During my participation in 12-Step groups over the years, I’ve often been encouraged to evaluate different images of God. As they like to say around the tables at these meetings, we may need to fire the God of our childhood understanding and get in touch with the real one.
Here are just some of the competing images I’ve encountered – whether in church, in 12-Step groups or in my reading:
The angry God. “The God I was taught to fear was an angry, capricious bastard with a killer surveillance system who is constantly disappointed in me for being human,” said ELCA Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber in a recent interview. (Link HERE.) I could relate. The God of my own childhood was a short-tempered bully who really kind of hated people, especially kids who asked “Why?” when told by an adult to do something.
God as loving parent. While the stern, authoritarian God who always seems angry at us about something appears often in the Old Testament, the Bible – especially in the New Testament – also offers the image of God as benevolent parent. This God loves us, takes care of us and wants us to love and care for each other. This is the image I like the most, but I must admit I struggle constantly with the question of why a God like this would allow so much evil in the world.
The distant and uninvolved God. According to this concept, God created everything that exists but has a big, wide universe to oversee and isn’t particularly interested in the day-to-day affairs of humans. God created people and other living creatures, gave us all the ability to reproduce and perpetuate our species, and then went on to other things. I’m most tempted to believe this theory when it seems that God is not answering my prayers.
The God immanent in all creation. God is not a totally separate entity “out there” somewhere, but dwells in each of us as well as in animals, trees, all other living things and all of nature. At this point in my life, the immanent God is the image that resonates with me the most, at least when I’m taking walks outside.
I HAVE TO ADMIT I find it easier to articulate what I don’t believe than to decide what I do believe. Despite the confusion I’ve felt over who or what God is, here are a few concepts and images of God I have pretty confidently rejected.
The God who plays favorites. I have an innate suspicion of any belief system that claims God favors one group of people over another, and – by some stroke of luck or fate or coincidence – the group God favors just happens to be the group we belong to or identify with. I get especially suspicious when God “intends” for us to have something that belongs to someone else (land, for example). If Romans 10:12, Galatians 3:28 and Colossians 3:11 are correct, God does not favor any one group of people over any others. “In God, there is no Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free.”
The God who mustn’t be questioned. I also tend to be innately suspicious when any person (or religious denomination) does not want me to ask questions. Especially when the main reason we have so many Christian denominations is that we have so many different interpretations of Biblical truth. When people say we mustn’t question God’s will, I suspect what some of them are really saying is, “Don’t question my interpretation of God’s will.” I haven’t yet decided whether it’s worth the effort to question God’s will, but I can sure question another human being’s interpretation of it.
The God who hates “those” people. A former pastor at my church observed that some people take as much comfort in the idea that certain other people will face eternal damnation as they do in the idea of their own salvation. Personally, when I see lists of “People God Hates,” I just laugh.
The God who founded the One True Religion. No matter which denomination I’ve been part of, and no matter how many other religions I’ve read about, the argument often boils down to the same thing. “We’re right. They’re wrong. Stick with Us. Stay away from Them.” When I was a teenager, I was sure the Bible verse warning us “do not be conformed to the world” meant I should beware of peer pressure. (This was probably not a bad interpretation for a teenager to make.) But then I learned that, to the Amish, it meant don’t drive cars or use electricity. So how do I know that one sect or denomination has all the right answers to all the theological questions and that no one else does? The answer for me is, I don’t.
The in-our-own-image God. We human beings do seem to have a gift for creating God in our own image. In so many of the religions or denominations I’ve experienced personally or read about, we anthropomorphize God – that is, give God human characteristics. But given the combination of our human limitations and our human egos, is there a way for us NOT to do that, at least to some extent? And how do I know when I’m doing this?
I like an observation shared around the tables at 12-Step meetings: One clue that we might be creating God in our own image is when God agrees with us on every single controversial issue and disapproves of all the same people we do. Of course, I’m never guilty of this sort of thing. Right??