God is not an ethical rulebook. Tonight in the shower, for absolutely no reason, I was transported back to 8th grade Bible class when my teacher gave us a creative writing assignment. Everyone else in the class rolled their eyes, but I dove my pen into my notebook and couldn’t pull the ideas from my head to the pen fast enough, primarily because of the prompt he gave us:
“Write about a day without God.”
I should fish through my old papers and find the original story, but mine began with badgers crawling out of their holes and eating people. Then the earth began splitting and peeling apart as the ground on which existence rested was wrenched.
A few days later when we shared our creations, I was frankly disappointed/bored with my classmates’ stories. I recall pithy sentiments like “I was walking around the mall with my brother and people were stealing things and doing what they wanted,” as if God only existed as a Jiminy Cricket character whispering ethical nothings in your ear like a backseat lover. Mine was easily the most extreme, but few other stories actually conceptualized God as more than a conscience or a moral judge.
Only in hindsight have I caught what this little exercise revealed about the way many of us view God.
For many of us, God exists to monitor the good and bad things we do. When I was a youth pastor, I can’t count the number of times a high schooler would accidentally swear in church and then make a guilty face toward me as if they’d just slapped my mother.
“You can’t say that in here!” one of their friends would scold them.
Why couldn’t they swear in a church? Because it’s where God lives and because God is a cop who will pull you over if you swear or kiss your boyfriend, but only in places where he can see, like in a church building.
Have you ever felt like this? Like the religion you inherited from your parents or your pastor is nothing more than a moral checklist of do’s and don’t’s, as if God were chiefly concerned with monitoring your behavior?
How different this approach to God is than the one the Bible presents! How anemic and weak!
As mentioned before, I have been teaching slowly through the Bible and am seeing new and glimmering sides of Christ I never saw before. In fact, you’d be surprised how few moralistic instructions come out of His mouth. Whenever there is something like that coming out, He is usually rebuking the Pharisees (religious teachers) for their religious pride and false righteousness. More often, Jesus is demonstrating just how, exactly, God is bigger than their ethical laws on every front.
He calms the storm and the winds and the waves obey Him. (Power over nature)
He heals numerous diseases and disabilities. (Power over human bodies/disease)
He tells demons and other ‘unclean spirits’ what to do. (Power over spiritual realm)
And yes, He even invades the Jewish religious structures and eradicates them in favor of the outsider. (Power over human religion)
All this is to say that if your god is nothing more than a mere series of ethical codes, you’ve got Jesus all wrong. You haven’t just gotten Him a little wrong; you’re answering in a different language. You were asked what 2+2 is and you answered with “purple.” You are trying to dig a hole in the ground by climbing a tree and shooting a pistol at the clouds.
That’s how wrong you are to fathom God as nothing more than an ethical conscience.
Let me try to explain another way, and you’ll have to strap on your philosophy helmets for this one.
At the inception of philosophy, the world seemed pretty simply structured in a foundational hierarchy: At the base you had everything as it existed: the world, birds, dirt, men and women, and so on (metaphysics). Upon this was knowledge, or what people were capable of knowing (epistemology). Then, pulling from what people were capable of knowing came ethics, or the right and wrong way to live.