Myths of a Mean God

In the beloved Christmas movie Home Alone, eight-year-old Kevin believes a rumor that a neighbor, Old Man Marley, is mean and cruel and might even have killed people. So during much of the movie, Kevin avoids Marley, and runs away when he finds himself too close to the old man. But by the end of the movie, Kevin actually gets to know Marley, and finds out that the man is not so mean after all.

Humans have always been susceptible to rumors that God is mean. According to the Bible, it’s been that way since the first man and woman. In a conversation with a tempting serpent, the woman characterized God’s command as a bit more strict than it actually was. And when the serpent suggested that God was being selfish, and that God’s command was keeping something good and powerful from them, the human couple believed him–perhaps not fully, but enough to give the forbidden fruit a try.

The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat the fruit from the trees in the garden. But about the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden, God said, ‘You must not eat it or touch it, or you will die.’”
     “No! You will not die,” the serpent said to the woman. “In fact, God knows that when you eat it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
     The woman saw that the tree was good for food and delightful to look at, and that it was desirable for obtaining wisdom. So she took some of its fruit and ate it; she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. (Genesis 3:2-5 CSB)

With one bite of that fruit, the couple let loose the curse of sin on themselves and God’s creation. Before they sinned, humans were susceptible to the suggestion that God was mean; but after they sinned, that suggestion hardened into assumption and became the default way that humans look at God.

Why is this so? Why do we believe so easily that God is mean, and (like Kevin with Old Man Marley) so often run away when he shows up in our lives?

Perhaps it’s because God’s attitude towards sin is unyielding, which is such a foreign approach for us. Every day, we are tempted by sin and swim in a sea of thoughts and actions that are sinful to varying degrees. We often see sin as fun, or daring, or excusable given the circumstances. And we get all googly-eyed looking at what sin offers: pleasure, power, avoidance of pain, or a shortcut to money or status.

But God rejects sin absolutely and completely. He makes no compromise and opens no negotiations with sin. God sees sin as what it really is: a killer, a leech, a destroyer. It’s a monster that wants to pounce and suck out every vestige of life from our souls, and then it wants to use us to spread its destructive seed into countless other lives.

Once I was alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life again and I died. The commandment that was meant for life resulted in death for me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me, and through it killed me. (Romans 7:9-10 CSB)

Sin is as ugly as death, and we have all felt its lethal bite. But instead of remembering and running away in horror, we often flirt and play with sin like a pet. We keep thinking we can manage to keep it contained and have our fun without suffering the consequences. We are deceived; but God is not. God wants to destroy sin. And because of this, we think God mean.

The instant we embraced sin, it became entwined in us tighter than we can imagine. God doesn’t want sin to hurt us or anyone else. But unless we can somehow be parted from our sin safely, then when God destroys sin, he will destroy us.

The only remedy to this hopeless situation is the good news of Jesus. When Jesus came and people actually met God in the flesh, they found out something surprising: God was not mean. Everyday people flocked to Jesus and loved being around him and hearing him teach. Jesus’s critics actually accused him of being a “friend of sinners.” Apparently they thought he wasn’t being mean enough!

Jesus was truthful about sin, though. Jesus taught standards about sin that were much higher than those of the religious leaders (Matthew 5:17-48). Jesus urged complete avoidance of sin, while acknowledging that no one, besides God, actually does this. But Jesus knew that he would slay the monster of sin when he went to the cross, and that he would provide a way for those who believed in him to be delivered from the death-grip of sin.

If we’ve believed in Jesus, we still won’t like it when God shows us the ugliness of our sin. And we really won’t enjoy it when God gets to work pulling sin out of our renewed lives. But the good news keeps reminding us of God’s heart even in that process, and if we are tempted to think of God as mean, all we really need to do is look at the cross.

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