How do you picture God?

Your picture of God determines how you perceive yourself and others. Many of us have a picture of God other than the merciful Father who “demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Bad theology through the millennia has created images of cultural deities that support humanity’s worst characteristics.

A God of wrath and vengeance
Some picture a God of wrath and vengeance who demands “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Jesus challenged misrepresentations of God’s character found in some of the culturally bound images in the Old Testament. The books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, for example, talk about marriage violations. If a woman did not satisfy her husband that she was by proof a virgin on the night of their marriage, she was to be stoned to death (Deuteronomy 22:21).

How radically different was the love that Jesus showed the woman caught in the act of adultery when the men of her village were ready to commit the same murderous act. Jesus intervened, saying, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7). Jesus reveals God as a loving father who comes into the world not to condemn but to save sinners!

An ancient white male
Other people view God as an ancient white male, as portrayed in medieval European paintings. All kinds of atrocities have emerged from this distortion: racism and the injustices committed in the name of ethnic superiority, as well as sexist discrimination, continuing in some religious circles, that excludes women from leadership. By contrast, early first-century Jesus followers discovered the miraculous, unifying love of God in which “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

A tribal God
The current rabid division in U.S. politics, as well as in much of the Christian church, can result from a picture of a God who is tribal, a god who is “for us and against the people we are against.” As author Anne Lamott says, “You can safely assume that you created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you hate.”

God of the nation-state
Closely related to the god of the tribe is the god of the nation-state. Constantine, who ruled the Roman Empire in A.D. 306–337, saw how the strength of the early Christian movement could unify and legitimize Rome’s dominance as the global power. It’s pretty safe to assume that Constantine’s legalization of Christianity had a deep, underlying political motive, uniting the flag of Rome with the symbol of Christ.

The god of the nation-state holds one nation favored above all others. Millennia of wars have been fought in the name of God. Even Israel forgot that its chosen status, described in Exodus 19:6, was not for privilege but for priesthood. “Through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed.” We must never forget “that God so loved the world”!

Why Jesus?
As we follow Jesus’ life and teaching, we experience God’s true identity. In Jesus, we experience God who values human relationships over legalistic doctrines and people over ideologies. The Bible is inspired for faith and life practice. But, we must never idolize the Scriptures (written word) over Jesus’ authority (Living Word). The totality of God’s revelation cannot be limited to the 1,113 pages in the bible. It can be fully discovered in the miraculous transforming love of God revealed in Jesus.

10 Faces of Jesus

Our culture presents us with so many versions of Jesus, letting us make Him in our own image. Maybe you’ve come to depend on a false Jesus and didn’t even realize it. If you are struggling to find peace, read about these false Jesuses with an open mind. Consider what Jesus said about Himself, and test your beliefs against the truth from Scripture. Here are 10 false Jesuses we keep falling for:

1. Mean Jesus
Perhaps this image of Jesus comes from social media and the rants we see from devoted churchgoers. Maybe it is our constant news sources bickering over who is better. Or it could be you had a hellfire and brimstone pastor growing up, and this became your earliest depiction of Jesus — mean and angry, full of wrath, ranting and raging about how sin would destroy you. But balance this image of Jesus with the story of the little children gathering to him, with his compassion for the sisters of Lazarus, with his acceptance of the woman at the well. While Jesus called out sin when He saw it, He was never cruel. Jesus, the lamb, went to slaughter so that you would be free.

2. Political Jesus
How would Jesus vote? Since there were no Democrats or Republicans in His day, we don’t know. What we do know is that He loved. The side He took was the side of those in need. Today, we are all in need in one form or another, and we all need Him. As a believer in Jesus Christ, He is on your team. He is for you. He is for your redemption. He is for your sanctification. He died for you while you still sinned. Right or left, wrong or right, He is for you. He is patient with us as we learn and grow and understands the frustrations that we face. He walks with us through the valleys, and He delights in our newfound wisdom and growth.

