There are about a million ways to get God wrong, and the path to getting him right is extremely narrow. That makes theology—the way we organize our thoughts about God—important, urgent, and even dangerous. If we get God wrong, we will never understand our place and purpose in this world, let alone in the world to come. Our understanding of God shapes everything else about our lives. As A.W. Tozer said long ago, “What comes into our mind when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”
I think one of the biggest ways we get God wrong is by basing our views of him on our life experiences. You might call this a “bottom-up” approach to theology. We start by considering our world and how it feels to be us, and we then extrapolate from that what God must be like. If we reference the Bible in this process, we can just read it through the lens of our experience. This way, from start to finish we get a God who fits all our preferences and expectations.
The hip-hop artist Andy Mineo once said, “God made you in his image and he didn’t ask you to return the favor.” Trying to make God fit our personal perspectives is really an attempt to remake God in our own image. We’ve got it the wrong way around.
C. S. Lewis once asserted that Christians believe God has told them how to talk about him. Central to the Christian faith is a belief in a personal God who has revealed himself. You can call this “top-down” theology. It’s a belief system that prioritizes what God has said about himself over what our life experience is tempting us to believe. If we’re honest, we sometimes live in the middle of a tug-of-war battle between which voice we will listen to, a “top-down” or “bottom-up” understanding of God. Because we live in our own story 24/7, it can be easy to make ourselves the authority for how we think about God.
While remaking God to fit our experience is one of the most common sketchy views, there are many others. For example, there are views of God that are unexamined—beliefs we’ve inherited or adopted from others but have never thought deeply about. These kinds of convictions can’t pass the kindergarten game of “why?” When someone probes beyond the surface, it’s clear our beliefs aren’t that deep.
The atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett once argued that there is no such thing as philosophy-free science, only science that has smuggled in philosophical beliefs without examining them. The same is true for theology. Many people have Christian beliefs they’ve never dared to lift the hood and examine what’s going on with the engine. These views are sketchy not so much because they’re wrong, they might not be, but because they are insincere or undeveloped.
Some views of God are sketchy, not because they contradict Scripture, but because they are wholly unsupported. I love to read works of philosophy. But I am sometimes left scratching my head when I read an essay by a Christian philosopher who is arguing for something that has no basis in the Bible, like how, for example, whether God has created other universes than ours.
These ideas might not clearly undermine the Bible, but if Scripture is truly sufficient for all things regarding life and godliness, then why would we need to build a belief system without reference to God’s revelation of himself? While speculation isn’t inherently sinful, and I certainly enjoy thinking about all the what ifs of the world, being dogmatic about doctrines not clearly derived from Scripture is a bit sketchy.
The easiest sketchy views to spot are those that clearly contradict Scripture. How easy it can be for people to twist Scripture to present an inaccurate view of God! We don’t need to read past the third chapter of Genesis to understand how prone we are to accept falsehood. We need to let Scripture frame our view of God.
I once had a student who told me her parents taught her the doctrine of the Trinity was unbiblical. She was intrigued by what I said in class on the Trinity and asked me what she should do. I told her that no child with loving parents should ever quickly dismiss their parents teaching just because a professor has come along and offered another perspective. However, I told her that if in her reading of the Bible, she felt compelled that God exists eternally as Father, Son, and Spirit, then the issue is no longer about her parent’s authority but about God’s authority. While we might not have a single proof text passage that summarizes the Trinity, the doctrine of the Trinity summarizes and synthesizes all the Bible says about God from Genesis to Revelation.
Sometimes we demonstrate a poor view of God when we separate our beliefs from our lifestyles. The apostle Paul told Timothy to watch both his doctrine and his life (1 Timothy 4:16). James, the half-brother of Jesus, teaches us that faith without works is dead (James 2:26). After all, he says, even the demons get some things right about God (James 2:19).
It’s possible to get doctrine right but still have a sketchy view of God. God never intended for you to have one bucket for what you believe about him and another bucket for how you want to live. That really brings us back to the first point, that we often try to reimagine God in such a way that he is cool with however we want to live. Jesus didn’t give us any such option. He summarized the Old Testament by saying God wants us to love him with all our being, our heart, mind, strength, and soul (Mark 12:30). If our doctrine doesn’t drive us to grow in our love for God, we’re doing something wrong.
Anyone familiar with the previous passage will know Jesus didn’t stop with teaching us about how we are to love God. He made it clear that this love was to extend outward. He told us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Anyone who’s ever had a difficult neighbor knows this isn’t an easy command. G.K. Chesterton once pointed out that God tells us to love both our neighbors and our enemies quite possibly because they are often the same persons.
We live in a day when bravado seems to be one of the highest virtues of Christian leadership. That’s such a shame. It’s certainly not the way of Jesus. There are Christian ministries that have built their platforms through outrage and accusation, building themselves up by putting others down. This shouldn’t be so, my brothers and sisters.
We are to speak the truth in love. We can’t water down truth. But we also we can’t give people a poor picture of God because we want to stir up enough controversy to get people tune in to what we have to say. What a watching world needs to see and feel and hear from us is what Paul described as letting our gentleness be evident to all (Philippians 4:5-7).
Living with Biblical Conviction
The stream of orthodoxy flows through the banks of Scripture. We model this orthodoxy when our beliefs are based on Scripture, held with true conviction, and are lived out in love. This comes by way of a lifelong commitment to submit to God’s authority and allowing Scripture to shape our beliefs and lifestyles. There’s nothing sketchy about that.
Sketchy Views: A Beginner’s Guide to Making Sense of God
Everybody has beliefs about God. There are a million ways to get God wrong, but there’s only a narrow path to getting him right. In order to understand God, we have to go back to the Bible, but that can be overwhelming if you are new to theology. Daniel DeWitt’s Sketchy Views is a beginner’s guide to making sense of God.