In his book, The God We Never Knew, Marcus Borg says the following:
“Our images of God matter. Just as how we conceptualize God affects what we think the Christian life is about, so do our images of God.
Ideas (which include both concepts and images) are like families: they have relationships. How we image God shapes not only what we think God is like but also what we think the Christian life is about.
The point Borg is making here is so crucial, and I don’t think we understand how important, how totally life shaping, our image of God can be.
If our image of God is hostile–vindictive, vengeful, looking for any reason to condemn us to an eternity of suffering–then it is more than likely that we will begin to embody hostility toward others. Our judgments will be swift and harsh. Those we deem as ‘outsiders’ become targets of our vitriol and anger. We become hostile, we conform to the image of God that we hold.
So too, if our God is indifferent–not angry, not vindictive, just absent–then that will form a particular identity in us. If God doesn’t care, why should we? If God turns a blind eye to the need and suffering of the world, why shouldn’t we join him? If God doesn’t have our back [so to speak] then why shouldn’t we put ourselves first, get all we can, take care of our own needs first, maybe even at the expense of others. When our image of God is one that is distant, detached, remote, then we come to embody these same characteristics in the most selfish ways imaginable.
But, if our God is generous, compassionate, merciful, kind, and good–in a word, Love–then those things will come to permeate our lives, just as the hostility and indifference of those other images do. This is the image of God Jesus lived with and lived through. Notice how Jesus views God, and in turn, how he is calling us to allow this view to shape us as well:
Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. [Luke 6v36, NIV]
Jesus’ God is merciful. That same word can be translated as ‘compassionate’ as well. God, for Jesus is compassionate. He isn’t hostile toward us, or indifferent. He is compassionate. He suffers with us. He meets us, weeps with us, embraces us. And Jesus’ expectation for his followers, then and now, is that we would take this compassion and mercy which we’ve been so graciously given and give it to others.
Our images of God matter, because [as Rob Bell says] ‘we shape our God and our God shapes us’. What we believe about God becomes the lens, the filter through which we see and engage the world.
How do you view God? Have you thought about the image of God you have? Does it make you a better neighbor for the world, or worse?
The truth is not all images for God are equal. Not all are good. Some images of God need to be resisted and rejected, and some are so beautiful that they compel us to embrace them, or better, to be embraced by them.