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God is a Verb, Not a Noun
August 31, 1980

St. Paul's United Methodist Church

1 JOHN 4:1-10

While driving past a church, I noticed the sign—“God is a verb, not a noun”. I was intrigued and spent several days thinking about it. It's obvious, of course, God is not a noun, but how often we treat God as if God were a noun. A noun is the name of a person, place or thing. Certainly in our lucid moments, we realize God is not a person. God isn't an old man like Santa Claus. God is not the Pope, or a minister or a politician. We know God is not a person, but we often slip into that when we pray. What or whom do you image when you pray? 

We know God is not a place like Mecca where Muslims believe God is located. Or Jerusalem for the Jews, or Rome for the Catholics, or Nashville for the Methodists. We are accused of having Nashville as our Mecca because many of our institutions are headquartered there. Nashville is the headquarters of the Methodist Church, the Southern Baptist Church and the Grand Old Opry. Maybe there's a message in there. We know God is not a place. You can’t expect to go to a certain mountain top and experience fellowship with God, or to a place by the ocean, or a spot back in your childhood. God is not a place. 

And we know God is not a thing, not an object. In the early days of the Old Testament, they carried around the ark, which was a small box that contained the tablets of the 10 Commandments. They believed God was in there and they carried it into battle. They believed that if you touch the box, you die, so holy and so sacred it was. We know God is not a statue or a cross or a trinket or a medal. God is not an idea, not a principle, not a habit, not a way of doing things. And if you change the habit or the change the ritual, you think God has died. God is not a thing. God is not a place. God is not a person. God is not a noun, not static, or immovable, or stationary, or something you can touch. 

God is a verb, active, moving, dynamic, a process that is ever unfolding—not a principle, but a process, a verb. Jesus said “God is spirit”. Spirit in that sentence structure is a noun. But spirit is experienced as a verb, like wind. Wind may be a noun in that sentence, but wind is known and experienced when it is a verb. We experience wind and we know wind when it blows. And when wind is not blowing, where is it? And what is it? Wind is a verb and experienced when it is “verbing”. In the spirit, God is spirit and God is known and experienced when God is verbing, when God is acting, when God is moving. God is known in movement. God is known in action. 

Take the statement out of 1 John which we read in the lesson—“God is love”. That simple yet so profound statement about God—God is love. Love may be a noun in that sentence structure, but love is only known when it is a verb. Love is experienced when you are being loved, or when you are loving. When love is not loving, what is it? And where is it? It's non existent. Love is only known and visible when you see it. When a mother coos and cuddles her baby, you say, “Ah, that's love!” It's in the action. John had the profound insight that the very nature, the very essence of God is a verb, an action, love. John develops that idea further in 4:10, “Not our love for God, but God's love for us when he sent His Son to be the sacrifice that takes our sins away.” The very nature, the very essence, the central characteristic, the heart of God is love as revealed in the sending, a verb, in the giving, in the sacrificing of the Son, Jesus Christ, for our salvation. In that supreme act, in that supreme movement, that supreme gift, we see the very heart of God, the very nature, the very essence of God, a verb loving and acting. 

But, how do you relate to a verb? It's easy to relate to a noun, to a person. We can meet a person, shake hands, hug them, kick them, talk to them, and be talked out. But God is not a person. We know how to relate to a place or thing by touching it, seeing it, by feeling it. God is not a place or a thing. How do you relate to a verb? Two ways primarily. 

First, relate to a verb by letting the verb act upon you, be acted upon. Like the wind. When the wind blows upon you, you experience it, you say, “I feel the wind. The wind is blowing.” Likewise, the Spirit of God is known when it is felt, when the spirit moves. You experience God when you are loved by God, when God loves you. The concept that God is love begins with God loving you. The supreme act of his sacrifice of the Son is a demonstration for all time that God loves you in all tenderness, and compassion, in all patience. How God loves you! And to experience that, to be loved is to know God, to experience God. You relate to God by being acted upon. 

Secondly, you relate to a verb by participating in the action. The wind blows upon you but you also may blow and participate in the act of winding by blowing. When I was little, the neighbors called me “Windy”. I don't know why. But you can participate in winding by blowing and making wind blow. And you can experience God by loving, by participating in the act of loving. Can we capture that, believe that, understand that? Listen to what John said, 4:12, “No one has ever seen God.” Right, because God is not a noun. “No one has ever seen God but as long as we love one another God will live in us”. When you love, God is in you. When you love, you are experiencing God. When you love, you are seeing God. When you love, you are knowing God. When you love, you are relating to God. In verse seven, he writes, “Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” We experience God by participating in the very act of loving. 

Mary Lynne Franzia gave me a little book this week- a beautiful book, Unconditional Love, written by John Powell, a Jesuit priest, His closing personal experience is so graphic. He writes about Tommy. Tommy was a student in his theology class in the university. When Tommy first came into the priest’s class, Dr. Powell’s class, the professor labeled Tommy as strange. He had long blonde hair.Then he soon discovered that Tommy was not a believer. Tommy spent the time in the class objecting to whatever the priest said, ridiculing, he was cynical, he was obnoxious. And the professor soon labeled him as the Pain in the Back Pew. On the last day of the class when the students came up to turn in their final exams, The Pain in the Back Pew brought his exam, tossed it on the desk and said very obnoxiously, “Well, do you think I'll ever find God?” And the priest said, “No”. Tommy was shocked. He turned and as he walked out of the room, the priest said, “But, I believe most certainly that God will find you.” 

A few years later, Tommy came back to visit the priest. He was thin, his body was wasted, his hair was gone from chemotherapy. He had cancer. A few months later, he died from the cancer. He talked to the priest about his experience, “Do you remember the last thing you said to me about how I can't find God, but God would find me?” The priest said, “I sure do.” “When the surgeon took out the growth from my groin and said it was malignant, I got very serious about finding God but God wasn't there. And when I was told the news that the malignancy was spreading throughout my body and reaching my vital organs, I banged my bloody fists on the bronze door of heaven, but God wouldn't open up. So I gave up trying to find God. I just gave up. But, then I remembered something else you said in the class, You said that the essential sadness is to go through life without ever loving and without ever telling those you love that you love them. So I decided to act upon that.” He went home and decided to start with his father. His father was reading the newspaper. Tommy went to his father and said, “Dad, I'd like to talk to you.” Without lowering the paper, his father said, “Yeah, what do you want?” He said, “Dad, it's really important.” His father lowered the newspaper slowly and Tommy said, “Dad, I want you to know that I love you.” 

His father dropped the paper. And Tommy said “He did two things I’d never seen him do. He cried and hugged me. We talked together all night. And when I told my mother that I loved her, when I told my brother that I loved him, we talked and we drew out all the secrets of the past, all those old memories. And we just talked and talked and had the most beautiful experience. And then you know what? There was God. I knew God was there. I could feel God. I knew the spirit was there. I knew God had found me.” 

And then the priest told him, “The surest way to find God is not to make him a private possession, a problem solver, or an instant consolation in time of need, but rather by opening to love.” The surest way to find God is by loving. Our temptation is to “nounify” God, to make God an it, to make God a cold statue, a consolation, or a miracle worker, or a problem solver. 

God is a verb and is moving, is dynamically moving through love. Therefore, move, do, act. For anyone who loves says the Bible, God is in him or her. God is a verb.

© 1980 Douglas I. Norris