Understatement alert: the God of Western Christianity is unpopular these days. The ‘new atheists’ dismiss our God as prudish and violent. Islamic extremists think he’s an oil-greedy hedonist. But the god they despise is not God. He’s an un-Christlike distortion — a deformed image that Western Christianity helped create.
Do you bear any un-Christlike misunderstandings of God? Let’s review five examples, then recall the perfect image of God — Jesus Christ.
1. God the doting grandfather
God the doting grandfather is syrupy ‘nice’ and rather naïve. He turns a blind eye while spoiling his grandkids with whatever they want. Similar metaphors include God the fairy godmother or the genie in the lantern who exists to serve us. More grotesquely, he’s a wealthy old sugar daddy who spends lavishly on his gold-digging mistress while she barters her phony affections for his inheritance.
A God who jumps to the prayerful snap of my fingers — wonderful! After all, Psalm 37:4 does promise, “he will give you the desires of your heart,” right? And didn’t Jesus also say, “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for” (Matthew 21:22) . . . until you don’t. Then we’re disillusioned and may resent God for not obeying our prayers.
2. God the deadbeat dad
To others, God feels like a deadbeat dad or the absentee landlord. This distortion often emerges for those who lose a parent through divorce or death. Their sense of abandonment casts a shadow on their impression of God.
They may imagine God has abandoned them. God, the Dad who walked out the door one day and never came back. God, the Dad I needed to show me how to grow up. God as unbearable absence. They feel like orphans.
3. God the punitive judge
Is God a punitive judge or harsh taskmaster? Some diagnostic questions might identify this distortion. In your childhood:
- Did you frequently hear about God’s condemnation of sin and punishment of sinners?
- Were there high-strung calls to repent with tearful remorse?
- Was there a sense of us and them, insiders and outsiders, sheep and goats? Did your sins endanger your sense of belonging?
- Were the ‘End Times’ and Armageddon prominent messages? Were you afraid of being ‘left behind’?
- Are you still tormented by old guilt, stuck in regret regardless of how sincerely you’ve repented?
- Do internal voices accuse and condemn you? Do you punish yourself with words or self-harm when you make a mistake?
- Do you feel like you’re never good enough? Or struggle with shame?
- Do you sometimes think God is punishing you?
These questions described my own angst as a born-and-bred evangelical. ‘Evangelical’ should be a positive word, but it’s often associated with a noxious commitment to ‘taking a stand’ against whatever and whoever God is against.
4. God the Santa blend
Sometimes a ‘Santa blend’ combines the previous distortions. A child’s ‘theology of Santa’ may get laminated onto their idea of God when the two are held so closely together during Christmas.
On one hand, Santa is legalistic and judgmental. “He’s keeping a list (of sins?); he’s checking it twice. He’s going to find out who’s naughty or nice.” He sees you — asleep or awake — and “knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake!” Were you good enough?
The flipside is the doting Santa. We can mail our requests to the North Pole or sit on his knee for a Polaroid, whispering our every wish into his ear. Sort of like, “Ask me anything in my name, and I will do it” (John 14:13-14), right?
But Christmas morning, under the tree are missing or mistaken presents . . . Where’s my pony and why the stupid socks? And so with God, (i) we ask for every desire, hoping our faith measures up, (ii) we’re disappointed by unanswered prayer.
Finally, Santa lives far away and visits just once a year — only in your sleep. How different from Jesus who said, “I am with you always” and “will never leave you or forsake you.” At the same time, we also heard God is in ‘heaven’ (beyond the North Pole) and coming again some day like a thief in the night!
5. God as magic-mirror Jesus
Even knowing Jesus alone is the image of God, we may reduce him to a magic-mirror projection of our heroes or ourselves. The great peril is that we worship ourselves via an image of God we created from our own egos or cultures.
We have hipster Jesus versus cage-fighter Jesus, Rambo Jesus versus United Nations Jesus. How about Gandhi Jesus, MLK Jesus, or Ronald Reagan Jesus?
On the grander scale, God may resemble our national culture. Thus, God is exactly like the ideal America, the god “in whom we trust.” But cross borders and you’ll find tolerant Canadian Jesus, godfather Italian Jesus, or strong-like-ox Russian Jesus.
It’s a stubborn fact: people develop ideas about God . . . then worship their idea. Ugly ideas. It can’t be helped.
Or can it be?
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God is like Jesus
Christian faith, boiled down, is the good news announcement that God — the eternal Creator of the universe — showed us exactly who he is and what he’s like in the flesh-and-blood person of Jesus Christ (Emmanuel — “God with us”).
Jesus has shown us the face and heart of God through his life on earth, revealed through the eyewitness accounts of his birth, ministry, death and resurrection. We regard this life as the decisive revelation and act of God, recorded faithfully in four Gospels. Our best hope of acquiring a healthy image of God is to immerse ourselves in the quality-controlled image of Christ found in those testimonies.
That’s still a faith statement, but for Christians, it’s a corrective lens for distorted vision. To gaze on Jesus — especially on his self-giving love on the Cross (1 John 3:16) — is to behold the clearest depiction of the God who is perfect love.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.