The child was out of control. He had been running and shouting and climbing over pews since he had walked in the door of the church. He had come with his grandmother; and to her credit, she had tried a time or two to calm him down. It hadn’t worked.
Finally, she reached her limit. As he attempted to dash between her and a pew, she reached out and grabbed him. For a moment, I feared she might pull his arm loose from his shoulder. As I watched, time seemed frozen. He glared at her; she at him. Their icy stares were broken by the grandmother’s angry and frustrated shout at her grandson: “If you don’t stop that, God is going to get you! Do you hear me?”
Her angry shout didn’t seem to have any immediate effect on the boy. It did on me. The sound of her voice and the message she conveyed, carried me back to my childhood.
As a child, I had known an angry and mean God who was always watching and out to get whoever strayed from the straight and narrow. I had learned to fear God. The God I often heard about seemed a bit out of control and certainly dangerous. In fact, it seemed that sometimes his anger might be so out of control that he might just destroy the good with the bad. The God of the Old Testament seemed to do a lot of slaying and ordering others to do it. Fearing such a God seemed like a wise move.
Looking back over the years, I’m not sure from where that scary image of God came from. It certainly wasn’t from my parents. I suppose that it may have been partly the result of my childish imagination and lack of understanding.
Yet I suspect it had something to do with the content of sermons I heard at our little Baptist church in Tallapoosa, Missouri—particularly from evangelists who wanted converts, even if they had to scare the hell out of them to move them from prospects to believers. Maybe it was the tone of the sermons as much as their content. A lot of preachers seemed to be angry at their parishioners. Angry people have always scared me. An angry God scares me even more.
Let’s go back to the grandmother and the going-to-get-you God. Maybe she saw my face . . . maybe she just thought better about what she had said. Whatever it was, she seemed to have a second thought and then she changed her tactic. “Now stop, or Bro. Duncan will get you.” Gee, thanks lady. You just made me the scary, bad guy.
I reached down and picked up the grandson. He probably thought his days were numbered. Grandmother had sic’d God and the preacher on him. I didn’t get him. I told him I wasn’t going to get him; but I added, “I would like for you to stop running and shouting and climbing on the pews. We’re in God’s house and how we act here is how we show our respect for God.”
My words were probably worthless. More valuable may have been the way I spoke and how I held him. Maybe I just got lucky. For the moment, he calmed down. My prayer is that for the moment—and maybe longer—he saw a kinder God.
I’ve thought about that day often and about God being out to get us. I’ve thought about our need to fear God and how few of us do. Over the years, I have learned a lot—a lot about God, about myself, and about others. Fear of God that comes from the anxiety that God is out to get us does little to draw us to God and much to cause us to see if we can somehow get around God—get around, as in pull one over on God.
There is a healthier fear. It’s called awe. It is the fear that comes from realizing that God is All-in-All . . . that all that is flows from God and shall return to God.
Awe—healthy and health-inducing fear—flows from seeing God through the eyes of Jesus and remembering the promise—“Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Matthew 28:20 KJV).
God is not out to get us. God is out to bring us home, that where God is we may be also.