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What Is God Like?
A Foundational Question
I regularly meet with an amazing student who has “lost” his Christian faith. He’s honestly one of the kindest and most thoughtful people I know. He comes to every conversation in earnest. He’s not angry with God or the church like some (who are, along with their experience, just as welcomed and loved), it’s just that he’s not sure if God exists or not. Or, if God does happen to exist, he’s not sure which God is the real God or how we’d know. Fair and honest questions. And so, we meet.
A few years ago I noticed that while he always brought interesting questions, I couldn’t quite discern where they were leading us or where they came from; we just kind of floated in the land of interesting questions. And so one day, after we’d discussed many topics, I asked him this:
What is God like?
He stared off into the distance for a bit, pondering. Finally he said, “I don’t know. I don’t know what God is like. Some people present God as mean or vindictive, others, like you, insist that God is love. But I don’t know. I guess that’s why I’m here.” With this single question we unlocked at least some of what was beneath many of his other questions.
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Since that day I’ve asked that exact question to a lot of people. I’ve asked it to both Christian students and students of other religions. It’s amazing how incredibly thoughtful people seem to be completely stumped or caught off guard by this question. We aren’t, it would seem, asked this question very often. The people in our multi-faith setting, like many of the rest of us, are used to the question, “what do you believe about God?” They are not, however, used to the question “what is God like?”
Questions regarding belief are incredibly important, but I want to suggest that the question ‘What is God like?’ is a more foundational question precisely because how we answer questions of belief, whether we know it or not, will be directly related to what we think God is like.
Here’s another question worth pondering as we consider the importance of what God is like:
When did the “Fall” of humanity occur?
Most of us, I imagine, would says something like, ‘When the first humans ate the forbidden fruit.’ C. Baxter Kruger however, in his wonderful book, Jesus and the Undoing of Adam, disagrees. His disagreement is based on the premise that breaking the rules was the symptom, not the root of the problem.
“The problem introduced by the Fall of Adam was not simply that humanity began breaking the rules. The problem was that humanity became diseased. The disease is the root problem. Breaking the law is the symptom.”
The breaking of the rules was a problem, but it was a problem rooted in a much bigger problem – a diseased view of what God was like. The "Fall," according to Kruger, came not when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, but rather “when when they stopped believing the truth and believed the lie of the serpent.”(For more on this, see my friend Bob Ekblad's important Book, Reading The Bible With the Damned). The serpent had succeeded in convincing the first humans that God was not like what they had assumed or intuited or experienced. And so they hid from God. Why did they hide? Kruger believes that it was not because they feared punished. Rather, God’s love exposed their disease and they were thus afraid.
“the presence of the Lord meant the presence of the love and joy and fullness of God, which immediately and irrefutably exposed their own bankruptcy, their perversion, their nothingness and misery. And the pain, the burden, of such exposure was unbearable. So they hid themselves from the presence of the Lord. We have been hiding ever since.”
And what was the end result of this painful exposure?
“Adam projected his own brokenness, as it were, onto God’s face.”
We’ve been doing this ever since, too; taking our own brokenness, projecting it onto God and saying ‘God is like that.’ Only, we don’t usually say it out loud or so clearly, instead we pass it on in some of our conversations and even (especially?) in some of our sermons and books about God via the language of belief. Belief can cover or accentuate what we really think God is like.
A common and dreadful mistake that many make is to believe that God changed after the “Fall.” What God was like, in other words, morphed into what God is like now. Some continued this morphing by talking about the “God of the Old Testament” and the “God of the New Testament,” believing that Jesus must somehow change the Father’s heart back towards us (like it was before the Fall). But as Fleming Rutledge reminds us,
“The Son is not intervening to change the Father’s disposition toward us. His disposition toward us remains the same as ever — unfailingly determined upon our redemption.”
It is vital, then, to confront even a hint of the belief that God’s attitude changed towards humanity because of the Fall. As Kruger emphatically says,
“God did not change. God remained the same as always, faithful, determined to bless, right and true, overflowing in love and fellowship as Father, Son and Spirit. But Adam had changed, and he now projected his pain, his anxiety, onto God, thereby creating a mythological deity, a legendary god.”
And so this new and grossly constructed mythological deity “constitutes a staggering communication problem for God. For now there is a great ugly ditch between who God actually is and who Adam believes God is.”
And this, friends, is one of our most pressing tasks, both in our own lives and in the lives of others: to again and again unmask the ugly “mythological deity” until we are staring, once again, into the face of the crucified who has not for one second removed his loving gaze from us and fully reveals the Father. But this tends to be difficult to do simply by the language of belief; we often need to get beneath the language of belief before the unveiling can occur. I’ve found the question “what is God like?” to be a really helpful question for this exact task. This question often brings to the surface the many assumptions we bring to the scriptural text, for example, or the assumptions that we bring about God regarding our own lives or the lives of others. It’s not unrelated to belief, of course, it’s just that it tends to cut to the heart of the matter.
So I encourage you, consider hospitably asking this question. Ask it to yourself. What do you really think God is like? Ask it as a guiding question as you read the Bible. And ask it to others, too. Be curious with what might happen.
C. Baxter Kruger, Jesus and the Undoing of Adam (Jackson, MS: Perichoresis Press, 2001), Kindle loc. 273
ibid. loc. 322
ibid. loc. 354
ibid. loc. 370
Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2015), 280
Kruger, Jesus and the Undoing, 370