Did you have an imaginary friend when you were growing up? The possibilities are limitless with imaginary friends! You could be playing outside and they can be fellow pirates searching for buried treasure. Or, if you’re grounded to your room, they could be fellow prisoners helping you plan your escape. Imaginary friends can be anything! The problem is: they can’t actually do anything.
For example, I once met someone who’d had four imaginary friends as a child. She got sick once, and of course all her imaginary friends were sick as well. So she poured herself not one, but five doses of cough syrup! But imaginary friends can’t actually drink cough syrup, so she drank all five doses for them! This brought her parents terror and brought her on a trip to the doctor. Imaginary friends are great, right?
Sometimes, if I’m honest, God feels a lot like an imaginary friend. Like I’m just pretending God is here hanging out with me and helping me on my life journey. Its a nice feeling, but does God actually do anything?
One of the ways God becomes more real for me is when I can take some depiction of God from the Bible and see it embodied in real life. For example, when God speaks these words over Jesus at His baptism: “This is my beloved son and I take delight in him!” I can hear my parents saying how much they love me and are proud of the work I’m doing. I can relate to a God like that.
The problem with this practice is that sometimes we encounter portrayals of God that don’t resonate with what we’ve experienced in our human relations. Many of us have not had healthy experiences with our mothers or fathers. This can make it difficult to connect with the parent imagery of God. For me, it's often difficult to connect to God as a king or lord. There's part of me that bristles at the authority of God, because I’ve seen authority abused so often by human leaders.
Take Deuteronomy 6:4-5 as an example. “Listen, Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.”
Now imagine these words in the mouth of one of our highest human leaders. “Listen to me. I’m the best, believe me! Pay attention to me in my great and unmatched wisdom, and do everything I say.” And while most leaders wouldn’t actually command you to love them, there are many who expect your absolute compliance and submission - with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength, simply because they have power.
What they’re really asking for here is… worship. And that gets a bit scary. A person like that is an egomaniac. Someone who constantly demands or expects recognition and honor, someone who is that power-and-praise hungry is dangerous.
And if I’m honest, when I read these words regarding God, I have wonder: Is God an egomaniac? Is God really just an insecure bully, throwing God's weight around and demanding praise?
Think about it. We meet at least weekly to read the Bible, sing songs about God, and talk about God. That’s a lot of worship. This is the God who, just one chapter prior to our reading, says things like, “Do not have any gods besides me,” and “Do not bow down to or worship idols, because I am a jealous God.” Basically, don’t put anything ahead of me. I’m the top, the most important thing. Again, if we imagine these words in the mouth of a human leader, the results are scary. At best, God kinda sounds like a jerk, and at worst, an evil, comic book villain.
At this point, it's important to pause and recognize something. These depictions of God in human terms are like metaphors – they are designed to convey something, but they aren’t a direct correlation. For example, if I tell my wife, “You are the sunshine of my life,” I might mean that I feel happy and warm when she is around, or that she is the most important thing to me. I don’t, however, mean that if I spend too many hours around her without sunscreen I’ll get burned, or that when she is near I will spin in circles and rotate in an orbit around her (though sometimes being in love feels a lot like that!).
Similarly, portrayals of God as father or mother, lover or Lord are designed to give us glimpses of who God is, but they are not designed to convey the whole picture or to be a direct correlation to our human experiences. And for this I am grateful.
For one, I’m grateful that when Jesus says He longs to gather His people under His wings like a mother hen gathers her chicks, it doesn’t mean Jesus is a chicken. And secondly, this actually gives an opportunity for God to bring healing to the brokenness of our human experiences. For me, this means opening up myself to the possibility that God as Lord and a source of authority means maybe God is a different kind of leader than I’m used to seeing.
One of the core teaching about the kingdom of heaven is that God is love, and not the kind of love that is a trade or exchange, not the kind of love that is based merely on affection or shared feelings, but a love based on choice and always given freely for the benefit of the other. This is what I see in the way Jesus loves. And if this is true, then why would a God of love ask us to worship God? Unless that, too, was out of love. Unless that, too, was for our benefit. Could it be that us worshiping God is actually because we need that in our lives?
Come back next time as we explore these questions further! Until then, tell us what you think: why would a God of love ask us to worship God with all our heart, soul, and strength?