Can we imagine how offensive it must be to God when we attempt to reshape him according to our preferences? How would you like it if someone did that to you? Suppose a writer approached you and said, “I have been watching you, and I’d really like to write your biography. I want other people to know how wonderful you are.” But then their biography presents you as an astronaut with a string of failed relationships who lives alone with eighteen cats, none of which are true. So, you say to your biographer, “Uhhh . . . there’s a problem. First, I’m scared of heights; second, I am not that bad at relationships; and third, like all godly people, I prefer dogs to cats.”
They respond, “Oh, but you are so much more interesting as the spurned, cat-loving astronaut. People will only buy the book if you’re like that.”2
My guess is that you’d be offended. If we wouldn’t like someone else doing that to us, why would we think it’s OK to do that with God? Do we think that our idea of God is better than who he actually is?
Have we forgotten who we are talking about?
REMAKING GOD IN OUR IMAGE
When it comes to creating a God of our liking, a quip attributed to Voltaire holds true: “God created man in His own image, and man has been trying to repay the favor ever since.” God recognized this would be one of our greatest temptations, so in the second commandment he warned, “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below” (Exod 20:4).
We must be careful not to confuse this commandment with the first one, “You shall have no other gods before me,” as people often do. They might sound similar, but they are different. The first is about worshiping the wrong gods. The second is about worshiping the right God in the wrong way.
If you want to know how much of a temptation this is for us, consider that Israel broke this commandment before Moses had even come back down the mountain with the commandments.
Moses had been delayed in his return, and the people got scared. The promises of an invisible God were not enough for them, not when there were real needs, real enemies, and real dangers. They wanted a protector they could touch and see, whose presence they could verify. So they made a golden calf to represent God.
Notice how the narrator makes clear that with the golden calf Israel was not worshiping a new god but the true God in the wrong way: “When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, ‘Tomorrow there will be a festival to the LORD’” (Exod 32:5–6). “LORD” in all caps indicates God’s covenant name given specially to Israel. For the Israelites, this golden image became the one true God “as-we-would-like-him-to-be.”
We might be tempted to think that no one does this anymore. You probably don’t have a golden calf in your basement. And you probably haven’t melted down your wedding ring into an amulet you pray to. However, we make “graven images” whenever we edit God into a shape we’d prefer.
Sometimes, for example, we elevate one attribute of God above all the others. Maybe we prefer a God of love who is lax on judgment, accepting of all lifestyles, and open to all sincere attempts at self-salvation. Or maybe we like to think of God as hating whomever we hate. Or maybe we prefer a God who guarantees financial prosperity and promises to keep us from all pain.
Thomas Jefferson, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, loved many of the teachings of Jesus but found his miracles to be backward and distasteful. He wanted to be able to read the parts of the Bible he liked without being troubled by the parts he didn’t, so he literally cut them out. On display in the Smithsonian Museum is Jefferson’s Bible with various stories and teachings by Jesus removed.
I don’t approve of Jefferson’s approach, but I admire his honesty. We may not have physically cut out parts of the Bible, but do we follow Jefferson’s approach in our beliefs?
The pivotal question of faith is whether we are willing to accept God as he presents himself. Do we approach God listening for his “I am,” or do we quickly declare to him, “You should be . . .”?
One way we can tell if we’ve “remade” God in our image is by how often our “God” contradicts and offends us. If our God only affirms what we already think, we’re probably not listening to him and instead deifying our own convictions. After all, any independent person has their own ideas and opinions which unavoidably conflict with ours. How much more should we expect this with God?
A new reality show called 90 Day Fiancé recently caught my attention. Volunteers fill out a questionnaire that helps them describe their ideal spouse. Based on their answers, producers match them up with someone. Then they put them, sight unseen, together in a house for ninety days.
You can imagine what happens. At first it seems like everything is perfect; their match seems perfectly tailored to their liking. Inevitably, however, one partner does something the other doesn’t expect. A difference of opinion is revealed and conflict ensues. The newly coupled pair then has to choose: Do I like the actual person or only my version of this person?
Even though my wife and I chose each other after many months of friendship and dating, she still does things now that surprise and confuse me. Often her opinions conflict with mine. That’s part of being in relationship with an independent person. If that’s what living with another human is like, how much more should we expect that with God? Especially when we consider how much greater and wiser than us he is and how sinful and twisted our hearts actually are (Jer 17:9), should we really expect him to agree with us most of the time?
As theologian Karl Barth said, “If God doesn’t make us mad, we’re not worshiping him, but ourselves.”3 If our “God” never contradicts us and always likes what we like and hates what we hate, he’s not the real God. All we’ve done is deified our preferences and called the personification of those things “God.”
Greear, J. D., and David Jeremiah. 2018. Not God Enough: Why Your Small God Leads to Big Problems. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
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