A few years back, it became apparent that I had turned God into Simon Cowell.
The realisation came while I was in a class on spiritual formation. Our lecturer had informed us that we would be exploring our understanding of God’s personality and our own perception of His character.
In my case, I had pictured God sitting in a massive black leather armchair, peering at me with squinted, unimpressed eyes while I stood anxiously on stage after having muddled my way through Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You,” (or some other trite talent show song), wilted and waiting for His scathing words.
I’d turned God into an X-Factor Judge who was waiting to tell me how “average” my attempts were. And I’m not talking about sin; I’m talking about my day-to-day—
- my success at university, handing in assignments, answering questions in lectures;
- my relationships, whatever “hat” I was wearing, as daughter, friend, sister;
- my job and all the mistakes I’ve made;
- my ministry (on the worship team), how effective (or not) I am based on people’s reactions.
A part of it, I suspect, is that I often have high expectations of myself and can be guilty of negative self-talk. Even though I’ve got a wonderful dad who is always encouraging, and I can’t recall any Sunday school teacher telling me that God had a big stick to hit me if I screwed up, I’d developed a very harsh inner critic. A lot of the words, expectations, and deep sighs of disappointment I hear in my head weren’t God’s; I had just projected them onto Him.
In his book Knowledge of the Holy, A. W. Tozer said, “We tend by a secret law of the soul to move toward our mental image of God.”
What he means is that we build our lives around who we see God to be—whether as a loving, caring father who smiles ear to ear as we undertake our day-to-day activities, or a hippie-style Jesus who was the early equivalent of a social justice advocate, or seeing the Holy Spirit as some random, unpredictable personality that has to be coaxed into action.
“You’ll all be wrong somewhere,” our lecturer told us with a broad smile, “because we all are.”
But God is the ultimate judge, isn’t He?
Don’t get me wrong, God is the Ultimate Judge, as these verses show us:
“For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord is our King, He will save us.” (Isaiah 33:22).
“There is only one lawgiver and judge, the One who is able to save and destroy, but who are you to judge your neighbour?” (James 4:12).
However, God’s judgement already fell on Christ two thousand years ago, while He hung on the cross; it doesn’t fall on us anymore when we have Christ in us, and have made Him truly the Lord of our lives.
One of the cleverest ways the enemy looks to erode our relationship with God is by making us question His identity or the integrity of His words. I think back to Genesis 3, where the serpent asked Eve, “Did God really say. . . ?”, inviting her to doubt God’s nature and intentions.
In my case, I’m fed this image of God as X-Factor Judge, which simply doesn’t line up with Scriptures like these:
“The Lord is gracious and righteous, our God is full of compassion” (Psalm 116:5).
“The Lord appeared to us in the past saying, ‘I have loved you with an everlasting love, I have drawn you with unfailing kindness’” (Jeremiah 31:3).
“But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
Here, I want to share two little signposts to help you navigate the same struggle. The first is how we can understand God’s true nature, and the second is how to better handle failure.
1. Understand God’s true nature
The most effective way to realign our understanding of God’s nature is to go regularly to His Word and pay close attention to His character within the Scriptures. Personally, a wonderful place to start is the Gospels, which helps us examine closely the person of Christ.
I’ve found this wonderful passage in Matthew 9:36: “When he saw the crowds, He had compassion on them because they were confused and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
It gives me chills to sense the care and love that resonates through this one statement. Jesus looked upon these people just so desperate for Him and had compassion. For someone like me, who struggles to have compassion towards myself, the very fact that God has compassion towards me is mind-blowing.
I can’t say I’ve “arrived” at a full understanding of God’s true nature, but I’m challenged to continually refine my knowledge of Him. I’ve been encouraged by this crowdfunded TV series called The Chosen, which portrays the life and ministry of Jesus on earth.
Seeing these stories I’ve known my whole life in a fresh way has helped me better understand elements of God’s nature towards humanity. It has helped me in the re-reading of these stories, giving me a new perspective on Jesus, especially seeing how He built His relationships with the disciples, and how He showed compassion, particularly to the downtrodden and marginalised.
I encourage you to take a slow walk through Scripture and take note of who God exhibits Himself to be, particularly in the New Testament—not because God is different in the Old Testament, but because the New Testament functions from the New Covenant under Jesus Christ. And because we are in Jesus, God sees us through His work on the cross, and so we need not strive and prove ourselves in order to be right before Him.
Even as God is Judge, He is also Father (Matthew 6:9), Creator (Colossians 1:16), Saviour (Isaiah 12:2), Defender (Psalm 5:11), and Friend (John 15:15). In fact, Romans 2:4 speaks of how it is His kindness, not a harsh dressing down, that leads us to repentance.
2. Handle failure better
Inevitably we do mess up. We all have days where we forgot that thing at work that we can’t believe we forgot. How should we process these, in a way that is healthy and doesn’t project mean words onto the mouth of a good God?
A few years back, I made a mistake in my job which had some pretty expensive consequences, and it made me feel really guilty and stupid. But my dad encouraged me to remember that God is powerful and in control, and so I need not stress so much.
As it turned out, the mistake I made highlighted a gap in our processes that needed to be improved to better our business. We could have learnt the same lesson later, only with much higher stakes. I was encouraged to see how God was very much in control of that situation.
2 Corinthians 12:9 is always a good reminder of how God’s grace is sufficient—where the Apostle Paul reminds us that God’s power is genuinely best exhibited in our weaknesses. Perhaps then we ought to become more comfortable with instances we don’t feel enough, because we can have confidence in God’s hand through those times.So how can we better handle failure? We give it over to God, and we keep moving forward by doing our best with whatever we have, trusting that He’ll take care of us in whatever situation.
In my case, it also means taking failure at face value. This means I’ll choose to think to myself, “Gosh, I wish that hadn’t happened, and maybe I could have changed things if I did ___, which I can do next time. But now, I’m gonna let God be in charge of what happens from here.” As opposed to ruminating on what I did, what I could have done, dissecting why I’d screwed up, lamenting how terrible I am, beating myself up for hours on end, wishing I wasn’t such a disappointment.
While I’m going to be truthful about this situation and how I contributed to it, I’m going to also show myself grace just as God shows me grace, and be reassured knowing that He is in control.
As I continue to challenge this Simon Cowell version of God in my head, I’m moved to keep immersing myself in Scripture so this image can be completely erased and replaced with the true version. It is a journey, but little by little, God’s voice, His gentleness, and His grace towards me is becoming more and more apparent. Seeing how He sees me, knowing how He loves me and cheers me on, I’m able to be kind to myself and thrive in the image of my loving Father.