“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are”
This idea, often attributed to Anaïs Nin, certainly relates to our theology as much as anything else. It’s not difficult to enumerate examples. Whatever ideals we might ascribe to God’s nature (perfect love, justice, mercy, and wisdom), we also often project our own temperamental, judgmental, impatient, and impotent qualities. Inevitably, we don’t see God as God is, we see God as we are.
Except this seems only half true. We readily imagine that God exhibits our worst tendencies. But we are less apt to perceive our best impulses and character traits as reflecting divine nature.
I see this no more clearly than in the difference between who we are as parents and who we perceive God—often described as a father—to be.
Recently, I read a tweet that succinctly illustrates this point. On March 19, 2019, a musician I admire and follow online, David Bazan, tweeted, “God Is (you’re trash, but not to me) Love.”
Is that really what we believe and teach? I fear that far too often, it is. Yet I have never met a parent who “loves” their children this way—as though they have no value apart from what their “love” imputes. As a parent myself, I love my daughters not despite but because of who they are. They are not only beloved but irresistibly lovable.
Similarly, Scripture describes human beings not as divinely beloved trash but as stubbornly pursued and found treasure. In the parable of the lost son (Luke 15), for example, the son believes he is “no longer worthy to be called [his father’s] son.” But when he returns home, his father, instead, celebrates that his son “was lost and is found.” Certainly, we can be lost at times—a temporary condition of our human confusion and brokenness. But being lost is very different from being unworthy of love.
Gathering for worship affords us an opportunity to rehearse a different vision of who we are: a vision of found treasure, a vision of people who often feel we’ve lost our way and need to be reminded that we’ve been found all along. Worshipping together offers us a chance to remember that our status as children of God is permanent and immutable.
As imperfect human beings, we all carry our shame with us wherever we go, including when we gather on a Sabbath morning. This sense of shame, this sense of being lost, is intuitive—it requires no additional reminders from preachers, worship leaders, or anyone else. The fact that we have been found, however, is a story always urgently worth telling and celebrating.
As with everything, we will inevitably see God not as God is but as we are. So perhaps it might be helpful to embrace the positive aspects of this tendency—to recognize that our love for our own children is a revelation of the divine. However much we love our daughters and sons, however much we accept and affirm them the way they are, however clearly we perceive their most marvelous traits, this is the starting point for understanding God’s perfect love for all people. When we celebrate this Good News in worshipping God together, we can learn to remember our identity as children of God, beloved and worthy of love just the way we are. Perhaps then the fact that “[w]e don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are” can start to become good news, too.