There’s a quote by A.W. Tozer that changed the course of my life many, many years ago. “What comes to your mind when you think about God is the most important thing about you.”
He’ll go on to say, “By a secret law of the soul whatever your mental image is, you will gravitate toward it.” How you view yourself, how you pray, how you relate to others, how you perceive the future – every relationship, every decision will be rooted in how do you mentally perceive God? And here’s what you need to know: All of us are off. We are fallen people.
You have a distorted picture of God, I have a distorted picture of God. The question is: How distorted? Your mental image of God is a montage, a montage of early experiences, family of origin issues, some religious training, an experiment that someone said, “This is what He is like,” or a religious group or difficult times or pain or a parent or someone close to you that has died. All these different things, over the years have brought you to today and today, when you bow your head or when you think about God, you have a picture.
It’s so unconscious, the reason I had you start is I wanted you, for some of you, you thought, I don’t know what the picture is, right? I’m guessing some of you bowed your head and go, Well, He’s God. I don’t know that I really think about who I am talking to. That, by the way, is a problem.
But it impacts everything.
Let me give you some very quick examples from my life that might help connect the dots. I did not grow up as a Christian, I did not grow up in a church that taught the Bible, but I remember vividly thinking that my view of God, by the time I was about sixteen or seventeen, was that there was, He was like a cosmic cop. And there was some, big, powerful person in the sky somewhere that had a blue suit and His arms are crossed and a toe tapping and He had a badge and a big club and basically if it was fun, it was wrong. And the whole goal was to catch me doing something wrong, which was not hard to do. And it was basically: You have messed up again, Ingram. You have messed up again.
So my view of God was: longing to pray and the song we sang about delight and beauty – that wasn’t my God. My God was: You don’t measure up and you need to get with the program.
And then that got compounded because despite a father who really loved me, he went through World War II, he lost his dad when he was thirteen, he was a fifty caliber machine-gunner, he spent time in Guam, Iwo Jima, saw all of his friends killed, became an alcoholic – very functioning – really cared about me.
And in his era, though, you didn’t say, “I love you,” and no one hugged you and the way you loved your son was you want him to be successful so I was setting goals by the time I was nine years old. I had three jobs by the time I was twelve. I lent my money, three thousand dollars, to my parents at six percent interest when I was thirteen years old because I had…
And I collected.
And by the time I was twelve I knew I wanted to do this in basketball, this in baseball, have a girlfriend who looked like this, get a scholarship, and get As. And I worked like crazy because what I found is the only way you could please my dad was you had to succeed and affirmation is not love, but it’s the next best thing when you’re growing up.
So no matter what I did, the bar always went up, the bar. So I got a God in the back of my mind because our parents and we, as parents and grandparents, we are impacting our kids and grandchildren with a view of God by who we are.
And so I had a God, so I trusted Christ, by God’s grace of being introduced to the Bible and a group of athletes loved me and cared for me and a bricklayer began discipling me. But deep seated was this God who was always waiting for you to mess up and this God who, no matter how much, so do you pray fifteen minutes? Seventeen? A half hour? What if I’m praying a half hour and God wants thirty-one minutes?
And then, pretty soon, the group I was with really was into Scripture memory. So is it a verse a day? Well, is it a hundred verses? Is it five hundred verses? What about a chapter? I know some guys who are memorizing books. I don’t have any books down.
And I became this neurotic workaholic Christian trapped in a performance trap because that’s my view of God. I probably needed to go to a twelve-step Christian recovery program.
All that was rooted deeply in some family of origin issues growing up and I didn’t know. When you grow up in a family, you think it’s normal. Right? So we all of us, we’re all dysfunctional, it’s just how much.
And I don’t think it’s all bad; it’s a fallen world. But then I get married and my wife begins to speak to some things and I realize down behind all of that, if down deep in your heart you don’t view a God who, apart from anything you have ever done looks at you and says, You are precious. I delight in you. Because of what Jesus has done, you are My son, you are My daughter. You are precious. I want to be with you. I affirm you.
If that’s not your God, then you will create all kinds of different things to try and stay “on His good side,” or perform.
And so if you don’t think God really likes you just for who you are and you don’t like yourself for who you are, when your wife starts saying some things that she doesn’t think is so good about who you are, I was very defensive.
So some marriage counseling and some time where, little by little by little, a guy gave me a tiny book called The Knowledge of the Holy by A.W. Tozer and I’ll never forget, it’s just thin, little chapters. I read, literally, I read a portion of that book for the last thirty-five years. The first ten or fifteen years, a chapter a week.
And I would read these little chapters on the goodness of God and I would just, it was like, God finds holy pleasure in the happiness of His people? Tozer would write that what would happen if we could all but believe that we live under a friendly sky? And that God, though exalted in majesty and power, is eager to be friends with us? He is cordial, kind, benevolent, loving, eager to share hearts. Those were foreign thoughts.
