I was heading to Orlando for a conference and had made preparations with friends there to have someone pick me up at the airport. I’d never met the picker-upper, so I sent not just my flight info, but a physical description of myself as well. On top of that, I wore a bright red shirt so I’d be easy to identify. In a crowded airport, you can never be too conspicuous.
The flight was uneventful, and as I passed the TSA checkpoint, I saw someone with a block lettered sign for PETE SANTUCCI. Perfect. I headed toward it and extended my hand to the sign holder.
With a puzzled expression on his face, he hesitantly took my hand and shook it.
“Yes?” he questioned. “And who are you?”
“I’m Pete Santucci. Thanks for being willing to give me a ride. I really appreciate it.”
“Uh. That’s weird,” he replied. “I’m waiting for a Pete Santucci. But you’re definitely not him.”
“Really?” I said. “There’s another Pete Santucci flying in today?” And then I gave him my flight info, including my seat number.
“Same name. Same everything,” he said. “But the guy I’m looking for is shorter than you, has a full head of black hair, has brown eyes, and speaks with an Italian accent. And you’re, well, bald, with blue eyes, and about six-feet tall.”
“That I am!” I said. And then I told him the name of the person I expected to pick me up, and he agreed that that was his name. But he wouldn’t budge on the description of the person he was supposed to pick up.
So, having no other alternative, I walked on and hired a cab to take me to my destination.
I had come face-to-face with the person I was supposed to meet, but he was so determined to stick with his expectation of what someone whose last name is Santucci would look like that we never made the intended connection.
Now, the story above is fictitious. But it illustrates what happens when we have our own preconceived notions of who God is and what God is like and refuse to budge from them when confronted with God himself.
If there really is a God, then we don’t get to invent what he’s like. If there is no God, then inventing what he’s like may be enjoyable, but it’s ultimately meaningless. So, in either case, theological invention is pointless at best. But if there is a God, it’s a disaster that keeps us from ever knowing him.
Far too many of us treat God like the man in the airport story treated me, wanting God to conform to our preconceived notions of who he is and what he ought to be like. And I include myself in this, because I find I’m not immune to cultural values and theological systems which suggest God must be one way and not another way.
But here’s the reality. God has revealed himself to us through the Scriptures and in Jesus. The Scriptures are like the email in my story above, telling my ride who I am and what I’m like. And Jesus is like me in the story, coming face-to-face and interacting with humanity.
Now, you may not agree that the Bible accurately introduces us to God or that Jesus is the face of that God, but that’s another conversation for another time. The point here is that any attempt to invent God is doomed to failure. We must start with God as he is given to us or not at all.
You see, I have met no human being who is so supremely in touch with the divine that he or she can be trusted to give new insight into who God is and what God is like. I know that I am no such spiritual giant, which is why I find it essential to not deviate from the expressions of God that have been handed down from those more closely guided by the Spirit of God.
Unless you believe you are the great enlightened one of our era, you (like me) are stuck with the God/gods we’ve been handed from the past or no God/gods at all. Theological invention is not just foolish, but arrogant and dangerous.
As J.I. Packer often said, “You’ve paid your money. Now, take your pick.” Pick from what we’ve been offered in the major religions of the world and forget your own imaginings. To stick stubbornly to your own conception of God will leave you like the guy at the airport: with no one in the seat next to you own the ride home.
God is no Mr. Potato Head that can be assembled from the pieces we like the most. Don’t miss out on the real God by trying to construct one of your own.