How Do You Imagine God?

Jun. 4, 2013 • Posted in Afloat

For most of my life, this is the image of God I have carried with me:

He is a professor, standing behind his desk, leaning forward on his knuckles, looming. His expression is grave, cautioning me against something I can’t name. He is as old as wisdom, with white hair and a white beard that reaches almost to his waist. He is youthful too: solid, tall, muscular. He could most certainly pick up that heavy desk and hurl it across the room—but he probably won’t. He isn’t angry at me, only disappointed.

I am his student, sitting within arm’s reach of him. I am separated from him by that massive desk, which is loaded down with knowledge that I can’t begin to understand. I am taking a test he has given me. And I am almost certain to fail it, as I have failed so many others.

I have no idea where that image came from, or how it took root, or why.  But I do know that it’s a powerful lens that colors the way I approach God and skews the way I read the Bible. If God is waiting for me to fail, if he is perpetually disappointed in me no matter the quality if my efforts to “get it right,” then this is how I read his Word:

It is a judgment against me, a ball and chain, a heavy reminder of everything I always get wrong.

In my novel Afloat, a mysterious man delivers a message to single-mother Danielle. She perceives it to be insulting and judgmental, and she lashes out at him:

Danielle held up her hand. “Are you from a cult?”

“No, I come from God.”

“Let me give you a tip on how to be more convincing, Mr. Smith: don’t put judgment and love in the same sentence.”

“This isn’t judgment, Danielle. Not yet.”

“Then what is it? The Living One who holds the keys to death? What’s he doing with those?”

“I don’t think you have heard the words correctly.”

You are weak. You are blind. You have nothing to call your own. What was there to misunderstand?

In Danielle’s case: everything.

And in my case, a whole heckuva lot. I’m biblically literate, I’m at least as smart as the average bear, but most theological discussions are above my pay grade. The Bible is a difficult book, “not for timid church mice,” as the late recording artist Rich Mullins once wrote in his liner notes for A Liturgy, A Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band. My recent reading of books such as Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes by Richards and O’Brien confirms this, and also point out how presumptuous much of my knowledge is, how limited my vision.

As it turns out, this awareness is freeing.

In recent seasons of difficulty my faith has been stripped down to its bare bones. My image of God has been challenged. My assumptions have been called in for questioning. What am I really sure about? What do I really believe? In the words of one of my favorite Newsboys songs, “I dunno, I dunno, I dunno.”

EXCEPT: “Your love is better than life,” is both the title of that song and the chorus. One truth, a powerful certainty.

I do believe in the unflagging love of God. Of what little I know for sure, there is this: I know that God loves me, loves you, loves the chosen and the outcast. And when I remember that I know this, that image of God-the-stern-professor—which comes from me and not from the scriptures—that image must stand aside. He can’t loom over me any longer.

As a result of trials, I have come to read the Bible in a new light. Not in the light of arrogant intellectual confidence, nor in the dim gray light of confusion, though there is plenty I don’t understand. What if, instead of being a book documenting the idiocy of the human race, the Bible is a love letter from a God who calls out, “Please, just let me love you. Let me show you my love. Let me show you the straightest path through darkness. Let me go with you into the valley of the shadow of death—please don’t go alone.”

When I read the word through this lens, everything changes. A new light falls across the words on the page, though the words themselves are unchanged. In that moment God is no longer a hulking professor waiting for me to blow it.

He is a wise and powerful old friend, the kind I can trust. He sits on the edge of his seat, no barriers between us. He leans forward, eyes on my face. He is bursting with anticipation, waiting for me to hear the love in his Word, wanting me to hear it, because he knows that his love is the only thing that separates me from death and destruction.

And when I finally do, he claps his hands and gives a laugh from the bottom of his being. His love is rich and warm and powerful. It frees me from the weight of judgment. It gives me strength. It helps me to see. It triggers in me the strongest desire to love him back.

Which is really the only thing I need to do to make it through this world.

Do you read the Bible as a judgment or as a love letter? What tips the scales for you?

Photo credit: Maria J AlemanFoter.comCC BY-NC-ND

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6 Comments

  • Ian says:

    Erin

    Powerful post. I grew up fearful of God and have a tendency to think like you do that I am continually letting Him down. Seeing the example of Jesus in His dealings with Zacchaeus, the woman at the well and such, demonstrate first and foremost He just loves us. And in knowing that we are always drawn to Him.

    I often describe the Bible as the best love letter ever written. However, I too often forget that when I’m holding on to tight to my stuff.

    Blessings Erin. Thanks again for another thought provoking post.

    Ian

  • erin says:

    I forget also! But I’m blessed to be surrounded by friends and family who are happy to keep reminding me of God’s astounding love. Thanks for coming by, Ian.

  • Ali says:

    I believe in a God so loving that He wants us to develop to our highest potential… so he tests us. We wouldn’t learn or grow to the utmost degree possible if He coddled us at every opportunity we got, which is why He doesn’t do that. He allows us to choose. He allows us to make mistakes. And yes, He allows those mistakes to affect others, because it’s all part-and-parcel of giving us our full agency. And when we DO make mistakes… we learn. We grow. Next time we do better, because we have a greater moral, emotional, or mental background. Even though the trial may have been tough, we come out of it as better people. And THAT is the mark of God’s love.

  • erin says:

    I agree, Ali. He’s an amazing, perfect parent, even when we don’t understand.

  • Is God responsible for human suffering? Is God cruel, capricious, and vindictive, or is He too weak to prevent suffering? If God truly is sovereign, how can He let someone He loves suffer?

  • erin says:

    Morgan, you ask profoundly difficult questions, and I’m the first to admit that I don’t know the answers. But we should all ask these questions. Suffering is a mystery that I believe we will understand some day, on the other side, even though today it makes no sense at all. I have chosen to believe that God loves us deeply. I choose to see him as a God who is sympathetic to our plight, who walks alongside us in suffering, who weeps with us in our grief, and if we allow it, who can strengthen us to bear the unbearable. Phil Yancey has written much more eloquently and authoritatively than I could about these questions in books like Where Is God When It Hurts? and What Good Is God? and Disappointment with God. Thank you for pressing into the questions with a vulnerable heart. Please don’t stop.


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