Have you ever made a snap judgment about someone, only to find out you were completely wrong? Maybe it was the way he dressed that led you to believe he was irresponsible or vain.
Maybe her accent gave you the impression that she wasn’t well educated or sufficiently sophisticated. But then you see that man in the flashy clothes spending time talking with a beggar on the street and buying him a hot meal. Or the woman with the accent becomes a cantor in your parish, and you are stunned by her beautiful singing voice and her heartfelt chanting of the psalms. You find yourself rethinking your assumptions and asking God to forgive you for being so judgmental.
If first impressions of people we can see are so powerful, imagine how much more influence they can have when we think about God, whom we have never seen! Like the exaples above, our first impressions often contain negative—or at least incomplete—images that don’t do justice to who he really is. This is why it’s so encouraging to hear that God wants us to know him. He wants to shatter any negative images we have so that we can develop a closer relationship with him. This month, we want to take a closer look at who God is so that we can overcome any false images we may have of him. So as you read these articles, ask the Holy Spirit to open the eyes of your heart. Ask him to reveal God to you in ways you have never experienced before.
A Distant Creator? When we think about God the Father, two notions usually come to mind: he is the Creator of the universe, and he is the Ruler of the universe. Of course, these are central truths of our faith, but what if we were to look carefully at the kind of creator and ruler God is?
When we talk about God as a ruler, we can think of him as a harsh judge or a heavenly policeman, eager to arrest us for even the most minor infractions. According to this image, God expects us to follow his rules or face stiff consequences. Or he is a demanding taskmaster who oversees, controls, and dominates the universe with a heavy hand.
Under the image of God as Creator, we may think of him as a cold and distant ruler who runs the universe in an unbending, analytical way. Or perhaps we think of him as an absentee owner who has given us all he is going to give and now expects us to do the best we can in life. He has created us, and that’s the end of his obligation.
It’s bad enough that these different notions about God are false. What’s worse is the way they can limit our experience of him as a Father who cares for his children. They convince us that we can’t have a personal relationship with God or that we’ll never be as close to him as the saints were.
A Merciful Father. The picture doesn’t have to be so bleak. Scripture offers us a host of truer and far more encouraging images of God—images that reveal the kind of Father our God is. And probably no place in Scripture brings these images to life more dramatically than the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). In one sense, this parable could just as easily be called the parable of the Father’s heart because it tells us far more about God than it does about either the prodigal son or his older brother.
In the first half of the parable, the younger son—the “prodigal”—takes his inheritance, leaves home, and squanders all his money on riotous, self-indulgent living. It doesn’t take long before he ends up broke and alone. When he finally comes to his senses, he decides to swallow his pride, go back to his father, and accept a lesser place in the household. Ashamed of all he has done, he believes that his father would never accept him as a son again. The best he can hope for is a job as a servant. But as we all know, his father welcomes him with open arms, clothes him in dignity, and prepares a huge feast to celebrate his return.
Let’s try to identify some of this boy’s distorted images of his father. As the story opens, it seems that he feels his father’s love and provision aren’t enough to satisfy him. He has to go out into the world to find something better. Then, after deciding to come home again, he seems convinced that he has lost all rights as a son. Perhaps he expects his father to punish him and make him pay for his mistakes. Perhaps he thinks his father will be too ashamed of him to allow him back in the family.
How different was the reality of his father compared with this young man’s image! While the boy was still a far way off, his father spotted him, ran to him, threw his arms around him, and kissed him. He didn’t even let the boy finish his repentance speech but called for a robe, a ring, and sandals—all signs of his dignity as a son and heir. Against all human logic, he even ordered a feast and called everyone to celebrate his son’s return. The father never lost hope that his son would come home.
Did the father put his son on probation? No. Did he tell his son that he needed to reach a level of perfection before “sonship” would be reinstated? No. Did his son have to do anything to be welcomed back into the family? Yes, but it was very simple. He just had to come home. He just had to say, “Dad, I’m sorry, and I need your help.”
Jesus told this parable to illustrate how God’s heart overflows with love for us. He wants to impress upon us that his Father—who is also our Father—is ready to forgive every sin completely and unconditionally. Contrary to the prodigal son’s assumptions, our Father in heaven has boundless mercy, unparalleled kindness, and persistent hope for all of his children, no matter how far from him they may be.
You Are Always with Me. In the second half of the parable, Jesus’ focus turns to the older son, the “faithful” one, who had his own distorted images of his father. This boy seems to have thought that both he and his brother had to earn their inheritance. He saw his father more as a boss than as a dad. In his view, his father had made a serious mistake by welcoming his brother back so quickly. Instead, he wanted his father to act as an impartial, impersonal judge, approving the good (himself) and rejecting the bad (his brother). And so, with his mind colored in such a judgmental way, the boy refused to join the celebration. Upset by his father’s generosity, he wouldn’t even go into the house.
But as Jesus brings the parable to a close, he counters these false views of the father. First, he tells us that the father took the initiative in reaching out to his older son. Rejecting any notion of personal pride and the dignity of his position as master of the house, he humbly explained why he had done what he did. Then, after pleading and begging his son to join the celebration, he quietly listened as the boy vented all of his anger, hurt, and accusations. Finally, Jesus gives the father the last word, which sums up the entire parable: “You are here with me always; everything I have is yours” (Luke 15:31).
Jesus’ point is clear. Our heavenly Father longs to see every one of his children come home to him. He longs to see us turn from our sins, both the big ones and the small ones. He wants to forgive us and give us our full inheritance. As the father in the parable did, God will go out of his way to reach out to us and invite us home. These are the accurate images of God that we need to keep in our minds. This is how he wants us to see him and relate to him.
My Dad Loves Me. Scripture tells us that the Holy Spirit, who lives in our hearts, wants to join our human spirits and convince us of the most accurate image of God: He is our dad, and we are his children (Romans 8:16). This month, try to examine the way you think about your heavenly Father. If you find distorted images, don’t worry. They’re not hard to fix. Just tell yourself, “My Dad loves me. He cares for me. He wants me to be happy. He only wants the best for me.” Trust in your Father. Feel free to talk to him. Seek his guidance and encouragement. You really can find all your security, all your hope, and all your peace in him.