Saturday, October 12, 2013

God: Almighty or All-loving?

Recent reading for an upper-level Spanish class, the author contrasted an all-loving God with an almighty one. I did a straw poll of my 14 students on which best describes their perception of God. Thirteen responded with all-loving, while only one said almighty.

What a contrast from the perception of God with which I grew up, and I suspect many of my contemporaries. Fueled by an authoritarian father and a strict church discipline, I imagined an almighty God sitting on his throne watching my every move. Any misstep and he would zap me, if not immediately, surely at the final judgment. The resulting guilt was exploited by regular revival meetings leading me down the sawdust trail many times as a pre-teen and a teenager.

Henri Nouwen grew up in a similar environment (without the revivals) and openly wrote about his search for acceptance and love from God. Over and over again in his writings and sermons he repeats the mantra, “You are beloved of God.” His books have sold millions. After the Bible, both Protestant and Catholic pastors consult Nouwen above any other writer. Apparently Nouwen’s message has gotten through to this generation of students.

How did this happen? When I was growing up, I never heard the words “I love you” from my parents. Even though many of their actions showed me their love, it was never stated. In bringing up our children, my generation went the other way. I love you here, I love you there, and I love you everywhere. In fact I heard the story of a young adult child who said to their parent, “Ok, I know you love me, but you say it so often that it doesn’t mean anything anymore.”  

Have all-loving parents turned our perception of God into an all-loving one? Does this explain the “anything goes” attitude so prevalent in our society even among Christians? God loves me, like the Prodigal son, so no matter what I do, God will still love me. This is a subject for another time.

One could ask whether Nouwen’s books will have as much appeal to this generation as they did to mine. Interestingly, I think they will. Not only did Nouwen write about his struggle with feeling loved, he also wrote about feeling inadequate in spite of having taught at Harvard, Yale and Notre Dame and being a highly successful writer.

While this generation has heard the message of all-encompassing love from their parents and perceive an all-loving God, their society tells them that they are inadequate. Through advertising, they are told that they are not pretty enough, they are not talented enough, they are not athletic enough, they need the latest in every new form of technology, and that they are not successful enough in their careers. Social media shows them how everyone else in the world is doing so well while I am wallowing in self pity. They are forced to compare themselves constantly with their peers. So I think Nouwen’s books will speak to this generation as well.

However, the question stills remains, is God almighty or all-loving? I think God is both. We need a sense of a being beyond ourselves that has not only created the universe, but has also set up universal laws that when disobeyed cause problems. Within these immutable laws, there is a sense of right and wrong. God is just. On the other hand, God is all-loving. God extends unlimited grace if we acknowledge our need of it. God is both almighty and all-loving. God is both just and merciful.

What is your perception of God on the almighty to all-loving continuum? 


  1. I agree completely that it is important to remember that God is both. However, I also think it is valuable to make sure you are defining justice via love. Otherwise you end up in a position where they do seem opposite, as we default to an angry and retributive definition of justice. Many Christians start with justice/holiness as the main characteristic of God, defining that as retribution/violent punishment of sin, and then try to figure out how a loving God can do that. This God usually ends up a tad schizophrenic, sometimes showing mercy and other times lashing out to throw people into Hell, with no obvious reason why. If we see justice as one element of God's love, though, we get to a much better understanding of justice as well as of love.

  2. Ryan, Thank you so much for your comments. I agree with your caution. I understand that the Hebrew understanding of justice, right relationships, is quite different from the Roman view of justice which is how it is mostly understood in our day. Is the Hebrew view of justice the direction you are heading with your comments?

    One student in the class made the observation that she thinks God is almighty while Jesus is all-loving. Interesting observation, though I'm not willing to split things this way.

    Thanks again for your comments.