In my young adult Sunday School class at church, we’re doing a series on portrayals of God in culture and how they compare to the God of the Christian faith. This blog post is an adaptation of some of the discussion points from the first lesson.
“God is not a white man.” The title says it all. In this song, Christian folk duo Gungor tackles several misconceptions about God head-on. These beliefs about God (several of which will be discussed below) are common within the church and among nonbelievers. It’s surprising how controversial a statement like, “God is not a man,” can be. But Gungor isn’t afraid to come right out and say it in an attempt to strip away listeners’ misconceptions about who God is.
Despite the repetition of the phrase, “God is not…” in the song, Gungor is not taking a strictly apophatic (or negative) approach. They have some positive things to say as well. After a long list of things that God is not in each verse, the chorus comes in with a simple, positive statement about who God is: God is love. God is good. God loves everyone. And in the bridge, the song offers a non-exhaustive list of some people who are loved by God, including a few groups that may be jarring to those of us who grew up in the church. The song challenges its listeners to really examine their beliefs about God and see if they fit with the Christian doctrine that God is love.
I love this song and find a lot of value in it. Here are a few of the most important points that the song raises and my reflections on them.
God is not a man (or a woman). Although we tend to think of God in masculine terms, the truth is that God does not have a sex or gender. Scripture tells us that both maleness and femaleness are rooted in the fact that humanity is created in the image of God (Genesis 1.27). It is true that God is our heavenly father, but it’s equally appropriate to think of God as mother. Scripture does as much, comparing God to a nursing mother (Isaiah 49.15) and a mother hen (Luke 13.34), among other female images.
Why then, does the Bible refer to God as “he” and “him”? I think the answer lies in the limitations of both human language and human social structures. The Bible was written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, languages that do not have gender-neutral personal pronouns. Basically, linguistic limitations forced biblical authors to choose between calling God “he,” “she,” or “it.” No one wants to objectify God by referring to him as “it,” so that narrows down the options, and that’s where the social limitation comes in. The biblical authors lived (as we still do) under the system of patriarchy, which tends to think of maleness as the standard for human behavior, if not overtly superior to femaleness. And so it makes sense that they would refer to God as “he” and “him” as more of a culturally-motivated decision than a theologically-motivated one.
Of course, it’s impossible to deny that Jesus, God incarnate, was himself a man, and this complicates the matter a bit. I do not have a conclusive answer as to why God chose to become a man rather than a woman, but my instinct tells me that it—like the pronoun issue—is rooted in patriarchy. After all, there’s no way a woman could have become a public faith teacher in Jesus’ historical and cultural context. But regardless, the fact that Jesus was a man does not reflect a static attribute of the eternal God but rather the historical reality of God’s interaction with humanity.
Why is it important for us to recognize that God is not a man? First of all, it’s important because God cares what we think about him. He wants to be known by us, and we should seek to know him as authentically as possible. But it also matters on a more practical level. The image of God as a man reinforces the idea, rooted in patriarchy, that men and maleness are somehow superior to women and femaleness and thus should be given positions of power and consideration. In reality, both maleness and femaleness are reflections of the image of God in humanity, and both should be celebrated as such. The identity of God is inclusive and egalitarian, and the more we learn about who God is, the more we’re called to be the same way.
God is not white (or black or any other race). I am amazed by our ability to manipulate portrayals of God in order to make ourselves feel important and righteous. I believe it was Voltaire who said that God created us in his image, and then we returned the favor. This phenomenon is most apparent in the way we imagine what Jesus looked like. It’s a historical fact that Jesus was a Middle Eastern Jew, so he was certainly some shade of brown, but that hasn’t prevented European artists from painting blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jesus portraits, African artists from drawing Jesus with an afro, and on and on. While this inclination is understandable, it is problematic when we act on it, and we are called to do better.
Race is not an intrinsic quality of any human being. Rather, it is a categorization that people place on one another based on a combination of factors including physical appearance, geographic origin, and cultural trends. Needless to say, God is not subject to any such categories. Just as in the case of maleness and femaleness, the diversity of human traits around the world are expressions of the complexity and creativity of God. Rather than trying to force God to look like us, why don’t we celebrate God for who he is and human diversity for the way it reflects God’s identity?
God does not belong to any religion (including Christianity). Have you ever heard the cliche, “Christianity isn’t a religion; it’s a relationship”? Well, it’s a cliche for a reason. God has a tendency to shun institutions—which primarily exist for their own survival—‚in favor of relationships with real people who want to know him and to be known by him. The church in the United States has become institutionalized to the point that it’s fallen out of fashion along with other institutionalized religions in the postmodern age. Ironically, we’ve become so concerned with building the church that we’ve lost sight of the most revolutionary aspect of our faith: the idea that we can each build a personal, saving relationship with the God of the universe.
