God in His Own Image – Recovering God’s Majesty

“Humph! You couldn’t raise much wheat here.”

So spoke Mr. Wutzke, a North Dakota farmer, as he gazed into the Grand Canyon for the first time. Having been raised on a Nebraska wheat farm, I can imagine one of my stoic ancestors saying the same thing. After all, if the land can’t produce grain, what value does it have?

What was wrong with Mr. Wutzke’s statement? It was true. Unless there is something going on in the bottom of the canyon that I don’t know about, I doubt that the Grand Canyon has ever sent a bushel of wheat or corn to market.

So even though the farmer’s statement may have been factually correct, it was the wrong response. I know, because I have stood almost breathless on both the north and south rims of the Canyon. The sheer majesty and splendor is almost disorienting on first glance. I don’t like overusing the word, but I think awesome fits very well here. Mr. Wutze’s view was too small for the occasion.

The same is true when we minimize, or worse, ignore the attributes of God that make us uncomfortable. To make God into our image is to make Him safe. Comfortable. Even cuddly.

Recently I met my acquisition editor from Moody Publishers. Drew authored a book, Yawning at Tigers, that deals with many of the same concerns I share in my book, God in His Own Image. In a chapter titled “The God Worth Worshipping,” Drew shared an illustration from the early church leader, Gregory of Nyssa. Comparing contemplation of God’s nature to standing at the edge of a sheer cliff with no foothold, Gregory of Nyssa wrote:

The soul…becomes dizzy and perplexed and returns once again to what is natural to it, content now to merely know about the Transcendent, that it is completely different from the nature of the things which the soul knows.

Drew writes, “When it comes to God, we’re all beginners.”

Last week I described Moses’ first impression about God at the burning bush. Remember also the response of the people as they stood on the foot of Mount Horeb waiting to meet God and hear His voice for the first time. To borrow words from a movie title, Moses and the people felt “a clear and present danger.”

I wonder, do we? Or, have we created our own safe version of God?

When we gather for corporate worship is there a sense of anticipation? Do we come with fear, respectful in the right sense of the word? Do we anticipate an experience that is extraordinary—even transcendent? That will only be true if we acknowledge God in His own image.

Just for a minute or two, let’s consider another man in the older testament who had a personal introduction to God. His story, in his own words, is recorded for us in Isaiah 6.

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one cried to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”

I know it’s difficult—and maybe even impossible—but try to experience that scene in your mind’s eye. The nation was grieving the death of a godly king. And then, in a moment of time, Isaiah suddenly saw the living God, the God of Abraham, seated on a high and lofty throne. Perhaps that describes one dimension of God’s holiness. He is separate from everything in all creation. In other words, other worldly. The train on His robe “filled” the temple—no skimpy Hollywood prop. The seraphim, gloriously bright angelic beings, recognized God’s transcendence and humbly covered their face and feet while calling to each other responsively, “Holy, holy, holy!”

So if you even felt a tinge of Isaiah’s experience, what was your response? But wait! (Sounds like one of those TV commercials pushing some great one-time-only deal if you call in the next sixty seconds.) The plot thickens. Listen. “And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.”

Now what is my response if I had been there? I am certain it wouldn’t be something bland like, “You can’t raise much wheat here.” Nor would I be singing a song with all the potentially offensive terms like holy or wrath or blood deleted.

Hear Isaiah’s response as he lay sprawled on the floor: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, The Lord of hosts.”

Paraphrasing in contemporary language, “I’m dead meat. I have a filthy mind speaking filthy words and living among filthy people just like me. I have seen the King! The king who is the Lord of hosts.” I wonder why I don’t feel like Isaiah when I try to pray or when I enter the worship center on Sunday?

Why don’t I anticipate experiencing an authnetic encounter with the living God? Why do I seldom feel the need to confess my filth?

Maybe one of the reasons people feel burned out or “done with church” is because we have lost the sense of awe over God’s holiness and transcendence. Some have said the reason fewer men than women attend church is that the church has become feminized—safe and predictable. I wonder what might happen if we had to put up warning signs saying “Caution, you are about to enter the presence of the holy God. Management is not responsible for injuries from falling off your chair.”

Yes, I’m joking. But, what would it be like to experience God’s presence—His transcendence—and to sense the conviction of the Holy Spirit making repentance and confession a natural response! What would it be like to leave the church building realizing, not just in my mind but experientially, that I have been forgiven—cleansed and my sin atoned. I would then be prepared to exclaim, “Here I am, Lord, use me anywhere you want.”

Is that impossible or is that true Spirit-driven-revival?

God in His Own Image

Next June, Moody Publishers will release my new book: God in His Own Image.

They came up with a good title…but I like the subtitle even better.

Loving God for Who He is, Not for What We Would Like Him to Be.

That pretty much sums up the book in just 15 words. We can’t (even if we wanted to) change God to fit into our small boxes.

Scripture tells us that God created us in His own image, and some have suggested that we have tried to return the favor by creating God in our own image. That may sound like an attempt at humor, but there’s nothing funny about it. In a previous blog, I shared what I believe to be the two most vital questions each of us must face in life. Is there a god? And if there is, what is He like and how can we know Him? The second question is the heart and soul of the forthcoming book

If there is no god then you and I are simply the product of chance—the highest order of life on an evolutionary chart at this particular moment in history. If God doesn’t exist we are free to do as we please without fear of eternal consequences. But if God truly does exist…well, that’s a game changer, isn’t it?

