God as a Household Pet

Finger-painting on a Canvas Called Divine

We must concede that no conception of God can claim accuracy. We hold that some conceptions of God have equivalence, as well as usefulness. Finally, we must realize that many of our existing conceptions are neither equivalent, nor useful. I have found that one such conception seems quite widespread [1]; it appears to treat God as a block of ice at best, and a household pet at worst. I have written upon the former subject, and I now write upon the latter.

The conception I refer to is simply described. It is the paradigm by which two habits are cultivated—the post hoc rationalizing of all our life’s events as acts of God with known intent, and the expectation that all future events will have this same characteristic, with or without known intent. [2] This is, of course, much clearer in example:

I cannot count the times that I have watched someone reflect on a time of trouble, or even minor confusion, followed by the inevitable epiphany—God surely wanted them to learn a particular lesson, which has now become quite clear. At times this is harmless; at times it is useful, and at times I would not dispute its accuracy. Often, however, I believe it testifies to our skill at fashioning coping mechanisms for even the smallest things that lie beyond our understanding.

We cannot imagine that God deals with human beings in such a way that would lend itself to these ideas. We cannot imagine that the mild discomfort and stress that we experience during a week of chaos was divinely intended to remind you of a spiritual principle that you have recently neglected. We should not imagine that your break-up was a result of your wanting it too much [3]. We should imagine that life is mysterious, and that God’s purposes should not be read into the past, so much as aspired to in the present.

The extent to which I have heard people rationalize their lives as products of a known, intentional, divine refinement process is frightening. While it may sound natural to some, I can only hear one thing:

“Oh, God… there you go again!”

God is not a household pet. The true causes of the events in your life are tangled up with the very causes of the universe itself. Should God elect to work out his purpose, the manner in which it interacts with the minutia that you encounter will generally lie well beyond your understanding.

* * *

For most Christians, it seems intuitive to believe that our lives have purpose. In somewhat of a natural progression, we may divine that this purpose is personal: a purpose that maximizes the meaning in our own lives. It then stands to reason that the events that constitute our lives are also purposeful. If you travel just a little further along this line of thinking, even a botched McDonalds order can become an ad hoc act of God.

This is the second fallacy, of which we must be wary: to imagine that every event is an agent of God’s direct purposes, such that God becomes a function of the conditions we create for him. In order to illustrate this, imagine a hand of blackjack.

There are only two outcomes in a hand of blackjack. You will either win the hand, or you will lose the hand. If, however, we imagine that all events must act towards God’s direct purpose, we also imagine that God wills the losing or the winning of this hand.

cards

The problem becomes obvious at this point—if we consider God acting out his direct purpose in this event, we force a binary interpretation of the event on him. Using this method, we could project a great deal of things on God simply by creating the circumstances. Even if we do not speculate as to what God’s intent is, we presume that there is an unknown intent as to the outcome of this hand, and this in itself is problematic. Most of us would feel comfortable saying that God, inasmuch as it is possible, has nothing to do with this. If we are able to recognize this on such a small scale, we should be able to extend it to at least some of the events in our lives that cause angst, fear, and confusion.

And His disciples asked Him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him.”

[John 9:2-3, NASB]

If there is one consequence of this thinking that I wish to impugn, it is the idea that God is watching our behaviour carefully, poised to deliver tricks or treats to us. God is neither a household pet, nor an elementary school teacher with slightly more life experience than you, whose disciplinary methods can be discerned in hindsight.

The most we can say about many events (I am not suggesting “all”), is that God intended to create a universe in which all the varying outcomes were possible.

Some may feel that the mere existence of the aforementioned dichotomies is evidence against the existence of God, [4] since the concept appears to break down. It may be similar to asking whether God can make a rock that he can’t move. Despite this, I don’t think we have to ask harder questions about the nature of God on account of this. We just have to stop thinking about him this way.

At the risk of sounding cliché: trusting God isn’t about making sense of the things that happen to you. It’s about making the best of them.

————————————————————————————–

See comments for clarification on this post.

[1] Especially among evangelicals.

[2] The former of these lends itself to the “household pet” description, the latter is somewhat different, and perhaps deserves a different title.

[3] Of course, this is perfectly capable of destroying a relationship without divine intervention.

[4] With a little bit of Google, I discovered that people do indeed think this, and there’s a name for it: the “omnipotence paradox.”

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5 Responses to “God as a Household Pet”

  1. At the risk of sounding cliché: trusting God isn’t about making sense of the things that happen to you. It’s about making the best of them.

