In the middle of my sophomore year, a student named Denise transferred to our school from another college. I had been a Christian for about three years. I was growing spiritually, and I wanted to be as faithful as possible with each opportunity to learn or serve. As an eager, motivated believer, I had begun stepping into leadership roles in campus ministry. Denise immediately showed up at campus ministry events, wanting to be involved with other Christians.
Within about thirty seconds of meeting her, I began to feel an overwhelming sense of intimidation. Both her credentials and her actions thoroughly impressed me. She had spiritual maturity, a lot of experience as a ministry leader, and she really seemed to know the Scriptures. She would clearly be an asset to our group.
For some reason, I felt very self-conscious around her. She was so “together” that I was sure she would instantly notice my insecurities and struggles. What if I made the wrong impression? What if I didn’t measure up? I wanted so much for her to like me that I began to question whether I was spiritual enough and wise enough to merit her approval. I quit being myself and froze up. I didn’t want to make a fool of myself. I nervously focused on making sure I didn’t say something stupid that would come across as spiritual ignorance. The result, of course, was that I didn’t say much at all. It wasn’t a very promising beginning for a friendship.
Afterwards, I kicked myself for behaving so strangely.
In the months that followed, I watched Denise blossom with grace and humility as she got to know the other people at school. She seemed to lead with effortless skill. She was a natural to head up the women’s Bible studies, and her counsel was always sought for various ministry decisions on campus.
All the while, I longed for her to know the real me so we could have the kind of mutually encouraging relationship I really wished we had. Deep inside, I wanted to be friends. We were like-minded on so many things. And my respect for her was in the stratosphere. But once I started down this awkward path of insecurity, it quickly got more and more difficult to unveil my true self. The longer it went on, the more intimidated I became. Whenever I was around her, I was paralyzed. If I saw her in a Bible study, a team meeting, or just around campus, I would always struggle to have anything to say that got beyond superficial chatting and politeness. And when I did manage to speak, I was usually so tense that it came out sounding stupid. Instead of getting closer and closer, she seemed farther and farther away. I was sure her impression of me just kept getting worse. I was convinced that everything I did confirmed to her that I was a spiritual dunce.
For two years, I carried on a superficial relationship with this girl I held in such high regard. Externally, others noticed nothing. We were both part of the leadership team on campus and the ministry was going well. Inside, I always felt like a puppy swimming. The guy others could see looked calm enough, but beneath the surface I was scrambling to stay afloat. I was just glad Denise was such a mature Christian; if she weren’t, she would certainly be laughing about me behind my back with her friends.
Finally one evening during our senior year, Denise needed a ride down to Wheeling, a town about thirty minutes away from campus. She asked me in her typically gracious manner, “Is there any way you can give me a ride?”
“Sure,” I said without thinking. I was usually happy to offer anyone a ride, let alone a beautiful, godly coed.
But the minute we climbed into my little green Volkswagen Beetle, I began to feel uncomfortable again. With miles of twisting, turning road ahead of us, there was no escape. It was worse than a blind date. My Beetle never felt smaller.
For the first ten minutes, there was dead silence. As my sweaty palms gripped the steering wheel, I desperately searched for a coherent sentence to utter. Denise was probably struggling to think of some common ground that she could share with the mute simpleton riding beside her. She had to be regretting her choice of chauffeur.
Eventually, she broke the ice. “Chip,” she began, “could I share something with you?”
“Go ahead.” I was relieved she took the lead.
“There’s something that I think has been a barrier in our relationship for the last two years,” she began.
Uh-oh, I thought, now she’s finally going to tell me what she thinks of me.
“You know,” she continued, “I’ve watched God grow you these last two years. You’ve really stepped up to the plate in the men’s ministry. And well, I don’t know if this has ever happened to you, but here’s the thing. From the first time I met you, I’ve just been so intimidated by you.”
My jaw dropped.
“And I’m afraid I’ve been so uncomfortable around you that I’ve never felt like I could just be myself. Now that we’re finishing our senior year, I feel kind of sad about that. But I just wanted to get that out in the open.”
If we hadn’t been on a straightaway, I might have run right off the road. Stunned at first, I finally burst out laughing. “You mean you were intimidated by me?!” I howled. “I was the one intimidated by you! Every time I’d try to say something, the words came out all wrong.” We both had a good laugh, and from that day forward, Denise and I became good friends.
I’ll never forget how my misconceptions about Denise put a barrier in our relationship. As long as one of us had an inaccurate view of the other, the relationship could not develop in meaningful ways. The friendship and encouragement we could have shared during those two years were postponed—all because I had a warped perception of her, and she had a warped perception of me.
The lesson I learned with Denise has divine application. What you think about God shapes your whole relationship with him. In addition, what you believe God thinks about you determines how close you will grow toward him. Many of us have formed a picture of God from impressions we’ve picked up in passing. If we see him as an overzealous policeman, we’ll always be walking on eggshells. If we see him as an angry judge, we’ll always feel guilty. If we think he’s just like us, we’ll be casual about our sin. But are those ideas accurate? What if they’re not true at all? Misconceptions about God can certainly create a barrier in your relationship with him. And meanwhile, the friendship, love, and encouragement you could be sharing with your heavenly Father are never realized—all because of wrong conclusions about him.
