Overusing God?

Overusing God? What could that mean? A momentary struggle with that phrase led me to wonder and to worship.

I learned a long time back that our language not only reflects our thoughts, but also shapes them. For example, if we think “friend” as our default language, we’ll begin with a positive attitude toward another person. But if we go around presuming the term “enemy,” our initial response to someone will be the opposite. Likewise, I resolved not to assume the word “he” and “him” for other people or for God –and particularly for God, so I would be open to other images and similes for The Divine.

My decision was reinforced when I learned more about the personal name God gave to Moses centuries ago at the burning bush.1 The traditional substitute phrase that most English Bibles use is “I Am That I Am.” But renowned Hebrew linguist Frank Moore Cross2 determined that the name is actually a verb phrase, which means “He who begets [or] gives birth to all that is alive [or] becoming.”

Eagle Nebula M16 “Pillars of Creation,” from Hubble Telescope

Okay, so that can sound esoteric. But learning that the name was a verb phrase had a profound effect on me. Millions of Christians and millions of others have long known that the Creator of the Cosmos (there’s another phrase for God) cannot be restricted to a human gender, or to anything or anyone on a human scale. It also implies a lot not only about God, but also about the quality and focus we are meant to express through our living.3

Nevertheless, we human beings still strive to speak and write about the “God of Many Names,”4 don’t we? It’s part of who we are to want to give words to the Mystery beyond and within all that is alive, from the interactions of quarks inside elementary particles of matter, to the thousands upon thousands of dense nebulae inside galaxies which are called “nurseries of the stars.”

So when my excellent editor told me I was overusing the word God in my book manuscript, I paused for an instant or two. First of all, she was right: it’s not good when you repeat a word three or more times in a single paragraph. But second, what could I use instead? I was not going to fall back into automatic “He” and “Him.”

Aha! I could use any of the myriad descriptions people have used across history, such as Sovereign, Creator, Forgiver, Sustainer, Redeemer, or Ancient of Days. The Bible used a lot of alternate phrases, including Spirit, The Alpha and the Omega (Greek for “A to Z”), Living Water, Divine Advocate, or Sun of Righteousness. But once I got going, I recalled names from hymns, songs, and elsewhere, such as Our Covenant God, the Artist of the Universe, the Holy Mystery, the Giver of Grace, and Wisdom Without End. Or what about other images that prompt us to think of the greatness of God? Like Music of the Spheres, which evokes both the Song within our hearts and the One who composes and sings it through all of creation. Or The Womb of Time, which invites us to reach beyond human bounds, into the space-time dimension. Or how about Liberator of the Exodus and the Empty Tomb, or Joy of the Prophets, or Bringer of Law and Grace.

The list could go on. I ran out of book manuscript before I ran out of possible words. But in the process I was reminded that whatever words I use, they are not enough. Not enough for Love Incarnate. Not enough for what my creature’s brain or heart can express.

I end up in silence, beyond words. In wonder. In awe. In worship.

Your partner in faith,
Betsy Schwarzentraub

1 – See Exodus 3:13-15. For about forty years I honored God by saying the name out loud, with “ah” and a soft “e” in between the consonants Y-HW-H. I had good theological reasons for doing that: through Christ, God has declared nothing profane anymore. But for decades since then, I’ve chosen to honor God by not saying the name. That’s the practice of most Jews. They substitute a specific lesser honorific, or a phrase like “G_d” or “the Name.” Again, there are some good reasons for not pronouncing it. I often say “the Sacred Name” instead. It reminds me to honor the Sovereign God, whatever way I express it.

2 – Frank Cross was a distinguished Bible scholar who taught at Harvard Divinity School for thirty-four years after teaching at Johns Hopkins University, Wellesley College, and McCormick Theological Seminary. He is best known for his work on the Dead Sea Scrolls.

3 – See Betsy Schwarzentraub, Afire With God: Becoming Spirited Stewards, pp. 33ff.

4 – This phrase is the name of a popular song by international composer Brian Wren.