In Claire Tomalin’s biography of Charles Dickens she cites a quip from the author’s father (according to a reminiscence of Dickens himself). In response to a boastful friend, John Dickens replied:
The Supreme Being must be a very different individual from what I have every reason to believe him to be, if He would care in the least for the society of your relations.
Simple and devastating!
Yet, beneath the surface of this Wilde-esque put-down is something closely related to the heart of the Gospel, that is, God does, in fact, ‘care… for the society’ of the insufferable. His care is not some infinite capacity to tolerate our foibles. Nor does his love strike me as the fruit of a duty fulfilled. James Alison suggests that speaking of God’s love has lost some of its force because it has become so all-pervasive in religious discourse. Thus, more than just loving us, it seems plausible to me, that he might actually enjoy our company and relish our prattling. In short, I think that God likes us.
If this is so, then ‘[t]he Supreme Being must be a very different individual from what I have every reason to believe him to be’. This, I take it, is the message of Jonah. It is the message of Jesus. The message of God to Peter on the rooftop and the message of the Brother of Jared. It is the message of Enoch and Joseph Smith. Each of these narratives captures the event of being surprised by God’s revelation of himself. Each of these are astounded at this self-revealing because it conflicts in some profound way with their prior (but incorrect) ideas of the divine. This surprise is often couched in the realization, to paraphrase JS, that God is more liberal in His views and more boundless in His mercies than we are ready to believe or receive. Being surprised by God is part of the process of repentance.
We ‘have every reason to believe Him to be’ a certain way because we inhabit a world that is laden with false assumptions or misapprehension about God’s purposes or plan. The gospel is a call to enter into a covenantal relationship within Him in order that He can reveal Himself to us, and through that process disabuse us of those false notions. In that process, there will be moments when we realise that God must be a ‘very different individual from what [we] have every reason to believe him to be’. There will be moments when we realise that God likes us as well as loves us.