For some, it’s on the whole other end. You think God is like grandma. All He wants to do is give you dessert all the time. That’s what my wife does. Sort of. And the sense of God’s white-hot, unapproachable holiness. And so we have Christians that don’t see that, yes, God is pure and loving but He is absolutely above. He is holy. He is a consuming fire that His commands are for our benefit, but you don’t mess with a holy God. You don’t look at His commandments as options. You bow in reverence. You meet anyone in Scripture who encounters God, they are face down. There is no casual, this isn’t my buddy upstairs. This is pointing, everything is okay, and high-fiving Jesus and Jesus is my homeboy t-shirt. This isn’t the God of jewelry and stickers on the back of cars.
This is the name that is too holy, even to utter that the scribes and the Pharisees would just write the four letters of His name of: Yahweh. They wouldn’t even pronounce it out loud and then go ceremonially and wash before they could continue to copy the Scriptures.
So all of us are off. But the most important journey you’ll ever have in your life that is never too late is to pause at certain seasons and say, God, I want to see You as You are. The real God. Not the God that I have made up in my mind. Not the God that is being passed around in Christian circles. The real God, the God of the Bible.
How He longs for you to see Him. That’s what we are going to study. And the first session here is to ask the question: Is your God too small?
And if you’ll open your notes, we are going to begin by some ground rules because if you don’t get these ground rules, I will assure you you will never see God accurately.
There are three common mistakes that we make when we think about God. Three things that you have to know that are facts to know Him accurately and then there is one really, really big question that I can’t answer for you. You have to answer for yourself.
But to see God, the real God, with 20/20 vision – and here’s the difference. We are not here in this weekend together to learn more about God. There’s a night and day difference between the knowledge about a person and the knowledge of a person.
You can take a movie star or dignitaries or the president of the United States. We know a lot about people. You can Wikipedia and know a lot about people like that. We are talking about a knowledge of them, a relationship, a heart knowledge, a connection from the heart, knowing God by way of intimate connection and relationship, not knowing facts about them. Not simply ideas that float around in your mind, but a connection with Him.
So three facts you need to know for this to happen is, one, is that God is not like you. Shocking, isn’t it? God is not like you. But our tendency is to take the best that we can think of, the kindest person, the best person, the most holy person and then, somehow, we blow it up by ten or blow it up by a hundred or blow it up by a million and think, Well, God, somehow, someway is a lot like a bigger, better, more pure, perfect vision of this. Here’s what I want you to know: it’s not true!
There is all-created things, even the angels and that is a category. And then there’s another category and that’s God. Completely different category, completely other. That’s the concept of the word “holy.” It means He is separate, He’s a cut above. He is not like us but every religion and even we Bible-followers, we want to make God like us because we want to manage Him. We want to control Him.
Listen to what Isaiah would write when it comes to God because this is not a new problem. Isaiah 40, verse 25, “‘To whom then will you compare Me that I should be like him?’ says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high and see who created these, who brings out their host by number, calling them all by name. By the greatness of His might, and because He is strong in power, not one is missing. Why do you say, O Jacob and speak, O Israel, ‘My cause is hidden from the Lord, it’s disregarded by my God?’ Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the Everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth, He doesn’t grow faint or weary. His understanding is unsearchable,” or, “beyond what we can fathom.”
He’s just completely different. But that’s helpful. That’s why, when the Ten Commandments, no other gods. No images. No pictures. Nothing that can reduce Him. Nothing that can get Him in a smaller box. See, we have got a box and we want a God that we can know and feel comfortable with.
It’s the great lines by C.S. Lewis and the conversations where Aslan and he says, the little girl says, “Aslan, are you tame?” He says, “No, I’m not tame. I’m loving. And I am compassionate. But I’m not tame.” God is not tame. He’s not on call. He’s the Creator; we are the creatures.
I put in your notes a great passage for me is Romans chapter 11. When the apostle Paul was talking about the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man and the crescendo of that great book of Romans, he ends up with a doxology, “Oh the depth of both the wisdom and the knowledge of God.” He talks about, “Oh the depth and the power and the richness of His wisdom and His knowledge. It’s beyond finding out.”
He says, “Who has known the mind of the Lord that they should be His counselor?” No one. “Who has ever first given to God that God would owe him?” No one. And then he says this amazing thing, “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory.”
Have you ever thought about that? Everything in all the world is from Him and through Him and to Him. And to Him be the glory or the weight. And so what I want you to know is that God is not like you. And He’s not like me. And so there’s this category, this awesomeness, this purity that we want to grasp.
The second is related to it. Left to ourselves we tend to reduce God to manageable terms. I want a God that I can see, I want a God that I can control, I want a God that I can tame and manipulate. And that’s not the God of the Bible.
Every world religion, the old totems, right? Or the moon or the stars or the image of a god is a lion or some animal and it was the strength of the bear and if you go to anthropology all over the world and you see what people worship, we get some concept, whether it’s a strength or some power in the moon or the stars and we take something and we get it where we can see it and we actually, as human beings, will bow down to things that our own hands create.
And Isaiah would later reprove His people and say, “You worship gods that you have made yourselves. They have ears and they can’t hear. They have hands but they can’t feel. They have feet and they can’t walk.” And he was contrasting them to the real God. But we all do that. We just reduce Him.
