As We Grow and Change
The importance of changing one’s image of God came to me one day as I spoke with the mother of a young gay man who had died from a drug overdose. She confessed to me that she had not been a ‘good mother,’ unable to fully embrace her son’s sexuality. She withheld her unconditional love from him because her image of God was of a God who did not unconditionally love ‘the homosexual.’
We hold onto images of God, ourselves, and others, even when they become burdonsome. We hesitiate let go of them because we know that new images might require a conversion on our part, a change which we are not sure we want to make. Only we can decide to quit carrying oppressive images of God and at the same time accept new, images of God, self and others.
Most of us cling to the image of God that we acquired as a child or adolescent, because it helped us make sense of our lives. However, no one image of God is the whole truth — God after all is infinite! For example, as a child we may have believed that God would answer our prayers in life threatening situations. But what happened to my image of God when I prayed for a very sick person who then died?
If I have a single image of God and this is contradicted by a new and painful experience in my life, in a sense, I have the same options regarding my image of God as I have when I outgrow a pair of shoes:
I can continue to wear the same shoes, even though they hurt my feet — ‘why is my good God punishing me?’
I can go barefoot — become an atheist or an agnostic
I can find shoes that fit — allow my image or images of God to match my understanding of God , the way my life has revealed God to me.
To choose the third point, I must reexamine everything, even the Scriptures. What do the Scriptures teach me in light of my life experience? “What meaningful and instructive things have I overlooked?” This choice requires an effort on our part to go beyond what we were taugh as a child. It requires a commitment to continual growth regarding both my image of self and of God.
” Creator God, open my mind and eyes, my heart and my spirit, to accept the revelations that you have prepared for me.”
NOTE: An exploration of the images of God is an expansive subject. I have created this page as an umbrella category that we can revisit from time to time. This will allow us to explore the many ways that our images of God affect our lives, in small manageable, meaningful, and understandable pieces.
This past week, a friend asked, “how can we explain the many negative images of God that one seems to find in the bible?” My friend went on to add, “If the bible is true then isn’t God just as wrathful, punishing, and vengeful, as he is loving?” Readers of the bible often ask both of these questions. These seemingly conflicting images of God are one reason that many people give up trying to understand the scriptures. Some people begin to doubt the existence of God because of these contradictions. And still others give up all together on the belief in God. So, it is important to look at these questions and try to answer them.
The answer to the first question involves the developmental or progressive image of God found in the bible, especially the Old Testament. The bible is a record of the religious experience of the people of Israel as they understood it at the time of its writing. Here are two examples to help to illustrate this point.
– Nowhere throughout the earlier sections of the Old Testament does one find a belief in a life after death. It is only through the experience and maturing process that takes place as the Israealites progress toward the New Testament times that a belief in an afterlife begins to emerge.
– In the earlier sections of the bible, prosperity was considered a sign of God’s blessing; and suffering a sign of God’s punishment. However, as the Israelites matured and reflected upon their experience (as in Job) they began to question this supposition. They realized that suffering was not related to God’s punishment because they could see that good moral people also experienced suffering. We see in the bible a developmental, dynamic image of God, and his people.
The answer to the second question deals with the phenomenon of projection. A disobedient child experiences ones loving father in a tyrannical way and projects upon him an image of his or her (the child’s) alienation. The father may not have harmed his child, but only reprimanded the child. Maybe the father only gave a look of disappointment, or a “time out”. Nevertheless, the child’s inner experience is one of separation, one that sees the father’s demands as cruel and abusive. I believe the negative images that one finds in the bible are true images of God — but in reverse; they are images projected upon God as the result of an alienating experience. Wrath, and punishment are indeed the experience; but it is the experience of the people themselves as they are confronted by a harsh world in which God is considered responsible for everything. The so-called negative images of God that are in the bible are examples of how suffering, hurting, alienated people project their own alienation upon God.
The God represented in the Old Testament and the loving image of God in the New Testament are not two different God’s, but two different images of God, as God was perceived at the time of the writing. The transition from a harsh and wrathful God to a gracious and loving God is a progression of the image of God by a people as they grow and mature in their understanding of God, themselves, and the world around them. God is a dynamic being of infinite possibilities.
What is your image of God?
Does it empower or impede you?
Has your image of God changed over time?
Suggestged reading for a deeper study:
Discovering Images of God: Narratives of Care Among Lesbians and Gays ~ Larry Kent Graham
Images of God: Sixty Reflections of Spiritual Beliefs ~ Adam Gaynor
Sacred interconnections: postmodern spirituality, political economy, and art ~ David Ray Griffin