Theologian A. W. Tozer, in his book, The Knowledge of the Holy, said “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” Unfortunately, what comes into most of our minds when we think about God is a distorted jumble of unbiblical views of who God is. Why do so many of us have a distorted view of God? What keeps us from knowing Him more deeply and accurately? Let me suggest that there are five primary reasons we have faulty beliefs about God, beliefs that keep us from loving God “with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” (Luke 10:27).
We have a powerful enemy working against us, an enemy Jesus called “the father of lies” (John 8:44). His more well-known name is Satan. Satan hates us with everything in his being and uses every waking moment to “steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10) our one shot at a meaningful and fulfilling life. One of his primary ways of accomplishing our destruction is to get us to believe things about God that are untrue, lies that lead us to see God as someone He is not. The father of lies is very good at his job, takes no prisoners, and does everything he can to insure that our lives are a mess and that we bring dishonor on God by how we live.
I’m not blaming our parents for our view of God, but how our parents treated us growing up influences how we view God. If we were raised by parents who were loving and kind, we tend to see God as loving and kind. If we were raised by parents who were overly focused on rules and good behavior, we tend to see God as being obsessed with regulations and acting right. If we were raised by parents who were critical and shaming, we tend to see God as judgmental and condemning. If we were raised by parents whose love had to be earned, we tend to see God as someone whose love is conditional and that we have to jump through hoops to get it. Obviously, there isn’t a one-to-one correlation between how our parents raised us and how we view God nor am I implying malicious intent on the part of parents. In general, though, I think it is safe to say that how our parents treated us growing up has a noticeable impact on how we view God.
Similar to the parenting we received, if people at church taught us that God is kind and loving, we tend to see Him as a caring friend out to help us. If they taught us that God is all about obeying all the rules, we tend to see Him as a cosmic cop. If they taught us that God is all “hellfire and brimstone,” we tend to see Him as full of wrath and chomping at the bit to punish us for every moral misfire. If they taught us that God is here to give us our best life now and satisfy all our earthly hopes and dreams, we tend to see Him as an overly indulgent grandfather who is supposed to give us everything we ask for. Once again, there isn’t a one-to-one correlation here and I’m not impugning the motives of the people who sought to lead us spiritually. Still, in general, the way God is portrayed to us in church as we grow up has a strong impact on how we view Him.
Greek philosopher Xenophanes said, “Men always create gods in their own image.” Another reason we have a distorted view of God is that we tend to project our flaws, defects, and inadequacies on Him. We project our bad qualities onto God as a defense mechanism because it is too painful and threatening to admit that these negative things are actually true about us. Because we project our flaws onto God, we see Him as the one who is selfish, lazy, indifferent, immature, disingenuous, mean, exploitive, condemning, shallow, arrogant, incompetent, critical, hateful, condescending, petty, dumb, cruel, confused, fickle, shaming, cold, indecisive, and unkind. God is not anything like that, but, rather than be fair and honest about just how different He is from us, we unconsciously bring God down to a human level by projecting our worst qualities onto Him.
God is incomprehensible. And, because He is incomprehensible, none of us can know God as well as we think we do. If you listen to the way some people talk about God, you would think they know Him like the back of their hand. It is only our pride talking when we think that we have an accurate view of God. As Anthony De Mello put it, “Every word, every image used for God is a distortion more than a description.” We don’t come anywhere close to knowing God as well as we think we do which is why we are to be humbly aware of our own finiteness when we talk about an all-knowing, all-powerful, everywhere-at-once God.
Some good news and some bad news…
The bad news as we go through life is that we have these five powerful influences that get in the way of knowing God deeply and accurately. But, here’s the good news: God isn’t down on us because we don’t know Him very well and is ready, willing, and able to help sharpen and refine our understanding of who He is. With God’s help, we don’t have to let the perpetrator, parenting, preaching, projection or pride keep us enslaved to distorted notions of the Almighty that only serve to sabotage our brief time on earth.
God has done His part by giving us His Word and the Holy Spirit to help us internalize it and know more deeply what it means. We have to do our part by diligently practicing the spiritual disciplines, especially study and meditation, so that God can transform us through the renewal of our minds. No one has to go through life believing things about God that are not true and suffering from the damage these lies cause. The truth really can set us free to love God and enjoy Him forever.