Getting to Know God - Part 1
The other day, I started to make a list of some of the ways people conceptualize God. It seems that there are countless possibilities and I won't try to give you an exhaustive list, or we'd never get to anything significant. To set a background for our time together, here are a few perceptions people have of God.
- I think God is mostly there to help me when I need Him. Like when I'm sick or need help of some kind.
- I think of God as being a long way away - so far away that He's really inaccessible. He's not very relevant to me.
- I think of God kind of like my grandpa who died when I was little. I'm sorry I can't get to know Him very well.
- I think God is great! He's so generous. If you have enough faith, He's sort of like Santa Claus for grown ups.
- I think of God like the genie in Aladdin's magical lamp. If you can get His attention, He does stuff for you.
- I think that God just loves everybody - sort of an "I'm o.k., you're o.k." kind of guy. We all need someone in our life to just love us the way we are.
- I think of God more like a policeman that anything. God knows all the rules and just waits for us to break them so He can punish us somehow.
- The main thing about God is that He is organized and likes everything done very orderly. God isn't really all that mysterious.
So there you have a modest start on a very long list of idea people have about God. On one hand, we could never seriously consider all of the possibilities, but at the same time, there are some general categories into which opinions about God fall. To help us organize our thoughts, I would like us to think of a few boxes in which we can sort ideas about God.
To begin, we'll look at a box of concepts labelled "God in the Distance." All of the ideas in this box relegate God to some remote sphere of time and space where His interest in earth in general and his human creation in particular ranges from disinterest to neglect. There are several reasons why people tuck God into this "God in the Distance" box. Maybe they've prayed and thought nothing happened. Maybe they've looked at the way things are going in the world and assume that there is no big plan behind what's happening. Maybe they've been exposed to philosophical systems which hold that the concept of God is irrelevant to 21st Century human beings. Whatever the reason, some see God as far away and disinterested in us.
In Psalm 46, we read that God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. From this we understand that God is not remote. Does that mean that we will always be aware of his presence? Unfortunately not. God calls us to a relationship and I suspect that most of us know that physical proximity does not always produce a sense of closeness. When there is offence or emotional estrangement, two can be very close and yet the distance between them is profound. If you sense that you are far from God, it may be that there is something between you. Unforgiveness, pride, unwillingness to turn from your own agenda - in short, sin. If you have always felt that God was distant from you, this is the reason. You have not dealt with the offence which separates God from you and experienced his presence in your life.
In Paul's letter to the church at Rome, he expressed it this way. Those who have come to God through Jesus, do not live their life "in the flesh" that is controlled by and limited to the physical realm, but "in the Spirit" because God gives His Spirit to His children so that they can transcend the physical. They have spiritual life. While still living in the physical realm, there is a spiritual dimension which allows them to have an ongoing relationship with God. This is where faith comes in. While their physical environment may be exactly the same as that of their neighbours who don't know God, their understanding of the circumstances and their responses to the circumstances will be deeply affected by the spiritual dimension of which they are aware and on whose spiritual resources they can draw.
I often speak to people who remind me that God is interested and involved in the life of everyone who opens him or herself to the possibility of an intimate relationship with God. So based both on what the Bible says and on personal experience, we can say with confidence that God is not distant.
Let's take a look in another box of ideas about God. This one could be called the "Caricature of God Box." In it, we find an array of concepts about God which are all distorted in one way or another. This is not to say that the exaggerated aspect of God's character which is in view is entirely false. It's just not as prominent as the caricature would lead us to believe.
I suspect that most of us have been exposed to political cartoons in newspapers. Some cartoonists are amazingly good at taking one element of a person's face and exaggerating it to the point where the subject becomes laughable. He or she is still quite identifiable, but the nose, or chin, or teeth, or ears, or eyes are so out of proportion, that's all we pay attention to.
Some people do this with God. For example, it is true that God is holy and just and will judge all those who refuse to submit to his righteous rule. For some, this becomes God's prominent feature. They see Him in their mind's eye as "God the vengeful." They can even point to verses from the Bible to support their caricature of God. For example, they might point to Ezekiel 21:31-32 where God says, "I will pour out mine indignation upon you, I will blow against you in the fire of my wrath, and deliver you into the hand of brutish men, and skilful to destroy. 32 You shall be for fuel to the fire; your blood shall flow throughout the land; You shall be utterly forgotten: for I the LORD have spoken it."
