December 15, 2004
 Friend or Foe?
 Our Shifting View
Of God
    
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One summer when our children were young, our family vacationed at Chincoteague Island. As Nate and I were driving down Main Street, he noticed the Ben Franklin store in the center of the old business district. The original sign still spanned the storefront, with the name “Ben Franklin” in the middle and the slogan “5-10” in a circle on either side. Nate glanced at the sign and then, puzzled, asked, “Why is that store only open from 5:00 to 10:00?”

At first I thought my eleven-year-old son was joking. But he was serious, and I quickly realized why. To a boy raised in the era of “7-11” and “6-12” marts--stores that announce their hours of operation on large signs as part of their name--it was only natural to assume that two hyphenated numbers on a store sign indicated when it was open. Since five-and-ten-cent stores were commonplace in my childhood, on the other hand, it never dawned on me that the sign could be read in any way other than intended

The Problem of Filters

The incident is but one small example of a truth we experience in much more profound ways every day of our lives. It’s the fact that we interpret what we see and experience through filters. By “filters” I mean certain ingrained perspectives through which we sift our impressions, and that dramatically affect our conclusions. Nate’s deduction about the Ben Franklin sign makes perfect sense once his filter is understood.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that our filters always work against us. When our assumptions are accurate, so are our conclusions. Clear filters lead to clear perceptions. Yet too often our filters are clouded by misleading notions, which lead us to conclusions that hit wide of the mark of reality.

This fact has critical implications for our walk of faith. Apart from the benefit of biblical revelation, we see God through an unfortunate filter: We instinctively think of him as our adversary, not our friend. We assume that he dislikes us and is displeased with us; only through the most heroic effort to live an exemplary life can we possibly hope to win his favor. Even then we fear that he is probably too busy with global concerns to take an interest in the little details of our life.

The gospel message strongly challenges our natural assumptions about God. It declares that he loves us infinitely and takes such providential control of our lives that whatever happens is to our benefit (Rom 8:28). It provides us with an exceedingly positive filter for viewing God and his work in our lives.

Yet the “adversary filter” is already powerfully in place. Add to this the extreme limitations of our understanding: when it comes to knowing what God is doing behind the scenes in our lives, we see only the tip of the iceberg. The result is that we’re prone to think his hand has turned against us whenever we experience a setback or disappointment.

Most of us find that our view of God vacillates considerably. When things seem to be going well, we assume he is pleased with us and affirming us--that he is our good friend and companion. When circumstances appear unfavorable, we assume our worst fears are being confirmed: God doesn’t like us after all. He’s finally getting even with us and working to thwart our plans.

Even when obvious blessings occur, it’s natural to fear that they are aberrations from how God normally deals with us. I’ll never forget how a friend of mine once put it. Rob was scheduled to fly his wife and son from Washington, D.C., to Cumberland, Maryland in his small plane. But at the last minute a squabble over who would ride in the tiny back seat provoked Rob to drive his family to Cumberland rather than fly.

As he was returning to Washington, a fierce storm struck the region. Many of the small aircraft at the suburban airport where Rob parked his plane were overturned and damaged. Ironically, the squall arose at just the time when Rob would have arrived back there if he had been flying. Since the storm hadn’t been predicted, he probably would have flown into the middle of it.

When Rob shared this incident with me, he spoke exuberantly about how God had protected him. “I’m finally beginning to think that God must like me,” he said. He added, though, that he had a nagging fear that maybe--just maybe--God had provided this blessing to catch him off guard. Perhaps he was just setting him up for a future disaster--fattening him up for the kill, so to speak. “Frankly, I fear the Big One is coming,” he confessed.

Wrong Conclusions

The fear that Rob expressed captures so well an attitude toward God that is often displayed by individuals in Scripture. We see examples of people misinterpreting God’s intentions throughout the Bible. This is particularly true with those involved in the Christmas story. Most who heard news related to it reacted with fear or disappointment to the information they received. Although God intended to bless them immensely, they initially read things quite differently and feared the worst.

When the angel appeared to Zechariah to announce that his wife would bear a son, Zechariah “was startled and was gripped with fear” (Lk 1:12 NIV). And it made little difference that the angel who visited Mary strongly affirmed her, saying, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Mary’s response was still one of dread. She “was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be” (Lk 1:28-29). Likewise, when the angel confronted the shepherds, they were filled with terror rather than elation--even though “the glory of the Lord shone around them” (Lk 2:8-14).

