Who, Me? A Missionary Disciple?

“Don’t be so bossy! Do you think you’re God?”; “What did I do to deserve this?”; “God will provide.” Whether we realize it or not, these and other spontaneous expressions are forms of missionary activity. Conveying hints of our fundamental intuition of God, they give a religious message. These intuitions beyond feelings, sense or thought are already caught in infancy and are imprinted on our souls by our early childhood environment. As we develop, these intuitions become concretized in certain images of God, either negative or positive, such as dictator, punisher or provider. These God-images undergird our own self-image, purpose in life, attitude toward others; in fact, the entire meaning of life.

The critical importance of our image of God is borne out by doctors who have noted that cancer patients who consider their illness to be a punishment from God are less likely to recover well than those who aren’t carrying burdens of guilt. A veteran psychiatrist became convinced that the mental illness of her patients was rooted primarily in a faulty image of God, of which they were usually unaware.

Pope Francis often reminds us that by our baptism we are called to be “missionary disciples”. But what sort of missionary disciples are we in reality? What idea or image of God do we convey in our casual comments and spontaneous reactions? Pope Francis emphasized, “The missionary disciple has, first of all, a center which is the person of Jesus.” He is our point of reference. Jesus might be likened to a prism through which the light of divine love is refracted into numerous colors or aspects of God’s self-expression. Jesus is the “exact imprint of God’s very being” (Heb. 1-3), “the visible image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). In his life, teachings, actions and relationships, we see various images of God shining through, for example, God as authoritative teacher, active director of history, intimate presence, transformative agent and paradoxical mystery. In us, each of these images can generate blessings and pitfalls, thus harboring possibilities for positive or negative missionary endeavors.

In this and 3 following articles, we will consider some of these God-images as reflected in the life of Jesus and invite readers to consider which of these primarily undergirds their own modes of discipleship.

If our deepest intuition of God is that of truth we will likely relate most readily to the image of God as source of wisdom and authoritative teacher. In the gospels, Jesus is often called “teacher”, and is said to have taught “as one having authority” (Mt. 7:28). He taught doctrine, morals and “life in abundance” (Jn. 10:10). One blessing of this concept is that it creates a thirst for greater knowledge and deeper understanding of spiritual truths. The more one ponders gospel stories, metaphors and symbols, the more one encounters the person of Jesus as “the truth” (Jn 14:6). This God-image will appeal to open, inquiring minds, but may also foster the tendency to seek absolute certainty based on one’s need to be right. On the downside, this tendency can lock one into narrow understandings of central beliefs such as the Incarnation and lead to rigid stances on less central teachings like liturgical practices.

Second, if our most basic intuition of God is that of powerful, our spirituality may be rooted in God as the director of human history, a kind of CEO of the world. Jesus revealed the power of God through his victory over cosmic forces of evil (driving out demons in Mk 5:8), nature (calming a storm in Mk 4:39), illness (curing a leper in Lk 5:13), and death (raising persons from the dead in Mk 5:41 etc.). A blessing of this intuition is a deep confidence in Divine Providence actively involved in human history and individual lives. God will be trusted as wanting the best for us, accompanying us in our suffering, and bringing positive outcomes from negative events as though “writing straight with crooked lines.” An inherent pitfall is that God can be blamed for every tragedy or unhappy experience. (Why are natural disasters called “Acts of God”?) One might even believe that God inflicts pain as revenge or punishment. In the story of the man born blind, Jesus made it clear that “neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (Jn. 9:3).

A third intuition of God may be that of intimate, experienced by God’s divine indwelling as the guest of our soul. Jesus said to his disciples, “Abide in me as I abide in you” (Jn. 15:4) and “Abide in my love” (Jn. 15: 9). He called his disciples “friends” (Jn. 15:15) and 3 times asked Peter whether he loved him (Jn. 21: 15-17). A blessing of this God-concept is a fundamental sense of closeness with our loving God, instilling in one’s soul a joy beyond all telling. “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (Jn. 15:11). Bestowing a peace “the world cannot give” (Jn. 14:27), this God-concept tenderizes our hearts to recognize God’s action even within everyday experiences. Awareness of the Triune God as our loving inner companion in the events of daily life will lead to reverence for God’s creative energy constantly at work in all of creation. A pitfall might be the formation of a God-concept shaped by one’s craving for love, thus making God too private, small or soft. We live with the paradox of being the Beloved of God, yet being summoned daily to take up our cross.

Fourth, we may sense God as the transformative agent in our lives. While loving us unconditionally, God also challenges us to grow as loving human beings. Accepting us as forgiven sinners, God strengthens us to become more generous, compassionate and forgiving. For example, Jesus addressed Zaccheus personally and issued a challenge to him: “Hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today” (Lk 19:5). Zaccheus, in response, became a changed man. He promised to give half of his possessions to the poor and to make up fourfold with anyone he had wronged (Lk 19:8). A blessing of this God-concept may be a constant awareness of God’s strength and support embedded in the call to grow in virtuous living. A possible pitfall may be an over-preoccupation with avoidance of sin, thus fostering negative egocentricity. One may even come to believe that we earn our salvation by our own efforts. A true missionary disciple will balance the struggles of self-improvement with the consolation of knowing that Jesus befriended sinners. Salvation is a gift!

A fifth intuition of God may be that of paradoxical mystery. How can we wrap our heads around the All-Holy One being an infant in the manger (Lk. 2:12) and being sentenced as a criminal to death by crucifixion (Lk 23: 21)? One resonates with the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, “God is beyond the comprehension of every mind whatsoever.” A blessing of this God-concept is a deep sense of awe and reverence before the Almighty One whose greatness and majesty is utterly beyond our imagining. A pitfall may be that of regarding God as too distant from our lives, possibly even as a cold and unfeeling “Unmoved Mover.” The good news of God’s love may be perceived as being too good to be true. The authentic missionary disciple will accept that, as limited human beings, we walk by faith, humbly relying on God’s infinite mercy as we journey through life in the shadows of mystery and the unknown.

These are just some of the divine colors or images of God that we see in the person and life of Jesus, the “exact imprint of God’s very being.” Ideally, the reader will relate to all 5 images of God. However, it’s likely that a particular image will touch one’s heart more deeply, however slightly, depending on which primary intuition of God is embedded in the core of one’s being.

As true missionary disciples of the Lord Jesus, the essential image of God we convey first and foremost is “God is Love” (1Jn. 4:17). Through prayerful reflection upon the gospels and participation in sacramental celebrations, our missionary discipleship becomes more authentic. We “bless the Lord” when we express, however casually, images of God as “caring authoritative teacher,” “liberating director of human history,” “loving intimate presence,” tender transformative agent,” or “gracious paradoxical mystery.”

Although our God-image may undergo changes over time, it is important to be aware of our basic intuition of God. Does our current image of the Triune God match any of the images of God expressed in the life in Jesus? Or does our deeply-rooted concept of God arise from a different source? If so, from where or whom? As Oblate theologian, Fr. Ron Rolheiser, advised, “Whatever you do, don’t make God look stupid.”

In the next issue, some considerations will be offered regarding the beliefs that are embodied in each image of God. These underlie our spontaneous reactions; the remarks we make to our children; and the casual comments we drop in conversations over coffee.