Wow! What a vivid picture. Is God really like that? Would He really judge people that harshly? Could He be so offended by anyone's actions that He would respond this way? The answer is, "Yes" as distasteful as it may be for some. But is this all there is to God? No! Does God ever demonstrate mercy? Of course! Does God like to see people mess up so He can punish them? Definitely not!
Here's another cartoon figure of God from the "Caricature Box." This one is the opposite of the one we just considered. We might call this one "God, the Meek." To create this picture, the artist looks at verses like 2 Peter 3:9 where Peter tells us that God is patient toward us and not willing that any should perish, but that all would repent and be saved. They may back this up with a passage like 1 John 4 which underscores the love of God, going so far as to say that "God is love."
This leads some to the conclusion that the essence of God is love and that this overcomes elements like justice, condemnation, punishment, death, hell and basically anything we humans find unpleasant or distasteful. This is really unreasonable. As people, we hate stereotypes, and pigeonholing. We can become quite indignant when someone else overlooks some aspects of our complex personal makeup and reduces us to a uni-dimensional, cardboard cut-out figure.
If this seems inappropriate to us because we see ourselves as richly complex with diverse qualities and strengths, how much more inappropriate is it to do the same kind of thing to God. God reveals Himself as balanced. If we accept this, we are forced to take Him seriously. Some of us don't want to do this. Just as, in the case of racial prejudice, some judge others only by the colour of their skin, the shape of their eyes, the characteristics of their hair, the overall size of their stature, some stereotype God so as dismiss Him as too harsh, too weak, too soft, too judgmental and so on.
The fact is that God is even more richly diverse than we as humans are and beautifully balanced. Let me point out some passages where God addresses this. In Isaiah 54:8 we read, "'In a little anger, I hid my face from you for a moment; but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on you,' says the LORD your Redeemer." Over a page or two in Isaiah 60:10 we read of God saying to His people: "in my wrath I struck you, but in my favour I have had mercy on you. Another Old Testament prophet, Habakkuk by name, expressed the complexity of God's character in his prayer when he asked God to remember mercy in his anger. Moving to the New Testament, we find the words of the apostle James expressing a similar idea when he wrote: "mercy triumphs over judgment."
Once again, based on both the Bible and the experience of countless individuals down through time we understand that God is perfectly balanced. We should be careful to not reduce Him to some ridiculous, easy-to-ignore caricature. Ironically, sometimes it is those who speak out most vehemently against stereotyping within the human community who find it so easy to portray God in an exaggerated, unrealistic way. At the same time, even those who truly love God and seek to know Him and honour Him in their life, can inadvertently slide into a skewed view of God. It is a challenge for all of us to keep growing in our appreciation of God as He revealed Himself through the pages of the Bible and in the life of His people.
If we limit God to our own perceptions of what He is like, we can be sure that we are not getting the whole picture. Let's take a moment to look at one example of how two seemingly opposite views of God come together perfectly, allowing God to be truly all that He is and giving us a well-rounded understanding of how we can bring together what seem, at first blush, to be irreconcilable characteristics.
We've already seen today that God is holy and is ready, willing and able to take action against those who oppose Him. This is true of those who cheerfully, openly defy Him, as well as of those who simply choose to live life by their own standards and to please themselves.
We've also seen that God is love and is not willing that anyone should suffer the consequences of his or her sin by being cut off from Him for eternity. We sometimes use the word "perdition" to describe this condition. Our word perdition comes from a root meaning loss. Losing all hope of reconciliation with God is the ultimate loss.
So how can God stay true to both of these opposing aspects of His character: Justice which can brook no sin and Love which is unwilling to allow any to be lost? The answer to this is to go to the cross. There, we see the Son of God dying. He is suffering horribly. He is paying the enormous price of sin - separation from God. However, He is not paying this price for his own sin. He is on the cross in our place. God's justice is satisfied because the price is being paid. God's love is satisfied because He is paying the price Himself.
Therefore, anyone who accepts the death of Jesus on the cross as the payment for his or her own sin is released from the eternal consequences of that sin - separation from God. This is the point we wanted to arrive at today. The place where we can help you make sense of what happened on the cross. In many ways, the criminal execution of a peasant in a distant land 2000 years ago is meaningless. How many others must there have been? Yet this one is different. It is laden with significance because God was there, in person.
Listen to these words from the pen of the apostle Paul as he wrote to his friends in the first century city of Corinth. He wrote: "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them."
So you see, this is God's interpretation of what happened on the cross, not mine. "God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them." Instead, God was bearing the death penalty of sin Himself. Surely, this calls for a response from us.
© January 2005