Joseph’s reaction to the first news of Mary’s pregnancy, too, is interesting to consider. When he heard that she was expecting, he assumed she had been promiscuous, and he decided to break off their engagement (Mt 1:18-19). His reaction is understandable, since it was based only on the information he had. Yet the incident reminds us of how our initial assumptions are often based on very inadequate information. What at first appears to be a setback may be the doorway to a great blessing.

Of course, the most tragic example of someone concluding God was against him was Herod. He feared that Jesus would usurp his authority. Herod wasn’t the only one disturbed about the political implications of Christ’s birth, to be sure, but “all Jerusalem with him” was troubled (Mt 2:3). It seems that most people of the time viewed the news of Jesus’ arrival as anything but auspicious. Yet Herod is the one who, in his sweeping murder of the male babies in Bethlehem, most epitomizes the dreadful consequences that can result from perceiving God’s work through the adversary filter.

The biblical account of Christ’s birth reveals the human reactions of the participants--but even more importantly, it shows the gracious response of God to these people. God did not abandon Zechariah, Mary, Joseph or the shepherds to their dubious reactions but continued to instruct them, giving them the insight they needed to understand his true intentions. What an encouraging reminder this is that God doesn’t leave us to our negative moods and skeptical assumptions, but continues to give us wisdom to see things from his viewpoint--the renewal of our minds which Paul speaks of in Romans 12:2.

Indeed, the fact that God became human in Christ is the supreme reminder of how fully committed he is to relating to us in our human condition, to meeting our needs and to working out a plan for each of us that reflects his best for our life. These thoughts are implied by the prophetic name given Jesus at his birth--Immanuel, meaning “God with us” (Mt 1:23).

Beyond First Impressions

All of this presents us with a considerable challenge as Christians. Since our tendency to view God in adversary terms is so deep-rooted, we need to make a continual effort to concentrate on the grace-centered perspective of Scripture. We need to remind ourselves constantly that God does have our best interests in mind in every situation we encounter.

And we need to remember the lessons we’ve learned from experience of God’s grace and protection. It’s especially helpful to recall those times when our negative impressions of what God was doing proved mistaken, or when an apparent calamity proved to carry hidden blessings.

In the summer of 1991 my friends Russ and Marguerite Hermanson had a dreadful experience. During a fierce thunderstorm, lightning struck the chimney of their home. The bolt not only demolished the standing portion of the chimney but send a blast of current throughout the house, destroying about thirty appliances and scorching walls and furniture. A hair dryer that wasn’t even plugged in blew out, since its plug was touching a baseboard heater that became charged by the lightning’s current!

Tall trees surround the Hermansons’ home. Since lightning usually hits the highest target, the fact that it struck their chimney rather than one of the oaks was puzzling. Russ and Marguerite could naturally have interpreted the event as a sign of God’s judgment, especially since lightning is a classic metaphor for God’s wrath.

Yet the Hermansons have learned from long experience to recognize the subtle indications of God’s protection in their lives. Almost immediately they saw serendipities in the calamity: though four children were asleep in their home that morning, none was injured, even though one lay perilously close to a scorched wall. In addition, no house fire resulted--odd, considering the severity of the strike.

Yes, the long period of cleaning and reconstruction that followed greatly inconvenienced Russ and Marguerite. Yet the process brought a far-reaching benefit that they could never have anticipated. While rebuilding the chimney, workers discovered that creosote had long been escaping through cracks to the outside portion of the flue liner, a problem resulting from faulty construction. Since the Hermansons heated their home with wood, the buildup of creosote between the chimney and the inside wall was considerable. Yet it had never been detected during the biannual chimney sweep.

Because creosote ignites under intense heat, the Hermansons were sitting ducks for a major house fire. Russ and Marguerite now view the lightning strike as a gracious act of God protecting their home and family, for apart from it the chimney defect wouldn’t have been discovered. A small disaster saved them from a much greater one. It’s enough to cause us all to revise the lightning metaphor a bit!

Reality Check

May God grant us the grace to see our lives from the standpoint of grace. May the biblical message of Christ’s protection, provision, forgiveness, and perfect love for us be the filter through which we interpret everything that happens to us. And may we have the divine capacity to think twice whenever we suspect that God is acting against us or loves us with less than the infinite love that Scripture promises. May we have the ability to change filters quickly whenever our view of God gets clouded by legalistic or punitive notions.

Let us strive for a view of God that never vacillates but sees him consistently as our closest friend. Far from an aberration, Christ’s goodness to us is an ongoing reality each split second of our lives. Take time during this Christmas season to be refreshed by this unspeakable truth.
     

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his article is adapted from chapter 3 of Blaine's The Optimism Factor: Outrageous Faith Against the Odds (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994).

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