I hate recommending things to my friends. It makes me too nervous.
When you’ve been raving about a favourite film or TV programme and a friend sits down to watch it, there’s that moment of panic as you start to see it through their eyes. You hear the jokes in a different way, suddenly realising maybe it’s not quite their sense of humour.
Or when you introduce a new person into a group of friends, you see them through the eyes of the group. You wince as they make a slightly awkward comment, you see their annoying mannerisms in a whole new light, because know what the group will pick up on and judge.
It’s the same for me with church. When a friend comes with me to church, I experience it all through their eyes and ears. I become super-sensitive to anything that they might hear as offensive, that might be taken wrongly without an explanation, that reinforces stereotypes I want to break free from. I notice the over-friendliness or under-friendliness of people where I’d be oblivious normally. I hear words of songs as if I’ve never sung them before. And there are some that I really wish weren’t there.
This song produces those moments.
“Our God is greater, our God is stronger.”
I imagine there are very different possible reactions to those words. For some, this is close to the essence of Christian faith. As soon as you begin to question words like these, you’re getting dangerously close to a kind of pluralism that denies the distinctiveness of the Trinity and the unique revelation of God in Christ.
For others, these are outright offensive words. Arrogant. Ignorant. Intolerant. An ugly attitude that belittles the expressions of faith of any other religion, and sets up Western Christianity as superior to any non-Western religious tradition.
I’ve been torn, because I feel both. My emotional reaction to that song, and that line in particular, is a mess of contradiction.
It troubles me on one level because of the comparatives: why are Christians, who believe that only one God exists, be so keen to appropriate this language that comes from parts of the Old Testament written before Israelite religion was strictly monotheistic and would be better described as henotheism? Why do we encourage ourselves to feel triumphant over Gods we don’t even believe exist? There’s something that feels very uncomfortable about that.
But it’s not really those words I’d want to change. I do believe God is greater, and stronger, than anything else that could possibly exist. If we’re to take Anselm as his word, it’s the very definition of God. I do believe in one God, and that these words are an appropriate description of God (even if they’re not the words I would personally choose).
It’s the our that gets me. Our God is greater, our God is stronger. There’s a sense of exclusive possession in it which I don’t think I’m imagining. The emphasis on God as belonging to one group of people over any others is something which is strong within denominations, congregations, and even small groups of Christians. It’s what binds us together, what makes us feel part of something significant. We can feel confident in our church community being right, because God is our God.
God is our God. We pray to our Father in heaven. Our Father who is “God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Eph. 4:6) Our Father, in whom “we live and move and have our being”. (Acts 17:28).
God is not the God of the elite, belonging to our small club. God is the God of the universe, of all life, of the whole earth and everything in it. I think I’m happy singing “our God”, only as far as I’m confident that I’m happy including everyone in that our. As soon as I catch myself feeling that kind of exclusive possessiveness that makes those words sound so ugly to most people, I’ll need to stop singing it.
God is not my God any more than he is yours, and if I’m ever tempted to impose restrictions on that you, then I’ve got God wrong all together.
(P.S. – When this was all on my mind a couple of years ago, I wrote a poem about it. Here, if you’re interested.)