    I think that part of this rests on a matter of translation, actually — indicative of a larger attitude toward God. I am looking at Romans 8:28, which says in the NIV that

    “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him,[a] who[b] have been called according to his purpose.”

    But the footnotes are important:

    a. Romans 8:28 Some manuscripts And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God
    b. Romans 8:28 Or works together with those who love him to bring about what is good—with those who

    So the question is: does God work for the good of those who love Him? Or does God work for good with those who love Him?

  2. Wabasso Says:

    I’m not sure if I missed an example in there somewhere, but what is the harm in thinking of God in the way of a “pet” or “grade school teacher”?

    The only negative physical manifestation I can see of this attitude is justifying evil actions in the name of God: “I have these sudden urges to blow myself up near that school because God put them in me, as a test of my faith”.

    As for the mentality being “wrong” in more administrative terms, I don’t see how you can conclude that your passive creator model is any more correct than another.

    “I don’t think we have to ask harder questions about the nature of God on account of this. We just have to stop thinking about him this way.”

    You can say this as long as you admit your belief is as inaccurate as any others you may mention.

    Getting back to the immovable rock: You and I would probably both agree (albeit through different trains of thought) that there is really no point to such a line of thinking. It has nothing to do with faith, morals, or actions. It IS, however, necessary to address the paradox IFF your God is required to be omnipotent in your belief system. At this point I would have to expect an answer from you along the lines of, “Well, no, he probably couldn’t do that, but what’s that to you?”

  3. Right: I’m actually OK with doing some sense-making, just not to excess, or such that God’s perceived intent becomes a function of trivial happenings.

    I may have been a bit unclear on this point. I’m not trying to reform the conception of God to a passive model–just eliminate the excesses along certain lines of thinking (this does not mean these excesses need to be replaced with anything).

    If harm is only injury to other human beings, then yes. But if you imagine that every small thing happens to you is direct outcome of God’s purpose in the situation, you get yourself into trouble, and I would call it harmful.

    I’m fine with believing that God is, so to speak, “active,” but this does not mean it will ever be clear how your hand of blackjack fits into the picture.

    I alluded to this in the “God as a Block of Ice” post. We imagine “omnipotent” as “able to perform any action that I can phrase in sentence form, even if it’s self-contradicting.” I think that’s just a matter of silliness. If you believe in God, you believe he’s as potent as potency allows.

    As a side note, if the divinity of Jesus can be believed, you could imagine that any rocks that Jesus was unable to physically move were rocks that God made that he couldn’t move. But now I’m being a bit silly myself.

  4. One further thought, as I’ve been thinking on this further — it seems to me that ascribing everything that happens to God means that only God has agency in the world. I don’t think this is true; if you believe that humans have free will, you have to believe that we have agency in the world. So, I think, does Satan.

    So if we have three main agents operating in the world — God, Satan, and humans (with the near-infinite variety of human thought & action that comes with that) — there are going to be a lot of things happening that are contrary to the will of at least one of those agents, especially since numbers one and two will usually be working at direct cross-purposes, with number three sort of stuck in the middle.

    Lots of things happen that are contrary to God’s purposes. To look to God’s purpose in every thing that happens sometimes negates this, and attributes evil actions and circumstances to God, which is problematic to say the least.

  5. Stephanie Says:

    Again, thank you for writing. This post was an encouragement, not least of all because it put some fine words to a concept that I have held for a number of years, but have a hard time expressing.

    Christine’s point about agency is also very good. Remember that saying, “devil in the details?” Eerily appropriate, here.

    I think we can agree that stuff happens. Sometimes as a direct cause of God’s purposes, sometimes as indirect collateral. I do think that nothing occurs without God signing off on it–but He doesn’t write a lot of the proposals. Authoring an event is not the same as watching over it.

    I think that God can intentionally put indirect results of His purposes to use to personally affect individuals. I think that sometimes He simply lets things play out, regardless of how they affect individuals. In either case, I think He is interested in seeing how we react.

    And if that is, as far as we’re concerned, His interest in either circumstance, it should be ours, too.

    I don’t think it’s wrong to marvel at how things have fit together to create the circumstance I am currently in–the fact that I find myself in this particular circumstance, out of all the possibilities, is a testament to how carefully manipulated the universe is. To think the circumstance was manipulated especially for my sake, however, is ridiculous. However it affects me, God knows about it and is using it to mold me–but my fate is like a footnote in the OED.

    Also, Christine–I think both translations of the Romans verse are probably true, regardless of which is more technically accurate. They don’t contradict one another, and both ideas are generally supported in the rest of the Bible.

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