Where does God speak in our world? How does God speak? Whenever you hear a voice that sounds coercive, threatening, overbearing, one that is "in your face," you can be sure that no matter how religious and holy it may claim to be, it is NOT God's voice. God's voice in this world is never coercive or overbearing in any way. It is always an invitation, a beckoning that respects you and your freedom in a way that no human institution or person ever does. God's voice is thoroughly underwhelming : like a baby's presence.
Sadly, whenever someone attempts to point this out there are often angry and bitter objections. What about God's judgment? What about God's condemnation of sin? What about God's anger? On the surface, Scripture might give us the impression that God is sometimes angry, condemning and violent. But these are anthropomorphisms, ways of speaking about God that reveal how we feel about God when we are unfaithful, sinful and violent.
God's voice does judge and condemn, but it judges and condemns not by coercive force but in the same way the innocence of a baby judges false sophistication, in the way that generosity exposes selfishness, in the way that big-heartedness reveals pettiness, in the way that light chases darkness away, and in the way that truth shames lies. God's voice judges us not by overpowering us but by shining love and light into all those places where we find ourselves huddled in fear, shame, bitterness, hostility and sin.
Yet this is not something we learn easily. Already before the birth of Christ, sincere religious people were yearning for God to come into the world in power. What they wanted and prayed for was a physical superstar who would cleanse the world by overpowering sin and evil and rooting them out by force. What they desired in their longed-for Messiah was a morally superior violence that gave evil no options and just force people to be good. What we got instead was a helpless baby in the straw who overpowered no one. Twenty centuries later, we are still struggling to accept this. Too often the Christ we incarnate and preach is still that overpowering Messiah who aims to cleanse the world through flat-out force.
We see this clearly among Islamic extremists who, like well-intentioned Christians back in the time of the Inquisition, sincerely believe that error has no rights and that in God's name we must employ force and violence if necessary to bring about God's will on this earth. In this view, murderous violence may be done to further God's purpose because God wants his will imposed upon the world : whether or not the world wants to accept it. But this is the antithesis of true religion!
We need to see God always as inviting, not forcing. This has immense implications for everything to do with church and religion: from how we preach to how we teach, from how we do Liturgy to how we reach out to the people who don't share our beliefs, from how we approach divisive moral issues to how loud we turn up the sound systems in church. God's voice is not one that is "in our face" whether we like it or not. Instead, God's voice invites us in, beckons to us, leaves us always free. It is as non-threatening as the innocence and powerlessness of a baby : or a saint!
I believe we are too prone within church circles to blame the world's resistance to God's message on the world's hardness of heart, sin and indifference. Partly, that's true; but a large part of that resistance has its root in our own preaching, teaching, pastoral practice, moral fever and exclusions. Too often the voice we assign to God is coercive, threatening, manipulating, violent, harsh, prejudging. It reflects our own fears, our own wounds and our own arrogance; it doesn't bear much resemblance to the divine energy and free invitation that Jesus brings us in his birth, life and message.