Preachers stock the minds of their hearers with images of God and how they relate to him. This is a great privilege and a solemn responsibility.
JB Philips wrote a simple book called Your God is too Small, in which he explored the unhelpful images of God that can so easily be imprinted on our imaginations by what we hear in sermons or experience in life.
Two of the unhelpful images he explores are the Resident Policeman and the Grand Old Man. These two polar opposites provide examples of how God can be viewed as too harsh and too indulgent.
The first image of God is always pointing the finger and making us feel bad. This form of bully boy preaching seeks to control the way hearers think and behave.
The second image is a more benign figure who wants us to go a bit easier on ourselves. To borrow from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, it is the difference between cheap grace and true grace.
The prophet Jeremiah speaks this image:
“They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. “Peace, peace,” they say, when there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 6:14)
A recent BBC series The Pact included a church going character who is wracked with guilt about a foolish prank that has turned into a disaster. Before the facts come to light, she is having a conversation with her vicar.
Nancy says: “I am hiding who I really am, all of the blackness, I do try to be a good person but it is just a façade, and behind it is darkness biding its time, tapping away at the back of my mind, tempting me.”
The vicar replies: “You are too hard on yourself. You strive for a perfection that no one expects of you, least of all God. The fact that you strive, that’s enough. I think you have earned enough points from him upstairs to take the odd liberty. For once in your life put yourself first … If you want forgiveness all you need to do is to ask for it.”
It is not difficult to conclude that Nancy displays a healthier theology of God than the Vicar.
Nancy is being honest about the grip that the darkness of sin is beginning to have in her life.
At this point she does need a reassurance of God’s love, acceptance and forgiveness. Yet she does not need the Grand Old Man upstairs image that suggests a bean counter approach to forgiveness. If we have gained enough brownie points in our lives, we deserve a free spin on the wheel of forgiveness. If our account is in credit, we retain access to the network.
Preachers can fall into the two opposite extremes of depicting God as too harsh or too lenient.
When we clean the lenses through which we view God we find that God is clear about the reality of our sin but equally clear about the fact there is a way back to him from the mess that sin produces in our lives.