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Is God On Our Side?

By Richard Dormandy.

Recently, in our church, we sang a fairly new song by Ben Cantelon, one of the hallowed songwriters of the i-worship generation. Apart from having to rid myself of the image of a national daily newspaper each time we repeated the words “My Guardian”, it’s a great anthem with a powerful tune. The words reflect Psalm 23. “What’s not to like?” you ask.  Can thousands of Spring Harvesters really be wrong?

The problem comes at the end of v.1 where we sing: “Every step I take be now my guide, / God on my side.”  Given that Ben Cantelon could have written “God by my side” or “God at my side”, I can’t help wondering why he chose the provocative, even irresponsible phrase he did.

So here are some thoughts, first of all, in favour of “God on my side.” It exudes and hopefully builds confidence.  “If God is for us,” says Paul, “who can be against us?” (Romans 8.31)  It’s an effective rallying cry. 

Then we think of David himself, the writer of Psalm 23. As he went forward to fight Goliath he definitely felt - and boasted - that God was on his side - a claim which seems borne out by the result. A cursory internet search on that episode reveals any number of children being taught “When we have God on our side, we can face any giant.” Working back in David’s life, he based this claim on his experience of working as a shepherd in the fields - also the inspiration for Psalm 23 - so maybe use of the phrase is justified.

However, these arguments are simply not good enough. It is not adequate to simply say “It’s in the Bible.”  In fact, the notion of ‘God on our side’ is highly nuanced in the Scriptures. The prophets consistently denounce as fiction that God is always present in Jerusalem. Jesus’ actions in the Temple clearly showed God was not for the establishment of his day - however much they may have liked to claim that.

At a deep level, we believe God is always ‘for’ us.  He is ‘for’ his Creation.  He is ‘for’ us in that he didn’t abandon us to death, decay and destruction, but came to restore us in his Son. However, that is like the parent who tells their criminal child “I love you” while at the same time handing them over to the police. There is an important, but subtle, difference between God being for us and God being on our side.

The language of ‘sides’ is deliberately polarising. It simplifies matters in order to draw strength. It can be difficult to hold strong convictions where complexity is understood because we can see many angles. In order to gird up our loins, we need tunnel vision. That’s why truth is always the first casualty of war. Nothing mobilises like propaganda.

If the gospel means anything at all, it means seeing beyond the opposites of ‘us and them’.  As soon as we say “God on my side”, it raises the expectation of conflict far beyond similar phrases like “God is with me” or even “God by my side”.  It also raises the sense of certainty that I am right and you are wrong. After all, if God is ‘at’ my side or even ‘for me’, then he may well be there to caution, teach, correct, or rebuke me.

This is important because we live in an increasingly polarised world where the claim that “God is on our side” is doing terrible damage. We see it in Palestine, where the Settler Movement claim God is on their side, and with that phrase justify the most horrendous acts of aggression. They are entirely wrong. We see it in Islamic extremism and the Christian Right Wing. It is very dangerous thinking.

Of course, Christians have to take a view on many matters. Christian politicians may have to take a view on going to war. They should certainly pray about these things and they should certainly act with conviction - as far as this is possible. But as Bob Dylan pointed out, they should be very cautious about claiming God is on their side. There is a world of difference between saying honestly that you have prayerfully tried to make the right choice, and claiming God is on your side. The trouble is that when such language infiltrates our thinking through the careless lines of our worship we become more susceptible to believing such myths.

Here in Tulse Hill, South London, we have an estate which needs some serious building work. One option is to knock it down and start again, but this would be a disaster for the people who currently live there. When they asked me to join their protest, they said, “It would be great to have God on our side.” Immediately I could see what a compromising situation this could become. Of course the church should be supporting people who are anxious. It may be appropriate to sign their petition. But as Christians “seeking the welfare of the city” (Jeremiah 29.7), we should be helping people to find solutions through partnership rather than polarisation. 

What if it turns out that, looked at from all sides, the best solution is to demolish the whole estate? Has God been defeated? As a local minister, I seek - in the name of Christ - to be there with and for vulnerable people whose voice needs to be heard clearly by the decision-makers. As a pastor, I also want to support them in coming to terms with the whole picture, whatever good or bad news it contains. Yet again, how can I do this if I have not come alongside them and gained credibility? Engagement is crucial.

Often we do have to take a side. We need to do so with the combination of humility and confidence that serious prayer brings. We may well claim that God is with us, but we should certainly be wary of saying he is “on my side.” I think we may have to resort to a ‘localised’ version of Ben Cantelon’s song, but customising someone else’s lyrics opens up another can of worms.

Richard Dormandy

Vicar, Holy Trinity, Tulse Hill, South London

Ministry Today

You are reading Is God On Our Side? by Richard Dormandy, part of Issue 63 of Ministry Today, published in April 2015.

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