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”!
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.