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IMAGES OF THE DIVINE

IMAGES OF THE DIVINE

Ted Schroder
January 29, 2006

"What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us...We tend by a secret law of the soul to move toward our mental image of God. Were we able to extract from any man a complete answer to the question, 'What comes into your mind when you think about God?' We might predict with certainty the spiritual future of that man." (A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy, p.9)

"You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or in the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments." (Exodus 20:4-6)

God is love - a passionate lover - who, in his fierce zeal to create and redeem his loved ones, does not want anything to come between him and them. He wants them to know him as he truly is. Anything less is a corruption. Although we talk about God in anthropomorphical terms: as Father, Bridegroom, Shepherd, Son, we know how limited those terms are for God is Spirit, and those who worship him must do so in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). He cannot be localized or materialized, except in his incarnation.

When St. Paul went to Athens, "he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols." (Acts 17:16) He proclaimed that "The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands....we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone - an image made of man's design and skill." (Acts 17:24,29) To the Corinthians he wrote: "We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one." (1 Corinthians 8:4)

We are not likely today to make idols, and bow down and worship them. True, we may worship our possessions, but we know that they did not make us or can save us. We may worship our needs and spend our lives trying to fulfill them. Abraham Maslow put them in order of importance: Physiological needs (food, shelter, and health), Safety needs (security, protection from harm), Love and Belonging needs (relationship, friends and family), Esteem needs (being valued and affirmed), Self-actualization needs (fulfilling our potential and purpose). But if we make an idol of ourselves we will end up being very disappointed, for we all fall short of the glory of God.

We need the love of God, not just self-love. God is jealous of our love and will share it with no other, not even ourselves. Parents who instill in their children a selfish desire to meet their own needs, to fulfill their own potential, will pass on to them the poisonous seed of self-idolatry. We either love God or hate him, and God is hated by those who idolize themselves. That is why the television program of American Idol can be so pernicious. It encourages a form of idolatry, the desire to be famous for a moment.

How does this commandment apply to us today? Making of idols is a way to domesticate God, to control God, to make God more accessible, and more familiar to us. It is to make God in our own image of what we conceive him to be, of what we desire him to be. "You thought," says the Lord in the psalm, "I was altogether like you." (Psalm 50:21) "When we try to imagine what God is like we must of necessity use that-which-is-not-God as the raw material for our minds to work on; hence whatever we visualize God to be, He is not, for we have constructed our image out of that which He has made and what He has made is not God. If we insist on trying to imagine Him, we end up with an idol, not made with hands but with thoughts; and an idol of the mind is as offensive to God as an idol of the hand.... Left to ourselves we tend immediately to reduce God to manageable terms. We want to get Him where we can use Him, or at least know where He is when we need Him. We want a God we can in some measure control. We need the feeling of security that comes from knowing what God is like, and what He is like is of course a composite of all the religious pictures we have seen, all the best people we have known or heard about, and all the sublime ideas we have entertained." (Tozer, p.16)

When we investigate recurring popular images of God we find that they have been passed down from one generation to another. Many people have been crippled by the images of God they have inherited. J.B. Phillips wrote a book entitled, Your God is Too Small, in which he discussed some of the stereotypes people had of God. Here are some of them: God as Resident Policeman, as Parental Hangover, as a Grand Old Man, as Absolute Perfection, as Heavenly Bosom, as Managing Director. In the process of counseling many people have had to eliminate these conceptions of God. These images of God have been rejected as people matured, but nothing may have been put in their place. They have not found in their adulthood a God big enough to account for life and to fit their experiences. As a result they either drift in their faith, and are prey to someone who comes along and takes advantage of their needs with a spurious idol, or else they become disillusioned and give up on Christianity as childish nonsense. Their God was too small for their lives, and they discovered that their lives were being cramped by their image of God. Their image of God had to go in order to grow. But they had no better image with which to replace it.

