We Become What We Worship
In his book, We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry, Presbyterian scholar Gregory K. Beale (1949 - ) argues the case that we take on the characteristics of what we worship. So, for instance, those who worshiped idols became just as blind, deaf and immobile, spiritually speaking, as their false gods.
It makes perfect sense if you think about it. If you adore something, it’s going to affect your psyche. For instance, if I am enamored with money (perhaps the most apparent modern-day idol), it will affect how I live my life, my approach to my career, my stress level when things are tight, and so on. There’s an excellent example of the phenomenon in the parable of the talents. The man who only had one talent had a particular view of his master that he was “a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed.” (Matt. 25:24).1All Scriptural references are taken from the English Standard Version. In other words, he saw his master as strict and expecting too much. So, he threw his hands in the air, thought there was no point in doing anything to try to please his master, and buried his talent.
If that’s your view of the God you worship, that he’s like a strict taskmaster, it will affect how you perceive the world and live your life. You’ll tend to be rigid too, and not want to risk doing anything because it feels like God is at the ready with a lightning bolt the moment you trip up.
This brings us to the fundamental point that we need to understand who the God of the Bible is.
Sometimes Christians will ask, “Does it matter what we believe?” Well, when it comes to our perception of God, it matters a lot if we become what we worship.Think about the children of Israel in Egypt. Joshua records for us that they worshiped the gods of Egypt (Josh 24:14). When Moses told the people Yahweh was coming to rescue them from the burdens of the Egyptians, they didn’t want to listen. If you look at Moses’ speech in Exodus 6:6-8, it’s a wholly positive message about rescuing them from slavery and bringing them to the Promised Land. What’s not to like about that? And yet the scripture records, “but they did not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and harsh slavery.” (Exod 6:9). The Hebrew expression translated “broken spirit” has the idea of impatience. The word for “harsh” means strict or stubborn. What’s interesting about that is not only does it seem that they had become embittered because of their slavery, letting it eat away at them, but they had become just like Pharaoh. He too, of course, was a stubborn man—and rather like the master in the parable of the talents. Pharaoh himself was regarded as a god by the Egyptians. The people took on his personality. When we come to the wilderness wanderings, we find they were a stiff-necked people (e.g., Exod 32:9), using the same word for “harsh.”
Also, in Exodus 32, we have the incident of the golden calf, undoubtedly an attempt to form their perception of Yahweh in the image of what they were used to in Egypt. It is at this point that Moses ascends the mountain and asks God what he is like—“Please show me your glory.” (Exod 33:18). Yahweh reveals to Moses He is not a strict taskmaster but “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” (Exod 34:6). It’s an understanding about God that is fundamental to how we live our lives. If we adore God because of His compassion, patience and justice, then those qualities will be expressed in how we live our lives.
We can also see the importance of this topic when we look at why God created us in His image and likeness (Gen. 1:26). As a child takes after their parents, resembling them in their looks and mannerisms, so God wants us to take after Him but on a much deeper level. He designed us so that we might reflect who He is. Therefore, we need to understand what God’s image is and what He is like. The command against making graven images teaches us to avoid forming a false image of the one we worship. But it’s not just about making physical images; it’s also about what image of God we create in our mind, according to our understanding.
Throughout church history, the topic of identifying the true God is central to what it means to be a Christian. It’s importance for the Christian can be seen from what we looked at last month and how the Magisterial Reformers persecuted those who disagreed with them on the topic of the Godhead. Broadly speaking, Christianity can be subdivided into groups depending on their concept of the God of the Bible. Mainstream Christianity is Trinitarian and looks at other groupings with suspicion, sometimes calling them cults. Pentecostals, for instance, differ from mainstream Christianity in viewing God through the lens of Modalism, rejecting the idea that God is three persons in one Godhead and instead saying that there is only one God, and only one person, but that he exists in three modes, or manifests Himself at different times in the form of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then there’s the category of Christians who entirely deny the deity of Christ, and Christadelphians would fall into that group. But that group, too, can be divided into those who believe he was a man specially created by God (Biblical Unitarians) and churches like the Jehovah’s Witnesses who believe he pre-existed as a lesser god or angel.
Does any of that matter, though? Don’t we all worship the same God, just understand Him differently? Why do we have to argue about the minutiae of the topic of God? Why can’t we just get on with worshiping Him and leave off all the angry debating?
It’s a good question, and that’s why I want to delve into this topic in this article and the ones that follow. Does our concept of God matter? Well, from what we’ve discussed so far, there is undoubtedly cause for us to be wary of forming a wrong idea, or image, of God in our minds. But does that stretch as far as worrying about whether God is one or three in one?
Why do we have to argue about the minutiae of the topic of God? Why can’t we just get on with worshipping him and leave off all the angry debating?
One way to look at this topic is to think about the fruit of the doctrine of God. We’ve already introduced that idea—the fruit of one’s concept of God is how we conduct ourselves based on that concept. But think of it too from the point of view of other teachings that stem from the central doctrine of God.
