Burning Bosom

Theology, History, Culture, Politics & Life from a LDS (Mormon) Perspective

Which God Should I Believe In?

Posted by Andrew on January 1, 2008

In the Old Testament, God is often doing things that seem grossly out of character for the God I believe I know. The God I believe I know doesn’t order “his people” to kill the elderly, women, and little children (Ezek. 9:6); he doesn’t order the death penalty for those who break the Sabbath (Ex. 31:14-15); he doesn’t strike someone dead for making a misguided attempt to help (2 Sam. 6-8); and he doesn’t send bears to tear children into pieces–not even for making fun of a prophet’s bald head (2 Kings 2:23-25). These types of stories in the Old Testament present me with a dilemma.

Should I: (1) disbelieve these stories because they conflict with what my conscience tells me about God’s character; or (2) believe these stories and drastically alter my view of God’s character, based on the assumption that the scriptures are more likely to be correct than my conscience? In other words, which God should I believe in: the God my conscience tells me exists, or the God that the Old Testament says exists?

This question concerns me because Joseph Smith taught that we cannot have true faith unless we first have a correct understanding of God’s character. I feel that in order to understand God’s character, I need to know whether he is the type of being who has ordered genocide, infanticide, and what seems to be Taliban-style enforcement of his commandments. Frankly, sometimes the God of the Old Testament sounds frighteningly similar to the being that Islamic extremists worship. And if the Old Testament accurately reveals God’s character, I feel like maybe I don’t even know the real God. That thought concerns me for obvious reasons.

Thankfully, I’m only obligated to believe the Bible is the “word of God” as far as it is “translated correctly.” So should I be concerned at all if I tend to believe many stories in the Old Testament are incorrect? To be clear, I am not talking about rationalizing away scriptures to discard commandments or Gospel principles. I am talking about disbelieving stories that portray God in a way that plainly contradicts the character of the God my conscience tells me exists.

If I am on the Highway to Hell, somebody please point me back to the right path.

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9 Responses to “Which God Should I Believe In?”

  1. Shawn L said

    Funny enough, I’ve had this exact same conversation with myself. As a young missionary, the idea that I could know everything about how God works made perfect sense. But the older I get, the more persuaded I am that while mortal men may know some basic facts about the nature of God (he has a body of flesh and bone; he is our Father; etc.), we do not have the capacity to truly understand his character. As a result, each culture (and subculture) views him through the prism of their own worldview. Hence, the peoples of the Old Testament, for whom life was an extremely difficult experience lived without many of the facts we know take for granted (i.e., sometime people die from diseases, not because God struck them down), saw God as cruel. I do not feel obligated to (and do not) view God the same way.

  2. lacefamily said

    Andrew, I am ashamed to admit I know little of your Mormon faith. I have, however, wrestled with the exact same issue you’ve just voiced: reconciling a God of wrath described in the Old Testament with a God of saving grace described in the New Testament. Hebrews 13:8 says that God is the same yesterday, today and forever – so He hasn’t changed. You are correct to trust His revealed Word over your conscience: II Timothy 3:16.

    I am new to the blogosphere but I have just posted my first article a few days ago and it happens to give, what I believe, to be a very detailed answer to your question. Here is a link: lacefamily.wordpress.com

    I’d look forward to your comments if you desire to dialogue over this matter.

    Peace thru Grace, Bert

  3. Andrew said

    Bert, welcome to the blog and thanks for your comment; you’re welcome here anytime. Thanks also for pointing out your well-written article on this topic. You mentioned you don’t know much about Mormons, and you might be interested to know that you could read your article over the pulpit at a Mormon church service and most people probably wouldn’t recognize it as being authored by a non-Mormon (although we might use slightly different jargon for the same or similar concepts here or there). You might also be intrigued by the Mormon belief in a “pre-existence”–our life with God before our earth life–which we believe is supported by some of the scriptures you cited in your article.

    Addressing the topic of how we cope with our reluctance to accept the seemingly “cruel” God of the Old Testament, your central argument that we need to examine this from the perspective that God does everything for His Glory is an interesting point. The argument, as I understand it, is that we humans need to get over our self-obsession and realize that there is someone more important than ourselves out there in the universe (i.e. God), and that we need to accept that His wants, needs, and desires, and His glory must come first–which may run contrary to our own desires sometimes. I like how that argument encourages more humility, which is a good thing.

