I have a very dear friend in her eighties who lives with two gods, both of whom keep her in a constant state of anxiety. God number one is the biblical god of her childhood that was driven deep into her soul. This god is known to her mostly as an accusing judge from whom no escape is possible except by the grace of Jesus Christ, which may come to some if their faith is right, but that is a huge question. God number two is the devil. Not the biblical devil, but the devil of long standing myth. Exactly what the devil does is a mystery, but it’s clear that he has a lot of power and is control of more that happens on earth and in life than most people believe. These two gods are ever present in her life and keep her in a constant state of near jeopardy.
One certain characteristic of god number one is that he has a particular plan for every life, and nothing of any significance happens, whether for good or ill, that this god has not caused or allowed, and always for a reason. To the extent that persons have free will, it is limited pretty much to using one’s powers of reason to discover god’s life plan and follow it, and to seek to understand why god caused or allowed to happen bad things and learn from that about amendment of life. Failure to do that is a sign, if not a promise, that one is damned.
Good things do not need much examination in part because her theology is combined with a solid individualistic work ethic that ascribes material well being to hard work and perseverance. Poverty, on the other hand, is the product of laziness and lack of discipline, or a sign of god’s disfavor. The obvious conflicts between her theology and work ethic do not trouble her, but they do add to the confusion she expresses whenever we talk about God, especially as revealed in the life and teaching of Jesus.
The devil, ever lurking to ensnare, and probably in control of huge sectors of the world, is the anti-god in whom there is no hope at all. His exact nature is unclear, but it is clear to her that we live as little more than pawns in the midst of a battle between these two gods.
Over the years she has listened to my sermons, attended some of my classes, and we have spent hours in conversation exploring these matters. The God of our tradition, the God whom I know and love through Christ Jesus, the God whom I see revealed in scripture and in life, that God, remains just barely out of reach to her. The peace of God that passes all understanding bypasses her. The love of God that is abounding, steadfast and slow to anger is intellectually present but cannot find a place in her already occupied soul.
What I want to know is who was it that, seventy or eighty years ago, stuffed her little heart so full of judgment and damnation, an accusing god and a threatening devil, that subjects her still to fear and anxiety about God and her own salvation? I think Jeremiah has something to say to that person in words that some of us will hear on Sunday:
“What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves? …The priests did not say, ‘Where is the Lord?’…[but] prophesied by Baal, and went after things that do not profit.”