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Face to Face With God

The nights were the worst. I was having hallucinations and delusions. I imagined myself in different places, with other people present and some really strange smells as a part of it. I couldn’t sleep much at all and was thinking about death and meeting God much of the time. While I was in that condition, it brought my view of God into sharp focus. Most of my life, I have struggled with my view of God. The way I have seen him produced a fear of aging and death in me that has been very difficult to shed. I have for years explored in various ways how our view of God is developed in the first place. In the spiritual realm, little is more important than our view of God, what we believe is his view of us, and how we think the two of us should relate.

My early opinion, and a popular one, is that our view of God grows out of our view of our fathers, if we have one at home, and if not, from our view of other male authority figures in our lives. There is unquestionably validity to this theory. I remember counseling a brother who grew up with a very domineering, harsh father. His view of God was obviously faulty based on clear evidence in his life. I once asked him to take a week and come back with a very specific description of how he viewed God. He basically described God as what we call the “Clockmaker God.” In other words, God did create the world (wound it up to start it ticking) but has nothing to do with us besides watch what we do. He is uninvolved in our lives physically and emotionally. He watches us and will one day judge us on the basis of what he has observed in us. After this “god” was described, I asked him who it sounded like, and without hesitation, he said, “my dad.”

This idea of how we develop our view of God obviously has merit and for years, I thought my view of God came through this manner. My dad was very harsh in my young, most formative years. Thankfully, when I got married at age 22, it was like Daddy took off his parent’s hat and put on his friend’s hat. In the decades following until his death, we were really good friends. Evidently, it was in the Ferguson family culture that a father was responsible for his children until they were adults but not afterwards. This view would understandably have relieved a lot of Dad’s stress of feeling responsible for me prior to my marriage. But what happens to children in their most formative early years does continue to affect us. Logically, my father could have been the one who strongly influenced me to see God as harsh.

However, ongoing talks with my younger sister helped me to figure out that this wasn’t the case—a surprise to me. Pam and I are 10 ½ years different in age but think a lot the same. We definitely have a shared view of our immediate family and extended family as well. She is much nicer and gentler than I am, but we are in most ways on the same wavelength in our views. My frequent talks with her have been so helpful to me in many ways. She is a very wise and spiritual woman, the wife of a preacher. We laugh at how we grew up in a dysfunction family, including our extended family, yet I ended up a preacher and she ended up married to one. God has his ways, often mysterious ways, as the old hymn words it.

Through our talks, I eventually figured out where my view of God originated, and it wasn’t our dad. There are two parts to the answer. The first came to me when I pictured myself as a small child in the little church we attended. My dad came to church with Mother and me most of the time, but it was obvious to me even as a very young child that he was not into it. He attended to please my mother. Thus, I didn’t connect him to my concept of God. I remember (still) a man in that church who was a bit rotund and very kind, and when thinking of God, I pictured his face. Although that memory was embedded in my mind rather clearly, it was also embedded deeply enough to take some time and real concentration to dig it out. But if my earliest view of God grew out of my view of that particular kind man, how did I end up with a harsh view of God? That’s a really good question and it took me even more time to sort out the answer to that one.

The little church of which we were a part was an odd one, and legalistic to the core. My grandmother and mother bore strong witness to the truth of this statement. My grandmother dwindled down to near nothing physically before dying just short of her 89th birthday. I believe she clung to life out of fear of meeting God, given her view of him. My mother reflected the same fears. Her view of death was never like the hymn, “Safe in the Arms of Jesus.” It much more resembled the view suggested by another hymn, “There’s An All-Seeing Eye Watching You.” Yes, that is a real song. Look it up on YouTube. The lyrics leave no doubt that this all-seeing eye (God) is watching you to see if you step out of line, not watching over you to protect you or love you. That was my mother’s view of God, and it pervaded her religious views across the board. Plus, it transferred to me, regrettably. While I will forever be indebted to my mother for instilling in me the utmost respect for God and an unshakable trust in the Bible as the inspired word of God, my view of God himself has been a burden not easily changed.

To give you a practical example of what this kind of viewpoint produces, let me tell you about a conversation my mother had with me about sexual morality when I was in the 8th grade. I remember the year because of how I applied the content. In our church, sexual immorality, including sex before marriage, was pretty much viewed as the “unpardonable sin.” On that occasion, Mother basically explained it in much that way. If you had sex before marriage, you were destined for hell – no if’s and no but’s. I at once thought of my friend Ronnie. He had recently told me about having sex for the first time, and I do recall that we were in the 8th grade. I remember thinking to myself as mother continued her lecture, “Well, that’s it for Ronnie. No matter what else happens the rest of his life, he is doomed to hell.” As you can surmise, the doctrines of forgiveness and grace received little emphasis in our group.

Then to add to my problem while still fairly young, I attended what was called a “Preacher’s School” when in my upper 20’s to prepare for ministry. I loved what I learned in that school in so many ways, but we too were bent in a fairly legalistic direction. The curriculum was impressive, especially in its focus on the biblical text. We went through the entire Bible in a verse-by-verse fashion. I learned a ton of Bible in the process and loved every minute of it. However, since we dug into the entire text of the Old Testament, given my predisposition to see God as harsh, certain accounts in the OT added evidence that my view must be correct. We also studied the texts emphasizing grace, but my background blocked me from fully appreciating these types of passages. The harsh stuff stood out, and there’s plenty of it in there to stand out.

I developed a sermon early on with the different ways men sin against God, using material from the OT. Here are some of the OT figures mentioned in my lesson: Cain, Nadab and Abihu, King Saul, Uzzah and others. Perhaps you are familiar with the account of Korah, Dathan and Abiram where their sin led to God opening up the ground to swallow them and their entire families. No doubt the OT has some scary stuff in it, and whatever one’s view of God is, these accounts have to be considered and explained in a way that harmonizes with our view of the nature of God. Honestly, that is no easy task for anyone, and it proved quite formidable for me.