In 1995, Joan Osborne burst onto the musical world stage with her wildly popular debut single One of Us.The song touches on various aspects of theism and how the listener might relate to God. Would the listener call God by name, if he had one? Would the listener want to see God’s face if seeing meant having to believe in things “like heaven and in Jesus and the saints and all the prophets”? The chorus line asks, “What if God was one of us?”

Osborne is not a gospel singer and One of Us was not intended to be a Christian song. It’s a good thing, too, because the chorus line reflects an error that many religious people have made throughout history: thinking that God is one of us. We don’t even always realise that we’re doing it.

In The Blue Parakeet, Scot McKnight tells of a test he frequently gave to his New Testament students. It was a basic personality questionnaire about Jesus, asking questions such as: “Does his mood often go up and down?” “Is he a talkative person?” “Would being in debt worry him?” Students were required to answer yes or no to each of the 24 questions. Later in the test, the students were required to answer the same 24 questions (with language slightly altered) about themselves, without looking back at their answers about Jesus. McKnight noticed a trend: “The amazing result, and the test has been field-tested by some professionals, is that everyone thinks Jesus is like them! The test results also suggest that, even though we like to think we are becoming more like Jesus, the reverse is probably more the case: we try to make Jesus like ourselves.”

The New Testament recognises this tendency. In 1 John, the apostle John writes to testify the truth about Jesus Christ. False teachers were presenting superficial views of Christ and, as an apostle, who had known and walked with Jesus, John wrote to correct these views. He closes his letter with a warning: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21). He was not concerned that his readers would bow to statues but that they might be tempted to embrace a superficial view of Christ. Embracing any view of Christ that is not apostolic truth would be idolatry.

In Psalm 50, Asaph warns of the same. He writes of God coming in judgement upon his people and the nations. As Judge of all the earth, he summons humanity to appear before his judgement seat (vv. 1–2). He begins by addressing his people (vv. 7–15) but then turns his attention to “the wicked” (vv. 16–23).

The “wicked,” in this context, were not rank atheists but those who paid lip service to God—those who “recite [his] statutes” and “take [his] covenant on [their] lips” (v. 16). The “wicked” were religious people—nominal Christians, we might call them today. But there was a problem with these nominal Christians: They had a superficial view of God. “You thought that I was one like yourself” (v. 21). Specifically, they thought that God was like them because they had sinned and he had not immediately judged them. “These things you have done, and I have been silent.” They misinterpreted is silence for approval.

How often do we fall into the same trap? We know what God expects but fail to do it. We know what God forbids and yet we do it. And when God’s judgement does not immediately fall, we misinterpret his silence as approval. Before long, we deceive ourselves that we can sin with impunity. We believe that God is just like us. When we make that mistake, we have effectively refashioned God in our image.

Psalm 50 presents us with two options: Submit to the God who is or reshape him into an idol of our own making. To those who reshape, God says, “Mark this, then, you who forget God, lest I tear you apart, and there be none to deliver!” (v. 22). To those who submit to the God who is, he says, “The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me; to one who orders his way rightly I will show the salvation of God!” (v. 23). The choice is straightforward: destruction or salvation.

God is not one of us. Rather than making a god in our image, let us submit to the God who reveals himself to us in Jesus Christ.