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God and the Lens We View Him Through

The lens through which we view the Bible is shaped by many components that make up our worldview. This helps us translate the way we experience the foundations of our reality, including our spirituality. Some of what shapes this paradigm can be traced to the culture we grew up in, our life experiences, education, and how we love and understand belonging. 

This week’s Adult Bible Study Guide lesson aims at focusing on Jesus as the Messiah, King, and Priest prophesied about in the book of Psalms. Most of the readings portray the beauty of this focus on Christ. However, there are some ideologies sprinkled throughout that were distracting. These subtle ideologies are examples of how our worldview, including our own biases and traumas, can creep into our understanding of God.

The first problematic ideology that caught my attention was in Tuesday’s lesson, where it states: “God’s wrath is an expression of divine judgment.” The verses used to back up this line of thinking were Psalm 38:1 and Psalm 74:1. Although “wrath” is spoken of in these texts, there is no mention of divine judgment. Hebrew language blogger Chaim Bentorah highlights how the word “wrath” in Psalm 38:1 is chemah, which can be translated in a few ways. The undertone of anger that seems to be referenced in this verse is an example of how we can see a word and ascribe our own bias or emotional weight to it. Hebrew can be tricky when translated to English. Bentorah notes that this Hebrew translation is “In a Piel form where is more properly rendered as correction or teaching.” So, this addition of “divine judgment” to a verse that doesn’t say that, even in the original Hebrew, is a prime example of how we can subtly reveal the lens of how we perceive God. 

The second problematic ideological statement, again from Tuesday’s lesson, read: “However, while it lasts [referring to God’s wrath], God’s discontent with His erring people is serious.” Is it possible for God to be discontented? And if so, how is discontent deemed serious or not? Are there levels of discontentment with God? If God is experiencing discontentment due to his “erring people,” the phrase following comes across as an authoritative threat. It sounds like God is saying, “Okay people, this time I’m serious! You’ve done it now!” This line of reasoning, although subtle, seems to reveal an experience of religious trauma and a picture of a God who is never pleased with his people. Because if we are always erring, to follow this line of thinking causes us to believe that God is always discontented with us. Psalm 89:38-46 was used to attempt to prove this ideology. In fact, the lesson noted that Psalm 89:1-52 was a lament. However, Psalm 89 does not begin as a lament. It is a song sung by Ethan the Ezrahite and starts with praising God for his covenant with David. It continues with honoring God’s character of love and power and details God’s faithfulness to David. It then ends as a lament at the king’s defeat, asking God to remember the covenant, yet ending in the last verse with a psalm of praise. The focus here should not be on God’s serious “discontent with His erring people.” The context of the psalm involves so much more complexity and beauty.

The third problematic ideological statement was from Thursday’s lesson. The sentence begins, “People’s sins and open rebellions constantly provoke God to abandon His people” (emphasis added). Constantly provoke? That seems excessive. This line has some major problems. As a parent, my children provoke me at times. But I am never provoked constantly. If I am provoked, it usually has more to do with my level of exhaustion than it does with my children. When I am provoked, I am never provoked to abandon them. Am I, in my imperfect state, more righteous than God? No, because this ideology is not biblical, although there is a prooftext given at the end of this sentence to try to give it weight. 

The proof text is from Exodus 32, where Moses is interceding for the Israelites when God suggests to Moses that he should just start over, and God will let Moses be the father of nations and wipe everyone else away. But Moses intercedes for the people and chooses them over himself. I believe this passage is about Moses’s journey to understanding God’s love more fully. Using it as a prooftext to show how God is “provoked constantly to abandon His people” is problematic in that it makes Moses more righteous than God. I see this interaction with Moses and God as a sort of dissertation moment, where Moses gets to defend his position before his professor, in this instance God. If God never changes, and if he promised a Messiah in Genesis 3:15, then God already knew that he was going to save his people. But did Moses understand that kind of love? I see this interaction as a lesson for Moses to truly understand God’s unchanging love. Moses, who had grown up among the retributive gods of Egypt, was revealing his growth away from that understanding and more towards an understanding of the God of grace and unconditional love. This interaction was about Moses, so using it as a proof text to back up a traumatic ideology about a divine being who is constantly provoked to abandon his people only reveals the broken lens this phrase came from.  

There is powerful research being done regarding religious trauma and how it influences people to see God, theology, and humanity through a lens of shame and punishment. Scholars, such as Alison Downie, note that it is hard for those who grow up with ideologies of shame-based theology and punishment to experience God’s unconditional love and grace. Downie earned her PhD in systematic theology at Duquesne University and teaches in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Often, those who adhere to this worldview of fear-based conditional salvation are not even aware of their broken lens due to the habits they have grown up in that have normalized shame and spiritual harm for them. If they do become aware of the religious trauma, breaking away from that norm usually results in shaming or shunning of the community, so most stay in a religious trauma cycle that can be passed down from generation to generation.  

Professor and author Emory Elliott adds to this topic, noting how early Puritan sermons in the 1600s became a way of controlling the people, especially when using the wrath of God to “motivate” the second generation of colonizers to keep doing “God’s work” so that they stay free from God’s wrath and the consequences. Elliott was a professor of American literature at UC Riverside. He directed UC Riverside’s Center for Ideas and Society from 1996, enhancing the reputation of the institute and its scope by winning grants from foundations. We know that generational trauma can be passed down. Is it possible that ideological religious trauma can also be passed down? Could statements like those in this week’s lesson be possible fragments of past myths and ideologies passed down that were created to try to control and shame? Just like it is possible to break cycles of generational trauma, it is also possible to end the pattern of religious and ideological trauma. However, as the research points out, those who do so may be shamed or shunned by their religious communities.

This week’s lesson was mostly filled with powerful depictions of Christ our Messiah, King, and Priest. However, the few subtle undertones of fear and hints of religious trauma remind us of how our worldview needs to get healing salve to experience Christ more fully. Thankfully Christ, who is our Messiah, King, and Priest, will partner with us on this journey towards spiritual transformation and growth.

About the author

Krystalynn Westbrook-Martin is the former vice principal for spiritual life at Auburn Adventist Academy. She has served as a minister, teacher, and administrator in the Seventh-day Adventist Church for over two decades. She is currently completing a PhD in Transformative Social Change, with an emphasis in Peace and Justice Studies. More from Krystalynn Westbrook-Martin.
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