It’s easy to tell the difference between the true God, the God the Bible gives us, and an idol. An idol will always agree with you. An idol will always say and do the expected. An idol will ultimately bore you and will never inspire you to worship. The real God is different.
1. The real God challenges us.
The Bible presents a God who doesn’t fit our expectations. God is righteous and holy. He demands justice. He judges human rebellion. Much of the Bible reveals God’s wrath as much as it does his love, and this is not just true for the Old Testament. In the New Testament Jesus also issues challenges. When we throw parties, Jesus instructs us to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind (Luke 14:12–14). Jesus describes the life of his disciples as a life of self-denial (Matt. 16:24–25). Jesus calls us to love our enemies (Matt. 5:44). Jesus made it sound like it was impossible to inherit the kingdom of God and be rich in this life (Luke 18:25).
The God of the Bible is a strange God not the kind of God we can manage, manipulate, accommodate, or domesticate to our familiar experience. When God actually confronts us, our speculations are exposed as idols, our experiences judged as little more than a projection of ourselves, and our felt needs give way to more pressing needs that we did not even realize that we had (Michael Horton, The Gospel-Driven Life, 23).
Jesus challenges us. To soften God, to tame Jesus, leaves us with a God who doesn’t challenge us. This God is a figment of our own imagination. If God can’t challenge us, if he can’t call into question our way of life, then we have turned God into an idol who can neither help us nor save us.
2. The real God surprises us.
In the Bible, God does the unexpected—he shows mercy. In the Bible, the surprising reality is clear: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Jesus came and died on a cross for the forgiveness of sins. The judge became the judged. The righteous bore the punishment for unrighteousness. The holy identified with the unholy. In the Bible, we find Jesus doing the exact opposite of what everyone expects. When people expect kindness, he shows anger. When people expect justice, he shows mercy.
An idol never surprises. It only has grace for the people we think should get it—people we judge to be like ourselves, a little misguided but well-meaning. An idol doesn’t show grace to the people who offend us. An idol doesn’t love murderers, sex-offenders, or the lazy. An idol doesn’t get involved with the mess of life or hang on a cross and declare that the thief crucified next to him will enter paradise just because he made a pre-execution confession of faith. Only the God revealed to us in the Bible is so bold as to surprise us with a grace that we could never expect.
3. The real God causes us to worship.
God will show us that he is greater than we ever thought. Coming to know God puts our existence into perspective: we are a speck of dust in a universe that the infinite, incomprehensible God created out of nothing. In Isaiah 6:1–6 we catch a glimpse of God. He sits high on a throne. The train of his robe fills the entire temple. Seraphim, six-winged angelic beings, encircle his throne. Two of their wings cover their faces, and two of their wings cover their feet. They fly around his throne singing praises: “holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Isa. 6:3).
As you read Scripture and come to recognize that the story of Scripture is the story of reality—a story God beautifully orchestrates, a story of which your life is a part—you can begin to see that God works in your life to bring you into eternal life. This truth will amaze you. When you understand that God is gracious and making all things right, that he is renewing creation, reordering the world to mirror the image of Christ, and displaying his wisdom through the salvation of creation, you will begin to be amazed.