How to Know God Correctly
How to know God as He really is would be a noble thing to aspire to. After all, a correct knowledge of God and what He is like is very important in determining what our attitude towards Him will be. As author Marilyn Campbell illustrates, if you are considering buying a house you need to look at both the front and back yards. We need to look more deeply into the character of God than at just what His critics say about Him. And even our own perception can be affected by our not considering all the angles. Most of us don't even spend much time looking at what the Bible says about Him.
This is chapter 1 of the book Light on the Dark Side of God. Go back to the Introduction
OUR MISUNDERSTOOD GOD
"The earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea" (Isaiah 11:9).
Years ago a realtor showed me a house as a possible purchase. It was a "fixer-upper," modestly priced, boasting a glorious eastern view from the large living room window. Rich dark grass and the thick hanging foliage of shade trees and ornamental bushes stretched out toward a patchwork valley floor, which faded into blue hills far in the distance. The view was everything the realtor said, from that direction. But he didn't say much about the back yard, set up against a rail fence that surrounded the local stockyards. Only a salesman could evaluate that house without reference to the back yard. When my thoughts turn to the Being we call "God," I remember that house, for there is also a wondrously strange side to our traditional view of God - a side that seems dark to us at times - a perplexing side rarely mentioned from the pulpit today, even though it has puzzled thoughtful men and women for centuries, perhaps millennia.
Sinners In the Hands of an Angry God
The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, as the most hateful and venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince: and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment: it is ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you was [sic] suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep; and there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God's hand has held you up: there is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell, since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship: yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not at this very moment drop down into hell.
Edwards so moved his congregation with his description of God's character and the tortures of the damned, he sparked a revival known to history as the Great Awakening. Such is the power of a sermon well prepared. But his style has gone out of fashion among the clergy, and they, like my real estate salesman, generally consider it inappropriate to mention "the back yard" any more.
How can God exercise such "cruel and unusual" punishment as drowning the world, burning cities and the humans in them, and still be considered loving and just, as He and His adherents claim? He extended Himself to the lengths of Calvary to preserve our freedom of choice. But is choice really free, with God standing over us to destroy us if we choose wrong? After enduring the cross to redeem humanity, thus showing His loving character before the universe, why does He, in the end, reverse it all by executing those whose choices He does not like?
How can a God who kills command His people not to kill - and yet to be like Him? How does the mild and gentle Jesus reflect the character of the "fire-breathing" Old Testament God He came to reveal? Perhaps nothing has contributed more to the advancement of atheism than these perplexing unanswered questions of Christianity.
The 19th century skeptic, Robert G. Ingersoll, spoke for multitudes through the ages, when he addressed the idea of an eternally burning hell in these words: "Infinite punishment is infinite cruelty, endless injustice, immortal meanness. . . .
"Christians have placed upon the throne of the universe a God of eternal hate. I cannot worship a being whose vengeance is boundless, whose cruelty shoreless, and whose malice is increased by the agonies he inflicts." Those who believe hell eventually burns out still have the problem that an all-wise God, who is more loving than any human, could think of no better way to dispose of sin than to burn sinners, even though they are His children still - the creation of His own hand. If burning humans alive is inherently evil, then would it not be as evil an act for God as it would be for humans? And God, as Christianity wishes to present Him, is not evil. Yet, evil is evil because it is evil. God's alleged participation in it does not sanctify it. The idea of hell fire, to many, constitutes another puzzling piece in Christianity's picture of God.
Is There Any Word From the Lord?
The questions posed above have weighed down God's church from eons of ages past. As archeology slowly but steadily confirms the Bible, should we not also see an increase in our knowledge of the God of the Bible? Should not these questions find answers within the word itself, through the determined, prayerful efforts of Biblical scholars?
Thus says the Lord: "Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, Let not the mighty man glory in his might, Nor let the rich man glory in his riches; But let him who glories glory in this, That he understands and knows Me, That I am the Lord, exercising Lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth. For in these I delight." (Jeremiah 9:23, 24, emphasis supplied)
Our Misunderstood God
But just as clearly, a close view of Scripture reveals God, in essence, crying out to be known and understood. If the surface view is all-sufficient, why would He plead, "Behold Me, behold Me" (Isaiah 65:1)? Why would He direct His people to "Lift up your voice with strength/Lift it up, be not afraid/Say to the cities of Judah/Behold your God!" (Isaiah 40:9).
A terrible situation existed in ancient Israel in the time of the prophets. The writings of the contemporaries Hosea, Isaiah, Amos and Micah, reflect the religious intensity of the times, yet God declared through Hosea, "The Lord brings a charge against the inhabitants of the land: 'There is no truth or mercy or knowledge of God in the land" (4:1). The people were "destroyed for lack" of it (4:6). With all their religious fervor, they failed to pursue an accurate understanding of the God they claimed to worship, and their ignorance unfolded into wholesale sin and consequent vulnerability to surrounding nations. There is something about accuracy in our knowledge of God that brings right-doing, protection, power and blessings. This is not God's arbitrary decree, as we shall see; rather, it is a fail-safe default built into the realities of daily living on this planet.
