One of the biggest mistakes we make when talking with others about faith, whether in evangelism or preaching and teaching Scripture, is that we assume we’re all talking about the same thing when we say “God.”
This is way more than a minor theological issue. There’s a lot at stake in what people imagine when they think of “God,” including their very ability to even be open to knowing God. As A.W. Tozer said, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”
Inherited cultural baggage
We’ve inherited a lot of cultural baggage that makes talking about God far more difficult than most of us assume it would be, and this is an important pastoral issue for those of us who try and create space for people to encounter God. For example, I was browsing Twitter awhile back (something I’m trying to do less and less!), and I found this excellent thread from Chris Green:
I’ve found that when people say “God” they’re often if not always referring to whatever it is that makes happen those things they can’t easily explain.
This is often expressed in statements that begin like these:
“This has to be God…”
“It must have been God because…”
This way of imagining assumes that God is just one cause among other causes, one being (the Greatest) among the many. But as the Fathers and Mothers would say, that’s unworthy of the God revealed in Jesus’s life.
Most troublingly, we often reinforce this unworthy imagining of God when we are trying to testify about the good things that have happened to us. How do we speak of God and our relation to God without suggesting these mythical ideas?
For one thing, we can hold a distinction between what is happening to us, whether good or bad, and what God is doing. The first is deep, and so can be known only in part. The latter is infinite and so can’t be known except by faith.
For another, we can actually preach and teach about God and not just about what God can do for us. We need constant reminding, I think, that God isn’t useful. He’s not someone/thing we simply resource as needed.
And it might help if our ministers (were trained to) read more ancient and medieval theology.
So helpful! We can distinguish between what is happening to us and what God is doing. They’re not the same thing, necessarily! And we can also focus our preaching and teaching on who God is, not just what God can do for us. His character, not just his activity.
Who God actually is
We didn’t originally have this axiom as part of our coaching, but we kept running into the very issue Chris talks about above: we found that when we said “God,” we meant something different than what others had in their minds.
(By the way, you can hear all 7 of our missional theology axioms by picking up our free 10-part audio course 7 Vital Paradigm Shifts For Leading Like Jesus – because you can’t BE like Jesus unless you can SEE like Jesus.)
So it’s been important to specify who God actually is. That Jesus shows us what God is really like. That Jesus is the radiance of God’s glory, the exact representation of God’s being to us. The definitive Word from the Father. The image of the invisible God.
That’s why I love this video clip below from John Behr, an Eastern Orthodox priest and theologian. He says the Christian answer to the question, “Who is God?” is simply: Jesus Christ. We start there, in the actual person and work of Jesus Christ (especially the cross), and move outward, not the other way around.
Don’t speculate, look at Jesus
Rather than speculate on whether or not “God” exists, Christians look at the person of Christ and say, “This God exists.” To paraphrase N.T. Wright (can’t remember where I read this): “To say that Jesus is God is not to learn something about Jesus, but rather to learn something about God.”
Consistently affirming the goodness of God in Christ is a pastoral task I return to often, because it’s often only when bad things happen that people’s actual beliefs about God surface. They assume that if their suffering isn’t alleviated that God is punishing them, or that God doesn’t care about them, or God is capricious or vindictive.
I’ve found it vital to keep affirming, to borrow a phrase from Brian Zahnd:
God is like Jesus.
God has always been like Jesus.
There has never been a time when God was not like Jesus.
We have not always known what God is like—
But now we do.