3. Genie in a Bottle Jesus
Your wish is not necessarily His command. We’re often mystified when we clasp our hands tightly together and summon Jesus to answer our every request and nothing happens. We become deflated by what we believe is unanswered prayer, allowing our faith to increase or decrease by what we perceive. If you’re a parent, chances are you desire a good relationship with your child. But if your child asks for $10 and you say no, does that mean they stop believing in you and the relationship is destroyed? Of course not. In the same way, you must consider what you are asking of Jesus. What are your expectations? And are you still going to believe in Him even when you don’t get your way?

4. I’ll Teach You Jesus
Imagine what your relationship with your child would look like if these were some of the requirements: You will meet me at 5 every morning, I don’t care if you didn’t sleep. Now tell me what you want. I may or may not give it to you. If you have been completely impossible to deal with, I might sprain your ankle or give you a brain tumor to teach you something. Laughable? Sure. But how many of us believe in this works-based and punishment-loving Jesus? He died while we still sinned. He came to bind up the brokenhearted, not break our hearts and spirits to keep us in line.

5. You Can Take It Jesus
“God won’t give you more than you can handle.” Do I look like I can handle cancer? Or bankruptcy, a natural disaster or the death of a child? Do I even look like I could handle an itchy rash? Scripture teaches that we can’t handle anything apart from Christ. Far from doling out sickness or discomfort or tragedy, He promises to be with us in times of need. In our weakness, He shows Himself strong.

6. I Couldn’t Care Less Jesus
Sometimes we feel like He is nowhere to be found. We call, and there is no answer. This Jesus is not the compassionate Christ who laid down His life for ours. Still, in times of heartache, it is hard to understand why He doesn’t answer. He has shown me it is OK to question Him. My most favorite prayer in these seasons? “Lord, help my unbelief.” A relationship with Jesus is a journey.

There will be ups and downs. He can take the heat — He proved that through the cross. It is OK to ask why. He always shows up, every time. Ask, seek, knock. He will answer.

7. Church Jesus
“The Law is Holy and Good, but it doesn’t make me Holy and Good,” says author and teacher Tricia Gunn. No matter how good a church and its teaching of the Word of God, it does not make me holy. Paul reminds us, do not neglect the assembly (Hebrews 10:25). Yes, hold each other up, hold each other accountable, and by all means encourage one another. But if the pew is shaken, guess what shouldn’t be? You and Jesus. Your relationship with Jesus is separate and not dependent on the church. No matter what unexpected challenges happen in the church, you and Jesus should still be on solid ground. The church is made up of imperfect people, while Jesus is perfect and holy.

8. Rule-Play Jesus
This Jesus and I have been super tight for many years. I obeyed all the rules. I even laminated a list and used color-coordinated markers to check off my accomplishments, believing they counted me worthy. Beloved, salvation is the Cross plus nothing. The thief on the cross was asked only to believe. There was really nothing left for him to do. He couldn’t attend a service, memorize Scripture, sing in the choir, take a meal to a neighbor, volunteer or wash the altar clothes. He was made righteous because he said yes to Jesus. There was no other requirement to fulfill. There is nothing that can make the perfected work of the Cross any more perfect. Your yes to Jesus counts you as righteous. Toss out the rules of religiosity and bask in the refreshment of relationship.

9. Confused Jesus
A couple of years ago I went to a pastor and asked some questions about the Sermon on the Mount. The pastor laughed and said, “Yes, ours is not to understand. Ours is just to obey. Jesus was a confusing guy.” I lived with this, heavy on my heart. It would be two more years before I heard a sermon by another pastor and was undone by the revelation that Jesus was not confusing. Jesus fulfilled the Law and set us free from this heavy burden of condemnation. Jesus died to set me free. There is nothing confusing about this. We walk free from condemnation in the grip of grace.

10. If/Then Jesus
This is the most elusive and deceptive Jesus. If I do such and such, then Christ will do what I expect. But Jesus cannot be manipulated, and our works do not make Him move. Our good deeds do not make him love us more. And most importantly, nothing can separate us from the love of Jesus. The belief that “If I do or do not do, then Jesus will or won’t do” is a Jesus of colossal works. This Jesus keeps us in bondage to busyness and striving that keeps us apart from the good nature of a Jesus who just simply loves. He loved perfectly so that we might be together for eternity. That was all. Simply Jesus.

