God’s Character and the Christian Life

This article was written to accompany the 'Knowing God's Character' hangout.


CONSIDER

  • When was the last time you realised something about God's character that you had not known before?
  • When was the last time that something in your life changed as a result of learning or thinking about God's character?

The Most Important Thing About You

According to A.W. Tozer, 

“What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us... The history of mankind will probably show that no people has ever risen above its religion, and man's spiritual history will positively demonstrate that no religion has ever been greater than its idea of God. Worship is pure or base as the worshipper entertains high or low thoughts of God." (A.W. Tozer)

This claim is not overstated. Our understanding and experience of God’s character shapes every area of our lives. It is not an isolated belief, but rather the central axiom on which our own character, our worship, our prayer, our decision making, our relationships, and every other area of our lives are built.

God has revealed his character to us. To differing extents, we learn about God through nature, through conscience, through Scripture, and ultimately in the person of Christ. In describing himself, God says, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty…” (Exodus 34:6-7)

We are not in the dark. We can know God truly, and in ever-increasing depth, and this knowledge can bring continual growth and transformation to our Christian lives.

The Image of God

“Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” (Genesis 1:26)

THINK IT THROUGH

  • What do you think it means that people have been made in the 'image' and 'likeness' of God?

The meaning of humanity being created in God’s image is multi-faceted. In different contexts, attention is drawn to man’s authority over creation, to man’s intellectual, moral. or spiritual nature, and to the fact that like God we are social beings who belong in community.

The best way to understand the idea of God’s image is to see the way it is paralleled with Adam fathering Seth in Genesis 5, “When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man and they were created. When Adam had lived 130 years, he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth.” (Genesis 5:1-3) In both cases, the words ‘image’ and ‘likeness’ are used. It would be futile to attempt to pin down the one way in which Seth resembled Adam. As his son, he takes after his father in many ways and can truly be said to be his father’s image and likeness. In a similar way, Adam and all subsequent humans are in God’s image. This is not restricted to one area of similarity, but simply to say that the character and nature of God are reflected in many ways in humanity.

CONSIDER

Think back to the different 'attributes' of Gods' character that you identified in the 'What is God like?' article.

  • In what ways do you see these characteristics 'imaged' in humanity?

Even though Adam and Eve were already created in God’s likeness, they gave in to Satan’s persuasion to disobey their creator, based in part on the promise that, "...you will be like God..." (Genesis 3:5). Satan is the father of lies, and he was successful in persuading people who were already in God's image to become less like God. Some people describe this as the 'broken image' of God in humanity, because though people still exhibited many characteristics of God, these characteristics became increasingly veiled by the introduction of sin, death, broken relationships, and abusive authority into what was previously God's perfect likeness.

CONSIDER

  • Is a desire to be 'like God' a good thing or a bad thing? Why?

Adam and Eve’s problem was not in wanting to be like God. This is something that is encouraged and even commanded in the Bible (e.g. Ephesians 5:1). The problem was that they were misled about what being like God involved. They believed the serpent that having moral autonomy and knowledge of good and evil constituted God’s likeness more than holiness, humility and right relationships. They were wrong to do so, but they were not alone. The King of Babylon thought in his heart, “I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.” (Isaiah 14:14) Instead, he was brought to ruin. When King Herod revelled in being thought of as a god in Acts 12, he too was cut down to size.

Being like God is not about seizing power and pridefully attempting to take on God’s role, but about truly reflecting the character of God that we were created to image and that is seen perfectly in Christ, who is the “exact imprint of his nature.” (Hebrews 1:3)

THINK IT THROUGH

  • How does learning truth about the character of God translate into more cloesly reflecting his image?

Reflecting God's Likeness

Knowing God’s character is important because we will spend our lives reflecting either the image of God as he truly is or an image of something that God is not.

The relationship between knowing God’s character and reflecting that character is expressed in a number of different ways in the Bible.

In some verses, we are instructed to imitate God, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.” (Ephesians 5:1-2) or even to imitate others who accurately reflect the image of God, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 11:1)

Other times, the character of God is set as a motivation for us to reflect his image. In the first eleven chapters of Romans, Paul describes in great detail God’s saving work through the gospel, and then concludes chapter 11 with a doxology praising God’s glorious character. It is with reference back to all of this that he then says, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” (Romans 12:1-2)

Sometimes, reflecting God’s image is shown as part of the work of transformation that God is doing in us by his Spirit. This is part of the process of our salvation, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:29), and is part of the new self that God has given us to clothe ourselves with, “to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Ephesians 4:23-24) This is particularly true when we consider the fruit of the Spirit. These god-like characteristics are produced in us by the Holy Spirit and are in contrast to the works of the flesh. We have a part to play as we keep in step with the Spirit, but it is primarily his work of transformation in the lives of believers, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control… If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.” (Galatians 5:22-25)

Some of the most interesting verses on the subject of becoming like God suggest that the key to transformation is seeing God as he is. “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” (2 Corinthians 3:18), and “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” (1 John 3:2) Seeing God as he is, which involves both knowledge of his character and experience of his presence, is the key to being transformed into his likeness. Beholding is becoming.

