Relationships are probably the single most important thing in life. And they’re impossible unless the people in them know themselves and each other. Kinda basic, right?
Okay, now without getting all churchy and religious, the single most important relationship you’ll ever have in your life is between you and God — because it affects everything: the way you see the world, how you view yourself, what gets you through difficulty and hard times, influences how we treat each, even how we live on this planet. How you see yourself is important. And how you see God will in turn influence how you see yourself.
And most of the time, we get it ALL WRONG. Religion and the Church have basically done us a great disservice because they’ve painted pictures of God that usually alienate us from God.
Case in point: just talking about God, what’s the first image that comes to mind? Chances are, it’s something based on images from Renaissance art, or Hollywood movies, or (even worse) fire and brimstone preachers. Church can really mess you up sometimes if you let it. And, frankly, a lot of those preachers don’t know much more about God than you do — I mean really, his personality and character, his heart, not just Bible facts and head-stuff. If they did, we’d see a lot more water-into-wine miracles happening all around us, a lot more Hanukah lamp-oil generation, and a lot less public stonings.
So let’s try to undo some of those mental images that have been drilled into our heads, and start over.
Let’s start over
Introductions are important. When you’re meeting someone for the first time, that first impression can either launch or kill a new relationship. So let’s let God introduce himself. Scrap the images we’ve been carrying around most of our lives about what God is like, and let him tell you himself. What does God want you to think about him?
Famous first words — everybody knows them: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Book of Genesis, chapter one, verse one. And we could camp out here for a while, but I am especially moved by the next sentence. “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”
There’s an image for you. “Hovering.” The Spirit of God was hovering over it all, over the mass of chaos and emptiness. And out of that mess, he brought order and life. Good life. (And if you happen to be going through some chaos in your own life right about now, that simple thought may hold the key to keeping you sane.) This is who God is. This is how he introduces himself. The hovering one.
The English language doesn’t do this justice. The word used there is a rare one in Hebrew. It only occurs 3 times in the entire Hebrew Bible, and those other references paint a powerful picture of what’s going on here. The image is the protective action of a bird, caring for its young, wings spread over them in the nest, fluttering. In fact, that is a better translation than “hovering”: fluttering. The other reference in Deuteronomy describes this protective love God has for his people: “In the desert God found Jacob, in a barren and howling waste. He shielded him and cared for him; he guarded him as the apple of his eye, like an eagle that stirs up its nest and hovers over its young, that spreads its wings to catch them and carries them on its pinions” (Dt 32:11).
God introduces himself, as soon as he steps onto the world stage, as the protective, caring one. His Spirit flutters over the empty stuff of time and space, and embracing it between wings of love, transforms it, nurtures it into his beloved creation. This is your God. This is how he wants you to see him.
After he transforms the empty void of space and time into a paradise, he creates humanity and places us in it. A garden. This is significant too. God is not a stingy God; he is not austere, harsh and severe. He created an extravagant garden for us to enjoy. The ancient Jewish rabbis described it as God first setting an elaborate banquet table, and then when it was all prepared, invited us as the guests of honor. And even the Apostle Paul says that God created all things for our enjoyment – that’s the heart of a loving parent. And then we see God walking and talking with Adam and Eve in the cool of the day, enjoying their companionship, sharing in the good things he created for them. We were created for this: for fellowship, for relationship, for love, with the God of Eternity.
This image is reinforced later in the Biblical story when Moses is dealing with the harsh realities of leading a strong and stubborn people. He confronts God and demands a greater revelation of him. Kind of like “If these are your people, then I’m gonna need to know you better so I can lead them better.” He wants to see God face to face. Of course God knows this would kill him; Moses would vaporize in the unfiltered presence of full glory. So God puts him in a cleft in the side of a mountain, covers him protectively with his hand, and then passes by, declaring his name, revealing himself to Moses: “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished…” (Ex 34:6).
God describes himself in the way he wants to be perceived and understood by us. Compassionate. Gracious. Overflowing with love and faithfulness. Loyal. Forgiving. And Just.
How have we missed this? How have we turned this loving, protective, caring, compassionate and gracious God into something other than that? How have we turned him into a vindictive, white-bearded and cranky old man, catching us in every fault, counting every sin, every failing and mistake on his eternal abacus? Maybe it’s human nature. We know God is perfect, and our imperfections are glaring in comparison. We think he must be angry or displeased or at the very least disappointed by our shortcomings. Or maybe that’s what we’ve heard so often from angry pulpits. But, as King David once noticed, God knows that we are but dust, he knows we fail. And he loves us anyway. He eagerly accepts us back into his presence — full of grace, compassion and love.
Religious people just don’t get it
God’s own people – religious folks, ones claiming to know him best – may be the worst at misunderstanding him. Jesus one day stood with his protégés in the Temple of Jerusalem, surrounded by religious people, some hungry, some self-satisfied. And he called out with aching heart, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem. You who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you. How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. But you were not willing…” (Mt 23:37). As he faced rejection by the people he came to love, Jesus again and again showed the heart of the Father, even in the very choice of his words. He longed – and continues to long – to gather us under his wings of love. Yet we are so often not willing. We don’t get it. But this is your God. This is how he wants you to see him.
We may have missed this introduction for ourselves. Or maybe our impression of God got skewed because of the way he was introduced to us by over-zealous preachers wanting us to live holy lives – or at least “holy” as they understand the term. Now, just like back in Jesus’ day, religious people are often the ones who understand the heart of God the least. And if you’re gay or lesbian, bisexual or transgender, someone who may not fit traditional models of “holy” lifestyle, chances are you were on the receiving end of a slanted misrepresentation of this God. But there it is, in black and white, in every translation, in every language, the clear description God gives of himself. Not what we’ve been told. Not how he has been portrayed. Not the Angry One, or the One who rejects us.
He describes himself as the one yearning for relationship with the humans he created. Hovering – fluttering – over us, turning chaos into a place of safety and beauty for us, gently caring for us as a bird sheltering its young under loving parental wings. This is the Eternal Father, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love, full of forgiveness. The God who longs to walk with us, like he did with Adam and Eve in those early days of creation.
If we miss this introduction, this self-description by God himself, we can walk through our day to day lives seeing God as someone other than he really is. We’ll live our lives under false impressions, and miss out on the most important relationship we can ever have. So let’s start over. Let’s let that loving, caring, compassionate, hovering God re-introduce himself to us personally. And turn our chaos back into a paradise. That’s worth a reset, isn’t it?
STEVE SCHMIDT serves on the pastoral staff of Expressions Church in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York. He blogs at CafeInspirado.com, and you can always find him skulking on Facebook.