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In a World of Ideas, How Can We Find the Authentic God?

Man standing on headland looking to horizon
Picture by Will van Wingerden

As any psychologist can tell you, our understanding of God is vitally important. Too many of us are held captive by an imaginary deity shaped by the fear and pain of our past – by an ‘angry father’ god or a ‘you-must-be-perfect’ god. Others of us bow to a spirit fashioned from personal wishes and desires – perhaps a ‘success and riches’ god, a ‘do-as-you-please’ god or a ‘[insert favourite political cause]’ god. These humanly-inspired gods will forever let us down, either failing to meet our expectations or forever holding us in torment. For our soul’s sake, we need to get God right.

So who is God? What is God like? How can we spot the authentic article from culture’s counterfeits, or even our own?

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(This podcast is from a 2011 series based on my book Unseen Footprints. Other episodes here).

What Nature Tells us About God

Photo by Teddy Kelley - Unsplash

Picture by Teddy Kelley

God reveals himself in a variety of ways. From ‘whispering’ to us through nature, play, laughter and people to speaking in these seven specific ways, he communicates. In Unseen Footprints I explore what these communications might say about his character and personality. Take nature for example:

If God has whispered through our world and cosmos, then we see a God of power, intelligence and creativity. Only a deity of such qualities could envision both the beauty of a Saturn and the intricacy of a DNA string.

If God has whispered through the assortment of animal breeds, plant life, skin colours and human personalities in this world, then we see a God of variety and diversity. Only such a Being would shape each life form to a basic pattern, but add an infinite array of subtle difference to each.

If God has whispered through beauty and pleasure, we see a joyful God. Only such a God would create the tonal differences of musical notes, the textures and colours of sand and the enjoyment experienced in laughter.

And if this Being cares enough to speak to tribal leaders and searching suburban housewives and if he would whisper to an empty-hearted DJ and offer him new life, we are dealing with a God who is personal. This God is more than energy or a life force. This God loves.

But We Need More Clarity

Photo by Matthew Wiebe - unsplash

Picture by Matthew Wiebe

But as pleasant as these notions are, they only take us so far. What about nature’s crueler aspects – like animals mauling their prey? Do these reflect God’s character too? Or just a good creation gone wrong? We need another reference point to decide.

And qualities like intelligence, creativity and love remain abstract to us until they are embodied. We can’t see, touch or experience ‘intelligence’, but we can see, touch and experience an intelligent person. We can’t see ‘beauty’, but a rose in bloom gives beauty a face. Likewise, for the vague God to become clear to us such a God would need to be embodied somehow. And would the great God of the universe ever do that?

Yes, say the saints of old. Yes, says TS Elliot, CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, Martin Luther King Jnr, Johnny Cash, Bono, Stephen Colbert, and millions around the world from every walk of life. And Yes, I say. The profound claim of the New Testament is that the vague God drew close, visited us in person, and embodied himself in Jesus Christ of Nazareth. If you want to see what God looks like, the Christian faith claims, look at Jesus – the face of God.

The Son radiates God’s own glory and expresses the very character of God,
and he sustains everything by the mighty power of his command.

A Self-Discovery Exercise

Photo by - Jonathan Pendleton - Unsplash

Picture by Jonathan Pendleton

Of course, not all accept this claim. But it does surprise me how many people refuse to believe it on so little investigation. Second-hand endorsement for the idea (from, say, people like me) or against it (from, say, the new atheist crowd) won’t do. ‘Who do you say I am,’ comes the invitation.

This exercise will give you a chance to test the claim by reading the same book that touched Lewis, Tolkien and Luther King—the Gospel of MarkMark is a brief biography of Jesus. It contains deep themes of love, loss, betrayal and redemption and is easily read in about an hour. The following suggestions may help you get the most out of the experience:

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1. Choose a modern translation: The old English language of your grandmother’s King James Version of the Bible may be beautiful but you may struggle to actually follow the story. Try a translation in modern English—the Living Bible, the Good News Bible, the popular New International Version or The Message are all easy to read.

2. Read Slowly: Rushing is never conducive to insightful spiritual reading. Read each paragraph of Mark slowly, aloud if you like, and let each sentence linger in your mind. Note any words or phrases that catch your attention. Pause for a while on any images used in the story (like farmers, seeds and fig trees) or recurring themes (like Jesus’ repeated wish for his followers to ‘see’) and ponder what the intended meaning might be.

3. Read Imaginatively: As you read Mark, imagine yourself as a character within the unfolding story. Imagine standing by the Jordan River as John the Baptist is baptising Jesus. Imagine you are one of those first characters Jesus calls to follow him. Imagine being present when Jesus heals the woman with a hemorrhage or confronts the religious hypocrites. Notice how you feel as you witness these things.

4. Read Personally: John Mark, the author, wrote this biography with a specific purpose: that we might see the life of Jesus and decide what we believe about him. As you read, ask yourself: Which characters do I most identify with and how does Jesus treat them? Can I believe what Jesus says about himself and if so/not, why? Could Jesus really be God in human form and if so, what characteristics does God, as seen in Jesus, have?

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It will be beneficial to compare your responses to those last questions to the characteristics of God you listed in our previous exercise. Where do they agree or contradict? How is your understanding of God growing? Could Jesus really be God in human form?

Talk to Me

Who is God to you? How did you spot the authentic God from the counterfeits? Leave a comment below now or call me using the ‘Send Voicemail’ button on the right.

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  • Shereen

    I love listening to you share your book, Unseen Footprints, Sheridan. Your suggestions to read slowly, imaginatively and personally is definitely beneficial in understanding more of what was written for us in the Bible. I look forward to the next session. I am a slow reader so I’m still behind in your book. God bless you.

    • So glad you’re enoying the podcast Shereen – and the book!

  • Andy

    Sheridan, since all Christian’s by definition understand God as being embodied in Jesus, how is there such diversity of approach to things like war/pacifism, ethical decisions, social justice, sacramentalism and superstition, miracles and science, prayer and faith? It seems that Christians as much as everyone else still choose what path to follow and envisage God to suit.

    • That can definitely happen, Andy. But don’t forget the issue of growth also. Every Christian begins the faith journey from a different starting point by necessity grows and changes along the way as they mature. That means we will all be wrong about something at any point in time.