This dynamic is also true about every relationship in your life. Our relationships are formed by our perceptions of each other. How you see somebody makes all the difference in the world, as does how you think the other person sees you. I thought Denise didn’t like me. I thought I didn’t measure up. And it didn’t make a bit of difference that she actually thought very highly of me, because I assumed she didn’t. My mind was made up. I was operating under my perception of Denise, and what I thought she thought rather than the truth. So, let me ask you life’s most important questions:
What do you think about God?
What do you think he thinks about you?
How do these perceptions affect your relationship with him?
Think about that. He created you for closeness, love, and friendship. Are you experiencing that? His Word is meant to disclose his deep, personal thoughts to you, and prayer is meant for you to disclose your deep, personal thoughts to him. Are you enjoying that kind of intimacy? Do you feel like you never measure up, that God is “down on you” or waiting for you to mess up so he can discipline you? Do you often find it hard to pray? Does the thought that you are the object of his utter delight seem foreign to you? Do you secretly struggle with obeying him because you think you might miss out on the fun in life if you are completely committed to him? Your answers to these questions will tell you a lot about your perceptions of God.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about people, it’s the fact that we all have a longing for God. I don’t mean we just want to know that he’s there and that we’ll return to him when we die. I mean we long to be close. Twenty years in the pastorate, fairly extensive studies in psychology, and hundreds of conversations with people have affirmed again and again for me that people have an innate longing to be connected with God. I receive letters and emails from people of every background imaginable, but they speak with one voice about their deep desire for something real, intimate, and personal between them and their Creator. They may become deluded by false philosophies, block him out of their lives, or simply become distracted by other things. But underneath it all, God has created each of us with an innate desire for deep, meaningful fellowship with him.
Think about that desire for just a minute. Try to listen to it. Is it speaking to you right now? Can you hear its voice crying out? You may be used to thinking that God is a distant, impersonal observer who is too busy to be concerned with you. Despite your desire, he may have always seemed out of reach. Forget that for a moment. Just for now, can you set aside the feelings that tell you you’re not good enough to be accepted by him, or that he’s been unfair, or he’s too busy to care? That may be extremely difficult if those feelings are deeply ingrained, but ask God to help you, and then do your best to let go of them.
Now imagine breaking through all those misperceptions and somehow experiencing complete acceptance and deep intimacy with your heavenly Father . . . the God of the universe . . . the One who made you just for his pleasure. What if all the hurts that you’ve felt from other people could be dissolved in his perfect love? What if your disappointments could be instantly reversed by the complete satisfaction he brings? What if you could stop looking at God through all the distortions of life and begin to look at life through him instead? Can you picture yourself in a perfect relationship with God like that?
Believe it or not, that desire lives deep inside you right now. You may not feel it very strongly at this moment, but it’s there. Perhaps it’s a faint memory, but the longing remains. You may have learned to divert that desire to other things over the years, but you cannot squelch it completely. It is the key to finding purpose in a life that can seem overwhelming on some days and absolutely meaningless on others.
In the pages that follow, I hope you will begin to feel that desire rekindled and fanned into a flame, perhaps for the first time. If you’re like many people, including me, your misconceptions about God have formed a barrier that keeps you from experiencing him as he really is—and as he wants to be seen.
Deep inside, I felt like Denise and I were meant to be great friends. Our hearts beat in rhythm on so many things. Her life represented the kind of person I wanted to become. There was so much to be gained if we could just make a connection . . . so much to enjoy if only I could have set aside my misperceptions of her. Joy and laughter and friendship were waiting just beyond our common misunderstanding. The same is true about our understanding of God, but there’s so much more at stake.
Several years ago, I learned another unforgettable lesson in the way my misconceptions about God keep me from the benefits of truly knowing him. Our church in Santa Cruz, California, was experiencing tremendous expansion. As with any growing organization, there were growing pains. The response to God’s Word was overflowing our seating capacity. Our resources were stretched to their breaking point. The pressure to provide solutions was overwhelming. I felt neck-deep in capital campaign meetings, day-to-day church management, and preparing messages for the ever-expanding crowds on weekends. The weekdays were a blur of activity. To be honest, I struggled with depression as I felt the increasing demands and pressures of the church’s growth. I appeared publicly to be enthusiastic and successful, but inwardly I experienced many moments of despair.
If that wasn’t enough, our construction plans were delayed by city ordinances and financial challenges. It seemed like so much was going wrong behind the scenes—little glitches and huge obstacles. Most people were unaware of the extent of the problems, but I couldn’t help thinking that God would have taken care of all these heavy matters if only I had done something better. I believed that the entire weight of the church’s ministry rested on my shoulders. I falsely assumed that the problems were the result of mistakes I had made or of inadequacies in my leadership.
