What is the mark of spiritual maturity? How can we know what God truly is like? Does it matter what we believe about God’s character? This article shows the supreme importance of knowing what God is like. Our picture of God shapes our brain and influences our whole life. Therefore, growing in our knowledge of what God is like matters significantly.
What we can learn from neuroscience
Timothy R. Jennings, a Christian psychiatrist, proofs in his book The God-Shaped Brain that our mental image of God will either result in “the healing of mind, body, and relationships” or will “bring pain, suffering and ultimately, death”. This is the case because our brains adapts to our image of God. What we believe about God will rewire our brain.
Believing in a God of love “was associated with growth in the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain right behind our forehead where we reason, make judgments and experience Godlike love) and subsequent increased capacity for empathy, sympathy, compassion and altruism. But here’s the most astonishing part. Not only does other-centered love increase when we worship a God of love, but sharp thinking and memory improve as well. In other words, worshiping a God of love actually stimulates the brain to heal and grow. However, when we worship a god other than one of love—a being who is punitive, authoritarian, critical or distant—fear circuits are activated and, if not calmed, will result in chronic inflammation and damage to both brain and body. As we bow before authoritarian gods, our characters are slowly changed to be less like Jesus” (Jennings, 2013:Chapter 1).
Modern neuroscience confirmed that our beliefs of what God is like massively influences our life.
What we can learn from the Bible
One central theme in the Gospel of John is eternal life. John 17:3 defines eternal life:
Now this is eternal life—that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you sent. (NET)
John defines eternal life as knowing (Greek: γινώσκω) God. The Greek verb γινώσκω “means to learn to know a person through direct personal experience, implying a continuity of relationship. In translating γινώσκω in John 17:3, it is important to avoid an expression which will mean merely ‘to learn about’. Here the emphasis must be on the interpersonal relationship which is experienced [LN]. The present tense indicates an ever-increasing kind of knowing” (Trail, 2018:312).
Knowing God is not about head knowledge it is about experiencing him and being engaged in a continual relationship with him. The essence of eternal life is knowing God.
God created us in his image. We are called to live a life that reflects his character. How can we reflect him well without knowing his character? Therefore, in order to fulfill our God-given purpose, we need to know what God is like.
In this chapter, John differentiates 3 groups of believers: little children, young men, and fathers. The little children and the young men are defined with differing characterizations in the repetition but the fathers are characterized twice with exactly the same marker: you know him who is from the beginning (NET). The majority of scholars claim that this refers to Christ (Anderson, 2008:59). Knowing Jesus is knowing God. God is perfectly revealed in Jesus (Heb 1:3; Col 1:15). Knowing what God truly is like (by looking at Jesus), is the identifying mark of spiritual fathers according to John.
We become like the God we worship
We become like the God we worship. If we believe in an angry and retributive deity who ultimately will torture the majority of humanity eternally, then it will be easy for us to give up on people we don’t like. The most repeated description of God in the Old Testament (the word ḥesed occurs 245 times in the OT!) is that his royal love (חֶסֶד ḥesed) endures forever. If we truly believe that God’s royal love will never end (and the NT confirms this 1 Cor 13:8) that will change how we treat others. If God’s love never ends for everyone then our love likely will not end so fast either.
Our view of God’s character and nature will rewire our brain, influence our theology, and thereby our whole life. How we imagine God makes all the difference in our life. Therefore, we must prioritize pondering what God is like.
How can we certainly know what God is like?
But how can we certainly know what God is like? Is God a violent warrior God who commands to slaughter his enemies without mercy (Deut 7:2)? Did God really punish his people with rape (Jer 13:22 GNB) because they forgot him (Jer 13:25)? Does God really approve of virgins being used as spoils of war (Numbers 31:18)? Does God really need blood sacrifices to be appeased just like any other deity in the world? All of these are depictions of God that we can find in the Bible. How do we measure differing depictions of God? How can we certainly know what God is like?
In this world, we will always know in part (1 Cor 13:9). Likely we’ll grow our whole life in the knowledge of what God truly is like. But that doesn’t mean that we need to guess what God is like. Jesus is the perfect revelation of God. Jesus alone reveals to us fully what God is like (read more about this HERE). He is the final revelation of God that supersedes all other revelations of God. Therefore, we should reject all images of God that don’t reflect the life and teachings of Jesus. God is not a violent and retributive warrior God. The God Jesus revealed to us is the God who forgives, who seeks to restore what is broken, whose nature is self-giving love, who loves with uncontrolling love, who judges with restorative justice, and who will ultimately defeat all evil, suffering, and death. He revealed the God whose nature is Agape love (1 John 4:16). His essence is Agape love, and therefore everything he does is driven by Agape love. His mercy, his wrath, his judgment, his forgiveness are all expressions of and inspired by his Agape love. Grasping this truth will set us free from many lies we used to believe about God. Believing that God is love will stimulate the brain to heal and grow, and it will increase our capacity for empathy, sympathy, compassion, and sharp thinking. God truly is love and his love will never fail.