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Why God is NOT Like Santa Claus

Mac McCarthy
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December 13, 2021

What do you think God is like? The answer is found in Jesus. If you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus. Everything we think and believe about God has to match what we see in Jesus. And, if it doesn’t match, then we should throw it out.

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What do you think God is like?

The first theology course I took started with this question. The professor walked in and said, "The most important theological question you can answer for yourself is this: ‘What do you think God is like?’ The rest of this class will be devoted to helping you answer that question.”

I was hooked. And ever since, I’ve devoted most of my life to answering that question.

A.W. Tozer once said, "What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us."

So what comes into your mind when you hear the word ‘God’?

What do you think God is really like?

In my time serving as a pastor, I’ve noticed a lot of people imagine God being sort of like a cosmic Santa Claus.

What Santa Claus is really like 

Santa tends to be pretty popular this time of year, particularly for kids, because he’s associated with bringing lots of gifts and goodies. But if we pay attention to the subtext and get honest, most people would agree that Santa Claus is really a judgmental and legalistic jerk. Consider the way he is described.

You better watch out
You better not cry
You better not pout
I'm telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town

He's making a list,
He's checking it twice,
He's gonna find out who's naughty or nice
Santa Claus is coming to town

He sees you when you're sleeping
And he knows when you're awake
He knows if you've been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake

Is this what God is really like?

Is God primarily interested in our behavior, keeping a close watch on us to size up whether we’ve been naughty or nice? Is God really keeping a list and checking it twice? If you have been good, is God more likely to reward you with good things? And if you have been bad, is God more likely to punish you with bad things?

I’ve encountered a lot of people who think so.

They believe that God is keeping a list, checking it twice, and will reward or punish people depending upon their naughty vs. nice quota. Some would even go so far as to suggest that people’s eternal destination hangs on this quota. "How nice is nice enough?" becomes a pretty scary question.

This Santa Claus view of God with its corresponding naughty vs. nice theology leads to one of two attitudes: confidence or despair

Confidence: I Am Good Enough

Some people who have a Santa Claus view of God are fairly confident that they’ve been good enough and that big blessings are coming their way. They are confident that they have been nice and not naughty.

Recall the Pharisee in the temple who prayed, "God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector."

Remember the older brother in the infamous parable who refused to welcome home his younger brother and complained to his dad, "Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so that I could celebrate with my friends."

Confident and entitled describes this first group with Santa Claus theology; confident that they’ve been nice and deserve blessings. Confident that others have been naughty and deserve God’s wrath.

Not surprisingly, but unfortunately, most within this first group can be found in the church. Even more unfortunately, they are often in leadership positions.

I remember watching a video clip right after 9/11 where Jerry Falwell confidently stated that the attack was God’s judgment upon America for turning away from him. Santa Claus theology. John Piper made similar comments after the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis and again after some tornadoes touched down near the Twin Cities.

This is Santa Claus theology. It’s a theology that confidently assumes God rewards and punishes people according to behavior AND sometimes arrogantly assumes to have an inside track on discerning which is which in specific situations.

Despair: I Am Not Good Enough 

On the one hand there are those who are confident that they are good enough. But on the other are those who believe that they are not good enough and never will be. They know they’ve been naughty and are plagued by a sense of despair and hopelessness. They live in fear regarding what the future holds.

I remember having a conversation with someone over coffee who was in this exact place. We had about a two-hour conversation in which he explained to me that God’s mercy is only for the “saints” of the world.  He told me, "I’m no saint. What’s coming my way, when all is said and done, won’t be pleasant."

Perhaps somewhat ironically, he kept referring to God as “the good Lord” throughout our conversation.

I know a woman who has been at our church longer than I have. Despite numerous attempts to communicate God’s grace, she is consistently plagued by her regrets and mistakes, her faults and failures in life. She consistently struggles to believe that God really can love her because of her baggage and history.

Whereas the first group is confident that they’ve been good enough, the second group is confident that they haven’t. 

Why God is NOT like Santa Claus

There is a story in John 14 where Philip, one of the disciples, says to Jesus, "Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us."

Jesus responds to Philip saying, "Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father."

Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. 

Jesus is teaching that looking at him is the same as looking at God.

So whatever you believe about God has to match Jesus. Jesus is Immanuel, literally God with us (Matt. 1:23). Jesus is the radiance of the divine and the exact representation of God’s being (Heb. 1:3). Jesus is the divine logos (Jn. 1:1) and the image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15). Jesus is the God over all (Rom. 9:5) and the fullness of deity dwells in him (Col. 2:9). In short, if you want to know what God is like, you need to look at Jesus.

Many theologians have named this explicitly: 

"We know God in Jesus alone." Karl Barth

"Jesus is what the Father has to say." C.S. Lewis

"The fullness of God is revealed in Christ." — Greg Boyd

"If you want to know who God is, look at Jesus." — N.T. Wright

"God is Christlike, and in him is no un-Christlikeness at all." — A.M. Ramsey

"Jesus is the perfect revelation of God because Jesus is God." — Brad Jersak

"God is like Jesus. God has always been like Jesus. There has never been a time when God was not like Jesus." — Brian Zahnd

Looking at Jesus, it becomes clear that God is NOT like Santa Claus. 

God is not legalistic and judgmental.

God is not keeping a list and checking it twice.

God is not primarily interested in who has been naughty and nice.

God doesn’t condition his love on how good or bad you have been.

God is a God of grace.

The Santa Claus view of God, quite frankly, is completely anti-grace.   

But what about our sin?

I anticipate someone asking at this point, "But what about our sin? Isn’t sin a real problem? Surely, God doesn’t just ignore it, right?"

Yes, we do have a sin problem. And if God were anything like Santa Claus, all of us would ultimately deserve coal in our stockings.

This truth ought to function as a corrective for the first group, those who are overly-confident that they are good enough. I’d like to say to that first group, "You’re not that nice! You’re not that good. And you’re certainly not nice or good enough. And who are you to discern when bad circumstances are divinely orchestrated punishments for others?"

The first group deserves coal like everyone else.

But I’d like to say to the second group, those full of despair, "You do deserve coal, like everyone else. And I am glad you realize that. That’s an important first step. But you don’t have to despair. Fear not! You are loved and forgiven. Whatever coal you deserve has been taken care of by Jesus on the cross."

The good news is that God is not like Santa Claus. God is like Jesus.

God doesn’t give us coal despite the fact that we all deserve it. In fact, whatever naughty list that anyone can hold against us has been nailed to the cross and completely cancelled (Col. 2:13-15). Instead, God gives us grace and mercy and love. And it’s 100 percent free. We can’t earn it or work for it. All we can do is open our hands and receive it, just like any gift at Christmas time (Eph. 2:1-10).   

Reflection Questions:

  • What do you think God is like? 
  • How might you be tempted to be self-righteous? 
  • How difficult is it for you to receive God’s grace?
  • In what other ways is God not like Santa Claus?
  • How might our view of God change how we parent our kids?
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