Letting Go of Who We Want God to Be

What do you do when the god you imagine isn’t the God who is?

The move to maturity in faith involves accepting the revealed God instead of an ideal god.

If the leap of faith we are taking is toward Christianity, our view of God is built on the revelation of God in the flesh as the person of Jesus of Nazareth. According to Scripture, in this Jewish man, the fullness of God was revealed. As Jesus said, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). The revealed God is Jesus; the ideal god is the accumulation of our expectations. If our description of the Christian God doesn’t look like Jesus of Nazareth, then we are looking at our ideal, not the real.

If we say that God is too holy to be around sinners, then that’s our expectations, because the revealed God spent so much time with the most shamed sinners of the first century, including drunks, that some people assumed Jesus of Nazareth was a drunk.

If we think that God doesn’t enter into suffering and pain, then that’s our expectations, because Jesus of Nazareth experienced the worst humanity has to offer.

If our god doesn’t fit on a cross, then we have created a deity based on our expectations.

Differentiating between the ideal and the real doesn’t come easily. Jesus’s own disciples spent a substantial amount of time with him and still couldn’t differentiate. After Jesus finished a teaching about the Son of Man having to suffer, be rejected and be killed, Peter pulled Jesus aside to give him some notes—as if he and Jesus were two baby preachers learning how to preach—because the idea of Jesus suffering didn’t fit Peter’s expectations. Jesus responded by saying to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matt. 16:23).

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It’s bad to have a friend call you Satan.

It’s really bad when that friend is God.

But after Peter’s expectations were deconstructed, the faith that was resurrected in Peter turned out to be a faith upon which Jesus could build the church. Initially, Peter followed the suffering-free god of his expectations; eventually, he followed the crucified God.

The eighteenth-century French philosopher Voltaire said, “In the beginning God created man in his own image, and man has been trying to repay the favor ever since.” We choose the ideal over the revealed because the revealed does to us what Jesus did to Peter: It offends.

God in the abstract is acceptable.

God incarnate is problematic.

The idea of a god who embodies our expectations is easier to stomach than a specific God, because we are more comfortable with who we want God to be. All our hopes and dreams of what the divine should do are still on the table. When God is revealed, in a specific person with a specific message, we might not like where the ship is heading. But in this realization that God isn’t our god, we are offered the invitation to maturity.

We can relinquish our claims over God and instead let God make claims over us. In this unnerving process of letting go of our naive ownership of God, we are able to receive who God actually is.

One sign that we are maturing is when we find ourselves believing in a God we don’t always like. Maturity in faith has always required acceptance of how God doesn’t fit into the mold of what we would like God to be.

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Jesus had just finished an offensive teaching that caused many to stop following him. Jesus then turned to the 12 disciples and asked if they too wanted to leave. Peter responded, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).

The God we might like would be heavy on the divine but light on the dust.

The God we might like would eradicate all suffering.

The God we might like would provide indisputable miracles.

The God we might like wouldn’t ask us to do unthinkable things such as forgive or show generosity.

The God we might like would go to a cross for us but wouldn’t ask us to carry our own cross.

But like Peter, we stay, even when none of our expectations are fulfilled, because in God we’ve found life. Why do we worship God when God doesn’t always fit our definition of good? Because unlike the transience we’re surrounded by, the transcendent offers something eternal. It doesn’t provide the protection of an exoskeleton, but it becomes the endoskeleton around which we can build our existence.

When we discover that our spouse doesn’t match our ideal, we stay because we’ve found love.

When we discover that God isn’t our ideal, we continue in faith because we’ve experienced something transcendent. We’ve experienced everlasting life, and where else can we go?

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Excerpted from God Over Good by Luke Norsworthy. Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group. Copyright 2018. Used by permission. BakerPublishingGroup.com