For much of human history, people have been executed because of their beliefs. These people weren’t killed for antisocial behavior (like murder, rape, or treason); they were slain simply because of their inner-conviction about reality. We’re more tolerant today. That’s good. I don’t want to be burned alive because I believe that Android phones are better than iPhones (though I confess to liking roasted Apples…). It’s right we abandon belief-based execution, but remember those who experienced it.
Thousands of men and women willingly suffered slaughter without recanting. They believed so strongly, they wouldn’t pretend to deny their beliefs; even to save their lives. Today, though, doctrine is scorned. We imagine cloaked monks, closeted in their dusty cloisters, penning abstract dogmas on “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” I once asked dozens of people what they thought of doctrine. They boldly proclaimed:
- Doctrine, schmoctrine; God only wants us to love each other.
- Doctrine is about the head; I believe in the heart.
- Doctrine divides; it’s more important to find what unites.
- Thinking is the devil’s territory; let’s just experience God.
The thing is, each of these statements is a doctrine. (The belief that “God only wants us to love each other” is called the doctrine of Salvation by Works.) But would you die for your doctrine that, “Thinking is the devil’s territory”? I think not. Dorothy Sayers wrote, In the world it is called Tolerance, but in hell it is called Despair … the sin that believes in nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and remains alive simply because there is nothing for which it will die (Creed or Chaos, slightly edited). We don’t need to be burned at the stake. Our shallow convictions about realityare death.
The problem with doctrine is that we all have them; few of us admit it; and it’s killing us. Our mental image of God The most controversial belief about reality is what people believe about the nature of God (immediately followed by the Apple / Android debate). A. W. Tozer wrote, What comes into the mind when we think of God is the most important thing about us, for we tend by a secret law of the soul to move toward our mental image of God. We all have a mental image of God (it’s really a doctrine even if we refuse the label) and that image controls our lives. By a “secret law of the soul,” we do what we do, due to belief. If we believe God is a strict school-master, we work really hard, but mostly to avoid him. If we believe God to be a syrupy-sweet Santa Claus, we mostly ignore him (though maybe we leave out cookies and milk every Christmas Eve).
We choose our beliefs
Julius Caesar claimed, “Men [and probably a few of you women too] are nearly always willingly to believe what they wish.” We stick our heads in the sand and believe only what we want. I’m kind of sick of hearing the feeling-oriented, fanciful, “I don’t like to think of God as a judge; I like to think of him as a loving father.” Are we stupid? Seriously. Are we that dumb? If my daughter said, “I like to think of my dad as a young, virile, quarterback for the Denver Broncos,” perhaps her imagination would make her feel good. But every morning, what rolls out of my bed is an over-fed, under-exercised, old man. We create our tame gods for emotional comfort. They just lack two things: reality and comfort.
We don’t see the real God in our lives because he doesn’t conform to our mental image of who we think he should be:
- The Pharisees fail to see God because he healed on the Sabbath.
- The Zealots are blind to God because he didn’t kick out the Romans.
- The disciples on the road to Emmaus miss God because he wasn’t in his tomb.
We are blind to Jesus walking right next to us because he doesn’t act as we imagine he should. He’s there, but we don’t see him. Our counterfeits make him invisible.
God is rarely what we like to think
When the he poet W. H. Auden converted to Christianity, his friends asked, “Why?” He replied, “I believe because [Jesus] fulfills none of my dreams, because he is in every respect the opposite of what he would be if I could have made him in my own image.” His friends asked, “Why not other great teachers like Buddha?” Auden’s chilling response was, “None of the others arouse all sides of my being to cry, ‘Crucify Him.’” You and I are not that honest. Nevertheless, we rebuke the real God when our mental image of him cries, “I can’t believe a loving God would let me experience ‘X.’” Instead of letting God be who he is, we scream “Crucify the imposter.” God is always more loving than we expect. But we have to give him room to be real.
What do we most need?
The real cure for our real problems lies beyond our imagination. So we need a God who lives beyond our imagination. What we need most is a God who is not a creation of our needs. Only a God who makes demands we don’t understand can give us the answers we can’t imagine. Only a God who is terrifying can finally give us love that is satisfying. Hey, if you want an overfed, under exercised, imaginary God, it’s a free county. Maybe you can use that mental/molten image (and your Apple) as a paperweight for your pile of bills. Just remember, it’s still a doctrine.