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What picture comes to mind when you pray?” That was the question I put to my class, a group of some 40 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.”

This comment brought to my mind 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,” the boy said, “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 as Burke had planned. “ ‘If he’s like my father,’ ” muttered the youngster, “ ‘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 too.

Christians say that Father is still a good label for God. Jesus has 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.

Scripture 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 also the picture Scripture paints of our world when it was new. It 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 made everyone be good?

God of coercion

Scripture suggests, if we read between the lines, 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 God’s regime oppressive and restrictive. He argued for full personal freedom—unlimited selfishness, to be more blunt. And he accused God of being unfair and arbitrary by insisting that creatures follow His law of unselfish love instead.

How should God handle this enemy and his accusations? The quickest way out would have been to squelch him. 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 his option would have destroyed love; forever after, all God’s creatures would have served Him from fear lest they get squashed too. 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 own plan. If, in a fair test, God’s plan could be seen to be superior, God would win by persuasion, not coercion. Scripture suggests 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 “superjuice” 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 the point? Mercury, even in trace amounts, is destructive to life. It would be no arbitrary decision to keep this “superjuice” out of the hands of children. Trust me, says God, 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 is God’s only choice if He wants a kingdom of love. So God allowed the enemy to peddle his “superjuice” among His creatures. And the enemy found some takers. That’s why the world is a mess. 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. He allowed people to drink the “superjuice.” So it’s His fault—He’s responsible.

In a sense, they’re 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. I read a story a while back about a man who sued Phil Donahue for $15,000 damages because of Donahue’s dog. It seems the hound was lying injured beside the road (some accounts say the dog was simply standing beside the road uninjured). 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 the enemy tries to get us to believe God is like that. Unfortunately, too many human fathers are just like that—and not just fathers, for 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 and whatever they want. But I 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 we must bribe, for such a god is not easily satisfied. As Will Durant put it, 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 make sense only 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 Christ, God and the enemy show their true colors in all their glory. On the one hand, we see selfish love that would even kill God, and on the other hand, unselfish love that is willing to pay the ultimate price—willing to die for those who killed Him!

Contrary to what some believe that sacrifice doesn’t show that God is an angry Judge, demanding that if sinners don’t pay the penalty for sin, someone else must. Instead, it shows 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 truth about sin and the truth about love.

I had all the advantages of a Christian home and Christian schooling. But it wasn’t until I was a young man in my twenties 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 God, but a gracious God who made Himself known in Christ and who was reconciling the world to Himself through Christ.

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.

God's Characteristics

  • Approachable (Psalm 145:18)
  • Forgiving (Romans 3:22, 25)
  • Merciful (Deuteronomy 4:31)
  • Loving (John 3:16)
  • Compassionate (Judges 2:18)
  • Perfect (Matthew 5:48)
  • Unchanging (Hebrews 13:8)
  • Righteous (Romans 1:16, 17)

Challenging God's Reputation

by Alden Thompson
From the February 2011 Signs