Is God a man ?
Is God a man?
This is the question a member of our evening study group asked, after I had used the male pronoun 'he' to describe God. For the last decade, our congregation has been challenged to think of God in a more inclusive way. Our worship uses inclusive language. I try and be careful to use inclusive language myself. But when challenged by my friend with the question 'Is God a man?', I had to honestly answer that the God that I customarily thought about is distinctly male. It would seem that all the learning I have done has really been so much window dressing!
I have thought about this question a lot in the past months, during which I have chosen to separate from my husband. The separation has forced me to reluctantly acknowledge that fear has been a large part of my marriage relationship and that while it may have seemed an outwardly happy and successful relationship, I have had little control over my sexual self and have been subject to occasions of both sexual and emotional abuse. I fought against accepting the 'abuse' label but now that I have acknowledged what was happening, I am faced with the question, why did I accept it? Like so many women in destructive relationships, I have needed to make the link between my marriage and the sexual abuse inflicted on me as a child.
During this time while I am exploring, with the help of a counsellor, the issues involved in abuse, I have found that I am not particularly comfortable with men. I am working hard at not generalising my experience as a child and wife into an anger against all men and I am confident that with God's help, I will be able to enter trustingly into close relationships with men in the future. But just at the moment, I feel uneasy about speaking personally with a man, even with a man I know. I feel an overwhelming need to protect myself from the kind of damage men have done to me in the past. In fact, I see this as an essential skill I have to learn, to ensure my future emotional and sexual health.
So, while I am in this stage (transitional, I hope!), what has happened to my 'male God'? I actually find myself trying not to think of Him! At the very time that a clear vision of God's healing power could be very helpful, I find that I am questioning what I have been used to thinking of as God. I realise that over the past years, I have seen God as requiring me to 'put up with' the marriage, as telling me that my own pain was far less important than the satisfaction of my husband, and even that by being obedient to abuse, I was in some way 'modelling' God's relationship with his people. I recoil from these ideas now, but believed them absolutely for many years. Now, I am quite consciously throwing out this 'old' image of God and questioning just what the church has offered to me in the area of marriage and faith in the past years. I can see now that what I believed was God and what was sometimes offered to me as God by the church was a destructive force rather than a life giving one. While part of me feels liberated to realise this, another part actually feels cheated. What was 'sold' to me and what I 'bought' has turned out to be a fake. A little later, I want to explore the ways in which the church both supported my destructive relationship and yet in the end, helped free me from it.
While I struggle at present with questions about who God is, I in no way want to give up my faith. I am finding Christ's message of reconciliation and love can provide me with a basis for an ongoing relationship with my now ex-husband. Whenever anger and grief seem to be getting the upper hand, I remind myself that, while what I feel is right and even necessary, I can always choose to act on what I believe is Christ's calling. I have discovered that love takes many forms and although love, in the sense of a marriage, has died, love as the hope and expectation of the best for the other person can, surprisingly, spring to life in the most difficult of circumstances. It seems strange to be learning so much in the area of faith, while at the same time being unsure of the God who is the author of that faith. No wonder faith is called a 'mystery'! My answer now to my friend's question 'Is God a man?' is 'I most certainly hope not!' I feel quite a sense of excitement to think that I am on a journey to discover God as I have never known God before.
In the previous reflection, I looked at how my acknowledgement of and journey away from childhood sexual abuse and an abusive marriage relationship has changed my understanding of who God is. I have also been thinking about how the church both 'supported' my marriage and yet in the end, helped free me from it.
Looking back, I can remember two crucial moments when what was said in church had a great impact on my life. (Ministers, be warned; sometimes what you say does make a profound difference to someone in the pews!) But before writing about these two events, I should tell you a little of my faith history.
My family was not a church-going one, but the local Brethren Sunday School was a popular and well-organised event in our area. I attended regularly, picked up by the mother of a Brethren school friend, a woman who seemed to shine in a way I could not explain. Sunday School led to Every Girls Rally and as a young teenager, I became a Christian. Teenage rebellion can take a variety of forms and coming from a liberal, non-church family, my way of defining myself as different was taking myself off to the Brethren meeting each Sunday (somewhat sanctimoniously, it seems in retrospect!). My early understanding of faith was fundamental, exclusive and almost entirely male dominated. Obedience was expected, indeed, demanded, particularly for women. My later church experience ranged across a number of denominations, as I stuck to a policy of attending the church nearest where I was living. My understanding of the Bible became less literal and my view of the Christian life less exclusive, but my Brethren understanding of the 'God-sanctioned' relationship between women and men was fundamentally unchallenged by any of the churches I attended.
The most difficult time in my sixteen year marriage was when my two children were pre-schoolers. Realising I was near breaking point, I asked my husband to take some time off work and arranged to stay for a week with my parents in another town. Being away from my husband, without my children and with my loving parents, gave me a better perspective on the reality of what I was facing at home. I realised that things were so bad that I was actually afraid of going back. Even though I was missing my children greatly, my longing to get back to the children was outweighed by my fear of my husband. For the first time, I considered confiding in my parents who I knew would support me. For the first time, I seriously considered leaving my marriage.
On the Sunday of my visit home, my sister took me to worship at the church she was then attending. It was a lively charismatic Anglican service with beautiful instrumental music. The sermon (given by a male minister) was on marriage and how the model for husband/wife relationships was God's relationship with His church. Essentially, the relationship was portrayed as one of obedience. Problems in the relationship could be 'fixed' by following the model of authority and obedience more faithfully. This was the Godly pattern for marriage and was the basis for the successful relationship between him and his wife. Other models of marriage were not Christian.
I cannot now, of course, remember the exact words he spoke, but I will always remember the sickness of heart as I felt my fledgling hope of escape being crushed. There was not one word in the sermon which affirmed my right to live a life without fear, nothing about a way out when one partner is abusing the other. No mention of the dangers this model of marriage holds for the vulnerable. I felt personally 'preached against from the pulpit'. I felt that by choosing a better life for myself, I would be choosing against God. I went home to my husband, determined to try harder, to be a better, more obedient wife.
The second crucial moment came some years later, during a sermon given in my own church, the Methodist church I still attend. I have no memory of the substance of the sermon, but part way through, almost as an aside, the minister (again a man) leant forward and said conversationally 'Of course, you don't get any extra brownie points from God for being unhappy!' I was stunned. My immediate thought was 'Here I am, sticking with an impossible situation, believing I am doing it for God and He's not giving me any credit for it!' Rather than a welcome relief, the idea that suffering is not a virtue was an uncomfortable one. I felt that a foundation stone of my faith had been shaken. As I walked home, I wondered 'Could it possibly be God's will that I leave my husband?' Deep in my heart I added 'Even if it is God's will, I can't do it'.
But the thought that to leave may be the Godly response did not go away, in spite of my attempts to avoid it. That seemingly chance remark, that God is not pleased by unhappiness, started me on a long process of reevaluation of my understanding of God and of 'Christian marriage'. It was the beginning of my understanding that God desires life for us rather than death, fulfilment rather than fear. That God does not uphold systems that result in the victimization of the vulnerable. That every day, God gives us the gift of a new beginning. That rather than 'rescuing us' (I many times wished that God would rescue me by killing off my husband) God empowers us to be responsible for our own rescues. Out of the death of my marriage has come new life and understanding.
Looking back, the first sermon was a significant factor in
supporting my marriage, a marriage that was not salvageable, and
certainly not by my attempts to be more obedient. It contributed to
another ten years of unhappiness and fear for me. The second
'revelation from the pulpit' although painful at the time, was
the first step to liberation and new life.