What you believe about God is the most important thing about you. More important than going to church, reading the Bible, or joining a small group. More important than what you do or don’t do. You can commit to thirty days of prayer and fasting. Shoot, make it sixty or ninety. You can move overseas and spend two lifetimes helping the poor. But if you don’t purify your toxic and unhealthy thoughts about God, you will never change.
A.W. Tozer said it this way: “Were we able to extract from any man a complete answer to the question, ‘What comes into your mind when you think about God?’ we might predict with certainty the spiritual future of that man.”
This is why so many people who claim to love God look nothing like God. This explains why, for decades, white Christians continued to support laws that dehumanized black people. This explains why pastors sexually and verbally abuse people. This explains why good Christians, people like me and you, remain angry, cynical, greedy, fearful. It’s not because we don’t know the Scriptures. It’s not because we don’t go to church or serve the poor or tithe weekly. It’s because we have a distorted image of God.
You can’t become a loving and kind person if you have a toxic, unhealthy image of God. Spiritual growth, then, is not about what you do. It’s about Who you see.
There are so many toxic, unhealthy images of God. Too many to name. But I want to address a few that loom large in our world. Here are some distorted images of God that hinder us from spiritual growth.
1. A PUNITIVE GOD
This toxic image is the by-product of a wrathful God who had to kill Jesus on the cross. An angry, vengeful Father who killed his son so he wouldn’t have to kill us. When this God looks at us, he sees a dirty, sin-saturated human, and he prefers not to see that (I guess), so he hangs Jesus on a cross instead.
A punitive image of God creates punitive people. If God can kill his own son, I can kill as well. And maybe we don’t say it like that, but we don’t have to. Look at how flippantly we enter into war. Look at how many guns we own. Look at how we treat outsiders.
Underneath the overt violence, though, is an unseen attitude of human carelessness. People with a punitive image of God struggle to care for people who don’t look like them. And you see this among so many Christians in America. They live with a seething anger, attacking any group who doesn’t think they do. Rage is their identity. They don’t care how their words and actions impact actual people. Where do you think this attitude comes from? You got it. From their image of God, the God of wrath, the God who fulfills his purpose through brutal violence. It worked for God, why wouldn’t it work for me, too?
It’s not working. Look around. Our world is disconnected, lonely, anxious, broken. Our punitive image of God isn’t healing the world. Christianity dominates the American landscape. But we’re not bringing the kingdom of heaven to earth.
So, maybe the answer isn’t more church services or Bible reading. Maybe we need to stop evangelizing people and start addressing our image of God.
2. A DISTANT GOD
Where is God in my suffering? Why does an all-powerful being allow human atrocities? Why does he remain out there, perched on a mountain top, peering down on our plight, and do nothing? Why doesn’t God care?
This image of God is so toxic because if God doesn’t care then why should you. Answer? You shouldn’t. And many people don’t. Apathy is a great disease in modern times. People don’t care about the things of God. People don’t care about much all, except how their football played last weekend.
A distant God has a devastating effect on the human soul. It breeds indifference, which is the opposite of love. Indifference is the penultimate sin. Once you stop caring, you lose your humanity. Shoot, you lose your divinity, too, meaning you lose access to your Creator. You become a tin man, a hollow shell of skin and bones. Just look at Auschwitz if you want to see the end result of indifference.
Is this who God is, though? When someone sees God as distant, what they really see is injustice. God is all-powerful. People are not, yet people inflict harm on others. God should step in and use his power to prevent human suffering.
He doesn’t, though. Which means one of two things. Either God is apathetic and cruel, or we have a false image of God. The answer is the latter.
The cross is God’s response to suffering. It’s not that he doesn’t care. The opposite, in fact. God cares so much, he’s willing to throw off the cloak of heaven and endure pain, so he might be able to walk with us through ours.
The God we serve is not one who takes away pain, but one who dwells with us through it. God is not distant. He knows the depth of human pain. Where suffering exists, God is found.
3. A DEMANDING GOD
Growing up, I heard this verse so many times I can’t count. “Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” This was almost always used in the context of morality. You must work as hard as possible to sin less. This is the goal of the Christian life.
And this stems from a hard, no-nonsense view of God. A God who isn’t satisfied with your current level of effort. He’s disgusted with it, in fact. You lie too much. You missed church twice in the past year. You were sick both times, but who cares. You weren’t there. You cursed three times yesterday. And so on.
You see the problem here, right? A demanding God breeds a life of shame. You can never measure up. You can never get it right. You carry this nagging feeling of brokenness, like you don’t have some divine willpower that the rest of the world has. You compare your morality to others.
God doesn’t desire perfection. God desires intimacy. God desires wholeness. You can stop it with all the do-goodedness. You’re already loved and accepted. There’s nothing you can do to change that. Rest in God’s loving presence. Everything is okay.
4. AN EXCLUSIVE GOD
This image of God leads you to build walls and dehumanize anyone who doesn’t look like you. This is the God of win/lose. Believing the right things is most important. And if you don’t believe what I believe, you need evangelizing. You need me to show you the correct path.
This is the God of Christian nationalism. The goal isn’t to bring the kingdom of heaven to earth. The goal is to make Christian clones. The goal is to convert every human on earth to your worldview, which is often a worldview of patriarchy, power, racism, and – that’s right – violence. Christian nationalism is the anti-thesis of God.
Walking with God has nothing to do with being right. It has to do with humility, with recognizing we’re limited. I can’t possibly have all the facts about God. What kind of God am I really serving if I do?
5. A SUPERFICIAL GOD
This view of God dominates much of American Christianity. People who have this image of God allow external metrics to determine their righteousness. There’s no emphasis on the inner journey and self-care. It doesn’t matter if you’re an angry or bitter person if you read your Bible every day and tell other people about Jesus.
We’ve seen the devastating consequences in our churches. Real people hurt and abused at the expense of church growth. Telling someone about Jesus is more important than becoming like Jesus.
God is more concerned with who we become than what we do. You see this throughout the Bible, culminating in the life of Jesus. Let’s be honest, if Jesus’s goal was to evangelize the world, he failed miserably. His rhythm of rest and retreat would not go over well in most Christian communities today. We would label Jesus as unproductive, lazy, even irresponsible.
It’s fair to ask, though. What has our obsession with busyness and productive cost us? Look around. Are we healthy right now? Conspiracy theories, anxiety, loneliness, disconnection run rampant. Megachurch pastors falling left and right, the by-product of a culture built on superficiality, not self-care. We’re busier than ever, mostly doing stuff that doesn’t matter, which leaves us empty and burnt-out.
This doesn’t sound like a healthy image of God.
All these words flow from my own experience of a toxic God. For years, I wondered why I did all the “right” things but remained angry and cynical. Why didn’t I care for outsiders like Jesus?
Then, I lost my health (and my almost my life) unexpectedly. I was bed-ridden with a mysterious illness. In the darkness of my pain, I was forced to look at my life. I discovered that I didn’t need to do more stuff. I needed to examine my own heart and mind. I needed to heal lifelong wounds, wounds I suffered from my father and a legalistic Christian upbringing, among others. As I addressed these, my image of God changed.
This is how we become more like God. Not by doing spiritual things, but by purifying our thoughts about God.
Grace and peace, friends.