Exodus 32:1 to 6 is the first and most graphic story. Remember the story of when the people were delivered out of Egypt? And just try to not make it a Bible story and try and imagine what it would have been like. For ten generations you have heard about this invisible God who made some promises to some people that lived a long time ago and Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and some guy name Joseph. And you have heard the stories passed on carefully but you’re a slave and life is hard and it has been four hundred years. And then this Moses guy shows up and then there’s these wild things happening that happen to the Egyptians that don’t happen to you and since you have lived there you know that every one of these plagues is an attack on one of the Egyptian gods.
And so, one by one, that god – psshh! This god – psshh! This god – psshh! The hail god – psshh! And the last god was the Egyptians believed that Pharaoh was god and so his son would be the next god. And so the last plague was the first born children.
And you didn’t get it. What is this blood over the door posts? It was a bunch of weird stuff and then pretty soon it’s the middle of the night and everyone is saying, “Get out of here and get out of here now!” And, “Here’s gold and here’s silver. Take your kids!” You and a couple million people and then there’s this fire hovering over you and then there is this wall of water and you remember that night and the wall of water is up forty, fifty, sixty feet and it’s dry land and it’s like your kids thinking you’re camping out and this is a weird experience and then the water comes back.
And this is like you have seen power, power, power, power, right? And then you are sixty days in. You’re just sixty days in and it doesn’t feel quite like a camping trip anymore. And you’re in the middle of nowhere and wilderness, wilderness is like desert type and where are we going to get water and where are we going to get food? Where are we going to live?
And it’s sixty days and pretty soon Moses said, “Because God said we’re coming to this mountain,” it’s Mount Sinai, and you get there and he disappears for a while and then it’s like, “Okay, you guys are supposed to come out,” and you come out to the mountain and you purify yourself and just a bunch of weird stuff. What do you mean? You wash you clothes, don’t have any sex for a couple of days, then they mark off this boundary and if anyone crosses the boundary, you’ll die.
And then you come out that morning, Exodus 19 by the way is where we are at, and you come out that morning and everyone is standing and then pretty soon you hear this ram’s horn. And then it gets louder. And it’s really, really sweet and part of you wants to listen and part of you is like, “Oh!”
And then you hear a voice and it’s God’s voice. And you tremble and the earth starts to shake and you’re face down and you look up and smoke is billowing out and there’s fire and you’re going, “Oh my gosh!” And you are just petrified. And then Moses speaks and you hear his voice again and then, “Moses! Moses! No more. You just talk to Him. We can’t take it.” And that’s God. And, whew…
Right? This is a “You are there” moment. And then after all that, now get this, and then Moses says, “That God, okay, I am going to go up. He wants me to come. And He is going to give me commands. You know what He wants? He wants to do a cutting. It’s a covenant.”
And because of your background you understand a covenant has to do with blood. A covenant has to do that we will make a commitment to God that we are saying that we would die before we would break the covenant. And He is saying the same thing. And He is going to give us the agreement of the covenant – what it is we are going to agree to. “I am going to go up and get that.”
So Moses goes up. And then we are people, right? “Have you seen him?” “I don’t know.” “When is he coming back?” “I don’t know.” “He’s been gone a long time!” The kids are getting restless. This isn’t a camping trip. “Is he coming back at all?” “Aaron! We need a god. People are getting restless. It’s getting a little uptight here. We need a solution.”
“Okay.” Peer pressure is very powerful. “Why don’t you all take off an earring, bring it to me,” and he fashions a calf and they put a golden calf and from their Egyptian background, the bull, the calf, power, fertility. We’ll call him “Yahweh,” because we don’t want to get in trouble, right? Syncretism, it always works.
So we’ll call it “Yahweh” and then tomorrow, bring your sacrifices. And it says, “They brought their sacrifices and then they began to express their worship,” and the King James says, “revelry.” It’s like a really hot weekend in Vegas.
And you need to understand, all the worship, the ancient world, built into all the fertility gods, it was sexuality, all kind of immoral ways. And then God looks down and sees what is happening and says, “Moses, we have got a problem.”
Now, here’s the question I want to ask you: How in the world could you have that kind of experience with God, see those kinds of miracles, that kind of power, actually hear His voice, see the earth shake and then demand that you had to have something you could see?
I want to tell you, it’s human nature. And before we get, I don’t know, as an early Christian I remember reading through the Bible and stuff like this and I’m thinking, Man, these people are nuts. Or the disciples, Jesus would heal someone and then they are uptight about not having bread. I was young and never read the Bible and I thought, Man, I wish I was there. Man, I wouldn’t have this kind of problems.
I have to, I do have a confession I need to make that so far it’s a sign of spiritual growth. I have never come home after a long day of work and say, “Honey, just stay right here. I have put a little statue in the back room. I’m going to go pray to it.” I have never done that. I just want you to know I have never worshipped…
But I have worshipped a lot of idols that I have created in my head. Idols like success, family, kids, education, prosperity, money, comfort, self-fulfillment. See, we don’t worship idols. They actually used God, made a picture, worshipped it in a way that they could actually get “what they wanted” in the way they thought that would satisfy them with total disregard for the real God. And I would like to suggest that we do the same thing.