What picture comes to mind when you pray?” That was the question I put to my class, a group of 40-some upper-division students on a Christian university campus. Their responses were all over the map: “blinding light,” “black hole,” “frantic switchboard operator,” “kindly man sitting under a tree.” And then the sobering one: “A man who looks like my father, standing with arms folded, a scowl on his face.”
I thought of a story told by Carl Burke, author of God Is for Real, Man. At a youth camp, Burke was hiking with a group of inner-city youngsters. After they had been on the trail for a while, one of them had a question for him. “Mister,” said the boy, “what’s God like?”
Rising to the occasion with warmth and enthusiasm, Burke began, “God is like a father.”
The boy was impressed—but not in the way Burke had expected. “If he’s like my old man,” the youngster muttered, “I sure would hate him.”
God’s nasty reputation
That’s the story of God’s nasty reputation, a reputation reinforced by a host of nasty fathers and scarcely counterbalanced by fathers who are good. No wonder the disciples asked Jesus to show them the Father! (John 14:8). Apparently, like the students in my class, their pictures were all over the map.
Christians say that “Father” is still a good label for God, and Jesus had a lot to do with that. But before we talk about Jesus, we need to talk about sin and what it means for God’s reputation.
The Bible gives us glimpses of a world where no one will hurt or be hurt (Isaiah 11:9); where goodness is so ingrained that nobody has to tell anybody what to do (Jeremiah 31:34); a world without pain, tears, or death, where everyone worships God willingly and with joy (Revelation 21:1–4; 22:1–5). Of course, that’s the picture the Bible paints of our world when God first created it. The Bible also tells us that sin spoiled that world, that it brought in self-centered living, which gave us the mess we live in today. Would it work better if God were the One in charge and He forced everyone to be good?
A God of coercion
Reading between the lines, the Bible suggests that an enemy has accused God of doing just that—accused Him of trying to force everyone to do things His way. The enemy declared that God’s regime was oppressive and restrictive. Satan argued for full personal freedom—unlimited selfishness, to put it bluntly. And he accused God of being unfair and arbitrary because of His insistence that His human creatures follow the path of unselfish love.
How should God handle this enemy and his accusations? The quickest way out would have been to squelch this enemy. But that would simply have proven the accuser right, transforming him into a martyr to “the truth.” More than mere pragmatics, however, led God to exclude this option of instantly destroying the rebel, for God is love, and pursuing this option would have destroyed love. Ever after that, all God’s creatures would have served Him from fear. No, this quick option was no option at all for a God of love.
The alternative was to give the enemy time and space to try his plan. If, in a fair test, God’s plan could be seen to be superior, God would win by persuasion, not coercion. And the Bible tells us that God embarked on just such a plan.
But implementing such a “fair test” poses problems of its own. I’ll use an extreme example to make my point. Imagine someone arguing that humans should drink orange juice laced with mercury. This “super juice” is touted to be far superior to natural orange juice. It’s even capable of transforming human beings into gods who know good and evil.
Do you see my point? Mercury, even in trace amounts, is destructive to life. It’s no arbitrary decision to keep this “super juice” out of the hands of children! And it’s the same with God. “Trust me,” God says. “Adulterated orange juice (selfishness) is not good for people.”
But what if some people don’t trust God? Should He give them the terrible freedom to destroy themselves with a poison? In a sense, that was God’s only choice if He wanted a kingdom based on love.
So God let the enemy peddle his “super juice” among His creatures. And the enemy found plenty of takers! That’s why the world is such a mess today. People are drinking the poison—and they’re dying.
“It’s God’s fault”
The enemy uses the fact that people are dying as a second challenge to God’s reputation. He says God is the culprit. God made the mercury, and He allowed people to drink the “super juice.” So, it’s His fault. He’s responsible.
In a sense, he’s right. But look at it this way. Suppose I’m so busy watching the squirrels in the park that I forget to watch where I’m going and smack into a tree. I can claim that the bruise on my head is God’s fault. After all, He created squirrels, trees, eyes, legs, and feet—all those things that contributed to the bump on my head. It’s His fault.
Humans can be just that ridiculous. Did you hear about the man who sued Phil Donahue for $15,000 in damages because of Donahue’s dog? It seems the injured hound was lying beside the road. When the man drove by, he looked at the dog instead of the road and ran into a fire truck. So pay up, Donahue. It’s your fault!
God’s enemy is good at games just like that.
In our image
This brings us to the third challenge to God’s reputation. The enemy’s poison is a self-centered love that grabs, and then he tries to get us to believe God is like that. Unfortunately, too many human fathers are just like that—and not just fathers but all authority figures shape our picture of God.
A selfish world works like this: I grab what I can get. If I’m bigger and tougher than you, I grab what I want of yours. Similarly, those who are bigger and tougher than I am (authorities included) grab whatever they can, whatever they want. But I’ll lie and cheat—and maybe kill—to keep them from taking what I have or want.
In such a world, I imagine the worst of you and of them; you and they imagine the worst of me; and we all project those feelings onto God, the biggest and most powerful authority of all.
That’s the recipe for just the kind of world we see all around us.
Now, what if we want something from this cruel god we’ve made our God out to be? Then I must bribe him, for such a god is not easily satisfied. As the American writer and historian Will Durant put it in Our Oriental Heritage, speaking of those who sacrificed their children to the god Baal: “In some way the god had to be appeased and satisfied; for his worshipers had made him into the image and dream of themselves, and he had no great regard for human life, or womanly tears.”
God’s true colors
Is God really like that? Not if I read my Bible correctly. God has taken many steps to tell people the truth about Himself and the world He wants them to live in. But all these small steps only make sense in light of His final, giant step: the Incarnation, God’s act of assuming human flesh, living a human life, dying the worst form of human death—all for the purpose of showing the universe that sin is sin and love is love. At the cross of Jesus, God and the enemy show their true colors in all their glory. There we see selfish love that would even kill God and unselfish love that is willing to pay the ultimate price—willing to die.
Contrary to what some people believe, that sacrifice doesn’t show that God is an angry judge demanding that if sinners don’t pay the penalty for sin, they’ll all die. It shows, instead, a holy God who pays the penalty Himself, taking human flesh in the person of His Son, allowing selfishness to have its way with Him, so the universe can know the hard truth about sin and the merciful truth about love.
On the third day, Jesus’ resurrection declared the victory of the good kind of love over the bad kind. But the Resurrection was not a victory for love alone. It demonstrated forever the bond between God and love. That’s why Jesus could tell the disciples, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). In the Incarnation, we see the love of the Father as well as that of His Son.
I had all the advantages of a Christian home and Christian schooling. But it wasn’t until I was a young man in my 20s that I fully realized that Jesus was and is God. The truth flashed from the Gospel of John like a bolt of lightning. Suddenly I knew that the God I served wasn’t a hard-to-please, reluctant Deity but a gracious God who made Himself known in Jesus and who was reconciling the world to Himself through Him.
“Like father, like son.” It’s more than just a popular proverb: it’s true. And that explains why I follow God with such passion these days. If God is like Jesus, I can serve Him forever.
So can you.
Alden Thompson is a retired professor of biblical studies at Walla Walla University in College Place, Washington, USA