Last fall I officiated a funeral for a five-week-old. Matty was a happy, chubby, giggly, and healthy boy who never woke up from a nap. The only medical explanation offered was SIDS, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, which the Mayo Clinic describes as “the unexplained death, usually during sleep, of a seemingly healthy baby less than a year old.”
What Do You Say?
So there I stood, literally standing between two teen parents, three grandparents, and two great grandparents, along with dozens of extended family members, and a 24” coffin. To say the least, they were undone. Their lives felt like the void, the watery abyss that God comes to in Genesis. My roll, to say something about the God who, “was hovering over the surface of the waters.”
In moments like that, what do you say?
What can you say?
How can you echo the divine voice that says, “Let there be light!”
Two weeks ago I posted, Nothing is Evil and Nothing is Evil. In it, I argued that everything belongs and that when our belonging is assaulted we experience the evil of nothingness. But, as one reader asked, does that mean “God is the inflictor of both pain and joy?” In the context of my opening, the reader asked if God is ultimately behind Matty’s death, be it by causing it or allowing it to happen? If so, can we love a God responsible for the death of a child? Can we love a God who is the inflictor of both joy and pain?
As strange as it might sound, it all depends on how you think about the divine. Specifically, do you think of God as object or subject?
God as Object
When God is object God dwells somewhere, typically heaven. The objectified God also does stuff, sort of like a chess player moving pieces on the board. This vision of God involves a personified God who experiences things that happen and then responds, much as you or I would. This is the all-powerful super-being understanding of God.
While this take on God probably sounds incredibly familiar, I am also convinced that unless you mistake fear for love, it renders God terrifying and unloveable. Nowhere is this more clear than the lines we commonly deliver during grief.
God As Object Has A Plan
Imagine walking up to Matty’s mother and saying, “God has a silver lining.” In other words, you tell her that God took the life of her child to accomplish some other presently unseen good. It says God took her through the fear that accompanied the revelation of teen pregnancy before inviting the joy of feeling her son grow inside her. Then this God’s breath mirrored hers as she endured the pain of childbirth before basking with her in the indescribable bliss of her son resting in her arms. After all of this, God snatches the child from her weeks into his young life so … well, that good has yet to be revealed. Supposedly, once it is, that will make it all ok. As if a pile of shit is no longer gross just because someone plants a flower in it.
No, a God who uses a child as nothing but a pawn on the board for God to sacrifice on the way to checkmate is not a God we should love. But that is exactly what God as object does.
God As Object Offers An Escape
Another line we might offer is to tell Matty’s family, “He’s in a better place.” After all, who wouldn’t want to be in the same place as an all-powerful superbeing? But do we believe that? Do we believe there is a better place for an infant child than his mother’s arms?
If we did, then why do we shudder when Amber Pasztor kills her two children and says, “My kids are in a better place. They’re in heaven now. They don’t have no worries no more.” We have the same terrified response to Andrea Yates drowning her five children in the bathtub before “the age of accountability” so there is no chance they might burn in hell. The amazing reality is that there are not more crimes like this within broken Christianity. After all, any parent who genuinely loves and wants what’s best for their child would do the same if they believe in that God. So maybe we don’t find that God as believable as we thought we did.
God As Object Has Needs
Then comes the terrifying line, “He was so good that God wanted him more.” I say “wanted” on purpose. After all, in Genesis, we see a God who takes nothing and makes everything. Does the one who makes everything need anything? Of course not. So if there is no need in God, there is only divine desire. So when we say, “God wanted him more,” we are saying a self-sufficient and fully-satisfied God took a child’s life because of divine want. This is the epitome of greed and selfishness that makes the story of King David taking Bathsheba for himself sound tame. To remix David’s response to Samuel, “The god who has done this deserves to die” (see Samuel 11-12 for the whole story).
This God Is Only Good Sometimes
Ultimately, God as object works when something good happens. There are no injuries in a car accident. We get that new job we desire. The letter about cash payment of child tax credits arrives while debating how we’ll pay July’s bills. We praise God because we feel loved. As we see it, God heard our prayers or responded before we prayed them. In each of these potentially stressful situations, we find ourselves assured that things will be ok.
When prayers go unanswered we seek silver linings. We imagine possible ways that a blessing might appear in the midst of the broken. Perhaps an auto settlement allows the repayment of oppressive debt. Maybe the company that rejected our application will unexpectedly close its doors and save us from a season of unemployment. Whatever the case, when we view God as object then everything bad was either caused or allowed to pave the way for something good.
Without a reason to make sense of tragedy, the certainty of our belovedness begins to erode. The objectified God who chooses not to act quickly becomes the God who acts against us. Before long, we cannot help but wonder what we did to deserve God’s scorn. We find ourselves convinced that for some reason, God killed Matty … and that God is not one we should love.
No, we need another way to think about God. We need to see God as subject.
Note: For the sake of privacy I changed the name of the child.
Typically, resources help you delve more into the week’s topic. But I don’t think we need any more God as object. So instead, this week, I’m offering three resources that might prompt you to start thinking about God differently.
Movie: The Shack (adapted by the book from William Paul Young)
William Paul Young wrote The Shack (affiliate) for his kids and it turned into a national best seller. I recommend the movie version here because the visual of God the Father as a Black woman pushes us to think of God differently. It breaks down God as object and opens the door for God as subject.
Devotion: Take Your Place at the Table by Richard Rohr
If God is fully satisfied and content within God’s self, then what is it that God desires? You! Enjoy this delightful reflection on your invitation to the divine table.
Book: The Divine Dance (affiliate) by Richard Rohr
I was first invited to think of God as subject while working on my master’s degree through the book God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life. There, instead of talking about object and subject, we talked about the essence of God versus the story of God. That said, it is a rather scholarly book and a little accessible for most readers. But it did inspire Richard Rohr to write the much more readable, The Divine Dance!
Keep a list this week of every instance where you think of God as object. Hold onto it, because we’ll use it in next week’s action.
I’m guessing it’s obvious at this point, but next week, we’re going to explore God as object.