“What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” –-A.W. Tozer
I love the above quote from A.W. Tozer because I think it is a highly important truth. Paying attention to our ideas about God says a lot about how we think God feels about us and how we really feel about God. If our fundamental aim as a Christian is to be conformed more and more to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29), then we need to pay attention to the image that we are conforming ourselves to.*
If our idea of God understands him as fundamentally angry and hostile towards us, we will live with undue guilt and fear. We’ll live in constant fear of slipping up into sin, and when we inevitably do, we won’t know how to recover well from our failure. We will feel that we cannot get on with life until we have appropriately satisfied God’s anger and irritation at us. We will live as if God is a policeman catching speeders, or a really harsh probation officer. We will fear him, but it can be hard to love a God who is fundamentally against us.
On the other extreme, if our idea of God is that he lacks any real capacity or willingness for judgment, then that God isn’t much use in the real world. This God is the “mostly harmless” God who is only brought out for happy occasions. He is unable to give any real comfort or hope in the face of genuine evil because he simply shrugs it off. In a strange way, this God ends up being more distant from us than the angry God. At least to be an angry God, he has to be involved with us. The mostly harmless God simply watches the world go by and takes credit for the best parts of human existence. But this God has no teeth.
A lot of people whose initial idea of God was that he was angry and judgmental react against that vision and swing to the mostly harmless version. They get so exhausted trying to keep God happy and get their sins under control that they end up giving up that vision and creating for themselves a version of God that has no angry or judgmental qualities. This God may relieve the guilt and anxiety for a bit, but after a while it becomes unclear whether this God is truly the God who called Israel and came to us in Jesus or is just a projection of the best parts of ourselves. This God may be happy with the social justice projects we undertake, but other than that, doesn’t seem to do much personal transformation.
The antidote to both of these extremes is the God of the gospel of grace. This is the God who calls Abraham and makes a covenant with him to bless all the families of the earth through him (Genesis 12:3). This God liberates Israel and preserves them through constant failure and unfaithfulness. This God is deeply affected by the unfaithfulness of his people, but holds onto them because of his faithfulness to them. This God takes on the flesh and fragility of human existence, even to the extent of being tempted in every way we are, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15). This God takes sin seriously enough that he judges it in the body of Jesus Christ, who in some mysterious sense, willingly becomes sin on our behalf so that we can be counted as righteous (2 Corinthians 5:21) and hear the verdict that there is “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).
The vision of God as the God of grace revealed in Israel’s call and fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ makes a big difference in how we relate to God. We understand that God is intimately involved with us–he is a relational God, not just a projection of the best parts of our psyche. This vision of God calls us to live responsibly, but not as a way of earning his approval or love, because it acknowledges that his love is a pure gift. It understands that God is fundamentally for us and gracious toward us, so much so that he takes the initiative to come to us and reconcile us to himself. This God has teeth, but is also the God who runs out to meet us when he sees us from afar (Luke 15:20). He is not surprised or shocked by our failures and the darker sides of us, but is interested in healing them.
I was having a conversation with someone who was telling me that he feels so upset when he sins and feels like God is angry and disappointed with him. I asked him how he imagines God looks at him. Though we know God isn’t the old guy with a big white beard, I suggested he picture God sitting on his throne watching him. When he messes up, how does God react? Is he furious? Is he surprised? Frustrated?
We kind of laughed about this picture, but then I asked, “Well if God is any of these things, what is the purpose of grace? Isn’t grace necessary because God knows and sees how incapable we are of doing the right thing?” If God knows us fully, he isn’t going to be surprised by our weaknesses, so he freely provides the antidote. He isn’t fundamentally against us, but for us.
It’s a helpful spiritual exercise to pay attention to what we visualize when we think of God. If our idea of God creates fear, guilt, and anxiety, my guess is that vision of God is not the God of grace revealed in Jesus Christ, who is “the exact imprint of God’s very being” (Hebrews 1:3). The God of grace takes us seriously. He takes our sin seriously. But he also takes forgiveness and healing much more seriously. That’s a good vision of God, if I do say so, myself.
*(None of these ideas are really original to me, but have been gleaned from many conversations and books that have helped me re-form my idea of God.)