:

‘Persecution frequently results in an attempt to “justify” the terrible misperception that God Himself persecuted His Own Son on behalf of salvation… In milder forms a parent says, “This hurts me more than it hurts you,” and feels exonerated in beating a child. Can you believe our Father really thinks this way? It is so essential that all such thinking be dispelled that we must be sure that nothing of this kind remains in your mind’ (T-3.I.2:4,7-9).

I remember my intimidating high school physics teacher raging at me for a lack-lustre exam performance. When I scored highly on a latter exam, she said proudly, ‘See, a little yelling and you do better.’ This really annoyed me because I knew the difference in my marks had nothing to do with being yelled at: We had started on a new topic that I naturally grasped better. But the ‘cruel to be kind’ justification is prevalent, and reflects the Machiavellian idea that ‘the end justifies the means’. Is it any wonder that Machiavelli was an advisor to tyrants?

According to A Course in Miracles, the message of the crucifixion wasn’t that Jesus was sacrificed because we were bad. Instead, the message relates to Jesus’ reactions to the attacks on his body:

Assault can ultimately be made only on the body. There is little doubt that one body can assault another, and can even destroy it. Yet if destruction itself is impossible, anything that is destructible cannot be real. Its destruction, therefore, does not justify anger’ (T-6.I.4:1-4).

Jesus didn’t respond with anger to the attacks directed toward him, because he knew he wasn’t a body. Instead of being a symbol of our guilt, the message of the crucifixion is ‘Teach only love, for that is what you are’ (T-6.I.13:2). In the Course, Jesus tells us he doesn’t call for martyrs, but for teachers: we’re not asked to be sacrificial, but to follow his loving example in the face of attacks, and we do this by not using them to justify anger:

My one lesson, which I must teach as I learned it, is that no perception that is out of accord with the judgment of the Holy Spirit can be justified. I undertook to show this was true in an extreme case, merely because it would serve as a good teaching aid to those whose temptation to give in to anger and assault would not be so extreme’ (T-6.I.11:5,6).

People attack others because they feel guilty and are frightened. Jesus saw the fear behind the actions of his persecutors. To respond this way is certainly a tall order, and we’re likely to fall into the trap of denial if we think we shouldn’t feel angry. The problem doesn’t lie in being angry, but in trying to justify our anger. Most likely, our initial response to certain things will involve irritation, impatience, envy, you name it. Progress lies in remembering that our feelings represent a choice and can’t be justified by what has gone on around us. Every time we remember this, we open our mind to the Holy Spirit’s healing and Jesus’ message on the Cross: Teach only love, for that is what you are. We mightn’t be ready to accept this as the truth, but at least we’re open to the possibility that there’s another way of perceiving. And by working through our attack thoughts — withdrawing our projections, seeing our self-accusations, and asking for Help to let them go — we undo our fear of God.

The God of Love

‘We may never come to full knowing of God till we know first clearly our own Soul.’

— Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love

Though the biblical God is punitive and vengeful, His dark side is conspicuously absent in the writings of Christian mystics. Instead, the mystics speak of a loving God of mercy. As Carl Jung wrote in Psychological Types of the fourteenth-century mystic, Meister Eckhart: ‘Strangely appealing is Eckhart’s sense of an inner affinity with God, when contrasted with the Christian sense of sin. We feel ourselves transported back into the spacious atmosphere of the Upanishads.’ There is nothing harsh in Eckhart’s words addressing the fallen. Instead, he consoles and reassures, perhaps suggesting he’d been through a redemptive process himself in which he was met with love instead of condemnation.

While other Christian mystics such as Saint John of the Cross and Saint Teresa of Avila write of the love of God, they also detail the trials they suffered along the way to greater union with the Divine, and these involved coming face to face with their ego. There is a sense of sin that accompanies ego-identification. It is the shame and guilt of believing you are an autonomous self, living apart from God. What the mystics offer us is a glimpse of the totally loving nature of God, having shed their shame and guilt through ‘purgation’.

Gratitude is a central component of the mystical experience. As the Course says, gratitude goes hand in hand with love, and with the realisation that ‘we are separate from no living thing, and therefore one with Him’ (W-195.6:1). In contrast, when we identify with the ego we’re prone to feel deprived, unfairly treated, and persecuted by whatever goes on in our day. Feeling alone and unsupported, depressed and anxious, we think no one in Heaven or on earth cares much about us: we have to deal with our health issues, financial problems, and relationship woes, all on our own. What an immense struggle when we have ‘a self-perception which regards us in a place of merciless pursuit, where we are badgered ceaselessly, and pushed about without a thought or care for us or for our future’ (W-195.9:3).

Through using each circumstance to practice forgiveness and remember the truth about God and our Self, we move from feelings of persecution and deprivation to gratitude. The world as we experience it then takes on a ‘glass half full’ rather than ‘half empty’ quality and, to paraphrase the Course, our learning time is shortened by more than we can ever dream of (W-195.10:1).

Image: Two Cherubs, by Raphael, via Wikimedia Commons

Books by Stephanie Panayi

Jung and A Course in Miracles

The Farthest Reaches of Inner Space

Alchemists of Suburbia

Above the Battleground: The Courageous Path to Emotional Autonomy and Inner Peace

Reflections on ‘A Course in Miracles’: Volume One

Reflections on ‘A Course in Miracles’: Volume Two

Reflections on ‘A Course in Miracles’: Volume Three

Reflections on ‘A Course in Miracles’: Volumes One to Three

4 thoughts on “Good God”

  1. Love this Stephanie, thank you. All of your articles are so illuminating to me. I really like the connection you make too of Carl Jung writing about Meister Eckhart, ‘Strangely appealing is Eckhart’s sense of an inner affinity with God, when contrasted with the Christian sense of sin. We feel ourselves transported back into the spacious atmosphere of the Upanishads.’
    The beautiful Upanishads (and the amazing intro to them in the translation by Juan Mascaro – where I think I’ve possibly underlined …everything! :))

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s