Does Christianity Have a Beautiful Vision of How We Relate to God?

(This is the fourth chapter from a book I recently released called “Beautiful and Believable: The Reason for My Hope.” It is available here, and an ebook version is available on KindleApple Books, and Kobo.)

Is the manner in which God relates to us beautiful? That is, does the relationship offered by God make us go “Wow, that makes sense and is is consistent with what we would expect from a good creator God.”? Is it consistent with what the Bible teaches about God, namely that “God is love” (1 John 4:8)?

Many would answer, no. Their impression of Christianity is that you try to keep the rules, then you go to hell when you die because you couldn’t. If that is it, then yes, it is very ugly indeed! 

However, that’s not it! Many religions are based on performance, that is, your relationship with God is dependent upon how well you keep the rules. Many people, including many Christians, think that Christianity is based on performance. That, however, is not Christianity.

What is Christianity? What does the Bible teach as to how God relates to us?

Let us go first to the Old Testament.

We might point to all the rules of the old covenant law and assume that one’s relationship with God was, and is, based on performance. But look closer. Long before the law was given at a mountain called Mount Sinai, God was in relationship with humanity. Adam and Eve sinned, which introduced death and separation from God. However, God stayed in relationship with Adam and Eve, and with humanity. Israel was called to be a different kind of people, a people who followed God’s lead. They often stumbled, and yes, bore the consequences. However, despite their poor performance, God stayed in relationship with stumbling Israel, and with stumbling humanity.

In the Bible we have a long record of relationship between God and humanity. Within this, to use literary language by way of analogy, the old covenant is a sub-plot which is essential to the unfolding of the main story. Yes, in the sub-plot Israel’s performance was tied to Israel’s future. If they rebelled against God, they would be exiled from the “promised land.” They did rebel. They were exiled. But God stayed in relationship with them anyway! Through Israel God was working out his plan for relationship with all of us. That plan was not dependent on anyone’s performance, but on God’s desire, God’s grace.

The old covenant law is not the main story, even of the Old Testament. The main story, from Genesis to Revelation, is God’s relationship with humanity, not through our performance, but by His grace.

. . . . God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. 

2 Timothy 1:8-10 (NRSV) 

Second, let us consider Jesus.

How do you begin your prayers? Is it “O all seeing, all knowing judge, who is ready to pounce on me for every sin”? Jesus, in teaching us to pray, taught us to begin with “Our Father.” The Lord’s Prayer begins in a manner which reminds us that we belong. We begin prayer with a reminder that when we are praying in the presence of God, we are exactly where we ought to be. We belong, even when we think that belonging is not what we deserve. In teaching us to pray, Jesus reminds us that we relate to God, not through our performance, but by God’s grace.

Consider too, how Jesus related to people in the Gospels. Jesus was gracious to all, being known as a “friend of sinners”. Jesus did have harsh words for some, namely the religious perfectionists who continually harped about performance of the law. Jesus modelled a grace-filled life. God relates to us in the same way Jesus related to people, not by our performance, but by his grace.

Consider too, what we learn from Jesus’ death on the cross. Basically, we killed God. He loved us anyway. That is all grace. Eternal life is a gift made possible by the grace of God.

Third, let us consider Paul, as an example of what the apostles taught.

Paul teaches about grace in Ephesians 2:1-10;

You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

Ephesians 2:1-10 (NRSV)

Though we were in a mess, God rescued us. Paul himself is an example of grace, since he messed up terribly by persecuting the people God was using to reach other people with the good news of God’s love. If God’s grace can reach Paul, it can reach anyone.

How does God relate to us?

The Bible teaches that God’s relationship with us is marked, not by the performance of perfect people, but by God’s grace and love for imperfect people. This is a beautiful and compelling aspect of Christianity.

Grace provides a great atmosphere for our relationship with God. When a relationship is based on performance, it can be like sailing in a thunderstorm, scary. One never knows when lighting will strike. Perhaps one even feels that their mast is the tallest and will be the first to be struck. When a relationship is based on grace, it is like sailing with a good breeze on a sunny day. There can be adventure, enjoyment, and progress. Grace provides an atmosphere perfect for flourishing and growth. 

When we receive God’s grace, we do not come before Him like a distrusted employee before a cruel boss, or a hated criminal before a harsh judge. The Christian comes before God as an imperfect but growing child welcomed into the presence of a good, good parent. The Christian experience of grace is therefore consistent with how God would relate to us if “God is love.” The manner in which God relates to us is consistent with a good and loving God. That is a beautiful thing.

Afraid of God? Maybe We Should Be? Maybe We Shouldn’t?(Thinking Through Luke 5:1-11)

Does the thought of God terrify you? Maybe it should? Maybe it shouldn’t? Simon Peter had a moment of terror early in his relationship with Jesus which will help us think through our response to God.

Peter’s Scary Moment

One day as Jesus was preaching on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, great crowds pressed in on him to listen to the word of God. He noticed two empty boats at the water’s edge, for the fishermen had left them and were washing their nets. Stepping into one of the boats, Jesus asked Simon, its owner, to push it out into the water. So he sat in the boat and taught the crowds from there.
When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Now go out where it is deeper, and let down your nets to catch some fish.”
“Master,” Simon replied, “we worked hard all last night and didn’t catch a thing. But if you say so, I’ll let the nets down again.”

