On being surprised by God

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!

John Dickens

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.


  1. Elsie Kleeman says:

    My favorite book of scripture is Jonah, precisely for this reason. Even the prophets of God are surprised to learn that their previously conceived notions of who God is can be wrong. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Love this Aaron. Well-done.

  3. Wow, great post Aaron!

    “There will be moments when we realise that God likes us as well as loves us.”

    What an important lesson!

    Elsie, on Jonah, I really liked one former BBC perma’s musings about the Book of Jonah as an intentional satire: https://bycommonconsent.com/2006/08/31/jonah-gently-raise-the-sacred-satire/

    I’ve reflected on this and actually think there is a lot to it. Why shouldn’t we be able to consider a fictional story (e.g. possibly Job) or an intentionally satirical quip (possibly Jonah) as scripture? As many will observe, we can often learn more from a short story than an essay or sermon (and sermons can effectively use fictional stories or allegories to their benefit).

  4. Oops, I mean BCC, not BBC!

  5. Summary of Ed Snow’s post on Jonah: “Many scholars believe the Book of Jonah was written during the time of Ezra when the Jews were extraordinarily xenophobic. Jonah apparently dislikes non-Israelites so much he’d rather die than see God love them and have mercy towards them. As one commentator puts it, the humor and exaggeration [in the Book of Jonah] help the [ancient Jewish] audience to perceive … their own [xenophobic] attitudes and the ridiculous lengths to which arrogance and prejudice can lead them.”

  6. Elsie, thank you for stopping by and for your kind comment.

    john f., that was precisely one of the lessons I was alluding to in the OP. Jonah really is a rather stark reminder of the bounds we place on God’s mercy.

  7. I wondered!

  8. Thanks for bringing it out more clearly. Plus, any opportunity to remember any of Ed Snow’s posts must always be taken.

  9. Aaron thanks for this eloquent reminder that we cannot put God in a bottle. I tend to think that not only is it good for us to be surprised and reminded from time to time how little we can grasp of God; I tend to think we surprise God a lot too. I think he often enjoys being surprised by us.

  10. Beautiful message, Aaron.

    “I stand all amazed at the love Jesus offers me, confused at the grace that so fully he proffers me.”

    That is a profound lyric, and your post captures the meaning underlying it very well for me.

  11. “There will be moments when we realise that God likes us as well as loves us.” I believe this, too. To me, the beautiful irony is that God likes us first, even though we’re not particularly likeable.

  12. Katie and I have been reading Karen Blixen’s stories in the evening. She’s not for everyone, a little aristocratic for some of y’alls tender sensibilities. But her psychological acuity is a rare thing, and she has a view truly unique. (Views!) Anyway, we came across this a few nights ago. The speaker is a man who has been the servant of, and may have just killed, a famous and beloved Cardinal, and is now masquerading as the Cardinal. The woman he is addressing is an old woman (Ms. Nat-og-Dag!) who has lived a completely chaste life, but in her age has come to believe that she has lived as a terrible debauch and takes great delight in telling all her shocking stories.

    “But let us agree, Madame, that the day of judgement shall not be, as insipid preachers will have us believe, the moment of unveiling of our own poor little attempts at deceit, about which the Lord does indeed already know all, but on the contrary, that it shall be the hour in which Almighty God Himself lets fall the mask. And what a moment! Oh, Madame, it will not be too much to have waited for it a million years. Heaven will ring and resound with laughter, pure and innocent as that of a child, clear as that of a bride, triumphant as that of a faithful warrior who lays down the enemy’s banners at his sovereign’s feet, or who is at last lifted from the dungeon and the chains, cleared of his slanderer’s calumnies!”

    Ad the laughter will be all around the fact that we will see. What will we see? That He is like us, a Holy Man, who has sat enthroned in yonder heavens. It is in _this fact_ that we will see that all is embraced, and that it is indeed love that lies at the heart of the matter. We will laugh to finally know that the mystery is that there is no mystery.

  13. I find the notion that God likes me to be a prime indicator that He also has a great sense of irony, bordering on, shall we say it, humor?

  14. To be honest, Aaron, I never considered that God might actually like me in addition to generically loving me as a father naturally loves his children. We love a lot more people than we like, don’t we?

  15. “We love a lot more people than we like, don’t we?”

    I think we love (“feel some kind of binding affection for”) more people than we like (“feel an emotional affinity for and want to spend time with”), but I think we generally like more people than we love (“serve in an active way out of a deep sense of acceptance”). I think we tend to serve people we like more than people we don’t like – and even more so people whose actions and core beliefs we don’t like and of which we actively disapprove.

    In other words, I think the quote above is true when love is defined more as a noun, but I think it’s not accurate when love is defined more as a verb.

  16. ” In short, I think that God likes us.”

    Love it!

    It begs the question, though, do *I* like God?

    John 14:15 comes to mind…

    Love Him:keep His commandments::like Him:???

    I’m open to suggestions… :)

  17. john f., part of the reason I find this potentially meaningful is that it seems to require that we rethink our relationship with God in a slightly new way. It is worth asking the question, if God liked me would that change my relationship with Him? My intuition is that it would primarily because fidelity to another (being protective of their welfare and loyal to their trust) are not necessarily commensurate with enjoying the presence of that other person. Family is a good example of where this plays out; it is possible to love in the former sense without the latter. For this reason, God’s love for us, as a father, is potentially only of the former. However, if the mixing of personal affection with fidelity to a particular relationship (i.e., siblings) is an example of a more fully developed love (which may itself be contestable) then perhaps we should expect/anticipate both from God. I said this is potentially meaningful because it is difficult to make a compelling case.

    Leona, like him:relationship of divine unity. My guess, discussed briefly above, is that like + love = the type of divine relationship on which celestial life might be based.

    Thomas, it is as if she had read the KFD.

  18. That’s right Aaron. And, as implied in # 16, loving God as described in the scriptures is also perfectly accomplished if we just fear God. Liking God is something else. I think a lot more people “love” God than like him.

  19. Aaron

    That last paragraph is me trumpeting. ;)

    I confess to loving the KFD more than anything in the scriptures, with the possible exception of the 121st Sec.

  20. Elsie Kleeman says:

    John f., thanks for the link.

    I certainly think most of us like God far more than we love him, certainly a result of the perverse connection between love and fear. I look back on my childhood concept of God and although I can say I loved him, I think I feared him just as much. Perhaps that’s why I envisioned my own father and God as close to the same. I don’t know if one can like and fear someone simultaneously.

    #15 “loving God as described in the scriptures is also perfectly accomplished if we just fear God”

    Do you think that is God’s purpose? That we fear him first, and learn to like and love him later? Or is it merely the means that we (and the writers of scripture) have devised to accomplish that goal?

  21. Beautiful post.

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