The Greek Heroes R Us, and That’s Not a Good Thing
We tend to interact with God (upper-case “G”) as if we were pagans and He some Greek god (lower-case). We think of Him not as unchanging but capriciousness, not as holy but immoral, not as truth but deception.
Don’t believe you can treat God like this? Consider these examples from the greatest literary classic of ancient Greece, Homer’s Iliad.
We Think God Takes Our Side
The Iliad tells the saga of a ten-year war between Greeks and Trojans incited by the Trojan prince Paris. He seduces Helen, the wife of Greek king Menelaus, and carries back to Troy. The Greeks go to Troy to get her back. They rampage across the Trojan countryside, killing men and stealing women as concubines.
While men fight below, the “divine court” of Greek gods have divided loyalties between Greeks and Trojans. Athena, Hera, Poseidon and Hermes favor the Greeks. Aphrodite, Apollo, Artemis and Ares favor the Trojans. Zeus, the king of the gods, tries to be objective arbiter among the feuding camps, but is often swayed to assist one side or the other when properly petitioned, praised, or seduced.
Both parties in the Iliad are wicked. Everybody has blood on their hands, but all view their cause as righteous. They all see their enemy as worthy of the worst punishments.
Sound familiar? When I’m in a conflict, I’m often eager to assume the worst about another, while believing myself entirely free of guilt. Moreover, I can feed off anger and resentment, engaging in a self-righteous monologue that presumes God will of course take my side.
Christianity, unlike paganism, urges us to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). As much as we presume God is always on our side, especially in fickle, inconsequential battles, we act like pagans.
We Think God Approves Our Vices
Consider also the story of the “Deception of Zeus” in Book XIV. Hera acquires some kind of sexually-provocative lingerie to distract Zeus from the war. It works. As soon as he set eyes upon her “he became inflamed with the same passionate desire for her that he had felt when they had first each other’s embraces.” Hera’s actions enable the Greeks to take the upper hand.
Why would the Greeks think their gods as so easily swayed by sexual desire? Should’t they want their gods to set a good example?
Perhaps because it allowed them to justify their own sexual behavior. Anytime we even flirt with sexual temptation, and then presume it’s OK with God because we didn’t go too far, we act like pagans.
Christianity, unlike paganism, tells us to control what we see and think. Jesus warns us that “everyone who looks at a woman with lust commits adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28). Instead, He tells us, “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they will see God” (Matthew 5:8).
We Make God Responsible for Our Sins
Much of the Iliad tells the story of the battle between the Greek king Agamemnon and his greatest warrior, Achilles. The king upsets Achilles by stealing a concubine he had won in battle. Achilles in anger removes himself from battle, and the Greeks start losing.
Eventually the Greek chieftains persuade Agamemnon to apologize, though his penitence leaves much to be desired. Instead of acknowledging his own responsibility, the king declares, “it was not I that did it: Zeus, and Fate, and Erinys that walks in darkness struck me mad. … What could I do?”
Agamemnon blamed madness. We blame overwhelming or uncontrollable feelings to hide our responsibility for our sins. We blame our sins on other people provoking us, or surrounding circumstances we simply could not control, or an addictive behavior that can’t be helped, or even God.
Whatever the justification (and whatever truth there is that some things weaken our will to resist sin), this kind of thinking reduces or eliminates our free will so we don’t have to do the hard work of confession and repentance. If the gods couldn’t help themselves, how can we mere mortals?
Christianity, unlike paganism, gives us the perfect examples to follow and the grace to follow them. As Scripture also says, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted with evil and he himself tempts no one” (James 1:13). Jesus tells us we should “be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
We Have a God Who Is More Than Just Powerful
There are plenty of other examples of the Greek deities’ misbehavior that mirror our own. They disguised themselves to deceive their enemies; allowed themselves to be driven by rage; let their pride cloud their rational judgment. The gods are just as human as us, except they have more power. Yet ultimately they are, to quote the French philosopher Pierre Manent, “impotent and ill-intentioned.”
Sadly, sometimes that’s all we really want from God. We want Him to apply his omnipotent will to whatever thing we want. Yet Christ calls us to something far more than a world where He exerts power to satisfies our wants. He gives us his very Self, so that we might have communion with Him forever, beholding Him in all of his other-worldly glory.
Whenever you’re tempted to bring God down to earth like the pagan Greeks, remember what He said to the prophet Isaiah: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways.”