God Is Not Your Imaginary Friend
Though I don’t remember ever having one as a child, I do know that it’s not uncommon for young children to have imaginary friends. In fact, my daughter sometimes carries around her stuffed animals—each one has a name—and they take part in whatever activity she is doing at the time. If she wants a snack or a cup of water her stuffed animal wants the same. It seems to me that sometimes an imaginary friend can function as a companion of sorts—even one who shares the same likes and interests. Of course, this is all dictated by the child, and it is based on her own personal preferences.
As adults we have our likes and our dislikes, our own personal preferences, especially when it comes to things that are important to us. Many of us who are Christians feel very strongly about our own piety, including the way that we worship our Lord. This is true for those more “traditionally” minded and “contemporary” minded alike. I have never been a fan of that particular dichotomy.
We hold certain values, and we assume that God holds them too. Maybe we project ourselves onto God, because our own understanding of the world is what comes most naturally to us, and we think that everyone sees the world that way. Most of the time we’re probably not even aware of it. But what happens when someone challenges our values, and, by implication, challenges God? Do we always have the self-awareness and self-control to step back and consider, “What if God doesn’t value what I value?” What if I hold something so closely to my heart, elevating it to such importance, believing that the world will stop without it, and all the while God doesn’t even care in the slightest? At that point, would I even be open to what God thinks at all?
Have you ever thought about that? I think about it all the time. I do because so often it seems like people, in their own predilections, elevate their own values and honestly believe that by defending them, they are defending God. I’ve done it myself. We don’t see God, so to find him we look to ourselves. By doing this, we put ourselves in the place of God, and God is reduced to the status of our imaginary friend. He wants what we say he wants. He wants what we want.
In contrast to us, note Jesus’ posture when he talks about his heavenly Father. He has this exchange with Philip in the Gospel according to St. John:
Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves. Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it. (John 14:8-14).
Jesus doesn’t elevate himself above his heavenly Father, rather he submits to his authority. Jesus allows the Father to reveal himself in Jesus’ own body. Jesus speaks on the authority of his heavenly Father and does all of these incredible things that the Father might be glorified.
We don’t need to create God in our own image, to project ourselves onto him, because we have Jesus, who reveals his Father to us. Instead of spending so much time in our own little theological echo chambers, what if we gave those up to listen to the words of our Lord and actually took him seriously. What does Jesus value? What are his concerns for us? What does he spend time teaching about?
It seems to me that a lot of the conflicts that we have with one another in the church are about things that should be peripheral. Many of the conflicts arise because we put ourselves and our values first. It’s one thing to care about something, to think that a certain way of doing things is best and to seek to win others over to your way of thinking. In fact, I think that this is very important. But to claim that this is what God wants is selfish at best and blasphemous at worst. Before the above quoted comments, Jesus says, “a new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). This is the one commandment that Jesus himself composes for us. Are we so concerned with protecting our own values at such a cost that we are no longer recognizable as Jesus’ disciples? What does Jesus say about worship? What does Jesus say about music or instrumentation? What does Jesus say about ritual or emotion? About lectionaries or altar calls? Could Jesus have predicted two thousand years ago what goes on in any Sunday morning service today?
What if we were able to let go of the things that we hold so dear by putting it all on the line, risking our values, undermining our own egos in order to discover what it is that God himself holds dear as he reveals it in Jesus? In fact, his love for us, as revealed in Jesus, is far better than anything that we could ever come up with. But to see that, to experience that, we have to get over ourselves.