I “knew” much of what you are about to read in this book. I believed and understood certain clear ideas about God. I had even experienced the spiritual effect of these principles in my life. But, there’s a difference between understanding God’s attributes intellectually and letting them shape your life. The truth needed to sink in. Like all of us, I was a “work in progress,” and God was (and is) far from finished with me. I still had certain misconceptions about him that needed to be clarified. The circumstances I was in, just like the circumstances you are in, were simply another opportunity for God to teach me something deeper about himself.
That seems so obvious now, but being in that situation had me demoralized, tentative, doubtful, and exhausted. One day, it all came to a head. I sat alone in my office with an overwhelming sense that everything was depending on me. I was exhausted and discouraged, and I honestly wondered if I could continue. While crying out to God for some relief, I glanced down and noticed a gift that had been anonymously placed on my desk by a church member—a frame containing the text from Zephaniah 3:17, a somewhat obscure Old Testament verse. Through tears, I read the words and felt the voice of God speaking directly to me.
“The LORD your God is with you,
he is mighty to save.
He will take great delight in you,
he will quiet you with his love,
he will rejoice over you with singing.”
It suddenly seemed as though God were right there in the room with me. I sensed his power, and it convinced me that he could bring complete resolution to the things that were pressing down on me. Best of all, I could feel his absolute pleasure and delight in me—regardless of how I performed in that situation. He reached right past my inadequate offering and my insecure efforts and embraced me. I could picture him rejoicing and singing over me like a mother who can’t believe she gets to be the mother. Somehow, as that awareness of God’s delight filled me, the work I was doing or the obstacles I was facing didn’t seem all that important after all. As God lifted the weight off my shoulders, I shamelessly smiled as I realized I wasn’t supposed to try to carry it in the first place.
Looking back, I now realize that my pre-Christian ideas about God were still very much with me. I had seen God as someone who dispensed rewards to those who were good and crushing discipline for those who were bad. When things were not going well, I assumed I had done something wrong. My misperceptions of God had produced a very driven person who struggled with workaholism for the first decade of his ministry. Rooted deeply in any driven achiever is the sense that who you are is determined by what you do. As these verses washed over my heart and soul, God’s Spirit used the words to recalibrate my view of him—to separate my performance from my identity. Like a light bulb coming on inside my head, I made the connection that God’s love and delight had absolutely nothing to do with my work or my performance.
I began a new era in my relationship with Christ. In that instant, I realized in a fresh way that God is on my side . . . that he really delights in me. For the first time in a long while, I was able to separate my performance from what God thought of me. I was free to do what I could and to simply trust him for the rest. And it all started with that subtle change in my perception of God. His Word removed some spiritual cataracts that had obstructed my view of him.
In the weeks and months that followed, I plunged myself deep into this new picture of God. I explored passage after passage in Scripture describing a heavenly Father who not only loves me, but cares deeply about every little nuance of my life. With great concern, he watches over all my comings and goings. He may not always intervene the way I want him to, but he’s always present and involved.
A strange thing happened as a result of that experience. The more I learned the truth about God, the more I felt our relationship strengthen. And it was all because I was uncovering my misperceptions and discovering who he really is. I saw glimpses of God’s character so satisfying that they have kept me coming back for more. I also discovered how easy it is to slip into the old misperceptions. They are deeply entrenched in our thought patterns.
We may get out of those holes with God’s help, but if we don’t watch where we step, we can easily fall back in. When that happens, it’s usually because we’ve forgotten something about God’s character—or we discover we haven’t learned it yet. My friendship with Denise began to flourish when we discovered the truth about each other. What would it be like if you applied that same dynamic to your relationship with God? Deep inside, you already long to know him intimately. If only you weren’t paralyzed by your perception of him as a distant deity who removes himself from the details of your circumstances. Or fearful of the unforgiving, holy God who “loves” you, but doesn’t really “like” you. Or even disappointed that God hasn’t cooperated with your plans as you assumed he would. Can you imagine a God who knows you intimately and loves you beyond what you can comprehend? Can you imagine the transforming impact that would have on your life?
In the chapters of this book, I want to help you develop an image of God as he longs to be seen. He has taken several millennia, inspired hundreds of pages of Scripture, and gone through a traumatic incarnation to paint an accurate portrait of himself. He obviously cares what we think about him. He wants us to see him clearly, attribute by amazing attribute.
Along the way, we will dismantle the common misconceptions about God that keep us from getting as close as he longs for us to be. You will have numerous opportunities to identify your own misconceptions and exchange them for the view God has given us of himself. But I want to go beyond what you can know about God’s qualities to offer you tools you can use to implement those attributes in your daily life. It’s one thing for us to reach a rational conclusion that God is good. It’s entirely different to let that truth begin to affect the way we make decisions, interpret events, and look to the future. Every one of God’s attributes has that potential. I had the thrill of seeing God change me—heart, soul, and mind—as I gradually applied the truth of who he is to the way I live. If you will join me on this journey, I promise to share with you the lessons I’ve learned, the mistakes I’ve made, and the helps I’ve discovered in my walk with God. This is the beginning of an exciting adventure!
So take out your wallet-sized, crinkled, and worn out picture of God and set it aside. Let him unveil an amazing portrait of himself. Seeing God as he longs to be seen will change you forever.