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.

Lean on Me

“Woe to the pastor who chastises his people for ‘coming to get’ and not to ‘give.’”

This statement from a recent John Piper article[i] stopped me in my tracks. I guess you might say it challenged my philosophy about gathering to worship in Sunday.

Did I ever say something like that as a pastor? Did I chastise people for coming to church empty, wanting only to receive?

Not exactly.

On the other hand, I have made comments to the effect that we shouldn’t come to church to obtain something, but rather to give praise to God. In fact (I have said), coming to church just to receive borders on narcissism. It’s like saying, “It’s all about me.”

Piper has prompted me reconsider. Let’s be honest, life isn’t always a bowl of sweet Oregon cherries. I don’t always feel like singing “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee.” I may be so depleted on Sunday by the tough experiences in my life that I am desperate for something or somebody to lean on.

“Lean on Me.” I remember that classic song from the 70s. I can still see Frank Patka, our youth pastor back then, having our youth group sing “Lean on Me” one Sunday evening. (Remember those Sunday evening services where we let our hair down and became family?) Bill Withers wrote and recorded “Lean on Me” in 1971.

The gist of the lyrics was that when you’re not feeling strong and need a friend, you can count on me to be there to lean on. And by the same token, one day I will surely need you to help me in the same way. If you would like to hear the song again, check this Website:

Lean On Me

It was a secular hit in its time, but the concept behind it is biblical. As Hebrews 10:24-25 reminds us: “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another…” (emphasis mine).

I share a quote from Piper’s blog: “God is glorified in worship not only by those who come full, but also by those who come desperately needy.” As I said, I had to chew on those words for a few minutes to let Piper’s words sink in.

Think about it: God is glorified when I come to church, not just to give Him praise, but as a “desperately needy” person begging to receive His blessing.

God has never been put off by needy people who seek Him. (Not even old King Ahab, facing a death sentence from God, but repenting with fasting and wrapping himself in sackcloth or little Zacchaeus, up in the branches of a sycamore tree.) He just loves needy seekers.

Piper goes on to say: “Corporate worship is not a gathering only for overflow. The full may overflow. That is worship. The languishing come to drink at the fountain of God’s life-giving word. That too is worship. It magnifies the necessity and desirableness of God. The soul-hungry come to eat at the banquet that is spread from the rich stores of Scripture. This also is worship” (emphasis mine).

I really can’t add anything to Piper’s description of corporate worship. I feel empathy with that person so emotionally and spiritually dehydrated who is languishing for a drink from God’s life-giving fountain. I visualize a man or a woman crawling through the hot sands of Death Valley almost at death’s door, when they are met by another hiker with a full canteen of cool water.

Doesn’t David reflect this lament in Psalm 42?

As the deer pants for streams of water,

so my soul pants for you, O God.

My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.

When can I go and meet with God? (niv)

It is not a spiritual defect to be so depleted that we need somebody to lean on. To “need” is to be human. We do need each other. Remember how Paul uses the metaphor of the human body to illustrate a local church in 1 Corinthians12? Each member of the body has a part to play. No member, whether an eye or a hand or a lung can survive by itself. We gather on Sunday to give God praise. We sing to Him and to one-another (see Colossians 3:16).

On any given Sunday who knows whether the person sitting in front or beside you may be so empty that they have “crawled” into the church building hoping to be fed or to receive a drink or just a hug? Perhaps your giving praise through singing to God may help fill the void and lift them up.

I love the song, “The Wind beneath My Wings.” I have always associated it with Jesus, the One who raised me up when I was lost in sin and who daily lifts me up in life’s trials. He is the wind beneath my wings when the storm has depleted me. But just this morning, I heard the lyrics a little differently. Imagine the word “you” as plural rather than singular. What if “you” was a local congregation? Then, perhaps, you or I could be the wind beneath the broken wings of my wounded sister. I could offer my hand to lift up a weary brother. Perhaps we could be the shoulder to lean on till they are able to stand again.

I remember, as a child, the picture of a boy carrying another boy on his back through a blizzard. Beneath the picture was the motto of Boys Town, a Catholic home for boys: “He ain’t heavy, Father…he’s my brother.”

If you are feeling depleted, I share one last quote from John Piper: “Come to church desperate for more of God, and expect that he will meet you through his people.”

Here is a Website with Josh Groban singing “You Raise Me Up.” This morning it brought tears to my eyes:


[i] From John Piper’s blog posting, “Come to Church Desperate,” on June 23, 2018, desiringGod.org