I still remember where we were when our oldest son took his first steps. He was a year old, give or take a few days. We were in a cabin in northwestern Ontario. Joel had been pulling himself up and standing for a few weeks, but while we were there, he took his first steps. He got one solid step in, followed by a two-step Lindy Hop and then crashed to the floor.

We all cheered. You’d have thought he’d won the Nobel Prize. Instead, he took three wobbly steps. Three wobbly steps, but full of promise. We knew this was just the beginning.

One can imagine the same scenario with a different outcome. We’re in the cabin. One-year-old Joel is standing up with his hands on the sofa, and I’m urging him to come to me. I say, “Come on, son. You can do it. Come on.” He turns toward me. He lifts and extends his foot. We all hold our breath. He shifts his weight - he’s taken his first step! He then quickly takes another and another, then goes crashing down in a heap.

And that’s when I say: “That’s all you got? What’s the matter with you? I give you a year, and all you can give me is three lousy steps! You are such a disappointment to me.”

Some people think God is like the critical, impossible-to-please me in the second scenario. No matter what we do, he thinks, “That’s all you got? You’re such a disappointment to me.” But the God of the Bible is not looking for opportunities to criticize but to reward.

What we think when we think of God matters. People frequently think of God as the “Great Faultfinder in the Sky” and themselves as big disappointments. Jesus, however, revealed a father who is eager to celebrate his children’s first faltering steps and to reward them. He knows those first steps are just the beginning.

Jesus pictures God as a father who is on the lookout for opportunities to reward his children. God is like a mother who walks into the kitchen after being out in the garden and finds that her eight-year-old has opened a cake mix, cracked eggs and is proceeding to bake a cake. The five-year-old is holding a cracked egg in her hand. There is egg on the floor, on the refrigerator and on the kids. There is more cake mix on the counter than there is in the bowl. The kitchen is a disaster.

When the eight-year-old sees mom, he says, “We’re making you a birthday cake!” (even though her birthday is six months away). Mom looks around at the devastation that was her kitchen, wonders whether she needs to call FEMA, and then says, “That is so nice! What do you say we finish making the cake, clean up a little, and then go out for ice cream as a reward?” Mom celebrates and rewards the intent, not the result.

That is a God-like moment. We think God is set on getting things done perfectly and that we, in our frailty and foolishness, are messing up his plan. But our thinking is confused. God is not intent on getting things done; he is intent on getting people done. We think God’s goal must be something like toppling dictators or ending abortion or stopping human trafficking when his real goal is to change people - including dictators, abortion providers, and human traffickers … and you and me.

God is intent on getting people done - in the words of St. James: “finished and whole, not lacking anything.” We think he is concerned with the global economy or the fractured moral state of the West or at least with the makeup of the Supreme Court - and he is - but those things are secondary. God knows the global economy and the Supreme Court are temporary while people are eternal. He knows that lasting change doesn’t happen in polling stations or federal courtrooms; it happens in people. So his goal is to transform people into the likeness of the one true human: Jesus.

Ideas matter. The idea that God is our father in heaven, not our faultfinder there, matters. It is a liberating thought, full of hope and promise.
Shayne Looper is the pastor of Lockwood Community Church in Branch County, Michigan. Read more at shaynelooper.com.