Was there a twinge or flutter in your spirit? One that said, “Oh, that is the Jesus I have been serving?” I know as I came to a place of knowing and loving the real Jesus I saw pieces of the false Jesuses falling away and more of His natural and good character shining through. Will you pray this prayer with me? “Jesus, I said yes to you. I want only you. The real you. All of you. You promised that if I seek I will find. Help me seek the truth and keep my eyes wholly fixated on the true you. Amen.”

Jami Amerine, M.Ed., is author of “Stolen Jesus an Unconventional Search for the Real Saviour”

Loneliness and Community

From Romans 12: “Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with each other. Don’t be too proud to enjoy the company of ordinary people. And don’t think you know it all!……Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable. Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone……If your enemies are hungry, feed them. If they are thirsty, give them something to drink. ……. Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good.”

Can you imagine being married for 65 years and what it would feel like to lose your closest companion after that long? For Keith Davison it meant overwhelming loneliness and feeling disconnected from his community. Also, at such an age, I imagine it’s difficult to make new friends. Determined to change the situation, Mr. Davison decided to do something fairly radical; he built a large, in-ground pool in his backyard and invited the neighborhood to enjoy it . . . for the entire summer!

Instead of giving up and simply feeling sorry for himself, Davison created a space where his neighbors could relax, make friends and form meaningful relationships through plain old ordinary fun. “Now his backyard is filled with the squeals and laughter of kids enjoying their summer with a dip in the pool.” Davison’s one requirement is that “they have to be accompanied by a parent or grandparent in order to take a swim in the 32-foot pool, which has a diving board and a 9-foot deep end.”

According to a news article, Davison, who has “one daughter and two sons but no grandchildren, has become somewhat of a surrogate grandfather to the local kids.” Of course, he still misses his wife. But now his time is often occupied with happy people, who are grateful for his generosity and have a desire to make new friends. “It’s him spreading joy,” neighbour Jessica Huebner said, “throughout our neighbourhood for these kids.”

God’s desire is for us to have relationships with one another. Spending too much time alone and feeling isolated is not healthy. Instead of being stuck in our individual circumstances, feeling paralyzed by loss or sorry for ourselves, we can allow God to do something new and exciting through each of us. When we do this, we’ll not only be happier ourselves but also we’ll bring joy to others.

We can’t all build swimming pools for the neighbourhood, but there are many small ways in which we can bring joy to others: check in on our neighbours with a visit or phone call; give a mother with small children a break by taking them to the zoo or babysitting for a while; take the neighbour who can’t drive shopping or a visit to a museum, art gallery, or farmers’ market; volunteer at your local hospital or nursing home. The possibilities are endless.

When God created human beings, it was because God was looking for companionship. None of us, not even God, were ever meant to be alone or isolated. We were created to live with, love, and support one another. We were created to be community, not individuals.

Do You Idolize Fear?

Idolatry is a horrible, dangerous thing. Sadly, far too many Christians are so very guilty of it. You can see it in the way they complain on social media, in the way they comment on the news of the day; in the defeatist, alarmist language that they use as to describe the world. You see it in the way they furrow their brows, and throw up their hands, and slam their pulpits. It shows-up in the lazy stereotypes and the religious rhetoric that flows so easily in church lobby coffee chats and extremist blog rants.

It’s as if everything has now become an imminent threat: Muslims, Atheists, Gays, The President, inner city criminals, Hollywood, illegal immigrants, The Government, school hallways. The world outside the church building is broadly painted as a vile, immoral war zone, with “God’s people” hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned.

Parroting the politicized talk show hosts and re-posting the latest terrible news stories, they perpetuate the now comfortable, largely White Evangelical Christian narrative of impending destruction, and they make it clear at every opportunity: The whole damn sky is falling!