Perhaps the most crucial doctrine connected to the Trinitarian concept of God is the meaning of the death and resurrection of Christ. I want to explore this topic in more detail in a future article, so here we’ll just go through a summary. Leaving aside for now the philosophical problems associated with God the Son dying on the cross, the idea of God dying for our sins is key to the Trinitarian understanding of the Atonement. A Trinitarian is moved by the idea that God would become one of us, suffer for us and die to remove our sins. I can understand how that might affect a Trinitarian in a very positive way, that God would do all of that for us. However, when we delve a little deeper, we often see something else firmly connected to the idea that God the Son died for us. The argument goes that the sinfulness of humanity is so great that it would take a deity to solve the problem. No man, a Trinitarian will tell you, could ever offer a sufficiently valuable sacrifice to atone for the sins of all humanity.
From one point of view, that Trinitarian argument makes perfect logical sense. However, it also presupposes something eerily like the pagan concept of deity and their worship. In classic paganism, the relationship between the gods and their worshipers was transactional. I like to use the analogy of a vending machine. In goes 25¢, and out comes a candy bar. For the pagan, their worship of the gods was the same kind of thing—in goes the sacrifice, and out comes a blessing. Think, for example, of the classic image of a group of pagans throwing a virgin into the mouth of the volcano to make sure the volcano god didn’t erupt in anger. In goes the 25¢ virgin, and out comes the blessing of a non-eruptive volcano.
The classic trinitarian atonement model is no different when it comes down to the basic concept of what it means to sacrifice. Only instead of a pure virgin, we now have the perfectly sinless god-man, suitably holy and righteous, to take upon himself the punishment we all would otherwise have deserved. In goes the 25¢ God the Son, and out comes the blessing of appeasing the wrath of a God who cannot abide sin; sin fully atoned for.
Before we go on, I should add that the above is more of a caricature of Trinitarian belief than an immersive study of their doctrine of Atonement. Trinitarian scholarship on the topic is more sophisticated, and I might be charged with oversimplifying. However, I want to illustrate that for the man-on-the-street Trinitarian, the idea of God dying for them is just like the ancient pagan concept of sacrifice. Sin must be atoned for, and it required a massive sacrifice to do it.
Is that the God of the Bible? Do we see Yahweh demanding a sacrifice before He will welcome people into His covenant? In one sense, we might respond in the affirmative because, after all, didn’t He set up the sacrificial system as outlined in Leviticus? And what about the whole process for approaching Yahweh set out in the tabernacle?
Leaving aside a study of these things, think about it more simply. How does God treat His people? Take, for example, David’s sin. When Nathan exposed David’s sin, what did David do? Did He go away and sacrifice a thousand rams and a hundred bulls? No—the record simply states that God took away his sin. There was no atonement made, no transaction whereby David might make up for his sin by offering something on the altar that pointed forward to the death of God the Son. Some might argue that the atonement was the death of the child conceived in the adultery. After telling David his sin was forgiven God said “Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the LORD, the child who is born to you shall die.” (v. 14). However, Trinitarian commentators agree that this was a consequence rather than an atonement. For example:
David’s confession came with immediacy, without denial, and without excuse; the LORD’S forgiveness was equally direct and unrestrained. It also was without cost: forgiveness was granted the king without requiring him first to make animal sacrifices or give great gifts to the LORD. In an unadorned fashion Nathan responded to David by declaring that “the LORD has taken away your sin.”2Bergen, R. D. (1996). 1, 2 Samuel (Vol. 7, p. 373). Broadman & Holman Publishers.
The point is God doesn’t need something from us—at least as far as an expiatory sacrifice—for Him to change His mind about us. He isn’t there, like a taskmaster, at the ready with a lightning bolt unless we accept Jesus into our hearts. He isn’t a bloodthirsty deity who demands payment for sin. He isn’t someone who needs sacrifice before He calms down and shows us mercy. He already is merciful, gracious, patient, loving, faithful, forgiving, and just. What He wants from us is confession and repentance, all based on our appreciation of the death of His son, but that’s a long way from the satisfaction model of the atonement preached by Trinitarians. The whole point of what He revealed to Moses on the mountain–is that character is the very essence of who He is. God is love. In effect, God told Moses, “I’m not like those pagan gods the people worshiped in Egypt. I’m not looking for a transactional relationship. I’m a loving Father who loves His children.”
Suppose we worship a God who demands sacrifice before we can have a relationship with Him and can only be satisfied with the death of His son to atone for our sins. How might that be reflected in our earthly relationships and how we treat people? If we become what we worship, it requires serious thought.
On the other hand, many nominal Trinitarian Christians are loving, patient, and kind and don’t seem to have been affected by the Trinitarian concept of atonement. Also, some who reject the Trinity, Christadelphians included, are legalistic and seem to have formed a transactional relationship with others. That tells me that often one’s officially sanctioned concept of God (e.g., what is written in a creed) isn’t necessarily what one believes. I’ve had personal experience of talking to so-called Trinitarians, for example, who, upon further questioning, don’t believe in the Trinity or its Atonement model after all. I’ve also talked to Christadelphians who seem to think worship of God is a transactional thing, whereby we must give our pound of flesh to stay in His good books.
What is your understanding of God? Who is He? What is His essence? Next month we’ll explore this topic a little further and see how that question regarding God’s essence is right at the center of how the Trinity doctrine came about. Our goal is to help us appreciate a little more about why our rejection of the Trinity is essential for us to understand. (To be continued)
Simi Hills Ecclesia, CA