What to look for in a God

One of the most-watched US television shows in recent days was the National Football League draft. Here’s my layman’s snapshot of the basic features.

Each team has many needs and a few selection slots. The “skill” selections are crucial—the passers, pass receivers, and runners. And if a team has enough skilled men their next need is for overpowering players: huge, fast men who can catch the skilled players. The real question is, who makes the best selections?

Okay. Let’s ask a similar but far more important question. How do we select a God worthy of full devotion? Who ensures success in the face of the real-world challenges? A God able to overcome lesser gods? Who is skilled, wise, and capable? And who can be trusted in every time and place?

Next let me state the obvious. First, no one I know ever “selects” a God. We either have faith or we don’t, often based on heritage and training. And I, for one, already believe in God—the Triune God of Christianity, so I’m hardly neutral on the question.

But that’s not the end of the conversation. Many of us who have a God—or those who claim atheism or agnosticism—may have drifted into a particular selection. And it’s a question important enough to be revisited as we go forward in life.

Reports of competing versions of God fill human history. But today we have a bit of an anomaly in the broad academic denial of God found in Naturalism. Yet Naturalism is arbitrary as it sidesteps any basis for good and evil. It also ignores the reality of death. Every soul has a sense that there’s more after the grave. We are made for life. And when wars and pandemics come, many hear the Spirit whispering. We also hear stories of providence—miracles—that point to God working among us. The Bible claim that God selects people for himself—the “sheep” who hear the Shepherd’s voice—also raises the question of who is choosing whom.

So, what options for finding a suitable God are available to us?

One option is to replace God with self. The quiet assumption of Naturalism is that each soul carries the mantle of deity by defining right and wrong; and by asserting meaning and purpose in life. Even as robust a Naturalist as Carl Sagan, for instance, set out his own purpose in life by virtually deifying “the Cosmos.” Yet any sort of self-deification was exposed in Genesis 3:5 where a distorted seeker-of-divinity—later called “the Liar and the father of lies”—told the first couple, you can “be like God.” And, “You will not surely die.” Yet they died. And so will we.

Another option is pantheism: a deification of Nature without Individualism. God is ‘all that is’ and ‘all is god.’ So our world of particular words, particular choices, personal values, and the social fabric of meaning-rich acts is all illusory and inconsequential. Good and evil is undistinguished, with the dark fruit of Karma left as a prison for many.

In the Bible we find other options. It addresses a gaggle of competing gods. Much of the Hebrew Bible is a narrative of the claims and failures of Bel, Marduk, Chemosh, Baal, and more. Each regional neighborhood or kingdom embraced a deity to keep and guard them. And the claim of the God of the Bible—later affiliated with Jesus in the New Testament—is that there is no real competition. Only one God—Yahweh—is the “most high God” and all others are pretenders. And an ultimate spiritual enemy—the Serpent, Satan, or the Devil—is behind false gods. And he competes with the true God, though he was actually created by the true God and faces a certain demise.

Now the big question. Does the one, triune, loving God of Christianity make a real difference for those of us who claim to be Christians?

There are still many options here. We hear invitations to a wealth-and-health God who promises blessings to all who give their wealth to appointed prophets. Or there is a disaffected version of God who ensures salvation to those who agree to a crisp church creed. Yet another version has been labeled the God of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism—a distant being whose pastoral leaders serve as self-help coaches. Or the worship-experience God whose presence often fades when the music ends. Each of these labels represent real elements of distortion.

Let me return to the NFL football draft as an analogy here. No team comes to the draft without doing remarkable amounts of homework. So, by analogy, what homework is needed in finding a sound God? One we can trust and worship?

One step is to have an interview. Ask God, “Can we talk?” The Shepherd-who-knows-his-sheep God will already be active. Another step is to ask for “game films.” The Bible offers a set of stories that display God’s character and capacities, so some serious reading is appropriate.

And finally, be humble. A tendency in religion that leads to distorted versions of God is an instinct to make God in our own image. With pride and power as his main motor. But in Jesus we find a tender, humble presence who came, sent by the Father, to save sinners.

So, let’s start at the cross. There we’re sure to find a God we can trust.

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