How Do You “See” God? God’s Self-Portrait, Part 1
When ReKnew first launched a year and a half ago, I planned on initially using the blog primarily to flesh out the theology and significance of the ReKnew Manifesto. As happens all-too-frequently in my ADHD world, that project got sidelined primary because of my obsession with finishing The Crucifixion of the Warrior God. Well, the book is almost finished, so I feel its time to return to our original plan. We’ll continue to post other Kingdom related blogs, and I’ll continue to use the blog to address questions sent into us and other topics from time to time, but—God willing (James 4:13-5)—the focus of three or more blogs a week will be on the Manifesto. And since I believe the single most important aspect of our theology concerns our mental picture of God, that is the topic I’d like to start with. For some these initial reflections on God may be radically new, while for long-time followers of ReKnew some of this will be review— but it’s material that I don’t believe we can be reminded of too often.
Only a relatively small percentage of people on the planet flat out refuse to believe in some sort of God, and for good reason. Not only do most have a deep intuitive sense of a transcendent power, but there are a multitude of compelling arguments pointing to God’s existence. For example, it’s very hard to explain how a completely irrational universe could evolve rational beings like humans by sheer time and chance. It’s even harder to explain how it is that our reason succeeds in making sense of reality (as in science). So too, its extremely difficult to explain how the universe could evolve beings like humans who long for ultimate meaning unless there is in fact an ultimate purpose to our existence. And it’s close to impossible to account for how an amoral universe could produce beings that are convinced that good and evil exist and that good should overcome evil. (Even those who claim moral convictions are nothing more than culturally conditioned preferences act like they’re not when you cut them off in traffic!). It’s not surprising, then, that most people believe in some kind of “god”.
While there’s widespread consensus regarding God’s existence, there’s very little agreement on what God is like. Many imagine God to be an angry and austere judge who punishes people by sending things like diseases and catastrophes upon them. Some go so far as to hold that God is a cosmic tyrant who orchestrates every single thing that happens and even predestines people to go to heaven or hell. Others picture God as being too preoccupied running the universe to be interested in the details of their lives or as being a quaint old grandpa in the sky who just wants his grandkids to have fun. (See America’s Four Gods, a book by Baylor sociologists who report their research on the various ways that people see God). Most classical theologians in church history have conceived of God as “too exalted” to be genuinely affected by us little humans. They claim that God never experiences change (he’s “immutable”), for he exists in a timeless present moment. So too, they claim God never experiences passions and never suffers (he’s “impassible”), for he is “above” allowing anything outside of himself to affect him or disturb his perfect bliss. And there are an increasing number of people in our post-modern world who simply conclude that God is too mysterious to know, let alone have a relationship with, while many others today imagine him as an impersonal mystical force or metaphysical principle.
As I said at the start, the way you envision God in your mind is the single most important fact in your life, for it completely determines the quality of your relationship with God. In fact, all of our emotions are associated with the images we entertain in our minds. So how you imagine God determines how you feel and relate to God.
If you imagine God as an angry judge or controlling tyrant, you will not only live in fear of him, but you’ll find it impossible to passionately love him. If you think that God is uninterested in your life, you aren’t likely to be genuinely interested in him. If you conceive of God as an old grandpa, you might occasionally be grateful towards him, but you won’t be passionate about being disciplined to conform your life to his holy will. If you imagine God as one who is above being affected by you and above change or emotion, you’ll find it extremely difficult to develop a deeply personal relationship with him. And if you conceive of God as too mysterious to know or as an impersonal force or metaphysical principle, you may be curious about God now and then, but you aren’t likely to make loving him the central point of your life.
We have to always remember that the quality of our love for God can never outrun the beauty of the God we mentally envision. Loving God isn’t something we can just will ourselves to do. You can hear a thousand sermons about how you ought to love God and even about how you’re going to hell if you don’t love God, but while these sorts of sermons may succeed in motivating you to say you love God and even to crank out apparently loving behaviors, they can’t succeed in helping you actually love God. Quite the opposite: in making you fear God, these messages ensure that you can’t love God, for as John says,
There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love (1 Jn 4:19).
The only way we can genuinely love God is by being convinced that “he first loved us” (1 Jn 4:20). And since all of our affections are associated with the mental images in our minds, the only way for this love to affect us is to imagine it, as vividly as possible. If we regularly envision God loving us, it invariably evokes in us a love for God.
If you understand that we are called to love God with all our mind, heart, body and soul, as Jesus taught us, then the all important first step in moving in this direction is to pay attention to the mental pictures of God you entertain in your mind and to spend time asking God to help you develop and nurture the true one, letting God pour his passionate love on you.
P.S. If you want to go deeper on the importance of our mental pictures of God and on how to use your imagination in prayer in ways that are transforming, you might want to check out my book, Seeing Is Believing (Baker, 2004).
Check out the sermon series on this topic.
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