We see ancient Israel's failure so clearly, but could we have the same need today and not see it? Might our own picture of God be suspect? Every element of our theology - our religious belief system?ultimately expresses how we see God. Life after death, the rapture/second coming, prophecy, eternal reward and punishment, the meaning of faith - the list goes on and on.
Try this exercise: List the various points of your religious belief system and analyze them in terms of what they say about God. Do you find Him reasonable? If we find ourselves asking, Why would He do that? Why would He think that way, perhaps our view of God is faulty. In actual fact, God is consummately reasonable, as Bible prophets present Him, and He pleads for humans to relate to Him at that level (Isaiah 1:18). In its frequent Scriptural admonitions to study God, heaven is trying to tell us something. Let's not be too swift to conclude we already understand.
The New Testament asserts perhaps even more strongly our need to pursue a better understanding of our Creator. God has given us powerful weapons to enhance our spiritual journey. In a text familiar to most Christians is a relevant and illuminating phrase. "The weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds; casting down imaginations and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God" (2 Corinthians 10: 4,5, KJV; emphasis supplied). What do our spiritual weapons cast down? Strongholds. Imaginations. High things. All things, in fact that interfere with our knowledge of God. Does this text say that an accurate knowledge of God is among the last things His enemy would have us know? Perhaps we should ask ourselves why.
Ephesians 4:13 predicts a time when God's invisible church will come together "in unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God" (emphasis supplied). Does this hint of a misunderstanding regarding the character of Deity, a misunderstanding soon to be clarified?
Isaiah 5:12 and 13 speaks of humans who "do not regard the work of the Lord, nor consider the operation of His hands [they don't understand Him?]. Therefore my people have gone into captivity, because they have no knowledge" [of God's character and purposes?]. Hebrews says, God's chosen "always go astray in their heart, and they have not known My ways" (3:10,11; emphasis supplied). This thought pops up over and over in Scripture.
"Come now, and let us reason together, says the Lord"; "Let us pursue the knowledge of the Lord" (Isaiah 1:18; Hosea 6:3). He invites discussion. He wants humans to take Him seriously, and He is willing to meet with us at any point of confusion, placing on record that He will not reject our sincere questions.
"This is eternal life," Jesus prayed, "that they may know You [God the Father], the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent" (John 17:3). Do we truly know God, as it is our privilege to know Him? as, in fact, we must know Him, if we would enter into life.
For when sin fades into history at last, God's people "shall not hurt nor destroy" in the kingdom made new. Why? "For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea" (Isaiah 11:9, emphasis supplied).
I have counted no less than 23 Biblical entries specifically directing us to come to a "knowledge" of God, and likely many more exist. Scripture is clear; we have misunderstood God; He desires to be known and has instructed us to make His character our study.
God's Character In His People
The majority rejected Him, largely because they did not recognize His Father in Him. They wanted a replica of their view of the Old Testament God of war, who would free the nation from its humiliating bondage to the empire of Rome. What they got was an invitation to a Kingdom that dwelt in a converted heart, an opportunity to be better people, and the Judeo-Christian tradition has not yet reconciled the contrast between God as the Old Testament presents Him and as Christ presents Him in the New. Thus Christ was vilified and crucified as an imposter. Do we not deal with the same questions today regarding the contrast in character between Jesus and the sometimes brutal Old Testament God He came to reveal? Would we recognize our Lord today?
Given our traditional view of God, Christians (like their concept of Him) are gentle and kind much of the time, except when the situation seems to call for gossip or destructive criticism or indifference to human woe or venting destructive emotions or taking human life. Isn't this how we see God's ways? The human mind has an extraordinary capacity for kindness, except toward those "demonized" humans we believe God abhors. If we cause those to suffer, it's okay, we think. Doesn't God do the same?
Historically, the "church" has carried the traditional view of God to its logical conclusion, by itself burning the opposition. Religious bigots have bloodied the pages of history with unspeakable crimes, which surely flowed out of their picture of God.
Jesus predicted two thousand years ago that thus it would be. "The time is coming that whosoever kills you will think that he offers God service," He said (John 16:2). History confirms His prophecy. How could we, as Christians, have been so blind, so callous, so indifferent to human life? Jesus distills the answer down to its core. "These things they will do to you," He continues, "because they have not known the Father nor Me (v. 3). Because Scripture gives so many examples of God's wiping out His enemies, Christians have become confused regarding the interpretation of Jesus' words. They have concluded that when we destroy them, we're doing so as God's agents, but when they destroy us, they are fulfilling this prediction. We see our enemy as God's enemy and ourselves as His sword of justice, because for war to occur in the first place the warriors must be made to see their cause as righteous and the enemy's as evil. Yet is it not possible that Jesus meant that wherever people kill each other in the name of religion, neither side bears the signet of the living God?
