It is not news that we humans tend to make God into our image. In one sense it’s understandable. That is, we are limited in our knowledge, our intelligence, and our language, so we struggle to wrap our figurative arms around the literal truth of God. Even when we are accurate in our descriptions of God, we are never comprehensive. We can accurately say that God is “holy,” that God is “love,” or that God’s attributes include wrath, justice, omnipotence, and omniscience. We are then immediately limited by human language and human experience in defining those. Even when we use the inspired words of the Bible, we have to remember that a perfect God accommodated himself in revelation to a fallen humanity. We can certainly know him personally and can talk about him accurately and confidently. We just have to do so with care and humility, fully aware of our limitations.
It is still rather amazing how quickly and easily we make him into our image. Humans always have. Whether through ignorance or rebellion, we too often talk about him in the most careless fashion, reflecting not what he has revealed about himself in Scripture but what we wish he were or assume he is based on our own experiences and fallen emotions. I am not talking about using crude terminology like “the man upstairs,” but of theological descriptions and understandings that are driven by our desires or fears. For example:
1. “When all is said and done, God will give you what you deserve.” That is, he will weigh out the good and the evil and your eternal destiny – punishment or reward – will be based on what you have done. After all, isn’t that what we believe and want justice to look like here and now? There is some truth in this view of God. For one, God’s justice requires that sin be punished; sin and sinners should get what they deserve. That is the “justice” bad news. In God’s plan of grace, mercy, and love, however, Jesus voluntarily took that punishment on himself at the cross. Justice was done. Sin and sinners got what they deserved, but, unlike our human conceptions of justice, the guilty did not pay the price. The innocent One did in our place. That is the “justice” good news!
There is also an element of truth in the ides of “getting what you deserve” in the sense that the Bible suggests there are levels of eternal punishment and levels of eternal reward, based on one’s deeds done while in this life. However, the “balance” or the weight given to these deeds do not determine eternal destiny, rather the weight given is determined by one’s previously determined eternal destiny. In other words, trust in Christ alone will lead to or weigh out rewards based on good deeds in this life. On the other hand, rejection of Christ will lead to an appropriate level of punishment for evil deeds done in this life.
So, seeing God in the same way that we see Lady Justice down at the courthouse is putting him into our image – our image of justice. Will justice be done? Yes, it already has been at the cross. Will I get what I deserve? Not for my sins, because Jesus paid for those. Will I be rewarded for good deeds done in and by faith in this life? Yes, and I trust him for what that will be.
2. “God is pure love, so he can do no other than forgive all.” The implication is that God is not seriously concerned with holiness or justice (unless, perhaps, it is for the other guy). This is a popular concept. Many people conceive of God as a benign, loving, grandfather in the sky who will ultimately overlook their sins (for theirs are not as bad as the other guy’s), so that all will be saved. As once infamously stated, “God will forgive me. After all, that’s his job.” This view refuses to see (hopes not to see?) any holiness or justice in the character of God. Instead, a sentimental love is projected on him in hopes that he will overlook the little bitty evil in our lives. Of course, if Hitler or Stalin or Bin Laden or any number of serial killers or pedophiles are mentioned, then “there is a special place in hell for them.”
In this inconsistent view of God, sin is defined only as the most horrible and despicable acts against humanity, which someone else always commits. As long as one doesn’t fall into any of those extreme sinful categories, a loving and forgiving God will overlook sins (which somehow are never against him!), not on the basis of the work of the cross, but because he can surely only be kind and gentle. Ultimately, unless you are Charles Manson, God doesn’t really care what you do or believe. Believe whatever you want and live however you want, because in the end it will all be OK.
3. “God is good, God is love, and spiritual laws he has set up obligate him to bless me!” Well, yes, he is good and he is love. And, there are spiritual principles found in Scripture which apply to me, such as “Ask and it will be given you,” or “Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly.” These principles, however, have to be interpreted and applied correctly, taking into account what the Bible says elsewhere, such as “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness” and “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives.” Furthermore, these spiritual principles are never to be seen as above God in the sense that he is obligated to them. Yes, God keeps his promises; however, he is not obligated or bound to anything or anyone.
Bottom line, God is not a sky bound vending machine, who is obligated to bless and prosper me just because I insist on it or try to put some kind of human powered faith into action. My faith should be in him, not to direct or control him. That approach is one the crassest of the ways we make God into our human image. We measure prosperity by visible stuff. So, we want stuff, we like stuff, he’s gotta give us stuff.
In these examples, we are building an image of God based on either personal experience or personal desires. Why do we do this? Well, we are fallen, we are sinful, we are selfish, we are . . . so many things. Rather than go to Scripture to understand the God of perfect love, grace, mercy, holiness, justice, and righteousness as presented there, we project our highly imperfect understandings, desires, hopes, and expectations on him. And usually it is a disaster.