Saturday, January 7, 2012

Sabbath Reflections: God Is Not Mr. Potato Head

Have you seen the new Mr. Potato Heads? I’m telling you, these things have accessories like you wouldn’t believe. Kids whose parents buy the whole plastic wardrobe can mix-and-match and create whatever type of potato they want. They can change its gender, emotions, occupation, and fashion sense just by choosing which implements they want to include and which ones they don’t.

A lot of Christians try to do this with God.

We tend to make God what we want Him to be. If we are all about mercy, then God is loving, sometimes to the exclusion of His justice. Slap on the blue hat with little daisies. If we don’t want people to get away with nonsense, God is just and all-powerful. Break out the angry eyes.

If God is a manageable plastic spud with interchangeable parts, then we can worship Someone we’re comfortable with. In a way, we are putting ourselves in control. Even worse, we are diluting the awesome, mind-blowing transcendence of God – the quality that allows Him to say, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, and my ways are higher than your ways.”

We’re not worshipping an idol, not exactly…but we are making God in our own image.

This can be especially tempting as writers. When we have only a few pages in a short story to illustrate a spiritual lesson, sometimes we go for the easy answer and have God swoop down with whatever quality He needs to give our characters insights, even if that presents an incomplete picture of who He is.

Or we’re writing a devotional about a passage and we cut out part of a verse because it doesn’t fit with what we’re trying to say. Ellipses can be just fine (Paul’s random interrupting clauses come to mind), but they can also be dangerous.

Or we’re working on a novel and realize that God is acting more as a distant genie who our characters pray to when they need something (or when the reader needs a reminder that this is a Christian book).

I’m not saying that these practices (or variations on them) are always wrong, just that we need to be careful when we try to bring the transcendent down to our finite, mundane way of understanding. And, please note the intentional use of “we” here, because these are the kind of things I find myself doing all the time.

I like control. That’s one reason why writing is so fun – you get to control the every action and word of your characters. Making God in my own image is one way that I try to control God. Which clearly is wrong, and also kind of silly when you think about it.

HOWEVER (and there’s almost always a however – if there isn’t, you’re probably dealing with someone who’s only thought about his side of the issue), recently I was reading some of the stories in the Bible.

And guess what? The characters made God in their own image…in a way.

They identified aspects of God that fit best with their circumstances and personality. Abraham’s God was El Shaddai, the covenant-keeper. David used the only Biblical mention of Jehovah-Raah, the Lord my Shepherd. After her encounter with God, Hagar named Him El Roi, the God who sees me. The author of Hebrews called Jesus our great high priest, and Paul portrayed him to the Athenians as the wise Creator.

So there’s nothing wrong with identifying a specific aspect of God’s character that means a lot to you. A song that spends several verses just on God’s love without balancing with justice is an artistic choice, not a theological mistake (check out some of the Psalms). We don’t need to try to cram all of God’s aspects into our next short story. That would be impossible. Hilarious, but impossible.

For me, it comes down to an issue of motive. When writing about God, are you spending time in prayer, asking for wisdom in communicating His truth in a way that others can identify with? Or is God a prop, a Mr. Potato Head that you dress up in different ways to serve a specific function?

Our response to God shouldn’t be a need for control…it should be worship.

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