Misperceptions

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 Apostle Paul by Rembrandt

The Apostle Paul by Rembrandt

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.

About John Fisk

I am a retired pastor, who served churches in New England for 33 years. I emigrated to the USA from England in 1974 and completed two graduate degrees in theology and pastoral practice at Andover-NewtonTheological School. In retirement I am focused on the teaching of Christian meditation, providing spiritual guidance, leading retreats and occasional preaching. I am particularly interested in contemplation, the mystical path and social justice.
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5 Responses to Misperceptions

  1. Nancy Hetherington says:

    Very well said. As always. Nancy H

  2. Wendy Oliver says:

    John, how I wish that everyone who is homophobic could read your text. It’s painful to hear anyone, but particularly when speaking it as “gospel,” judge one of God’s children as a sinner, unequal, undeserving, when that child of God was made just as God intended. Thank you for your wonderful writing!

  3. Richard Dooley says:

    I attended another church other than my home church this morning and therefore I missed you speaking as guest minister at my home church this morning. However a fellow member emailed me a short review and told me to check out your website. After a quick survey I found this short article was quite taken aback by the narrow mindedness of this post.
    How could you use such a bigoted and exclusive term as “monogamous” and associate it as the only “natural” expression of human sexuality. Where is the biblical declaration of monogamy as natural? Adultery is surely wrong but what of marriage to multiple persons? How is it that David, a documented polygamous man, can be a man after God’s own heart if as you say “monogamous marriage relationships are the natural order created by God”? What of Jacob whom Paul reiterates in Romans is loved by God? He had children by four women, two wives and two servants. Is it not a very natural state for men to desire more than one sexual partner?
    You also state very narrowly “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.” How have you not projected fear on bisexuals by leaving them out of your statement. Where is there “natural” sexual outlet in your unnatural imposing of monogamy on them? Truly bisexual persons will be left half satisfied by imposing an one partner limit that is unnatural for them.
    Before you think I am seriously advocating for these above positions, you should know I am trying to be true to this verse of scripture.
    Proverbs 26:5 Answer a fool according to his folly,or he will be wise in his own eyes.
    God’s story of humanity is a hetero-sexual story, it is in all the books of the bible. I takes some serious mental gymnastics to turn it in to anything but that.
    May God have mercy on us both.
    Richard Dooley

    • John Fisk says:

      Mr. Dooley:
      I agree that heterosexual monogamy has been the norm in the Christian Church, but I see no reason why the Church cannot be generous and loving and expand that to include gay people who wish to be married in a Christian ceremony. One of the chief criticisms of Jesus was that he consorted with and welcomed people who lived on the margins of society. I believe that Paul’s awareness of homosexuality in his time was limited to abusive relationships and did not take into account loving relationships between adults. I can witness that some of the most dedicated Christians I have known have been gay. Who am I to close my heart and mind to those whom the Holy Spirit has welcomed?

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