Creating God in our own image
It has come to my understanding that how we perceive others is often in large part a function of our own internal state, rather than a reflection of objective reality.
Let me give you an example.
Sometimes I’ll ask my wife “What’s the matter?” and she’ll give me a puzzled look and answer, “Nothing, why?” This has at times been a source of frustration for her in the past, because through my persistent asking “What’s the matter?”, I’ve given her the impression that there must be something wrong when, in fact, nothing was wrong at all.
I’m gradually learning to be more careful about asking this kind of question; or, rather, to take a step back and think about what’s going on before I ask it.
What is usually going on here?
Often, what’s actually going on at such times is that I am, for some reason or other, in a state of inner discontent which I then unconsciously project onto my wife. Perhaps I’m feeling anxious, insecure, angry, or fearful about something.
I’m probably not consciously aware that this is how I’m feeling. However, because this is happening deep inside me, I look for some external object on which to fix my anxiety, insecurity, anger, or fear. And, the nearest external object usually happens to be my wife.
To put it simply, if you’re often angry, you tend to expect others to be angry too; if you’re often fearful, you tend to see others as potential sources of fear; and so on.
So, because I’m feeling anxious, fearful or whatever, I project my inner unrest onto my wife and expect or assume her to have some problem with me. In other words, we project things onto others that are actually an externalization of our own inner state, rather than a true reflection of their character.
Projecting ourselves onto God
It seems obvious to me that if we do this with other people, there’s every reason to suppose that we do it with God too. Thus we imagine God to be angry, distant, hard to please, capricious, implacable, judgemental and so forth, not because we have any objective reason to believe that this is how he is, but because we’re projecting our inner neuroses onto him.
What makes it worse, of course, is that we can then look to the pages of scripture and find descriptions of God that seem to concord with the angry, distant, hard-to-please, capricious, implacable or judgemental image we’ve projected onto him.
We use the Bible to buttress our misconceptions about God, causing them to become deeply entrenched and hard to dislodge.
The problem here, of course, is that if you believe that all scripture is equally inspired and authoritative, you’re going to have a hard time accepting that any of these negative projections really are misconceptions in the first place.
I mean, if passages in Joshua and Judges authoritatively tell us that God is the kind of God who orders the slaughter of whole cities including women, children, and animals, then who are we to say that our perceptions of God as angry and vengeful are misguided?
And so, inevitably, the problem comes back to how we understand scripture. If we doggedly hold to a flat view in which all scripture is viewed as equally authoritative, we have no firm basis on which to discern whether what we believe about God is simply a projection of our own neuroses, or whether it’s the objective truth.
Because scripture contains so many differing and, frankly, contradictory depictions of God, the two become impossible to separate.
(As a slight aside, I’d say there are two main reasons why God was so often imagined to be angry and vengeful in Old Testament times. First, the Israelites were surrounded and heavily influenced by pagan cultures whose gods were exactly like that; and second, the Israelites frequently did exactly what we’ve been talking about here: they projected their own neuroses onto God.)
Jesus: The Word of God in flesh
What’s the answer to this riddle? How do we distinguish the projections of our own anxious hearts from the objective truth about God? Simple: We look to the Eternal Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, to whom scripture itself bears witness as the final authority on how we are to view, understand, and experience God.
When we realize that Jesus, not the Bible, is the complete, perfect enfleshment of God’s character, it becomes much easier to discern when our thoughts about God are nothing more than the result of our own negative projections.
In other words, when it comes to understanding what God is really like, Jesus helps us separate truth from fiction.
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