I received a letter from a Muslim brother of mine recently. He’s sort of in the same place I am spiritually, journeying and questioning, although he’s in Islam. To put the blogs that I will be referring to in context, tragedy struck a member of my family. It’s tough to wrestle with the basic tenets of your faith: the whole “love your enemies” thing seems pretty good on paper until you are confronted with it face to face. Anyway, here is an excerpt from his letter:

So, like I said, the tone of the article really invoked that initial response. Which is a good thing, because it sparked self-reflection, which is what, I would think was the purpose of his words. Nevertheless, your comments in regards to Wrath’s article were, I thought, right on point. As a matter of fact, I was teaching on the salient points of your remarks today during the leadership class I teach to my leadership committee. You mentioned that while Christians focus in on the aspect of God’s love, that some tend to forget or negate the very real aspect of God’s wrath. And God’s wrath is not something that is very pretty.

This holds true for Muslims as well. Often, especially non-Muslims looking at Islamic beliefs will focus in on the concept of taqwa – which is the fear of Allah. And so you will have this discussion on how “the Muslim God” is one of hate, trepidation, etc. (while the Christian god is one of love).

But the fact of the matter is that taqwa, the fear of Allah, is a very real and necessary component of development in a Muslim’s path. Taqwa is an understanding that there are consequences, really serious consequences (i.e. the hellfire), to our actions. And the Hellfire is something that a person should really be afraid of.

On the other hand, there is a balancing factor to this idea of the fear of Allah, and that is a concept called ishan – which is the love of Allah. This is a stage of development where the believer begins to understand the necessity/utility of conducting oneself in order to attain the pleasure of Allah, or that God will look upon us favorably. This is when one begins to conduct oneself in a manner not because he feels he has to, but rather because he wants to.

It’s when you take these concepts as a whole, that you begin to get a better picture of the walk that we should be on and the level of achievement we should be striving for.

Whew! I thought that we were the only ones who wrestled with a schizophrenic view of God. Too often I deal with people who have one of two ideas of how God deals with them:
1) He’s this cosmic genie doling out blessings like some sort of Santa in the sky (and our faith is reduced to being like little children hopping in his lap to curry favor/ask for stuff).
2) He’s this figure behind the bushes waiting for us to screw up so He can jump out, yell “ah-ha”, and lay the smite down (and we live in fear of this bully, though he’s supposedly bullying us for our own good).

Let’s face it, this “love me or else hellfire” God isn’t someone I want to get to know better. I don’t want to deepen a relationship under the threat of punishment if I don’t. Threats are conducive to me having to do something, not wanting to do something. Is this the message we are sending out about who God is and what He’s about?

The flip side isn’t any better. Many people struggled with the dilemma of finding an acceptable theodicy for the horrors that they sees during the course of a lifetime, or even a random reading of any given day’s newspaper. A theodicy, simply put, was when man attempts to justify God or explain suffering. Commonly, it addressed a problem called “the problem of evil”: if God is good, and all-powerful, why does evil exist? Though it seemed like a common stumbling block to believing in God’s existence, in the history of philosophical thought, this was a fairly recent development. The whole problem of evil is the logical result of this shift of emphasis of how we view God’s character.

In the last couple hundred years, the image of God as both good and severe, a God that fit readily into our (Old Testament kind of) paradigm, was gradually replaced with that of a one-dimensional, only-good God. The whole God = Love, as in Love is the only dimension of who He is, has its own set of problems. So of course people couldn’t reconcile how a supposedly good God allowed horrible things to happen, especially to the most innocent among us.

We forget that God is also holy. And, like Aslan, the lion from C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, we need the occasional reminder that there is a (righteous) fearful element to holiness. “Make sure you stay alert to these qualities of gentle kindness and ruthless severity that exist side by side in God” (Romans 11:22a, The Message version). This idea isn’t comfortable, but it’s good to wrestle with.

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