28 Fundamentals: Misunderstanding God

It is crucial to understand God's character. Unfortunately, He is often misunderstood and maligned.

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The Father

God the eternal Father is the Creator, Source, Sustainer and Sovereign of all creation. He is just and holy, merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. The qualities and powers exhibited in the Son and the Holy Spirit are also those of the Father. (Genesis 1:1; Deuteronomy 4:35; Psalms 110:1, 4; John 3:16; 14:9; 1 Corinthians 15:28; 1 Timothy 1:17; 1 John 4:8; Revelation 4:11.)

“God is good!”

Hands up if you read those words and thought to yourself, All the time. OK, so maybe don’t literally put your hands up—people nearby might think you’re weird! But for some people it has become a reflex response to a call many pastors and church members use to engage and excite their audiences.

Such a reflex, in fact, that someone made a rather dark meme (an internet joke that consists of an often famous image and text) about it. The image depicts a Christian character hiding from an evil villain. The villain, stumped for a moment, cries out “God is good!” The Christian responds “All the time” and then looks horrified. It made me laugh out loud.

While it’s true that God is good, like so many words and concepts in Christianity, the phrase has lost some of its power and meaning through overuse and familiarity.

God is not just good as a description, but good as in the definition. If there is an objective moral absolute, it is God’s goodness, of which all other goodness is just a pale shadow.

And so we say “God is good” all the time to remind ourselves, to affirm the knowledge that we serve a good God. But how many of us really believe it?

Even those who claim to believe in Him can paint God as stern, harsh, unyielding and even vengeful. God’s “followers” often misrepresent Him and cannot agree on many elements of His character.

Many others hate Him and there is a whole group of people who are demarcated by not believing in Him.

God, the Father, is the most misunderstood character in the Bible.

While Jesus is seen as a Revolutionary, a wise Teacher, a compassionate Healer and a great Prophet, God is seen as cruel, punishing, distant or non-existent. “God is dead,” German philosophers declared, ushering in an age when humans would be too sophisticated to believe in a God (or gods) they could not see. God has received a bad rap throughout the years.

There is a reason for this. It started at the very beginning.

“Satan’s efforts to misrepresent the character of God, to cause men to cherish a false conception of the Creator, and thus to regard Him with fear and hate rather than with love
. . . have been steadfastly pursued in all ages” (Introduction to The Great Controversy, 1941).

This speaks of an orchestrated attack, not just some accident or case of mistaken identity. Mud-slinging politicians have nothing on this extended smear campaign.

Keeping this in mind, we need to seek to understand God’s character, not only through the lens of Jesus in the New Testament, but God’s actions and unchanging nature right through the Bible. Jesus described God as His Father, one of God’s most common designations in the Christian faith—an image that depicts close relationship and care.

Unfortunately, this too has allowed His image to be hijacked and damaged. Like it or not, we often, sometimes subconsciously, associate God with our own image of what our fathers are or what we think they should be.

Too often these days, fathers are rigid, absent or broken, giving us a picture of God that reflects or rejects our earthly father’s image. We are made in our heavenly Father’s image, but also in our earthly father’s one. Our perception of our earthly fathers often colours our perception of our heavenly Father.

As a kid, Dad’s time and attention were like gold to me. The chance to throw a ball or kick the footy with him was a real highlight. We would watch sport together, and at holiday times he would play in the pool or jump through the waves with us: special memories.

I remember soon after I had left home for college getting a phone call from my dad. Close family friends had lost their son. Dad finished the conversation by telling me how much he loved me and was proud of me.

That one affirming act meant more to me at that moment than almost anything else. I’ve been lucky to have such a loving father.

Even so, as I grew older, my relationship with my father changed as I tried to set out into my life and establish my independence. We think quite differently, have very different skill sets and proficiencies. I could never do what he does for a job and I think he would say the same for me.

Living in different states meant slowly I allowed distance to grow between us. Often, when we talked he would ask me questions about things I didn’t want to talk about. So I would avoid calling him. What I’m learning as I grow older is while I resented the incursion on my freedom and the implications of the questions—a reminder of my procrastination—Dad asked out of love and genuine concern. He spoke from his knowledge and higher experience—something I could not see from my vantage point. I hated the distance and missed my dad, but found it hard to reconnect until I had dealt with things I knew he’d ask about.

I’ve noticed my relationship with God the Father can be similar. We’re afraid of the kinds of questions God will ask us so we avoid having the conversation. It becomes works based as we try to fix things up in our lives to a point we feel worthy to approach His throne. This says more about us than it does about God, yet we will colour our reasons, make excuses or justifications and lay it back at God’s doorstep.

It’s a sign of maturity that we can move into deeper relationships with our fathers in adulthood and is also a step we need to take with our heavenly Father.

If we do not take the time to understand God’s plan for our lives and His people on this planet, then we default into distance, expectation or only call on our Father when we are in trouble.

This is important because what we believe about God will inform every other part of our life and practice. Our perception of and relationship to God can be incredibly uplifting or damaging for both ourselves and others.

If we can only see that God is love through the revelation of Jesus, then we do God a disservice and allow misperceptions to creep into our understanding.

If we see God as strict, judgemental and austere then we will treat others in that way. Instead we must see God as Father—loving, sustaining, life-giving and providing—whose motives and ways we don’t always understand, but who always has our interests at heart.

“The more men learn of God, the greater will be their admiration of His character” (GC, p 678).

The complete and comprehensive picture of God’s character, enabled by the great controversy or cosmic conflict idea, gives the Adventist Church a real head start in presenting a life-changing message that the world needs to hear.

John’s great theme, repeated throughout the gospels, his epistles and the Revelation: God is love.

This is God’s great surprise.

“Love laid a trap, as it were, deploying humility and unselfishness against power and pride and hubris, a mismatch so stupendous that the outcome seemed a forgone conclusion until ‘the rulers of this age’ woke up to see their scheme disintegrate” (Tonstad, God of Sense, Traditions of non-sense, p 322).

The reality is that God the Father is love—self-sacrificing love—just as much as Jesus. Force has no place in the divine plan. Love allows for mistakes, for free will and ultimately for reciprocation without expectation.

This is the picture of God the world needs to see.