“The most portentous fact about any man is not what he at a given time may say or do, but what he in his deep heart conceives God to be like. We tend by a secret law of the soul to move toward our mental image of God.” – A.W. Tozer
Have you ever taken a mug shot of God?
But it didn’t turn out to be him.
In November 2008 I realized that I avoided God because I feared him. It was my first semester at Dallas Seminary. I sat on my brown falling-apart couch in my small apartment and trembled. I wanted to turn to God in prayer, but he seemed scary, distant, wrathful. The sort of God you’d need to approach with asbestos gloves. The sort of God you should lock behind bars. A criminal.
This seemed strange to me, since when I stared directly at the Bible’s descriptions of God, his attributes seemed clear. I knew he was loving, gracious, and kind. I believed he was holy, but also full of compassion and mercy. On paper at least, my theology seemed sound.
Why then, in the daily grind of life, did my heart turn away from him?
I realize now that my fear of God in those days was unintentionally programmed
into me since childhood. Programmed through the modeling of broken authority figures, the twisting of scripture, and the confusion of seeing God’s name used by my legalistic pastor to instill fear and consolidate his own control. Since actions speak louder than words, I spent 95% of my time absorbing lies about God (as I saw how my pastor related to me), and 5% of my time trying to wring them out (as I read scripture). It was no surprise that I found myself sopping wet with misperceptions about God.
Since so many of those mischaracterizations lived in the shadows of my mind, I decided to compile four false portraits and turn them into criminal profiles of other “gods.” That way, I could reject them when I saw them.
An illustration helps.
When I first lived in the singles dorm at the seminary, students staffed the courtesy desk in the lower lobby and served as dispatchers for campus police.
One late November night, Jay*–the student at the courtesy desk–observed through a security camera a man urinating against the dumpster in front of the building. It was 11pm, dark, and the camera gave only a grainy picture of the scene. Jay radioed campus police who came and apprehended one of several scruffy men parked in a nearby car.
The officer brought the man to the front desk. I heard him gruffly ask, “Is this him?”
“I can’t be sure,” Jay said. “It was really dark. I saw it on the security camera. I couldn’t pick out any features. There was a glare on the screen.”
The police officer sounded nonplussed. “Are you sure you can’t tell?” He then turned to the suspect and said, “Were you pissin’ on the dumpster?”
“No sir!” the man replied.
The officer let him go. Then the policeman turned to Jay. “Son,” he said, “it would be more helpful if when you call me over here you could give a clear description of the perpetrator so we can get a positive ID and I can give him a citation for criminal trespassing or indecent exposure. That way, we can say, ‘Get off our property and don’t ever come back!’”
In November 2008, as I drew these four criminal profiles of God, I wanted to sketch them so accurately that when they appeared in my mind I could say, “Get off my property and don’t ever come back!”
Criminal Profile 1: Glacial Godfather
God seems cold, distant, and austere. He is a father, sure, but a father in name only, as if it were just an official title. He seems more like a mafia don. He is a God I must fear and avoid. He always seems angry, always displeased, always severe. He loves to punish people and takes delight in causing pain. He does not care about my hurts, my desires, and my relationships.
I believe that he takes pleasure in my pain, loves to crush my dreams, and wants to harm my friends. He expects me to go into the family business, but I want nothing to do with it. I am most content when he is most distant. I do not trust him since the words he says in public are inconsistent with his private actions. With him, it is always “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”
Criminal Profile 2: Terrible Taskmaster
God obsesses over hard work. If he catches me resting, he beats me. If I don’t produce enough, he yells at me. God is more concerned about the product than the worker, and he gleefully sacrifices people to satisfy his expectations. My best effort is never adequate, and when I think that I have improved, he cuts me down in front of other people. He skulks around waiting to catch me in some error. When I
make a mistake, he magnifies it and tells me I am worthless.
God applies tremendous pressure to each person and makes them believe that everything depends on them. He is a perfectionist and impossible to satisfy. I resent this and feel defeated when I try to please God. He may love other people, I think, but he certainly doesn’t love me. How could he, when his unrealistic expectations crush me into the dust?
Criminal Profile 3: Hallowed Hypocrite
God is a total fake. Everything he says in his Word is a double-standard which he himself does not follow. While he tells me to love my neighbor as myself, he kills
my neighbors and sends them to hell. He demands that Christians sacrifice everything to follow him, yet he sits in unimaginable splendor in heaven. He expresses concern in his Word for perishing souls, yet he appears unwilling to lift a hand to intervene as they pass into destruction.
While he claims to be both sovereign and loving, he is unwilling to ordain the salvation of all people. He alone is able to produce repentance in people’s hearts, yet he holds people accountable when they fail to repent. He promises his Holy Spirit to assist them, yet he allows Satan to counterfeit the Spirit. God is all talk and no action, and he seems to take pleasure in double-speak and confusion.
