What is your picture of God? If someone asked you to draw God right now, what sort of image would you draw? No Sunday school answers, please. Jesus is the untainted imago dei. Even the demon believe this.
Who is God to you, like for real?
I ask this for one reason: the God you see when you close your eyes is your God. A. W. Tozer says:
What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us…Were we able to extract from any person a complete answer to the question, ‘What comes into your mind when you think about God?’ we might predict with certainty the spiritual future of that person.
You will become the image of God you observe, for better or worse. I guarantee it.
A disturbing idea, this is. I get it. For it says you can check all the spiritual growth boxes – Bible study, prayer, worship, community – and still not become more like God (And that is the point, right?). You can pastor a large church, sell all your trinkets and hop a plane to Africa, minister to the poor, orphaned and widowed, and yet, still, not look much like Christ.
How is this possible? But it is. You probably know a pastor who seemed a stand-up guy, a man who loved his wife and family and community but hid demons in his closet that made the skeletons uneasy. And when the demons made themselves known to the world, you were equal parts shocked and horrified.
You might remember the scandal involving the Catholic church, where priests (the leaders, hello) sexually assaulted young boys. There’s a movie, Spotlight, that chronicles the whole disgusting thing. It should be required watching, as a cautionary tale if nothing else. These priests, why did they commit such heinous sins? Did they read and study the Bible? Well, yes. Did they serve their faith community? They did. They even loved God, I contend. Yet, their actions didn’t much reflect their Creator. We agree, yes?
Shall I go on? What about the Christians who supported slavery? I’m from the south, born and raised. The dark cloud of racism hovers over my land, even today, even over the church. Raise your hand if you think such behavior is God-like? You’d be a fool.
So, I’ll ask again: why do some followers of Jesus who know the Scriptures and the character of God, and genuinely care about serving their community and pursuing justice in the world, why do they assault women or manipulate young boys or defend slavery?
They have a distorted image of God. If you asked their deepest, truest, most honest self to draw God, you would see a God who’s eternally angry or expects perfection or loves violence or rules over through control and manipulation or keeps his distance or seems apathetic about the world’s atrocities (see Auschwitz).
God conforms to whatever image we project from our hearts and minds onto the world, for better or worse. Our most important task in this life, then, is purifying our image of God.
Now, please don’t hear me say that we have control over the character of God. God is love, has been and will be for all of eternity, Amen. You can’t change that. Neither can I. But, for whatever reason, when we project onto God something he’s not (lover of violence or whatever), God chooses to work through us anyway. He doesn’t deliver us a divine slap in the face, a wake-up call of sorts, every time we get him wrong (although I’m on record as saying he should).
If the greatest task before us is purifying our image of God, where do we begin? With repentance.
Both Jesus and John the Baptist’s first sermons were the same: “Repent!” That word, repent, means “change your mind.” Heaven and earth are set to collide. If you do not change your thinking, if you do not open your heart to the newness waiting just beyond the horizon, you will miss out.
And some did.
Now, watch this.
Who missed out? Most notably, the church leaders of Jesus’ day, right? Right. The pastors and Bible teachers and such. Why? Their picture of God was drawn in permanent marker and hung up in their office. A honey-and-locust-eating-lunatic and his I-am-the-Son-of-God-talking little cousin were not going to change that.
Even as Jesus grew in wisdom and offered these first-century church leaders clear demonstrations of his divine power (healing and exorcisms and authoritative teaching), they refused to believe. Their image of the Messiah – the one they read about in the Old Testament prophets – looked nothing like the flesh-and-bones Savior in their midst.
So they crucified the actual Savior rather than questioning the ones in their mind.
They were unwilling to ask hard questions. Calling your perceptions of God into question will always qualify as such, by the way. So hard, in fact, most of us don’t even consider it until our life falls apart. As long as we have it together, lounge in the seat of power or breathe the air of comfort and security, we won’t question our image of God. There’s too much to lose. Too much is at stake.
To respond to Jesus’ first sermon (Repent!), you would have to look right into the eyes of that man in the mirror and say, “Yep, I’m the problem.” You might even have to find a counselor.
Yuck. You’re a special kind of weird if you enjoy such things.
Not until my life burned to the ground did I put my image of God on trial. A true mic-drop-caliber-implosion it was. Losing my job. Losing a child. Losing my identity. A lot of losing happened at one time.
Something else I lost in the carnage, though: my image of God. Any other time, I would have drawn a duplicate image and tarried on. But hey, I had nothing to lose. Why not entertain a new one?
Before I could get on with the new, though, I had to let go of the old. I heard someone say the difference between change and transformation is that change is adding something new while transformation is letting go of something old. As much as we despise change, even more with transformation. We’re an addicted bunch, us humans. We don’t easily let go of anything, even if it’s dragging us to the ground.
All my life I operated with an image of God that was part agitated grandfather, part perfectionist parent. I had no idea, mind you. God is love and mercy and grace, this I know. The Bible tells me so. But I also knew that verse where Jesus said, “You must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” And for whatever reason, I hyper-focused on that short sentence. Ten little words. You must be perfect. I must be perfect. PERFECT! No blemishes.
By the way, you want some idea about your functional, operating image of God, the real one, not the Sunday-school-answer-one? Look at the Bible verses you focus on at the expense of others? For every verse we hyper-focus on, there’s almost always that counteracts it. 9.99 times out of 10.
Do you use the Old Testament stories of genocide and God-ordained murder to justify violence and wars and guns? Fine. But what about the army of verses, even in the Old Testament, about love and peace (and most all of the New Testament)?
If you choose, you can make the Bible your puppet. You can tug on its strings and make it say and do whatever you choose.
I saw my world through the lens of perfection (or lack of). I projected perfection onto all my relationships. I brought this distorted image into the church and taught it on Sundays mornings. I stood high on that pulpit and talked down to everyone in the pews, asking them to live up to an impossible standard. Looking back, it was a haunting reflection of my relationship with God.
There’s a Chinese proverb that says, “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right name.” When I saw my distorted image of God for what it was, I could finally name it. Once you name something, you can begin releasing yourself from its grip.
In recent years, I’ve prayed for the strength to let go of those images of God that aren’t truly him. God is not interested in perfection. I believe that now. He’s interested in wholeness. Not a command, but an invitation to participate in God’s work, the bringing together of all things.
I’ve also prayed for the discipline to trust and to wait. Distorted images of God aren’t drawn in a day. They’re crafted and refined through years of experiences, going back to childhood. Transformation takes time. Be patient. God isn’t in a hurry.
But more than anything, I’ve prayed for a willing and open heart and mind. Call it a posture of repentance, I guess. Sweet Jesus, this is hard. I love the comfort and security of knowing. I loathe change.
But I also know my future is eternally soldered to my willingness to remain open and honest. So is yours.
Grace and peace, friends.
Frank is lead writer and editor for the blog at Bayside church. He is also a husband, father and Jesus-follower. Occasionally he plays golf. Often he drinks coffee.