When I was a child, I had a very different view of who God was. Whenever I was told to picture God, I imagined a large, foreboding man, who sat on a throne and looked down on His followers, judging their every move. Now, for the first few years of my ‘Christian’ life, I was raised in a very strict church where the pastor yelled the many reasons of why we would be going to hell from the front of the room. You could say that my image of God was not unfounded… but thank goodness it has changed!
The idea of having an omniscient presence look over your every move in hopes that you will not commit a sin or misbehave is not new. In 2018, this theory comes in the form of security cameras, for if we see a security camera we automatically have the sense that our actions are being watched and analyzed. In 1791, Jeremy Bentham, a philosopher who imagined a different way to design prisons, also found inspiration in this concept.
Jeremy Bentham designed a prison called the Panopticon. Imagine a circular building with a surveillance tower at the very center. Around the building are floors and floors of prison cells, all of which face towards the center of the structure. In the surveillance tower, guards can watch over the prison and easily see any instances of poor behaviour. The kicker? The watchtower is designed never to show if a guard is present or not. The idea was that inmates, having the sense that they were being watched, would never misbehave for fear of being seen and caught by someone in authority. The system, therefore, would not reform them; they would reform themselves through their morals and integrity.
I think that many Christians feel this way; that they are being surveilled and are afraid to mess up because of the fear of God standing in the watchtower. Or we think the opposite and believe that God is not even present or watching over us, but we are in a prison where our fear of God keeps us from acting a certain way.
God is watching over us, but the good news, is that He is not looking down on His children, He is eye-level with us. There is even better news! He is not sitting in judgment and extending retribution; He is sitting in love and extending grace.
The book of John shows this so well.
3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, and having set her in the center of the court, 4 they said to Him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act. 5 “Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?” 6 They were saying this, testing Him, so that they might have grounds for accusing Him. But Jesus stooped down and with His finger wrote on the ground. 7 But when they persisted in asking Him, He straightened up, and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 Again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. 9 When they heard it, they began to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones, and He was left alone, and the woman, where she was, in the center of the court. 10 Straightening up, Jesus said to her, “Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?” 11 She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.”]
I love this passage from John 8, for many reasons. First of all, the Pharisees didn’t bring the adulterous woman to see Jesus sitting on a throne. Instead, Jesus was standing with them, at eye level. We know this because Jesus stooped down and wrote a message in the ground. I think it is also important to remember that they were in the center of the court, where everyone could see this interaction taking place. They weren’t off to the side where there is a bit more privacy. The Pharisees brought the woman in to see Jesus; to publicly shame and stone her while attacking Jesus’s character, but they were the ones who embarrassingly had to leave the court after Jesus spoke with them. They were the ones who’s characters were questioned.
I love the last part of this verse, however. Jesus straightened up before he spoke with the woman. He came up to her eye-level and said the most incredible words of grace that she would ever hear, “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.” Following Jesus’s own statement to the Pharisees, He would have been the only one in the crowd who could have picked up a stone and judged the woman for her sins. Instead, he left the stones where they were and extended love instead.
In this story, Jesus was forced into a position of someone who was expected to give orders and pass judgment. But, He chose the way of forgiveness and love instead. I feel that if the Panopticon existed in Jesus’s time on earth, the Pharisees would be in the watchtower, and Jesus would be in the cells with the people, at their eye-level, declaring their incredible value and purpose in the body of Christ.
This is the image of God that I have come to know, thankfully! What is yours?
The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.-Zephaniah 3:17