(Mis)understanding God

Peter and the other disciple left immediately for the tomb. They ran, neck and neck. The other disciple got to the tomb first, outrunning Peter. Stooping to look in, he saw the pieces of linen cloth lying there, but he didn’t go in. Simon Peter arrived after him, entered the tomb, observed the linen cloths lying there, and the kerchief used to cover his head not lying with the linen cloths but separate, neatly folded by itself. Then the other disciple, the one who had gotten there first, went into the tomb, took one look at the evidence, and believed. No one yet knew from the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead. — John 20:3-9 (The Message)

There is no shortage of opinions about God. We build up an image in our heads of what an ideal “god” should be like, then convince ourselves that the Almighty is just like that.

My mom had the famous Warner Sallman portrait of Jesus hanging on the wall of her bedroom, and for a great many Christians in the 1950 and 60s, Sallman’s rendering was the real deal. If Jesus didn’t look exactly like that, well, Sallman certainly couldn’t be very far off.

The Head of Christ by Warner Sallman

How do we form our opinions about God? Osmosis? Culture? The traditions handed to us by our ancestors? In a movie I was watching recently, a daughter asks her father why God was allowing soldiers to die in Viet Nam. The father’s reply? “I think God is too busy to notice everything that’s going on in the world.” Really? Jesus once said that God notices when a sparrow falls dead (Matthew 10:29). Would such a God really fail to notice the countless human tragedies that bedevil us every day?

The truth is, none of us understand God, even those of us, like myself, who claim to have studied the Bible rather closely. (And yes, that assumes that if there is a God, he conforms to the Judeo-Christian claims, which for most of the world is a disputed assumption.)

But assuming the Christian claims to be true and the Bible’s teachings to be a way of gaining insight into the understanding of God, we are still left with mystery, with gaps, with Indiana Jones secret government warehouses worth of things we don’t know — can’t know — about God and his motives, his plans, his thoughts.

The disciples did not understand that Jesus would rise from the dead. The light began to glow dimly when they entered the empty tomb and saw the discarded grave clothes. They had seen Jesus raise a little girl from her death bed, and a mother’s son, and Lazarus, but how could a dead Jesus raise himself from the grave? You can hardly blame them for failing to understand that Jesus was God in the flesh, and though Jesus’ body could be destroyed, the God who gave shape and life to that body could not.

Over many days following, the light began to glow more brightly. The resurrected Jesus met with them, taught them, “opened their minds” to understand what God was up to (Luke 24:45).

To be “open-minded” means to be willing to entertain information and ideas that might seem ridiculous when we first hear them. To know Jesus and God, his father, requires that we set aside whatever misconceptions we’ve grown up with concerning God in order to hear and evaluate the claims of this Jesus who said he was sent to take away the sins of the world by means of his death and miraculous resurrection.

We don’t know everything we might like to know about God, but there are these remarkable claims about this Jewish teacher, Jesus that if true, are worth investigating, evaluating, and taking to heart. If we misunderstand God, is it because we really haven’t made a serious attempt to discover who he might be?

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