Skip to main content
Center for Action and Contemplation

A Santa Claus God

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Grace: Week 1

A Santa Claus God
Wednesday, January 27, 2016

I strongly believe that good theology has two important tasks: to keep all people free for God and to keep God free for all people. In my opinion, most churches do not allow God much freedom.  God is always so much bigger than the theological and churchy boxes we build for “him.” Without recognizing it, many people have an operative image of God as Santa Claus. He’s “making a list and checking it twice, gonna find out who’s naughty or nice.” He rewards the good kids with toys (heaven) and punishes the bad kids with lumps of coal (hell). If you don’t have a mature spirituality or an honest inner prayer life, you’ll end up with a Santa Claus god, and the Gospel becomes a cheap novel of reward and punishment. That’s not the great Good News! An infinitely loving God is capable of so much more than such a simplistic trade off or buy out.

Bringing social acceptability to Christianity has not helped in this regard. After Constantine made Christianity the established religion of the Roman Empire in 313, the great biblical concepts of grace and forgiveness gradually were controlled by formulas and technique. Empires cannot afford too much mercy or forgiveness. Soon the Church created equations: this much sin results in this many years in purgatory or hell; this much penance results in this much time released from purgatory. Grace and forgiveness became juridical and distant concepts instead of deep spiritual realizations. Disobedience or disloyalty were seen as much more sinful than any failure to love or serve or show mercy.

The work of the priesthood became sin management much more than the marvelous work of transformation and inner realization that we see in Jesus’ ministry. Church largely became a “worthiness attainment system” managed from without, instead of a transformational system awakening us from within.

When forgiveness becomes a weighing and judging process, then we who are in charge can measure it, define who is in and who is out, find ways to earn it, and exclude the unworthy. We have then destroyed the likelihood that people will ever experience the pure gift of God’s grace and forgiveness.

When you fall into the ocean of mercy, you stop all counting and measuring. In fact, counting and weighing no longer make sense; they run counter to the experience of grace. As long as you keep counting, you will not realize that everyone is saved by mercy anyway.

I recently visited the 9/11 Memorial at the site of the Twin Towers in New York City. A huge waterfall drops down into the darkness of a lower pool whose bottom you cannot see. It struck me deeply as a metaphor for God: mercy eternally pouring into darkness, always filling an empty space. Grace fills all the gaps of the universe. Counting and measuring can only increase the space between things. Even better, water always falls and pools up in the very lowest and darkest places, just like mercy does. And mercy is just grace in action.

Gateway to Silence:
Open me to grace upon grace upon grace.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, “Today Is a Time for Mercy,” December 10, 2015,; and Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (Franciscan Media: 2007), 161-162.

Navigate by Date

This year’s theme

A candle being lit

Radical Resilience

We live in a world on fire. This year the Daily Meditations will explore contemplation as a way to build Radical Resilience so we can stand in solidarity with the world without burning up or burning out. The path ahead may be challenging, but we can walk it together.

The archives

Explore the Daily Meditations

Explore past meditations and annual themes by browsing the Daily Meditations archive. Explore by topic or use the search bar to find wisdom from specific teachers.

Join our email community

Sign-up to receive the Daily Meditations, featuring reflections on the wisdom and practices of the Christian contemplative tradition.

Hidden Fields

Find out about upcoming courses, registration dates, and new online courses.
Our theme this year is Radical Resilience. How do we tend our inner flame so we can stand in solidarity with the world without burning up or out? Meditations are emailed every day of the week, including the Weekly Summary on Saturday. Each week builds on previous topics, but you can join at any time.
In a world of fault lines and fractures, how do we expand our sense of self to include love, healing, and forgiveness—not just for ourselves or those like us, but for all? This monthly email features wisdom and stories from the emerging Christian contemplative movement. Join spiritual seekers from around the world and discover your place in the Great Story Line connecting us all in the One Great Life. Conspirare. Breathe with us.