Though they loudly, repeatedly and confidently proclaim Christ as Lord, in reality they no longer practice faith in a God that has any real power, any true control and inherent God-ness. They seem to have little more than a neutered figurehead Deity, who doesn’t seem to be able to handle much at all anymore.

He’s lost his Old Testament swagger. Dig just beneath the sunny “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” Bible covers, and the shouted “God’s judgment is coming” bullhorn warnings, and you can see that the Emperor is buck naked.

For far too many Christians, all that flowery, blustery spiritual talk is a loud paper tiger dressed-up as religion. The truth is, Fear has become their false God, one they worship with complete and undying devotion. The symptoms of Fear Idolatry are pretty easy to spot.

When you’re not sure that God is there or that He’ll really come through, you start to spend most of your time defending Him in absentia. You become a self-appointed Crusader of Truth, whose mission is to do the holy work of policing the world (just in case God can’t or won’t). You spend a lot of time calling out evil, forecasting disaster and predicting damnation.

When Fear is your God, you start majoring in Exterior Sin Management. You slowly yet ultimately turn all of your attention to the things in other people that you’re certain really tick God off, and you make it your sacred business to modify their behaviour in the name of Jesus. When your God isn’t big enough, you’ll try to do in others what you’ve decided He wants, instead of actually trusting Him to do it Himself.

I really feel for Christians whose Jesus seems so integral to personal salvation in the afterlife, and so useless for the life we live now. He may be able to save souls, but He’s apparently freaked-out by a Muslim prayer breakfast or gay marriage vote or school prayer policy. Is that really God? Is that Divinity?

Is that the One about Whom the psalmist wrote: The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands (Psalm 19:1)? Is that the God who spoke the world into being, and calmed the seas, and healed the blind, and raised the dead? I invite you to pray for so many of our brothers and sisters in Christ, to stop worshipping the false idol of Fear. I invite you to pray that they recapture a God Who is worthy; not just of defending and quoting, but trusting.

I invite you to pray for the rest, joy and humility that comes from putting faith in something greater than ourselves and in the things we fear. Every day, even with the mystery that grows on my journey, my security grows too. I know how big my God is. Do you?

Calling All Church Members

Five Reasons Church Members Attend Church Less Frequently by Thomas Rainer (Theologian, Author, Educator)

About 20 years ago, a church member was considered active in the church if he or she attended three times a week. Today, a church member is considered active in the church if he or she attends three times a month.

Something is wrong with this picture. For 2,000 years, the local church, as messy as it is, has been God’s place for believers to gather, worship, minister and be accountable to one another.

Every time I write something about church membership and attendance, I inevitably hear cries of “legalism” or “the church is not a building” or “the church is a messed up institution”. But the local church, the messy local church, is what God has used as His primary instrument to make disciples. But commitment is waning among many church members. Why?

1. We are minimizing the importance of the local church. When we do, we are less likely to attend. A few drops of rain may keep many folks from attending church, but it won’t stop them from sitting three hours in the downpour watching their favourite football team.

2. We worship the idols of activities. Many members will replace a day in their church with a day at kids’ soccer or softball games or sleeping off the hangover of the previous day’s activities.

3. We take a lot of vacations from church. I am not anti-vacation. But 20 years or so ago, we would make certain we attended a church where we were taking a vacation. Today, many members take a vacation from church.

4. We do not have high expectations of our members. Any purposeful organization expects and gets much of it members, whether it’s a sports team or a civic organization. It is ironic that most churches do not come close to being a high expectation church.

5. We make infrequent attendees leaders in our churches. When we do, we are making a clear statement that even the leaders of the church do not have to be committed to the place they supposedly lead.

I heard a leader of an organization tell the members he did not want them if they were not fully committed. They could not be AWOL if they wanted to be a part of the group. He expected full commitment. He is a high school football coach. And all the team members follow that high expectation of commitment.

If we truly expect to make a difference in our communities and our families, members of local churches need to have at least the same level of commitment as members of sports teams. After all, the mission of each local church is far more important. At least it should be.