There’s a definite upside to growing up in Sunday school, as I did. It’s a privilege to learn the stories of the Bible at an early age. But not everything I learned was theologically airtight. Along the way, I was taught some well-intended lessons that inadvertently distorted my view of God.

Take some of the songs, for instance. Here’s a lyric from one: “O be careful little eyes what you see.” Taken at face value, that’s great advice for a kid. It’s not a bad caution for grown-up eyes either.

But the repeated refrain veers slightly off track. “There’s a Father up above.” Yes, there is. After all, Jesus taught us to pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven.” However…

The chorus continually drives home an image of God as “looking down”—albeit “in love.” Admittedly, there is truth in that as well. Passages such as Psalm 11:4 reflect this:

The Lord still rules from heaven.
He watches everyone closely,
examining every person on earth.

Such poetry paints a picture of an attentive God who “examines” us. But the final verse in the psalm reads:

For the righteous Lord loves justice.
The virtuous will see his face.

How is it that the virtuous will see God’s face? And how does a human being become virtuous? Is it by a vigilant awareness that God constantly watches us?

I don’t think so. Our childish minds may have been trained to think of God as “up there” looking over our shoulder. The motivation for obedience in such a concept is one of fear. This is an incomplete picture of who God is and how he wants to relate to us. Such a God seems more like a heavenly Santa Claus with a propensity for sternness. We may be tempted to think of God as distant and remote, waiting to pounce when we make a mistake. How is this substantively different from “He sees you when you’re sleeping; he knows when you’re awake”?

I see in Psalm 11—and in the rest of the Bible—overt clues that genuine intimacy with God is possible, even prescribed. This should change the way we think of him. In turn, it ought to change the way we live our lives.

Growing up, I was taught about a Father up above and Jesus in my heart. That’s good. But the Jesus-in-my-heart portion wasn’t adequately explained. Very little was taught about the Holy Spirit. That’s a conspicuous omission if we are to have a decent comprehension of what it means to be a Christian.

In five heartfelt chapters, John the disciple records Jesus’s words to them on the night before his crucifixion (John 13–17). In that discourse, Jesus talks plainly about His Father and about the Holy Spirit, whom he would send to us.

The apostle Paul picks up the doctrine of the Triune God in his letter to the church in Rome. He helps us understand the vital role of the Holy Spirit. Along the way, he answers other important questions about how we should live. I can’t possibly improve on Paul’s words, so I’ll quote them extensively.

In the first three verses of Romans 8 we see all three Persons of the Trinity. First, we meet the Son: “There is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus” (v. 1). Then the Spirit: “And because you belong to him [Jesus], the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death” (v. 2). Then we meet the Father who gave us the Son: “God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have” (v. 3, emphasis added throughout).

Paul goes on: “And in that body [the Son’s body] God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins” (v. 3). Then, Paul begins to outline exactly what the Spirit does for us. He tells us we will “no longer follow our sinful nature but instead follow the Spirit” (v. 4). Then he adds, “Those who are controlled by the Holy Spirit think about things that please the Spirit” (v. 5).

Paul goes on: “Letting the Spirit control your mind leads to life and peace” (v. 6). He reminds us, “You are controlled by the Spirit if you have the Spirit of God living in you. (And remember that those who do not have the Spirit of Christ living in them do not belong to him at all.)” (v. 9). Then he assures us, “Christ lives within you, so even though your body will die because of sin, the Spirit gives you life because you have been made right with God. The Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, lives in you” (vv. 10–11, emphasis added).

Paul returns to the concept of death and life and our status as adopted children. “If through the power of the Spirit you put to death the deeds of your sinful nature, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God” (vv. 13–14).

Importantly, all of this work of God’s Spirit within us will eradicate fear. “So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, ‘Abba, Father.’ For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children.” (vv. 15–16).

There is much more about the Spirit in this richest of chapters. In fact, Romans 8 merits constant reading and rereading. Suffice it to say, when we begin to understand that God’s very Spirit lives within us, and that he views us as his children made virtuous by the sacrifice of his Son, our view changes from perceiving God as “up there” to the God who is with us.

Our motivation is no longer fear, but love and connectedness to the One who already knows us intimately. He’s not looking over our shoulder. He’s taken up residence in us. That changes everything!

Tim Gustafson

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