This idea is taken further by G.K. Beale in his book, ‘We Become What We Worship’. Beale argues that transformation will occur into the image of whatever we worship. As we behold and worship God, we are transformed into his likeness, but the same is true of idol worshippers; they become blind and deaf like the idols they created, "Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not semll. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat. Those who make them become like them; and so do all who trust in them." (Psalm 115:4-8) Beale summarises by saying, 

“We resemble what we revere, either for ruin or restoration.” (G.K. Beale)

THINK IT THROUGH

  • What examples can you think of where idolatry leads people to become like their idols?

Worship

Knowing God’s character is crucial for our worship. It is possible to set up a false notion of God in our minds and to worship him as we imagine him to be, rather than as he has revealed himself. God can no more be made with our minds than he can with our hands. If we resemble what we revere, then it is of first importance to ensure that we have a true (albeit not complete) understanding of the One who we revere.

In the Second Commandment, God prohibited his people from making images of him. "You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God..." (Exodus 20:4-5). Whereas the First Commandment had banned the worship of false gods, this commandment also bans worshipping the true God by means of false images. He was concerned that if people were to create representations of Him in the form of a human, a bird or a beast (e.g. a golden calf), then it would lead people to believe that God was actually like that, and their worship would be oriented towards a false notion of God.

CONSIDER

  • What are the false representations of God in our day that can lead people to worship Him without a true understanding of His character and nature? These could be physical or conceptual.

Instead, our worship must be grounded in God as he truly is. On one occasion, Jesus was asked what the correct location for worship is. His response indicated that the heart of the issue was not about the location of worship but the type. “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:24) Because God is Spirit, our worship must be in spirit. Knowing his character informs the way we worship God. Moreover, we must worship in truth; accurately understanding who God is and what he is like fills us with truth, which we then turn back to him in praise.

Worship is about more than singing. Every aspect of our life can and should be an expression of our worship to God. “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31)

Worship is not less than singing though. Throughout history, God’s people have celebrated the character and deeds of their God through song. Many of these songs are recorded in the Bible. The Old Testament is packed with songs and psalms. We are told that at the Last Supper, Jesus and his disciples sang to God together. The church is commanded to sing, and Revelation records the songs of praise that will be sung for eternity.

LOOK IT UP

Skim through the book of Revelation and pick out the songs that make up the soundtrack to eternity.

  • What do you notice about the content of these songs?
  • How can the content of these songs inform the songs that we sing today?

Prayer

Just as our worship is characterised by God’s character, so too is our prayer. For instance, the omnipresence of God means that we can pray anywhere and God will hear. Jesus teaches that instead of praying to draw the attention of people, we should do so secretly, because, “Your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:6)

Moreover, Jesus goes on to explain that because God is omniscient, it is unnecessary to pray long prayers full of meaningless words. The objective is not to persuade God, nor to inform him of needs. “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Matthew 6:7-8)

Because God is a good Father, we can pray in faith that God is willing to answer our prayers. “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:7-11)

Because God is omnipotent, there is nothing we can pray that he is unable to do. “Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think…” (Ephesians 3:20)

An example of a person who prayed in this way is Elijah. In 1 Kings 18, Elijah confronts the prophets of the false god Baal. Elijah challenged them to a contest, where two bulls would be slaughtered and placed on wood. The prophets of Baal were to petition their god to light their bull, and then Elijah would ask the Lord to light his. The prophets of Baal went first. They prayed for hours. They became frantic and raved and shouted. They cut themselves. Elijah mocked them, likening it to trying to get the attention of somebody who was asleep, but in the end, “No one answered; no one paid attention.” (1 Kings 18:29)

In contrast, Elijah didn’t need to pray a long prayer. He knew God would hear. He didn’t need to stack up empty words to persuade God. He was confident that God was both able and willing to answer his prayers, so he calmly said, “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” (1 Kings 18:36-37) God answered the prayer.

God’s character informs the way we pray. It can also inform the content of our prayer. Sometimes when we are asking God to do something, we can petition him based upon his own character. This is how Abraham prays for God to be merciful on the people of Sodom, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Genesis 18:23-25)

In response to Abraham’s prayer, God assured him that he would spare the city for the sake of fifty righteous people. Abraham responds by suggesting the scenarios of progressively lower numbers of righteous people and each time God agrees he would spare the city. Abraham’s prayer was built upon the character of God, and his prayer was answered.

THINK IT THROUGH

  • Should we assume that Abraham's prayer kept God from acting in a way that was out of character? Why/why not? (see Genesis 18:33) 

All of Life

Any area of our lives can be broken down to show how it is dependent on God’s character. In these notes, we have looked in depth at worship and prayer by way of example, but the same can be done in every part of life.

CONSIDER

Look up the following Bible verses and think about how the character of God affects each of these issues:

  • Decision making (James 1:5)
  • Relationships with others (Ephesians 5:22-6:9)
  • Thoughts (Phillipians 4:8)
  • Leadership (1 Timothy 3:1-13)
  • Modesty (1 Peter 3:3-4)
  • Work (Colossians 3:23)

“You shall be holy, for I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:16)

APPLY

  • Which aspects of God's character are most strongly reflected in your life? Which aspects are reflected least strongly?
  • If we want to reflect God's character more, what is the process that enables this to happen?
  • What other areas of life can you think of that are impacted by God's character? How does it affect those areas?

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