    However, I have to admit it is a difficult pill for me to swallow, and I don’t think it’s because I’m just a spoiled child who expects to always get his way. My difficulty with that argument is that it portrays God as a somewhat egotistical being who is obsessed with glorifying himself by any means necessary, even if that requires Him to run roughshod over us weak things. I find it difficult to reconcile that type of God with a God who loves us so much that He sends His only begotten son to die for us.

    I understand the scriptures about God seeking His glory to be mean that WE ARE God’s glory. One of the scriptures you cited is along those same lines: “Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth . . . whom I created for my glory.”(Isaiah 43:6-7.) I think it is easy for any parent to understand that we, God’s children, are God’s glory. My children are my “glory”; and I think God views us as his glory–and we glorify God–when we embrace him and spiritually develop as He wants us to. So the way I see it, when God says he does everything for His glory, and that we are His glory, God is essentially telling us: “Look, you might not understand what I’m doing, but I’m your Father and it’s in my own interest to do what’s best for you.”

    Of course, this view of God as being a tender, loving parent who wants to do what’s best for his children is exactly what makes it so difficult to understand why such a parent would behave in such a seemingly brutal fashion in the Old Testament. I don’t have the answer to that question, but I do believe He is a kind, gentle, just, and merciful God.

    Perhaps the answer is that we need to have an eternal perspective and realize that death is not a “bad” thing from God’s perspective, so his ordering the deaths of thousands of men, women, and children should not be a problem for us. And when it comes to God causing or allowing human suffering, perhaps the answer there is that God has promised to relieve all of that in the end: “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” (Rev. 21:4.)

  4. Craig A. said

    This discussion brings up some great points. One that I want to add is that I think the character that Jesus displays in the New Testament is consistent with his dealings as the Jehovah of the Old Testament. Many see Jesus as peace, flowers and all forgiving. Many forget that he used a whip and his own physical strength to clean house at the temple in Jerusalem, that he condemned the pharisees to their faces with strong, harsh language. He never countanenced sin, but rather encouraged repentance and change. He stated Matt. 10: 34
    34 Think not that I am come to send a peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.
    By that sword I believe he means that his doctrine devides the light from the dark, the wicked from the true.

    I still believe in God’s compassion, but also his justice and that as Isaiah said, his ways are not mine.

  5. Matthew said

    Excellent points about a difficult topic. I too have wrestled, and continue to wrestle, with this topic. I expect this wrestle to continue until I see as I am seen and know as I know.

    I believe the core foundation of who we are as individuals is tied up in our conception of God. Indeed, if we genuinely believe that we are children of God, our construction of self is inextricably connected to our construction of God. In other words, I don’t think we can understand who we are unless we understand who He is. Thus, the difficult wrestle of understanding his nature, as well as our (or at least my) ongoing desire to understand that nature in the face of sometimes extreme intellectual difficulty.

    With this in mind, I find Paul’s words on a related subject interesting. He says that in the moment of clarity we will see and know as we are seen and known. In other words, we will see and know as God does; we will see and know through his eyes and mind. I can think of know way to see and know as another than to fully understand and comprehend the nature of that other. Thus, necessary to full perfection and complete self-realization is a full comprension of God’s nature and character, which makes discussions like this somewhat important.

    Now, this is by no means my way of pulling the “God’s impossible to know so quit trying to figure it out” card. Instead, it’s my way of saying that perhaps we need to take more seriously the question of God’s nature and character. Often in testimonies or lessons we gloss over the most supreme aspect of our faith, and the keystone of our existence. I think we (I) sometimes take for granted that we “know God lives” without giving that life a second thought. Indeed, without some understanding of God beyond the fact that he lives, I don’t see how we can achieve perfection in the manner addressed by Paul. Perhaps more important for the here and now, it would seem that the more informed and full our conception of God, the more full and real our conception of self, and therefore the more full and real our life.

    One final note on the possibility of understanding God and our ways not being His ways. If you’ve got a lot of free time, you many find Soren Kierkegaard’s (Danish Philosopher) treatment of the story of Abraham and Isaac in his work Fear and Trembling interesting. There, he discusses the interplay of the finite (loosely speaking, the domain of human understanding) and the infinite (again, loosely, God’s domain) and the impossbility of comprehending the infinite with the finite. Note, not the impossibility of comprehending the infinite, but only the impossibility of comprehending (and subsequently articulating) the infinite through a finite medium. Thus, fully understanding and articulating God’s nature and character is by no means impossible, it’s just not possible in a finite medium. So, while I may have a deep and informed understanding of God beyond the mere fact of His existence, good luck on my articulating that here. It would seem the same holds true for scripture, which seems the ultimate paradox: an attempt to capture the infinite in a finite medium.

