If you follow Jesus, is the God in your mind the one in the Bible?
Growing up, I tried to keep my mother happy. The old adage, “Momma ain’t happy, ain’t NOBODY happy!” fit; many frowns and severe expressions. Our upbringings probably influence us even more than our personalities when it comes to whether we tend to be upbeat or morose, to see the best in things or the worst, or we smile a lot or mostly frown.
Maybe our parents’ demeanors and attitudes also influence our picture of God? God’s not got a face because He’s spirit, but if you’re like me, a blurry mental picture of God comes together when I worship or pray, one complete with a facial expression. If you do the same thing, is he usually smiling or frowning?
Some years back it occurred to me for the first time that my caricature has a mostly furrowed brow, a look of disappointment or even rebuke on His face–despite His own claim that He is full of compassion, slow to anger, abounding in love. I pondered my sour mental image for some time. Apart from much disapproval growing up, why this default image? Maybe because I know how ubiquitous sin is? How could God not be ticked off all the time? Managing over 7 billion people–most of whom at any given moment are worshiping other gods, ignoring his commands, rebelling against Him, loving the world and its stuff, and just generally flipping God off, has to liquidate joy doesn’t it? My children frustrated me at times and I was only a dad to three. Certainly with the number God has to oversee He has more than had it–and has every right to look disgusted.
God does hate sin. Wouldn’t you if sin’s price was your son’s tortuous execution? Don’t mistake Him for some jolly live-and-let-live Santa Clause who chuckles at sin like a father chuckles at his infant daughter throwing food on the floor. In Christ we’re called to repent of sin, flee it, and make no provision for it; live on a lifelong war footing against sin. But many Christians who are but are young in the faith or so weak they repeatedly stumble in one sin area, feel pierced by His penetrating eye. Even mature disciples who tend to walk faithfully can feel like they disgust God because even though they don’t fail much, they fail some.
But a frowning God is not a gospel God for two key reasons (neither of which are that we are really nice folks whom God can’t help but like ). First, He’s just as happy as can be with the love He and His Son and Spirit share. He doesn’t need a bunch of us to turn in a perfect performance for Him to be upbeat.
In The Pleasures of God, I think John Piper deals the death blow to a common myth that God created people because he was lonely. That would mean God is not complete in and of Himself–and more importantly, that the fellowship/love He and the Son had was not satisfying enough all by itself. In Delighting in the Trinity, author Michael Reeves argues that many Christians think God “…created us simply to get, to demand, to take from us” as if He needs us. That’s not true of the Bible’s God whom “…human hands can’t serve His needs–for He has no needs.” (Acts 17:25) And, if he doesn’t need us, then our poor performance, our idolatry, and our forgetfulness of Him won’t wreck His day.
If God was perfectly content with the love He shared with the Son and Spirit before the foundation of the world and the troublesome people that came with it, why should He now be discontent and angry? Such a notion is hilariously at odds with the gospel.
Which is the second reason a frowning God is out of character. It is the sweetness of the good news He fashioned for bitter people that tips us off that He’s not at all a curmudgeon–grumbling about how unreliable everybody is. Despite knowing full well we’d be a handful, God choreographed a rescue plan barbarically costly to Himself. This sweet gospel is not just God’s fallback plan to try and clean up after a dense humanity failed to appreciate His awesomeness. God always does things on purpose. Just like He worked over pharaoh to show Israel how great He was (Exodus 10:1b-2), the good news is a plan God thought through and decided on before we sinned, before Adam sinned, before the world even existed (1 Peter 3:20), to make sure no one could ever brag about a do-it-yourself salvation (1 Corinthians 1:29). It’s not a whip with which to flog sinners, but a lovingly generous piece of good news in which He punishes His innocent Son instead. And spares us.
Yes, God wants you to love and serve Him, but His day isn’t ruined when you don’t. Yours might be, but His isn’t. For the Lord your God is living among you. He is a mighty savior. He will take delight in you with gladness. With his love, he will calm all your fears. He will rejoice over you with joyful songs” (Zephaniah 3:17). Note, these very people whom God says He takes delight in are all still plagued by temptations and sin, are still stumblers, are still prone to cast sideways glances at idols, and are still battling self-centeredness and self-righteousness. They’re just like us. And God’s still smiling.