We have a dear friend who is a recent convert from a conservative Christian church with Calvinist theology. We were helping her sort through old books one day and she was about to toss a children’s book that she had gotten from her old faith. The book was intended to train children about the gospel and to encourage faithfulness. Out of curiosity, I paged through it. One of the first illustrations I saw was a picture of a stern judge with black robes standing by the bench. The text read:
“God is a fair, but strict, judge.”
I’ll be honest, I was shocked! In this portrayal God seemed austere, distant, and harsh. He relates to us as an accuser or austere judge. It felt frightening and wrong to me. It was anything but inviting.
The book gave more detail:
“He knows our thoughts and secrets and nothing we do can be hidden from Him. God never forgets. He will judge each person according to His sin.”
This is a children’s introduction to their Eternal Father? He is the spy who uses His omniscience to track our misdeeds perfectly? This is supposed to generate hopeful striving and a loving relationship?
But there was more. On the same page, by the picture of a terrible inferno were the words:
“God’s punishment for our sin is death….and never ending suffering in the fire of hell”
This point was supported with sub points:
“Hell is God’s garbage dump for ruined people
“In hell people will experience terrible pain, darkness, hopelessness, and loneliness forever and ever
“Hell separates us from everything that is good and enjoyable.”
This is grim stuff. This invites night terrors more than daytime devotion.
Pounding the Message Home
The authors apparently worried that children might not take the message seriously—so they added a special note: “Parents, please impress upon your children that no drawing is adequate to convey the true horrors and torments of hell.”
Much of the material in this particular Protestant book does not align with the Light of LDS doctrine. Hopefully no Saint would feel good about any book that introduces children to God as a grim judge ready to ship them off to a nightmarish inferno if they make mistakes. And yet sometimes within the Church we, too, can mistakenly portray God as a harsh accuser with a stubborn reluctance to forgive.
A woman I know was investigating the Church and attended a Gospel Essentials class. The teacher instructed the class that, after our death, each of us will sit across a table from God, the great judge. The teacher said that God would be holding a book listing each of our faults and sins. And we would be accountable before a dissatisfied Lord for each and every sin we committed in mortality. He told the class that it was critical that they always follow the commandments and the counsel of Church leaders perfectly because otherwise they would be adding misdeeds to their judgment books. Those entries would remain there forever and God would someday punish us for every misdeed.
There was no mention of the Savior’s atonement, no discussion of the welcome process of repentance and sanctification. He did not even hint at a loving Father who, desiring us to return to Him, enabled a plan in which the Savior stands with us as our advocate (see D&C 45: 3-5).
Sometime we fear that God only loves us as long as we toe the line. We may harbor—and teach to others—a frightening image of a stern judge who casts us off when we mess up; we may imagine a God who no longer wants us home with Him.
Scared to Death
These portrayals of God could make anyone cower. These depictions combined with the reality of our regular and persistent human failing could easily leave anyone feeling desolate and hopeless.
Many people believe that scaring-the-hell-out-of-them is the most sure way to evoke repentance in children (and adults!). I think this idea is both true and false. Scare tactics work with some people some of the time. Even God uses strong language occasionally “that it might work upon the hearts of the children of men, altogether for my name’s glory” (D&C 19:7). It seems that God reserves such stern language for those who are recklessly and thoughtlessly marching toward destruction. This is a desperate call to them by a worried Father. Those marching into darkness are probably not the people who are showing up at church or reading books about the gospel.
I believe that scare-the-hell-out-of-them approaches are counterproductive for most people—especially for those who are most likely to hear them.
They squash hope by portraying God as a relentless bully and us as utterly damaged.
Such messages may also misrepresent core gospel truths! John taught us that “there is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.” Fear and love are enemies. God chooses love. “We love him, because he first loved us” (1 John 4:18-19). And God invites each of us to use love in our efforts to influence each other.
Love is the great motivator. It is the invitation to relationship.
The Restored Message
If I were writing a book to help children (or adults) bind their hearts to God and live godly lives, I would want to help them understand God’s great heart and feel His indescribable love. My favorite stories anywhere are of a God who unexpectedly reaches for stubborn and difficult children.
Think of Alma. Though the son of the prophet leader, he went about trying to destroy the work of God. An angel showed up with an invitation. “Behold, the Lord hath heard the prayers of his people, and also the prayers of his servant, Alma, who is thy father; for he has prayed with much faith concerning thee that thou mightest be brought to the knowledge of the truth; therefore, for this purpose have I come to convince thee of the power and authority of God, that the prayers of his servants might be answered according to their faith” (Mosiah 27:14). This angel was sent not to condemn but to rescue.
This is not what we would expect. We rather expect God to send an advanced case of leprosy for wayward Alma both to humble and punish him. But He didn’t send leprosy. He sent an invitation. What kind of God would send such an inviting message to such an annoying nuisance? Only One who wants to rescue His children! Only One who sees past our mistakes! Only One who loves us.
That is the same message coveyed throughout scripture: the prodigal son, the woman taken in adultery, Simon Peter, the woman in the house of Simon the Pharisee, Zacchaeus, the woman at the well . . ..
He takes my breath away!
The Sure Evidence
Think of His plan of salvation. Essentially God says to everyone who comes to earth, “I will do everything in my power (except the violation of your agency) to win your heart. I will even sacrifice my most cherished Son. I will send prophets to invite you and storms to awaken you. I want to pour blessings on you beyond your comprehension. I want you with Me for eternity.”
“If you repeatedly refuse my invitation and instead choose to do everything unholy, I will still invite you to access the atonement of Christ. If you stubbornly refuse to the end, then I will allow you to satisfy the law of justice with your own suffering. Then, when you are clean, I will place you in a glory that defies your comprehension.”
“Of course those who accept Jesus—even reluctantly—will have far more joy and opportunity.”
“Those who gladly accept Jesus and the Great Plan of Happiness will have joy and glory like My own” (See D&C 76, a love note from Father if ever there was one!).
Judge or Advocate?
Somehow the picture of a stern judge threatening hell at His children doesn’t capture the God I have discovered in scripture and in my own life. The God I have known is One who follows after us steadily inviting us: “Come unto me.” He is not pointing accusingly at us but reaching invitingly. That’s what I see.
I have experienced a God who sent His Son seeking us.
I have experienced a God who sent the Holy Spirit to encourage and inform us.
I see God’s own Son who was nearly crushed under the weight of our sin so that He could lift us above the awful gravity of sin.
I see a God who is using every means to soften our hearts.
I see God sending His Son to bring us to the judgment bar where the focus is not on enumerating our failures but on making those failures irrelevant because of His sacrifice. He offers His sacrifice and faithfulness to satisfy the demands of justice and open the doors of glory.
He asks something so simple: that we strike a deal (i.e., make a covenant) with Him so that His redemptive power can have full sway in our lives and hearts. That–together with an invitation to keep returning to Him—is all He asks.
And He only makes that request so that His goodness can flow into us.
I cannot comprehend such goodness, such lovingness, such graciousness. Yet I have experienced it time and again. I stand all amazed. I weep at His feet. I thank Him.
Thanks to Barbara Keil for her helpful comments on and additions to this article.
You may be interested in Brother Goddard’s books such as Soft-Spoken Parenting, Drawing Heaven into Your Marriage, and Between Parent and Child. For more information about his books or his schedule at Education Week, visit www.FamilyCollege.com