Luke 5:1-5 (NLT)

Let us remember that Simon Peter was a professional fisherman. Jesus was a a carpenter turned teacher. The fishermen knew better than to let down their nets. Yet,

…this time their nets were so full of fish they began to tear! A shout for help brought their partners in the other boat, and soon both boats were filled with fish and on the verge of sinking.
When Simon Peter realized what had happened, he fell to his knees before Jesus and said, “Oh, Lord, please leave me—I’m such a sinful man.”

Luke 5:7,8 (NLT)

When Simon Peter tells Jesus to “Go away from me, Lord, because I’m a sinful man!” we should not think of this as an affirmation of a Christian statement of faith. At that point in time there was no Christian statement of faith to affirm. Rather, this is the recognition on Simon Peter’s part that Jesus is no ordinary human being, that Jesus somehow represents the divine. Simon’s natural response to the divine is terror.

“Go jump in a lake!” or “don’t throw me overboard!”?

When Simon Peter told Jesus to go away, we should remember they were on a boat. Where exactly did Peter think Jesus was going to go? Yet we should probably should not think of Simon as telling Jesus to go jump in the lake. Rather, this is a statement of humility, of saying “don’t throw me overboard. Don’t let me die.”

Which of these two sentiments do people hold toward God today? Some respond to the thought of divinity with fear, like Simon; “please don’t throw me overboard, don’t throw me away!” Others respond to the idea of God, Jesus, and Christianity with a fearless kind of attitude, with “I don’t need God or Jesus, and anyone pushing that on me can go jump in a lake.” Some speak as if they would tell God to go jump in a lake given the chance.

Should we be fearless?

What if such fearless people, instead of merely entertaining thoughts about God, found themselves fully in the presence of God? Would have a different response? Ideas are easy to dismiss, manipulate, and misunderstand. When God, or Jesus as God the Son, is just an idea to us we can easily say “go jump in a lake, for I am self-sufficient, good, capable, and have all I need.”

However, if instead of merely entertaining ideas about the divine, we were confronted with the presence of the divine, our natural response would be closer to that of Peter: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful person.”

We see this with Isaiah when he has a vision of God:

It was in the year King Uzziah died that I saw the Lord. He was sitting on a lofty throne, and the train of his robe filled the Temple. Attending him were mighty seraphim, each having six wings. With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. They were calling out to each other,
“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of Heaven’s Armies!
The whole earth is filled with his glory!”
Their voices shook the Temple to its foundations, and the entire building was filled with smoke.
Then I said, “It’s all over! I am doomed, for I am a sinful man. I have filthy lips, and I live among a people with filthy lips. Yet I have seen the King, the LORD of Heaven’s Armies.”

Isaiah 6:1-5 (NLT)

Isaiah had the same reaction to a vision of God as Simon Peter did to Jesus. Both were confronted with the awful reality that a sinful person does not belong in the presence of a holy God.

If we can go from thinking of the divine as an idea to an experience of the reality of the divine, we will go from “go jump in a lake, God,” to “please don’t throw me off the boat!” Perhaps we should not be fearless.

But should we be afraid of God?

Jesus replied to Simon, “Don’t be afraid! From now on you’ll be fishing for people!”

Luke 5:10 (NLT)

Not only does Jesus tell Simon Peter to not be afraid, he goes even further in boosting Simon’s confidence by telling him he has something for him to do. Far from being afraid of being thrown off the boat, Simon could have confidence that Jesus had made space for him on the crew.

The apostle Paul had a similar experience. If Peter could say “I am a sinful man,” Paul could say that even more so! Yet he also was invited to be part of the crew:

This is a trustworthy saying, and everyone should accept it: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”—and I am the worst of them all. But God had mercy on me so that Christ Jesus could use me as a prime example of his great patience with even the worst sinners. Then others will realize that they, too, can believe in him and receive eternal life.

1 Timothy 1:15,16 (NLT)

We could sum up the response of God to Isaiah, Simon Peter, Paul, and many, many others with “though you are very aware that you do not belong here in my presence, you do belong here in my presence and I have a purpose for you, for though it is not what you deserve, it is what I want.”

That is the Gospel message, the Good News message, that God has made a place for us in his Kingdom, and further, that God has a purpose for us in his Kingdom, in this world. The cross makes that possible as we experience the reconciliation required for a sinful person to be in the presence of a holy God. We are called to take our place on the crew, in God’s presence, and in God’s Kingdom. We are called to a purpose.

Peter, Paul, and many others took their place on Jesus’ crew:

And as soon as they landed, they left everything and followed Jesus.

Luke 5:11 (NLT)

As we read of the adventures of the apostles following the resurrection of Jesus, and as we read their letters, they don’t seem scared of God. They seem thrilled to be serving.

So should we be afraid of God or not?

Are you scared of God? Maybe you should be? Maybe you shouldn’t? It really depends on what we are thinking when we are in the boat, when we are in that Simon Peter moment of finding ourselves confronted with the reality of the divine.

If the thought of God terrifies us, there is good news; in moving beyond mere ideas about God, to actually knowing God, who reveals himself and his desires for us in Jesus, we can trade in being terrified of God for being joyful, confident, and fearless in serving God.