When I was a child, I spake as a child,
I understood as a child, I thought as a child:
but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
(1 Cor. 13:11.)
As I’ve grown older, the things I’ve unlearned about God are just as significant to me as the things I’ve learned about Him. In fact, the God I believed in as a child is almost unrecognizable to me now.
As a child born to active members of the Church, I probably had a typical Mormon spiritual upbringing. Among the more “childish things” I thought I knew about God as a child were the following:
- God created the Earth in six days and rested on the seventh. We’re not sure if they were 24-hour days. “One day” might actually mean 1,000 years, so it might have actually taken God 6,000 years to create the Earth.
- Life is a test us to see if we will do everything God tells us to do in exactly the way He tells us to do it. God gets mad and punishes us if we don’t do what He tells us to do. God punishes disobedient people in lots of different ways. Sometimes God gives them diseases, strikes them blind or dumb, starves or dehydrates them to death, burns them, drowns them, etc. One time God even got so mad at His children on Earth that He killed all except eight of them. But luckily He saved every kind of animal.
- God gives special men called prophets the power to do magic tricks, like turning sticks into snakes or calling fire down from Heaven.
- God has favorite or “chosen” people. God commands His chosen people to kill the men, women, children, and animals of His unchosen people so that the chosen people can use the unchosen peoples’ land.
- God hates it when people make and worship idols because then He doesn’t get the credit for being God.
- God doesn’t want us to have fun on Sunday because that’s His day.
- It is important that we take the Sacrament with our right hand because that is the hand God wants us to use.
You get the picture of my childish view of God: very particular about having things done exactly His way; becoming angry and jealous often and easily; making us suffer and even killing us when we disobey Him. You might say that in my childish view, God was a control freak, and “justice” or “righteousness” was whatever God arbitrarily wanted it to be, rather than being determined by eternal principles by which God was likewise bound. Acts of disobedience angered God because they challenged and defied His sovereignty and authority. In this way, the King of Kings was really no different than any earthly king.
As I got older, I learned that other people held similar views about God. One day, a Seventh-Day Adventist explained to me in a very logical sequence that: (1) the Hebrew Sabbath had always been on the seventh day of the week (Saturday); (2) the Catholic church is the “Beast” referenced in the Book of Revelation; (3) a previous Catholic Pope changed Sabbath observance from the seventh day of the week to the first day (Sunday); and (4) therefore, anyone who goes to church on Sunday bears the “Mark of the Beast. ” The implication:
- No matter how good a person you are, God sends you to Hell if you make the mistake of going to church on the wrong day of the week.
Another time, I spoke with a Jehovah’s Witness who calmly and logically explained to me that: (1) God’s name was actually “Jehovah”; (2) Satan is the Father of this world; and (3) therefore, if you pray to “Father” rather than to “Jehovah,” you are actually praying to Satan. The implication:
- Even if you are sincere in heart and want to talk to God, He doesn’t hear you or ignores your prayer unless you address Him by His technically correct name.
On another occasion, I heard a Christian preacher talk about his counseling a group of Christian missionaries working in the Middle East who were discouraged that they were having no success. The preacher explained that God had predestined who would be saved and who wouldn’t, so it wasn’t the missionaries’ fault that God didn’t predestine the people living in the Middle East to be saved. The implication:
- Although God created everyone, He only loves only a few of His children enough to guarantee their salvation for them; the others He sends to Hell to suffer for eternity.
As the years have passed, I’ve discarded these sorts of childish notions about God. Some have been written off as scriptural mistranslations, others dismissed as the cultural biases of scriptural authors, others as inaccurate oral legends that somehow made their way into scripture.
But there is one experience that has completely redefined my understanding of God and how He operates: Becoming a parent and raising children of my own.
After having children, I realized quickly that if God’s love for his children is anything like my love for my children, then a great deal of what I had previously believed about God and how he operated was utter nonsense. Now, when I come upon a story in scripture, or hear a message preached from the pulpit, that portrays God in a way that is wholly inconsistent with his identity as a loving parent, I have no reservations about dismissing that characterization of God. And sometimes these words of Brigham Young come to mind:
[W]e are not capacitated to throw off in one day all our traditions, and our prepossessed feelings and notions, but have to do it little by little. It is a gradual process, advancing from one step to another; and as we layoff our false traditions and foolish notions, we receive more and more light, and thus we grow in grace; and if we continue so to grow we shall be prepared eventually to receive the Son of Man, and that is what we are after.” (Journal of Discourses 2:309-318).
According to Brigham Young, what’s holding us back from being able to “receive the Son of Man” is not just what we’ve failed to learn thus far; it’s what we haven’t unlearned yet, i.e., “our false traditions and foolish notions.” It seems Brother Brigham would have us be continually on the lookout for ways in which our inherited traditions and culture might be blinding us to greater spiritual truths. Do we as Mormons individually and collectively have the open minds, open hearts, and courage necessary to identify “our false traditions and foolish notions” and throw them off?
It seems our challenge is to “become as a little child” without remaining childish in our views of God. And as I try to discern between simple child-like truths and childish nonsense, I can find no better standard of truth than that of a parent’s love, i.e., to assume that God has a heart at least as loving, and presumably more loving, as any good earthly parent has for his own children.
What about you? How do your views of God as an adult differ from your views of God as a child? And what experiences, principles, or other defining influences are responsible for your evolving view of God?