It takes little imagination to see that the traditional view of God as One who can reach a point where He employs deadly force could lead to deplorable conditions - where political power could be seen as a divine mandate to force the conscience of the politically weak. In czarist Russia, as well as pre-revolutionary France, for example, the church's connection with civil power engendered terrible abuses, causing an over-correction, which ended in atheistic regimes. Communism itself began as a protest against religious cruelty.
The Holocaust is a modern case in point, where a strong tradition of Judeo-Christian ethics didn't stop good and civilized people from supporting a regime which derived its power from the spilled blood of the governed and which attempted to exterminate an entire race perceived as undeserving of mercy. Where was the outrage, the conviction that causing the death of humans was intrinsically wrong?
Northern Ireland, the Middle East, Bosnia, Kosovo further illustrate the passion with which each side, believing it carries the flag of God in a righteous cause, kills and maims innocent civilians and destroys its own homeland in a seemingly endless bloodletting, presumably praying for the blessing of their fierce, nationalistic God before sallying forth on their missions of destruction. There are no wars bloodier than religious wars. Efforts to bring stability to such regions find religious fervor an almost impossible hurdle to overcome, politically generated peace accords notwithstanding.
And who can say if our traditional view of God as a destroyer has not in many ways encouraged the widespread secularization of our world, as thoughtful men and women see all this and note its inconsistency with mercy and justice - hallmark attributes of the Christian God of whom they have been told. History offers an inexhaustible supply of illustrations of the subtle and pernicious effects the traditional view of a destroying God has had on civilization. It has opened the door to injustice and persecution throughout time; paved the way for intolerance, bigotry and the imposing of religious laws and duties upon an unconvinced people. If God can use force to get attention, the logic runs, then believers may use similar tactics to do his work. Civilizations do not rise higher morally than their concept of Deity. "Ye are of your father . . . ," Said Jesus, "and the works of your father ye will do" (John 8:44, KJV).
And history confirms it. Without a settled conviction that hurting and destroying others is inherently wrong, society positions itself over an ethical bottomless pit, with no protective absolutes to break its moral fall. Where shall we find a model for such settled conviction, if we cannot find it in God?
Coming To God
The quality of our prayer life, for example, depends largely upon the concept of God we bring to our communion with him. If we believe his justice never preempts his love, with what confidence we may come before him! From our prayer closet we emerge prepared to enter into all of life's experiences, assured that nothing can happen over which the God of love does not exercise absolute control. How easy we find it then to praise Him in all things, knowing "all things work together" for our good, because God really is Love, after all.
And, finally, there is this from the apostle John. "Beloved, now are we children of God, and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure" (1 John 3:2,3). And this purity, the character transformation enjoined in Scripture, occurs only as the result of knowing and loving a God who is Himself love personified and therefore worthy of our love and imitation. Calvary argues eloquently in favor of His being such a God, but what do we do with that Biblical eternal fire?
While both history and surface Scripture represent God as a destroyer, the nagging questions suggest there is more to understand. Could He be talking "apples" while we're talking "oranges"? Scripture tells of a time when "darkness shall cover the earth, and deep darkness the people" (Isaiah 60:2). Surely our world today is dark through misunderstanding God. His ways have appeared dark to us. For all the love attributed to Him in Scripture, how are we to understand those moments when agape gives way to unspeakable wrath? Could love find no better way to pay the wages of sin? God must deal with it, and He will. But how? The surprising Bible answer frees God from any blame whatever in the death of the unsaved and reveals him exactly like our perfect and perfectly harmless Lord Jesus (Hebrews 7:26).
Come with me now, on a journey through God's word, as we revisit the scenes of so many of the ages-old, mysterious judgments of God. As we push back the clouds of confusion that surround what appears to be His destructive side, we will know as never before that "God is light and in Him is no darkness at all" (1 John 1:5).
In the days of Christ those who opposed Him exhibited the spirit of intolerance and tried to silence Him. That same spirit often lives today wherever new thoughts threaten long-established views. Some bitterly condemn that which disturbs their preconceived ideas. But those with open minds, who persevere, who evaluate the consistency and Scriptural basis of this new model before allowing such prejudice to close their mind will be rewarded and, as others before them, will surely receive it with joy.
And beyond the joy of a clearer picture of God lies another revelation, charged with solemn implications for our world today.
Chapter one has given us some good insights on how to know God. As the chapter title suggests, God is very misunderstood. If we have a desire to be like Him, then we want a true picture, an accurate understanding of what He is like. He wants us to know Him. You might have even thought before "what does God look like?" Well, read on to chapter 2.
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