Christians believe that the true image of God is to be found in Jesus. "He is the image of the invisible God." (Colossians 1:15) When we read the pages of the New Testament we find a true picture of God in the life of Jesus. Yet ever since the coming of Jesus every age has interpreted him differently. It seems that we take from the New Testament the aspect of the life of Jesus that fits our needs. Apparently this was a problem in the early church. False teachers presented rival images of Jesus and God to the first Christians. St. Paul had to confront it in his letters. He used the same language as in the second commandment: "I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him. But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent's cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you received a different spirit from the one you received, or a different Gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough." (2 Corinthians 11:2-4)

John Stott in The Incomparable Christ writes, "down the centuries of the Christian era hundreds of different Jesuses have been on offer in the world's religious supermarkets. Some resonate with contemporary culture, but only by manipulating Scripture. Others are biblically faithful but culturally alien." (p.79) He lists some of these images of Jesus. Justin Martyr in the second century presented Jesus as the fulfillment of the pagan philosophers. St. Benedict in the sixth century presented Jesus as the perfect monk. St. Anselm in the eleventh century presented God as the feudal overlord, and Jesus as representing sinful humanity, as the feudal vassal debtor. Thomas a Kempis in the fourteenth century presented Jesus as the moral exemplar, and Christianity as his imitation. Thomas Jefferson and the Enlightenment presented Jesus as the human teacher. The Spanish missionaries in South America presented Jesus as the tragic victim, the suffering and bleeding victim. More recently Jesus has been presented as the liberator from social and political oppression, a revolutionary figure.

How do we avoid making idols, false stereotypes, of God in our own image? We need to carefully read the whole of Scripture, so that we don't pick and choose what appeals to us. We want to worship the true God, not a god of our own making. That God, the God who is jealous of our love, has revealed himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is in the dynamics of the divine relationship that we come to know God, and come to know ourselves as made for personal relationships. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is about the identity of the true God whom we are called to worship and serve. As we come to know God in three Persons, we come to know who we as human beings are, for we are made in his image.

All of us are susceptible to making God in our own image. There is no more obvious example of this than in the way we see God as primarily one or other of the three persons of the Holy Trinity. There are three main groups of Christian believers who may be found in every denomination, characterized by three different images of God.

The first group, is the one that sees God as the Father, or even as the Mother. They major on the work of God as creation and providence. They see God as a benevolent will who steers everything towards what is good. They assign no special significance to the Son and the Holy Spirit. Instead the unity of God is stressed, and the work of God is seen in the workings of the universe and history.

The second group focuses almost entirely on God as seen in Jesus Christ. They major on the redemptive work of Christ as Savior. They emphasize salvation wrought by Christ on the cross. They look for a real transformation of the person that must occur because of the work of God in Christ. God is present in the words of the Scriptures. There is no real importance given to God as Father, or the work of the Spirit.

The third group consists of those who see God as the Spirit of power. They range from Pentecostals to Roman Catholics. Their worship is experiential, emotional and full of praise. They see God as the power of energy who grasps people and makes them transcend the boundaries of their existence.

These three groups, with different images of God, worship in different ways, see their faith differently, and have different understandings of mission. They see the world and themselves differently because of their different images of God.

Each image is incomplete. Each group needs to acknowledge that their understanding is incomplete. The first group, focusing on creation and providence, needs to learn that creation is not complete without the reconciliation of the fallen world by God the Son, which is appropriated to believers in the power of the Spirit.

The second group needs to see the reconciliation wrought by Jesus on the Cross as the act of God the Father, which is made real for us and changes our reality through the Spirit. The third group needs to learn to develop a personal understanding of the Spirit. For the Spirit is not an impersonal force, who simply knocks people down or zaps them with his power, but relates them as persons to the Son, who is in intimate relationship with the Father. (Christoph Schwöbel in God's Advocates, ed. Rupert Shortt, p.102)

Michael de Molinos says of the Christian soul, "Let her love God as He is in Himself, and not as her imagination says He is, and pictures Him." God discloses himself to us in his creation and his Word. They are the only reliable images given to us. But they are sufficient.

An audio version of this presentation may be found on www.ameliachapel.com.

Amelia Plantation Chapel,
Amelia Island, Florida

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