    As you can tell, these thoughts are nothing if not a work in progress. Thanks for the forum.

  6. Shawn L said

    I’m no Danish philosopher, but I think that “wrestle” is the appropriate verb here. I can’t help but believe that its presumptuous for us — using our temporal, mortal and ever-fallible worldview — to imagine that we can truly “understand” everything that God is. Those who are interested try to live our lives in a fashion such that we may draw closer to Him. But I don’t dont think we are ever promised the full “understanding” contemplated in Andrew’s post. That’s the point of this life, to engage in the inquiry through both word and deed.

  7. Andrew said

    I agree with Craig that Jesus is just as well as merciful, and that Jesus had to take strong enforcement action against those who were commercially exploiting holy places, or were hypocritically condemning everyone but themselves (e.g. the Pharisees). However, I see a big difference between chasing money-changers out of a temple and, say, ordering the killing of children. What’s just about ordering the deaths of children we believe are too innocent to even be capable of sinning? So we can emphasize the “justice” aspect of God’s character, but I still don’t see that explaining some of the things we read about in the Old Testament.

    Also, I could not agree more with what Matt said about our need to seek to understand God’s character because it influences our view of ourselves. From a purely secular point of view, one could say that a person’s view of God represents what they understand to be the “ideal” person. So if God is the person each person strives to become like, their view of God’s character determines what type of person they think they should be, or are justified in being.

    For example, I have known people whose view of God is very “Old Testament,” and I see them behaving in a very “Old Testament” fashion in leadership positions, in their homes, etc. Generally speaking, they focus on concepts of duty and obedience, discipline and punishment, and seem to feel morally justified in pouring out “righteous indignation” on others whenever they perceive them as straying from their personal view of how things should be. By contrast, people I know whose view of God is very “New Testament” seem much more tolerant, forgiving, patient, warm, and loving in their personal lives.

    Maybe we cannot solve this riddle about God’s apparent “cruelty” in the Old Testament, and maybe we don’t need to. Maybe it’s enough to know that we just cannot use God’s seemingly harsh actions in the Old Testament as a moral justification to be harsh in our personal lives by pouring out our own wrath and “righteous” indignation on others.

  8. Craig A said

    I don’t think there is ever a need to be harsh. The Lord advises us to reprove with sharpness, if needed, and then overflow with love so that we are not percieved as an enemy. I personally have never needed to reprove with sharpness, or if I have I was probably over-reacting. I believe there are instances when both stern and loving approaches with our children are appropriate and I believe that God works the same way with us.

    Andrew-what would you say to the arguement that the heavenly order of the death of children was for their good if we assume that they would have been raised in iniquity, assume that death was not a worse alternative and that wickedness was being visited down to the 3rd and fourth generation and that the translation is correct. What do you think of the fact that I can write a sweet run on sentence when it is midnight and I am on call at the hospital?
    I feel like we are cop-ing out if we just say that this is an unsolvable riddle.

  9. joe said

    What about cursing humanity to eat bread?

    “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground…” (Gen. 3:19)

    What about cursing women with a difficult child bearing?
    “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children” (gen. 3:16)

    I found it odd that these two curses are paired for adam and eve. Something interesting is that a Fruitarian woman claimed that when she had a child on a raw diet it was quite an easy process of labor. Later she wasn’t a fruit eater, and the next child she had was the predicted difficult labor.

    The fruitarian belief is that the food for humanity is fruit and food which comes from trees or closely related plants.

    “And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat”

    Perhaps the greatest curse for humanity is the result of our own actions. Our current ecological crisis actually dates back to the dawn of agriculture. Carbon emmissions are known to be released with agricultural practices which disturb the soil. In addition errosion causes the loss of minerals and nutrients in the soil, and can cause many other problems.

    Perhaps that is why cains offering was rejected because he was a ’tiller of the ground’. In addition I think the terminology suggests an ahborence for not only agriculture, but also strip mining, oil drilling and any other process which disturbs the ground, especially if on a large scale.

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