[This column was first published in the Zimbabwe Sunday Mail on 13th November 2016.]
It was several years since I last ordered pizza.
An attempt to cut down on saturated fats, processed meats and an excess of salt led me away from the doughy circles since I started my campaign to lose weight in 2011 and it was in a desperate, weak moment a few months ago that I searched online for a local pizza parlour that delivered.
Back when my metabolism was quick enough that I could do more than look at food before putting on weight I became very familiar with pizza menus. Typically there’d be a few standard pizzas and a few optional toppings (“Ham and pineapple with chicken please” / “Chicken?!” / “Yes, chicken. Thanks.” / “Chicken…er…OK then…”). Apparently they weren’t too keen on mixing the poultry with the porcine but I liked it.
This time, the online ordering system was bewildering in its array of choices. Not only were there about five different crusts on offer but I could say whether I wanted ‘Less’, ‘Normal’, ‘Double’, ‘Triple’…or even no cheese at all. The option was there in fact, to de-
pizza pizza, to rob it of one of its most fundamental virtues: the need to drag strings of cheese into your mouth with your lips like a demented giraffe.
It wouldn’t be fair to say that in the modern world we’ve just started to do to God what we can do to pizzas; people have been customising God since time began – they just do it in different ways. Back in New Testament days a lot of new converts to Christianity in Greece were very happy to learn that they could have all their sins forgiven because of what Jesus did on the cross. What they weren’t so happy about is that apparently this new religion demanded that they stopped their regular habit of sleeping with prostitutes. So they decided to de-God God. They said that actually their old idol-worshipping religion had some good points to it – especially the sleeping with prostitutes part – so they’d keep that. Then they’d bolt on Paul the Apostle’s message of grace and forgiveness and hurrah, there you have it: the perfect religion of Jesus.
In the West the customised version of God can be seen in a variety of ways. It is still the case for example that most images of Jesus are of a blue-eyed white man. Recently in Sunday School I was supervising a group of children – most of them dark-skinned – as they coloured a picture from a Bible scene that included a picture of Jesus. I saw one of the children – of clearly African descent – pick up the light pink crayon to colour in Jesus, and I felt I needed to intervene.
“You know Jesus was black, right? He didn’t look like me – he looked a lot more like you.”
“No, he was white.”
“Why do you think that?”
“I saw it on television.”
I’m sure in the minds of people who create those kinds of images that they think they’re doing a good thing – making God more relatable to white people by pretending that Jesus was white. After all, we all gravitate to people who we think are quite like us, and tend to
be more cautious around people who we think are different. And the more different they are, the less likely we are to approach them voluntarily, and the more likely we are to fear or be suspicious of them. The tragedy of this lie is that it helps to create and perpetuate racism in white communities, turning Jesus and white people into “us” and black people into “them”.
But the instinct to customise God or to make God in our image, is common to people all over the world and usually has nothing to do with drawings or imagery. We all like to think that there is a higher power who agrees with us, who shares our views and our priorities, and especially a god who wants the exact same things for us that we want for ourselves – who thinks that we need what we think that we need.
Are you a lonely person? Then make God your buddy.
Are you struggling with sickness? Then make God all about physical healing.
Are you tense and stressed? Then make God all about feeling calm.
Are you poor? Then make God all about wealth.
Actually there’s truth in those first three things – the only total lie in those four statements is the last one, and tragically it’s the one that may be ruining most people’s lives, especially in Africa, and certainly in Zimbabwe – taking millions away from God while a few people are made rich at their expense, peddling the false hope of a weak and empty gospel.
Of course there’s nothing wrong with asking God to help you get out of poverty and it’s our duty to try and provide for our families, but the idea that God wants us all to be wealthy if only we have enough faith or hard work, or that our happiness depends on having a lot of money – that’s an idea that’s straight outta hell.
Jesus was poor, the disciples were poor, the apostles – all of them – were poor, sometimes to the extent that they barely had enough food to put on their plate. Paul the Apostle even refused financial assistance from some churches because he was so worried that people would accuse him of preaching to make himself rich like so many false teachers in his day.
Nowhere is there even a hint that there was something wrong with their poverty, or that God had let them down, or that wealth mattered to them at all. Their concerns were: do people love God? Are souls being saved from sin?
So when you see preachers today boasting of their wealth and trying to get you obsessed with gaining wealth of your own, they look nothing like anyone in the Bible. The message they preach does not come from the Bible and it has nothing to do with God.
On the contrary, God promises his people suffering and hardship and he demands their generosity, and just because we want something different doesn’t mean that God agrees with you or is going to give it to you. Right now, I’d like my back to hurt less, and I pray in faith that it will. If it does, I will thank God and my chiropractor for healing. If it doesn’t, I pray that God will use my pain to teach me to rely more on him rather than a pain-free life. After all, Paul the Apostle prayed for God to take away his chronic pain…and God said no, so I’d be in good company.
Don’t fall for the lie that you can treat God like a customisable pizza.
Don’t imagine that God looks and thinks and wants just like you.
Don’t’ reduce the great and glorious promises of eternal life to a sordid pursuit of money and the false promises of rich men.
Instead, be like the apostles and disciples: pursue God himself; love him, trust him, worship him, serve him…and one day you will inherit the earth and reign forever with Jesus in glory.