Making Attributions

By Not Known

Do you know this experience? You say or do something. Someone talks about your motives or purposes and you hear of their views. As you see it, they are wide of the mark, but then they and others go ahead to act and react on the basis of their mistaken ideas. Or, perhaps you are the one doing the talking about other’s motives and purposes.

It’s common to make attributions about the motives and purposes of others based on our ‘reading’ of their actions. However, do we test our attributions with the person concerned? It’s surely their right to first tell us what their motives etc were. An untested attribution may be wide of the mark and quite dangerous when we act on it.

How do we feel when people make untested and wrong attributions about us? Most of us are annoyed – and rightly so. We wish the person had come to ask questions and listen to us before making their attributions. Now let’s apply this to God. We sometimes use phrases like this: I can’t believe in a God who …. ; or, I know what the Bible says, but I think… . Do you see what we are doing? We are taking our ideas of God and attributing them back to him. Ultimately this is the idolatry of us making God after our own image instead of him making us after his own image (Gen 1:26-27).

Like all misattributions, this is insulting to the one of whom it is made and dangerous to the one making it. It also misreads God’s nature. God revealed himself to Moses by a Hebrew name YHWH which we render as ‘Yahweh’; ‘LORD’ or even ‘Jehovah’. It means ‘I am what I am’ (Ex 3:14). We don’t define God with our attributions, but he defines himself in his works and his words.

Do you notice something else about the attributions we make to God? We generally emphasise one aspect or another of God’s character and omit others. By contrast, God defines himself with multiple aspects that complement each other. For example, consider these words:

The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Ex 34:6-7)

Let’s stop making untested attributions about other people and especially about God. Let’s instead listen as God tells us who he is and relate to him on his terms.