If you’re a child of the 80’s and 90’s like me, you’ll remember a song called “Counting Blue Cars” by Dishwalla. You may not remember the name of the song or the band, but you’ll probably remember the chorus,
“Tell me all your thoughts on God,
‘cause I’m on my way to meet her,
tell me am I very far?”
The lead singer/songwriter, J.R. Richards, tells of receiving death threats because the song depicts God as female. As I’ve been thinking about God, and how we perceive him (even though God the Father is revealed in Scripture as masculine for purposes of our understanding, he is revealed as spirit and not sexually male or female), it makes me wonder: are there ways we commonly think about God really less offensive or inaccurate than the song depicts? Or, do we even give much thought to God’s nature and character at all?
A couple weeks ago, I shared how it hit me recently that one of the greatest gifts of the Incarnation, of Christmas, of Jesus becoming human, is that he revealed to us a whole new way of relating to God– of actually knowing him relationally as Abba, the intimate lover of our souls. Christ made such a relationship possible through his death and resurrection. Last week, I talked about how great it might be if this new year was the one we actually invested the time and energy necessary to know intimately this knowable God.
But, in order to do that, we need to know God as he is, not as we imagine him to be. Just like any other person, God wants us to know him for who he is, not who we think we want him to be. As any other relationship, whether spouse, coworker, or friend, approaching God as someone other than who he is robs him of his personhood and undermines any real relationship with him.
People do this all the time. You’ve heard the old saying, “God made people in his own image, and then they returned the favor?” You may not have given much thought to how or what you think of God, but how or what you think of God has more to do with how you live than you might believe. And, if you are a God-follower, how you live certainly reflects what you believe about God.
There’s lots of ways we misperceive God in our culture, way more extreme than simply imagining him as female. Here are a few:
- Pawpaw God– this is the god that C.S. Lewis described in The Problem of Pain as “a grandfather in heaven- a senile benevolence who, as they say, ‘likes to see the young people enjoying themselves,’”- he just wants his kids to be happy. So long as they are content, why does it matter? This god doesn’t ask us to do much of anything, doesn’t really have many expectations for our lives. Life is just about pursuing happiness and pleasure. As a result, we live in a kind of incessant pursuit of leisure and pleasure, incessant gaming, trolling social media, or streaming, living for our hobbies, or finding other ways to kind of numb the pain and challenges of life. These things aren’t bad in themselves, but when they become the foundation and focus of our lives, the things we run to or are addicted to, what does it say about the god we worship?
- Joe Rogan God or God on steroids– this is the god who says we can do anything and be anything if we just work hard enough. We can reach the top of the corporate ladder, be the perfect mom or dad, and have rock-hard abs, if we’ll just follow the right life hacks and bust it. And, we can always work a little harder and be a little better than we are right now. Although he loves us, this god never thinks we’re quite living up to our potential, whether it’s as a provider, parent, or friend, and if we just do what we read or heard podcasted recently, or what our friend seems to do so well, we will have it all together. Because this god is never quite satisfied, it leads to us believing life is all in our hands, that everything can be achieved by hard work, that we should never satisfied, no matter how hard we work, and that failure is not an option.
- America First God– This god has a special relationship with America, and he loves her and her people a little more than everyone else, frankly, even more than his own people in other nations. How else did we get to be the greatest nation in the world? The only thing getting in our way are those people on the other side (whoever they are), and their vision for America, an America without the god who loves us best. If we just get rid of those people and their vision, this god will be happy with us again, and he will fix whatever ails America currently and restore us to greatness (however that’s defined) again. This concept of God leads us to believe that some political vision for America is God’s will for how we live or what we think, and if we can just get our politics right, and our political views in charge and in power, all will be made right. In this vision of God, our politics frame our faith, rather than the other way around.
- Prosperity God– like Pawpaw God, this god wants us to be happy, too. As Christians, we should be blessed, and that means having a lot of stuff, and being successful, which means having the power and money we need to be able to buy that stuff- you know, whatever we need, plus that other thing I just saw online today that I really want. This god really wants us to have stuff, or be successful, and that’s His primary goal for us. This view of God leads us to define success by what we are able to get, and happiness by getting the next thing we’re craving.
None of us would admit we believe God is like any of these iterations. But, if we say God is the Lord of our lives, and if we believe he is truly sovereign over all creation, and we operate in any way and at any time like any of the ways above, don’t we functionally act as though this is who we believe God to be?
Chances are, to some degree, anyway, we do view God through a lens like this. Most of the time, our thoughts on God, and our life response to them, are shaped by life events, or some other relationship in our lives: a parent, a coach or teacher, or someone else who has held great influence over us, even in mostly-positive (though sometimes negative) ways. And yet, we’ve projected our relationship with that person onto our perception of God. Sometimes, we’ve simply created false images of God subconsciously to rationalize how we want to live.
The reality is that you have a God who loves you, not with a passive kindness, but with the passionate, often fierce and exacting love of a parent. You know this love, because you have probably felt it for your own children. As Lewis says, it is for people we care nothing that we’re content for them to be happy under any circumstances; with our children, those we love, we would rather see them face trials and challenges, as much as it pains us, and be strong and people of character than happy, horrible human beings.
As Scripture says, the Lord reproves those he loves (Heb. 12:8). We have hopes and dreams for our kids, but those hopes and dreams arise from a deep, intense love, a love that loves not because the object of our love is always amazing and beautiful in their own right (insert your favorite two-year-old or gawky middle schooler story here), but because they are yours and you love them and there really is no other explanation than that. That’s all there is to it, and it’s more than enough for you.
You can’t stop talking about your kids, or thinking about them. You’re crazy about them. You want the best for them, whatever that takes and however difficult that is, and you know deep down inside that in a Genesis 3, broken world, difficulty and pain is part of the package. So, you love them and walk them through it, but if you’re a good parent, you don’t rescue them from it. You hold them and comfort them and dry their tears, and then you build them to go out and face it again, so they’ll be strong and resilient and decent and good.
Your God is your real Father, and that’s how he sees you, and he wants your thoughts on him to be driven by the fact that you actually know him in that way, the way he is. That’s only possible by spending time with him and talking to him and listening to him and loving him for who he is, and letting all of that shape and mold you into something greater than ten times the sum of all you could be imagining him to be any of those false gods. He is the lover of your soul, and the perfecter of who you can be. If you will know him.