Why Our Idea of God Matters

 The first sentence in A.W. Tozer’s classic book The Knowledge of the Holy begins as follows: “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”[1] This is a profoundly true sentence. Tozer goes on to trace the ills of modern man, and the modern church, to a defective idea of God: “Before the Christian Church goes into eclipse anywhere there must first be a corrupting of her simple basic theology. She simply gets a wrong answer to the question, ‘What is God like?’ and goes on from there.”[2] All of our problems, taken individually and together, are nothing, argues Tozer, compared to the “overwhelming problem of God: That He is, what He is like; and what we as moral beings must do about Him.”[3]

This season we want to explore the great problem of God. We want to take a deep dive into the attributes of God so we can see with fresh eyes his greatness. As we begin, we want to first ask: why does our idea of God matter? Is the problem of God truly important?

One of our fundamental problems today concerns what we think about God. Or to state it more clearly: a fundamental problem in culture is failure to rightly think about God. I offer three step defense of this claim.

First, we worship that which is ultimate in our lives. Tozer puts it this way: “We tend by a secret law of the soul to move toward our mental image of God.”[4] This is a point recognized by the religious and the non-religious. Consider the postmodern writer David Foster Wallace. In his book This Is Water, he writes, “There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”[5] Tozer and Wallace are both getting at the same phenomena: the human propensity to worship that which is ultimate.

Second, we love best what we know best. Not only do we worship that which is ultimate in our lives, but we become like that which we worship. This idea relates to Tozer’s second aspect of the problem of God, the question of what God is like. All too often, speaking now as someone who teaches theology and philosophy to students, there is a kind of mental apathy when it comes to the question of God. It is hard to think about the attributes of God—it requires mental fortitude to explore questions related to the infinite! But explore we can and so explore we must.

Finally, flourishing and human happiness are deeply connected to our idea of God. This last idea connects to Tozer’s third aspect of the problem of God, the question of what we as moral beings must do about God. One of the deep longings of the human heart is happiness. We all seek it. Yet, it remains elusive to modern (and postmodern) man. But in the Christian story, we discover that happiness is a great relational good: union with God himself. Moreover, we learn that God calls us to a certain kind of life, a life of the spirit lived under the banner of Christ and the great story of God. As Alasdair MacIntyre writes in his book After Virtue, “I can only answer the question ‘What am I supposed to do?’ if I can answer the prior question, ‘of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’”[9] Our idea of God matters because when we discover what God is like and what God is doing, we learn that God is a story-telling God. We also learn that he invites us to enter into his story and live our lives as part of that great story. Tozer connects our idea of God to our actions as follows: “I believe there is scarcely an error in doctrine or a failure in applying Christian ethics that cannot be traced finally to imperfect and ignoble thoughts about God.”[10] When we understand who God is, we also gain insight into what God is doing and what he expects (and hopes) of us. We learn how we were made to function, to live, in God’s economy. And we learn what true human flourishing or happiness amounts to.

[1] A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (New York: Harper Collins, 1961), 1.

[2] Ibid., 4.

[3] Ibid., 2.

[4] Ibid., 1.

[5] David Foster Wallace, This Is Water (New York: Little, Brown, 2009), 100.

[9] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 3rd ed (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 216.

[10] Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy, 2.

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