It’s funny how the Lord takes His own sweet time in revealing things to us that we feel like we should have learned a long time ago. The way I viewed God, and how that perspective affected the way I viewed myself and interacted with Him, was one of those things for me.
When you think about God, who do you imagine Him to be? I’m not asking about a “Sunday School” answer: “Almighty”; “majestic”; “Ruler of all” or the like. Those may be the things we know about God to be true from the Bible. What I mean is this: when you picture yourself having a conversation with God, who is it you picture Him to be? What is your default image?
Many of us may never have given it much thought. But, if you do, chances are who you imagine God to be may be formed in part by past experiences and relationships. It may be shaped by positive or negative characteristics of a relationship with a parent or family member. Perhaps it’s a life experience you had, like grieving someone you lost, or divorce, or illness. Sometimes our cultural influences, like our consumer culture, define our image of God. We may have an image of God from representations in art, like that depicted by Michaelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. Scripture uses many metaphors to describe God: as judge and rock, fortress, shepherd, and shield.
The fascinating thing about these images is that we all have them (even if we don’t realize it), they are all in some sense flawed, and they cause us to see God in broken ways, all to our harm.
For most of my life, regardless of what I read, or how I heard Him described in sermons, functionally, relationally, I envisioned God as what I would call a “benevolent taskmaster.” He was good, and loved me, but He was primarily my boss. He had work for me to do, and He would line me out as I began each day. Even though I believe He loved me, I always believed He was slightly disappointed with me, that I didn’t quite measure up. If you had asked me whether I believed I was saved by the blood of Christ and not by works, I would have told you that I absolutely did. Yet this subtle, nearly subconscious image of God had really damaging consequences.
Because, in this image, God always had work for me to do, I needed to be always working. It made it very difficult to rest in Him, to actually believe He was pleased in me just as I was. And, because He was always slightly underwhelmed with me, wishing I would do a little better, I was always pushing myself to strive, to achieve, always subconsciously trying to earn the approval of a God who always needed a little more out of me.
Part of all this, of course, is tied up not only in how we view God, but how we view ourselves. In his magnificent book, Abba’s Child, Brennan Manning talks about “the Impostor,” that person we are not, but convince ourselves we are: “Impostors are preoccupied with acceptance and approval. Because of their suffocating need to please others, they cannot say no with the same confidence in which they say yes…they overextend themselves.” Living out of the impostor compels us to create the perfect image to the public around us so that we will be admired, yet never truly known. The impostor causes us to hide our true self in our work and performance, constructing an identity that will allow others to think well of us, thereby convincing ourselves there’s nothing wrong with us, either. It causes us to chase after that which is least important and turns us away from what is real. The imposter is what causes us to carefully curate our image on social media, modulate our personalities around others, and manage the information we give people about ourselves.
Thus, we see God for something He isn’t, and ourselves as something we’re not. We have an amazing capacity to deceive ourselves, even when we know the truth.
The gamechanger on all this for me was when I went on a guided spiritual retreat with a mentor of mine several years ago, which sounds like a really spiritual thing to do, but was really the result of exhaustion and feeling at the end of my rope. My mentor asked me to go off by myself and stare at the mountains, asking the Lord to reveal to me what He thought of me. My friend encouraged me to simply open my mind to what the Lord had to say.
As I sat on my friend’s porch staring at the mountains, I listened to my friend’s next-door neighbors. I could hear them on a cool summer’s evening, sitting out on their porch after work and watching their young children running around and playing in the yard. The kids would holler to their parents, “look at me, Daddy, look!”, and Dad would watch, and laugh, and encourage his kids, simply delighting in his children’s presence.
And, through tears, I thought of my love for my own girls, and how I love them so much and delight in their presence so deeply that it sometimes hurts. In that moment, I heard God say, “don’t you get it? That’s how I love you.”
If there’s one image I pray you’ll hang onto so deeply and firmly that it’s the bedrock of your life, it is the image of God as your loving Father, and you as His beloved child. That’s scriptural, you know? When Christ was baptized, the Holy Spirit came down like a dove, and a voice from Heaven, your Father’s voice, said, “this is my Beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased!” And, by Christ’s death, we are restored to that perfect, simple state of love and full and complete satisfaction in our Father’s eyes. He can never love you more, and will not love you less. He is the Father in the Prodigal Son story, running joyously down the path to meet you, to receive you, to welcome you home.
Manning says that, “while the impostor draws his identity from past achievements and the adulation of others, the true self claims its identity in its belovedness. We encounter God in the ordinariness of life: not in the search for spiritual highs and extraordinary, mystical experiences, but in our simple presence in life.” Henri Nouwen, writing to a friend, says that, “All I want to say to you is, ‘you are the Beloved,’…My only desire is to make these words reverberate in every corner of your being…we give glory to God simply by being ourselves.” God created you to be His child, and realizing we are loved as children is the core of the Christian life.
I know it’s hard to accept; it is for everyone I know. While it’s so very easy to understand the Fatherheart of God in the way we love our own children, it’s hard to accept that love for ourselves. We all struggle with it. Maybe it’s because we know ourselves too well and struggle with anyone loving us that way. It might be because to be loved like that makes claims on us; requires response, and vulnerability, and surrender, and maybe our flesh wants to avoid these things. But, to not see the Father as He is, and to not see ourselves as the Father sees us isn’t humble; it’s sin.
We have to repent, relegating the imposter to a very, very small section of our life so that we can truly accept ourselves as God sees us. It’s the only way to stop living like we’re someone we’re not, to live in the fullness and freedom of who God created us to be, and to be freed up to love other people the way God intends us to love- as a joyful response to realizing we are loved.
Jesus called the Father “Abba” or “Daddy”- He is that to you, too. And, you are His precious child. To live in the fullness of that love is the abundant life He wants you to have.