So what is God like? How we answer that depends on whether or not God has revealed Himself to us. God is other worldly—like nothing else we have known. He is majestic. Marvelous. Powerful. His footprints and fingerprints are everywhere in Creation.

But He is also invisible.

As Paul writes, He is “the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God” (1 Timothy 1:17). So how can we describe an invisible, spiritual and always-existing Being?

Answer: We can’t. Not unless He chooses to pull back the mysterious curtain that separates us from Him. That is exactly what God did when He coaxed Moses to investigate the burning bush that wasn’t being consumed by the fire. God’s first words turned the old shepherd’s curiosity into fear and wonder. It wasn’t just a voice from a bush that shook Moses to the core, it was the abrupt command to take of his sandals, because he was standing on holy ground. Almost instantly he was barefoot and trembling.

From that initial encounter Moses discovered that God is holy and will be treated with absolute respect. Holiness is a word that seems to be fading from our Evangelical vocabulary. And it’s not the only attribute of God that’s gone missing from our conversations and our worship. We love to sing about God’s love and His amazing grace, and rightly so. He is the very definition of a loving Father, and amazing doesn’t even start to describe His grace. We also love to think about God’s mercy, and that He doesn’t treat us as our sins deserve. If He did, we would all be destined for hell. (Now there’s another word fading from our vocabulary. Hell doesn’t sell well in seeker-friendly churches.)

Moses had several more encounters with God after the burning bush. In fact, God introduced Himself to the nation of Israel standing at the foot of the mountain with severe warnings not to approach under penalty of death. The mountain quaked and smoked and a piercing trumpet blast frightened the people so greatly they asked Moses to request God not to talk to them. Please, they begged, only talk to Moses from now on.

God certainly had their full attention. But only for a moment.

When Moses lingered on the mountain receiving the commandments and instructions for the tabernacle Israel’s attention soon wandered like a toddler. The fear and wonder they had experienced at the foot of the mountain was yesterday’s news. Now they were busy trying to re-create God in a safer image.

Exodus 32 records the tragic story. They asked Aaron to “make us gods who will go before us.” Pause to reflect on that statement. Who had just delivered them from bondage in Egypt? Who had led them through retreating seawater and buried the pursuing Egyptian warriors? Who had provided safe drinking water and food? Who, at that very moment, was meeting with their leader, providing him with guidance and direction for the long road ahead?

A golden calf mysteriously formed itself out of molten gold. (If you can believe that try selling ice to Eskimos in January.)

The next words from the Israelites are enlightening. Pleased with the golden calf image they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of Egypt.” Insulting? Blasphemous? Yes! But the calf—the image—the idol—was safe. They could see it, touch it, control it, and pass it around through the crowd. They were so moved they declared a national day of worship, which quickly degenerated into a full-blown drunken orgy. The calf-god, it seemed, wasn’t too worried about holiness.

I don’t predict our churches will soon set up images and icons in the worship center, but sometimes I wonder. Are we in danger of creating God, the sovereign and all-powerful God—the Holy One—into something friendly, manageable and safe?

Here’s a brief test. Complete this sentence by adding your favorite attributes of God: “I praise God because He is ­­­­_______.” (You fill in the blank)

When this is actually done in a church setting or a home Bible study the responses will typically include God’s love, grace, mercy, faithfulness, kindness and patience. And they are all true! They perfectly describe the God of Scripture. But where are the “other” attributes like God’s holiness, justice, anger, or even jealousy? Yes, God frequently introduces Himself as being jealous of anything man substitutes in His place.

Consider this: Without God’s wrath and justice and holiness, mercy is just five letters on a page. Because God is holy and just He will not excuse sin. You and I desperately need His mercy and grace. But grace without wrath and justice isn’t amazing at all. In fact, it isn’t even grace.

We can’t pick and choose our favorite attributes to the neglect of others. My book is based on two words Paul uses in Romans 11:22. “Consider the kindness and severity of God.” I worship Him for His kindness. Without it I perish. But I also worship Him for His severity. I don’t want an anemic God who never angers, never judges and never punishes anybody. That isn’t our sovereign God, it’s a myth. It’s a weak and wimpy concept worth no more than the statue of a bull.

I like to close these conversations with lyrics from songs. Today I choose the third stanza of a traditional hymn that reflects God as He really is.

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty”

Note the three-fold emphasis on God’s holiness.

“Though the darkness hide Thee,

though the eye of sinful man Thy glory may not see.”

Sinful men and women cannot see His glory, let alone explain it. Unless He chooses to reveal Himself, we can never know Him in our spiritual blindness. Note the pronouns referring to God are capitalized out of respect.

“Only Thou art holy—there is none beside Thee…”

God is set apart and unique from all Creation.

Perfect in power, in love and purity.”

God is perfect in all His attributes. His power has no limit but is never abused. His love has no end. He is morally pure and always does what is right. He is righteous!

Now, there is the God who alone can meet our hunger for a sense of transcendence. A safe god, made in our image, inspires no sense of awe or transcendence but is as ordinary and unremarkable as we are.

And our God is anything but ordinary.