The truth is that the church does not own God. We cannot and should not stand as gatekeepers between the world and God, only allowing outsiders access to him if they do things our way. Yes, God works through the church, but he speaks into peoples’ lives outside the church as well, and this is something we should celebrate, not criticize or reject. When we become so concerned with “building the church” that we don’t want others to have access to God outside of it, we are forming a false concept of who God is and how he works in the world.
God does not belong to/depend on any nation or political group. In our politically-obsessed culture, we often like to ask the question, “How would Jesus vote?” It’s funny that every person answering that question claims that Jesus would vote for his or her candidate of choice. The truth is that every political party and ideology is imperfect. Politics is by its very nature an institution, and as has already been pointed out in reference to the church, an institution’s first priority is its own survival, not moral principles. Yes, God is concerned with the goings-on in our world, and that includes political decisions, but God is not a Republican or a Democrat, and he does not depend on either of these groups in order to bring about his will in the world.
The same is true for nations. The idea that God favors or works primarily through any particular country is nothing more than nationalism disguising itself as theology, and it’s a dangerous notion. If we allow ourselves to believe that the United States is somehow a “chosen nation” or especially blessed by God, we quickly come to the conclusion that American interests and priorities are more important than those of any other country. This has been the motivation behind imperialism, several wars, and the mistreatment of countless people who happen to have been born outside the U.S. In reality, no country is perfect, and God loves every person in every country equally. We cannot let love of country cross into the realm of our faith because nations are imperfect, and God is so much bigger than any country.
God is love, and he loves everyone. Scripture tells us that God is love (1 John 4.8). Love is the preeminent attribute of God. This means that of all his other attributes—including his justice, righteousness, wrath, and even his glory—are secondary to his love. God’s “default mode,” his primary approach, his defining attribute is radical, unconditional love for his creation. And this love extends to everyone.
It’s easy to say that we believe God loves everyone, but it gets much more difficult when we take that belief to its furthest logical conclusions. God doesn’t just love humanity in a general sense; he loves each and every individual human being on the planet. And as this song’s bridge makes painfully clear, that means God loves even those we consider difficult to love. Strangers. Foreigners. People who get on our nerves. People who scare us. People we disagree with. People who live in ways that we consider sinful. Every person we pass on the street is an individual who is loved by God. They matter to God. And we are called to treat them as such: a beloved child of God who deserves our respect, our sympathy, and our care.
There is one aspect of God’s love, though, that the song doesn’t touch on, and it’s key you understanding who he is. It is true that God loves each and every person exactly as they are. But it’s also true that God loves each and every person too much to simply leave them that way. Like any loving parent, God wants what is best for his children, which means that God’s love compels us to confess our sin, turn away from it, and embrace the life that God has for us. And of course, that’s the best life we could possibly have.
Let me be clear: God’s love is not contingent on our obedience. It is unconditional and relentless. But once we recognize and accept God’s all-embracing love, it draw us closer to him, which inevitably leads us to forsake sin for the sake of following him. God’s love is less like a pat on the head and more like an invitation to a wonderful journey with the greatest companion and guide in history.
The fact that Gungor’s song does not include this caveat (as important as it may be) isn’t necessarily a knock against it. As I stated at the beginning of this article, the point of the song is to break down our mistaken, preconceived notions about who God is and introduce the truth of God’s identity as love. This is a message that the world needs to hear and the church needs to be reminded of again and again. And the song succeeds at communicating that message, even if it doesn’t go as far as one might like.
Ultimately, this song points to God’s transcendence. During the process of writing this article, I’ve found myself again and again saying, “God is not just…” or, “God is more than…” because that’s the main message that Gungor is trying to get across here. God has chosen to reveal certain things about himself to us, and we often fall into the trap of focusing on those things so much that we believe God is nothing more than the few things that we can understand about him. But the truth is that God is so much more than we could ever understand or even imagine him to be. For every thing we can say about God–however true—we must also be willing to say, “But God is more than that.”
I once heard Christian radio host Brant Hansen make a statement about God’s transcendence that sums it up pretty well for me. He said, “If you fully understand the god you worship, then you’re not worshipping the one true God; you’re worshipping an idol that you’ve created.” We can’t understand the fullness of who God is, and when we try to do so, we are giving in to vanity. What if instead of pretending we know everything there is to know about God, we humbly admitted that God is greater than we could ever understand and worship him as such?
God is good, but we can’t fathom just how good he is. God is great, but his greatness is beyond our comprehension. God is just, but his justice is above our own. God is righteous, but we don’t know the half of it. And God is love, but his love is deeper, wider, and more rich than we’ll ever understand. All we can do is praise him for it.