Humans are quick to misunderstand, to read situations in a negative light, defending their own egos at the expense of others. As a minister I encountered people from time to time who developed a negative opinion of me if I had not done what they expected. Then they cut me off and had nothing to do with me. I was left bewildered as to what I had done to offend the person. The psychological mechanism at work is called projection, where people defend themselves against their own unacceptable attributes by projecting them onto others. It is easier to see the enemy as someone other than our own self. When our enemies are the tendencies within ourselves, then we must do the work of facing them and resolving them. It may be painful work because it means letting go of our illusions and accepting what is real. Indeed, we are often our own worst enemies.
The same mechanism is at work in our relationship with God. If we are very hard on ourselves, punishing ourselves for not being the kind of person we would like to be, it is common to project such a punitive image onto God. Or if we believe that life is a system of rewards for being good and punishments for being bad, it is common to see God as a kind of cosmic Santa Claus. I’ve been re-reading Paul’s Letter to the Romans where one of Paul’s central concerns was the way humans have gotten God wrong. We constantly misread God – seeing condemnation and punishment where there is really grace and mercy. This misreading leads us into trusting in our own devices and desires, rather than trusting God. Thus, Paul proclaims the good news of Jesus to be an invitation to trust God as the center of life, not to make ourselves the center. Faith is really a matter of trust. As creatures we must trust in someone or something, but we often choose creatures rather than the Creator. It is hubris to believe that we are gods in control of our own destiny. God is the only one who controls our destiny. So Paul declares in Romans 8:28, “we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose”.
Paul faces the issue that we are often our own worst enemies when he declares in 8:39 that there is “nothing in all creation which can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” “Nothing in all creation” includes ourselves. In other words even our own tendency to misread God will not prevail over God’s love for us.
Paul Achtemeier’s Commentary on Romans in the Interpretation series (1985, John Knox Press) was very helpful in understanding the overall message of Romans. Since he was writing in the early eighties he did not deal with the texts about homosexuality in a helpful way, when few enlightened views were abroad. A compassionate view of those texts sees the Apostle Paul condemning “unnatural sexual behavior” as abusive and irresponsible behavior, whether homo- or hetero-sexual. Faithful, loving monogamous marriage relationships are the natural order created by God and these may be homosexual as well as heterosexual. If one sees homosexuality as natural, a gift of nature, then it does not fall under Paul’s condemnation of “unnatural sex”. If we persist in misreading Paul and demonizing gays and lesbians, seeing God as vindictive, we have once again projected our own fears onto others and onto God.