The God I Want

One of the earliest images of Jesus from a Coptic church in Cairo.

One of the things you will find when you delve into the life of Jesus of Nazareth is that he is not the kind of Messiah that people expected. When people expected a Messiah, they did not expect God the Son, Person of the Holy Trinity. They expected various things, primarily human: emperors, priests, warriors, etc. I grew up hearing sermons to that effect: Jesus is not who we expect Jesus to be. Jesus is not the Savior we want, but Jesus is the Savior we need. Then we get into conversations from liberals and conservatives alike that claim the other is making Jesus in their own image. In reality, Jesus is not who we want Jesus to be.

Over time, I have grown comfortable with that notion. I have become comfortable with the fact that Jesus makes me uncomfortable. That is obviously a life-long journey and requires the continual effort toward humility. But I was fine with it, so long as we were talking about Jesus. The problem is that when, as Christians, we are talking about Jesus, we are talking about God. Lest we forget that we believe that this human Jesus is unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably divine, we must remember that when we speak of Jesus, we also speak of God.

Theologian Catherine LaCugna once said: “In Jesus Christ and the Spirit, we do not know a shadow image of God, but the real living God. This real living God who saves — this is God!” Elizabeth Johnson, another theologian, adds, “We know God from the way God has acted in history, through the incarnate Word and renewing Spirit.” Thomas Torrance perhaps put it most simply: “There is no God behind the back of Jesus.”

From Jasna Gora Monastery in Czestochowa, Poland.
From Jasna Gora Monastery in Czestochowa, Poland.

I think we always want there to be a God behind Jesus. We want some idea of God we have to really exist behind Jesus’ back. We want a God playing the strings of the universe like a harp, delicately strumming each string to the melody of a predetermined tune — that way, we do not have to worry about anything because God controls everything. We are thus absolved from our concerns for things to be made right in our lives and in the world, because God is in control. When God is in control, we need not be concerned.

But if there is no God behind Jesus, that isn’t the way it works. The way God exerts God’s providence in our lives, so far as we know, is through Jesus. At our side, as a human being also fully divine, God is with us. And that sounds real pretty and all, but it’s not what we want! I want a God who keeps things steady, keeps things calm and peaceful, and keeps things right for me. I want a God who is pulling the strings in my favor, keeping me safe, and keeping me secure. But in reality, that’s not how God works, because that’s not who Jesus is.

There are things in my life that keep things steady, keep things calm and peaceful, keep things right for me, pulls the strings in my favor, keep me safe, and keep me secure, but those things are not God. Those things are money, healthcare, and work. Those things are all too often systems and privileges related to my sexuality, gender, and race. And those things are certainly not God. It strikes me that it would be different to imagine a God who provides for me if I was not such a combination of privilege.

If I am to think of God not from that all too commonly idolatrous position, I might realize that when I say God Provides, Jehovah Jireh, I am saying not a name of God, but the name of a place. When we say Jehovah Jireh,we are not invoking a power but speaking in faithfulness to God’s activity. When we speak of God’s providence and God’s sovereignty, we speak from a point of view of memory, of faithfulness, not of doctrine. We speak of a profound belief that God has been with us in Christ and will be with us in our life, but in the way of God, not the way we expect.

We can wax poetically about the nonviolence of Jesus, the Incarnation, God with us, and all the things about Jesus we didn’t expect — about God as a baby, God as human — and still say that God is a puppet-master playing with the strings of the universe … but that’s not the God Jesus showed us. There is not puppet-master, dictator, hypnotist, or controlling deity behind Jesus. There is just God, One God. And that God is not the way we thought. 

That realization that God is not the God we made is essential to faith, I think. The stripping of God of all our concepts of God leads us to genuine relation with God. We do not get to start with a concept of God and tell God how God must be. As my theology professor, Willie Jennings, told us, “Love exegetes Being. Being does not exegete Love.” What he means by that is we can’t think of God apart from the God revealed in Love through Jesus. The ultimate revelation of God is in the fact that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. There is no God behind that.

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Painting of Jesus by Janet MacKenzie, called “Jesus of the People.”

That realization is scary to me, because I grew up with a God in Sunday School who didn’t look like Jesus. The God I’ve conceived over the years is not God in the strictest sense — it is an idea of God, but it is not God. But at some point, we have to let go of our image of God for the Living God who overthrows all those expectations. 

I think that is part of what the Apostle Paul meant when he said, “We know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to the childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:9-12, NRSV).

We will not see God fully in this life, comprehend God fully in this life, but we see glimpses. And we have that biggest glimpse in God with Us, in Jesus. And Jesus bids us to set aside those childish images of God that hinder us from knowing God. We must get rid of those ideas of God that become idols in the place of the Living God.

We must get rid of ideas of God as a man, a man in the sky, a white man in the sky. We must get rid of ideas of God that portray a God who looks like us, who colonizes, dominates, and rules in the human sense. We’ve been given an image of God, and it doesn’t look like that. In Jesus, we’ve been offered a relationship with God and it isn’t the God we want. That realization comes with fear and sadness at first, but it gives way to humility and repentance. Only on that path will we receive a true vision of God.

An Orthodox monk named Symeon put it this way:

“God longs instead for a broken spirit, a humbled and contrite heart, and for us always to speak our heart to God with humility: ‘Who am I, my Master and my God, that You came down and took flesh and died for me, so that You could deliver me?’ … When, according to the invisible movements of your heart, you find yourself in this state, you will discover God immediately embracing you and kissing you mystically, and bestowing on you a right spirit in your inward parts, a spirit of freedom and of remission of your sins. …

What else is so dear to God and welcome as a contrite and humble heart, and pride laid low in the spirit of humility? It is in such a condition that God comes to dwell and make rest.” (On the Mystical Life, 8th Discourse).

Consider today who you think God to be. Is this a god of your own making or the Living God? Is this God Jesus or someone else? If your God is an old white man sitting on clouds in the sky, you may not have Jesus. If your God is rich and powerful, you may not have Jesus. If your God is not Jesus, you may not have God. 

But when we realize that and repent of the idolatry we have entertained, we can sing together the old spiritual,

In the morning when I rise,

in the morning when I rise,

in the morning when I rise,

Give me Jesus.

Give me Jesus,

Give me Jesus!

You may have all this world,

Give me Jesus.

When I am alone,

Oh, when I am alone,

Oh, when I am alone,

Give me Jesus.

Give me Jesus

Give me Jesus!

You may have all this world,

Give me Jesus.

Oh, when I come to die,

Oh, when I come to die,

Oh, when I come to die,

Give me Jesus. 

God of all things I do not know, you’re not who I want you to be. I want you to control it all, to rule it all, dictate it all piece by piece, because it absolves me of worry and responsibility. I want you to be able to handle it only so I don’t have to. I want you to be a different sort of God, but that’s not the God you are. I want to know the God you are, but I am also afraid to look. God, be God. Be God with us. Give us the faith to rely on your providence, not the doubt that blindly asserts it. In the name of the God I only know in Jesus Christ our Lord and the renewing Holy Spirit, Amen.

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