Criminal Profile 4: Cosmic Killjoy
God has an almost paranoid fear that one of his children might somehow, someday be happy. He works very hard to prevent this, and takes great pains to prune joy, peace, and happiness as soon as they start to bud in one of his servants. God feels happiest when his people seem most miserable, and he takes a sadistic pleasure in destroying their plans and breaking their relationships. God gives men a sense of beauty, but they find beauty so rare in creation that it serves more to taunt them than to bless them.
God produces ardent desires in young people, then systematically destroys those desires and calls it “taking up their cross.” If I cherish a notion as to how I might best serve God, he will blast those plans and make me do what I most hate. God calls me to spend my time in quiet penance, personal misery, interpersonal conflict, inner agitation, and spiritual depression. He seems unwilling to lend a hand to help me, and seems most pleased when I feel most sorrowful.
These four criminal profiles are all blasphemous images of God. I now reject them in their entirety. I can see that how I viewed God was filtered through the personality and teaching of my former pastor who believed that he served as a mediator between God and men. Though we talked about grace and mercy in my church, in reality we lived as though we had to earn our own salvation. Though we studied God as a God of love, in my own experience he seemed a hateful and smug perfectionist.
Have you ever taken a mug shot of God?
You have? Then it’s not really him.
Tell that “god” to get off your property and never come back.
* Not his real name.
[The most accurate portrait of God I have ever read is A.W. Tozer’s Knowledge of the Holy. If you struggle with misperceptions about God, I encourage you to read this excellent short book.]
I have a question if you end up reading this: What exactly is the problem with profile #3? If I’m being honest, it seems completely accurate. God does have the power to do anything, and He causes billions of people to go into Hell for unbelief. He allows Satan to deceive and destroy us in millions of ways. Based on the real world that I see around me, God is a God that delights in confusion, all talk and no action, exactly how you described him. I’m not sure how you would rather portray God. Even in Scripture he is depicted as allowing the devil to wreak havoc, even among his most beloved servants, and having the power to harden hearts against belief.
You ask an important question, Danny. As you can tell from this post, I have struggled with the same doubts. There is no easy answer to this question, but I have found three hopeful answers as I struggle to make sense of my own life and the suffering in this world:
1.) First, God sovereignly chose to make people rather than robots. What makes someone a person? Intellect, emotion, and will. Without these three characteristics, you cannot be a person. The last characteristic is the kicker: will. That means we have the ability to choose. We can choose good, or we can choose evil, but either way it is our choice. The immediate results of Adam and Eve’s choice to sin was a Curse placed on the world. This world is not as God intended it to be. And yet we have hope, because even in Genesis 3, God planned to send a Savior, Jesus, who would defeat sin and Satan and provide redemption for the people of God.
God is sovereign, but he does not cause sin because sin is a result of personal choice by people. And that’s a great mystery, Danny. I don’t claim to have it figured out.
2.) Second, in my own life I have seen God redeem sin and pain for good. Much of the pain in my life is a result of my own poor choices. Not all of it, but much of it. Other pain in my life is the result of other people’s sinful choices. And yet God is working all of that out for good. He really is. Our scars become our ministry. And that gives me hope.
3.) And third, the cross itself shows that life is not fair. We make a mistake when we consider pain and suffering unfair. In actuality, pain and suffering are the natural result of sin in this world. We all deserve God’s judgment, since we all have sinned. But in God’s mercy and grace he has provided a substitute to take our place and pay the penalty that we deserve: Jesus. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).
Most of us do not complain when we receive what we don’t deserve (mercy and grace); but we moan and doubt when we experience the natural results of sin. In reality, God is very unfair: when he sent Jesus, he gave us what we didn’t deserve–a Savior who would redeem us and make it possible for us to live forever with God. I am thankful that God is not fair. But he is not a hypocrite. He does just what he says he will, and he always fulfills his promises.
A couple of resources for further study:
C.S. Lewis wrote about the “Problem of Pain,” and also “A Grief Observed.” I recommend both books to you.
Lee Strobel recently preached a helpful sermon on the question of suffering in this world: http://www.christianitytoday.com/le/2012/july-online-only/doesgodallowtragedy.html?start=1
But ultimately, you have to wrestle with God about these matters yourself. I hope you come to see, as I am doing more and more, that a world in which free people live can be nothing other than what it is: a world filled with pain and suffering as the result of the personal characteristic of choice. And yet it is also a world filled with goodness and love, isn’t it? God could have made robots who do everything mindlessly and without true volition, but a world like that would be impoverished and loveless.
And love, my friend, is worth the hurting.