One Sunday not so long ago as I was substitute preaching (yeah, I’m still doing that) I asked different people in the congregation to tell me their favorite food.
Then I pointed and named one person—who had volunteered before the service for me to call them out—and asked, “What if I told you you’re wrong for thinking that pizza is your favorite food?”
“You’re a jerk or an idiot.”
“So I would not be justified in criticizing your culinary taste?”
“Of course not.”
Then I pulled out a glass jar filled with jelly beans and asked, “Now…about this jar…how many jelly beans would you guess are in this jar?”
I received a number guesses from various people in the congregation.
“Tell me…Is God more like this list of food choices—or more akin to this jar of jelly beans?” But then before I got an answer I went on: “Wait, wait—let’s make this easier…Let me ask you this…” I pointed out the person who liked pizza “…is this person, more like a list of foods, or a jar of jelly beans?”
Then I answered my peculiar question.
“They are a jar of jelly beans.”
Why did I say that? As I explained to the congregation: because…there is an answer to how many jelly beans are in a jar. A specific answer. One answer. You can make a lot of guesses, but only one number can be right, while an infinite number can be wrong. You can make specific truth claims about the jar of jelly beans: weight, size, colors of the beans, and the numbers.
The person whose favorite food is pizza is not meaningful and real only as I determine; her reality is not dependent upon my feelings about what she might be like. She was objectively there, objectively had certain qualities regardless of me or my feelings. Her reality or lack thereof had nothing to do with how I conceived of her. What she is—that’s what she is.
Whether she likes pizza or not cannot be right or wrong. It’s her opinion. Just as what her favorite song might be. Those sorts of things are subjective. But what I say about that member of my congregation who likes pizza: how tall she might be, what color her hair is, and whether she likes pizza or the Beetles—that’s not a matter of opinion. Those are things that are true about her.
If I conceive of my wife as picking up after herself, but she in fact leaves piles all over the house, or if you conceive of your husband as a good cook, does that mean he will cook you dinner tonight and it will turn out well? How disappointed will you be? If my wife conceives that I have a good sense of direction and she lets me drive and we head off to Disneyland, how disappointed will she be when we end up in Sacramento?
People lose faith in God, get disappointed by God, get mad at God because he doesn’t live up to their expectations of who he is. The author of Ecclesiastes was devastated by what he perceived as God’s failures.
But it wasn’t God who had failed. It was his conception of God who had failed. His opinion, which was as fact-based as my wife thinking I had a sense of direction. It wasn’t just I who failed to get us to Disneyland, it was my wife’s conception of me as a map that had also failed.
Just like with any other person, there are things we can think about God that are true. And there’s stuff we can imagine that’s not true. Just as our perceptions of the human beings in our lives can be askew, so can our perceptions of God, what he wants, who he is, what he thinks—such as his opinion of pizza—can be mistaken.
The Real God cannot fail you; only the God of your imagination can do that. If you don’t really know God, then your mistaken expectations will get you down all the time.