Everyone has a way of seeing and understanding God. This is true for ardent theists and atheists. We have to have images for God that give shape to our understanding of God’s character and posture toward us. The problem is, there really isn’t a space that is totally objective from which we can explore God and form these images; they are formed in the conversations and songs, sermons and stories we share.
Blaise Pascal said that “God made man in his own image and man returned the favor.”
There’s a tendency for humans to assume we have the unsoiled vantagepoint on God, and that our opinions are without bias or interpretation. Yet, we all see God through a lens, and too often that lens says more about us than it does about God.
For example, when certain texts about wrath and judgment are privileged over texts about compassion and patience, that tells us more about the interpreter of said texts than it does about the character of God. God shaped us, and we in turn shape God based on our worldview, experiences, and interpretations.
And this matters greatly, because how we understand God and God’s posture and character will shape how we live in the world. If our God is petty and vindictive, then we will follow suit. If our God seeks to make God’s enemies pay, then we will justify our own lust for revenge and violence. Perhaps the most important thing we can rethink is our image and lens for God.
This rethinking has been a real part of my own transformational journey over the last decade plus. I once saw God as a contradiction; God wants to love us, but we are unloveable. We’re too bad, too sinful, too broken for God to love us. Now, however, I realize how damaging that image has been. Now my understanding of God is formed first and foremost by the conviction that God is love, that every intention of God toward the world is born from love, and that this love means God is always inviting us to more and more wholeness.
One of the most beautiful texts in scripture (at least I think so) is found in 1 John:
God is love, and those who remain in love remain in God and God remains in them. This is how love has been perfected in us, so that we can have confidence on the Judgment Day, because we are exactly the same as God is in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear expects punishment. The person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love. We love because God first loved us. [1 John 4v16b-19, CEB]
God is love. This description of the nature and character of God is succinct, yet full of meaning and implication for how we live and move in the world. First, if God is love, and humans are made in God’s image, then we are made to both love and be loved. Imagine if this–love–was the primary way we thought about ourselves and others.
Another implication of God-being-love is that wherever real, genuine love is present–the kind of self-giving, whole love that God is–then God is being shared. Regardless of label or tradition, if love exists, then God is being experienced and shared.
All this talk about God and love calls to mind something Paul said in his letter to the Galatians. In chapter five of the letter Paul contrasts a life lived in and through the Spirit and a life lived apart from the Spirit (These terms are often misunderstood to be anti-physicality, but that’s not actually the case). For Paul, a life lived in the Spirit is fruitful, meaning that it cultivates a certain quality and character of being:
…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against things like this.
[Galatians 5v22-23, CEB]
The interesting detail here is that “fruit” is singular, not plural This is counterintuitive. We assume that Paul would use the plural sense of the word, because he lists nine qualities that the Spirit energized life cultivates. But he doesn’t use the plural (karpoi, in Greek), he opts for the singular (karpos). Admittedly, I’m a total word nerd and find asinine details of grammar and sentence structure to be wildly exciting. But this matters for more important reasons.
For Paul, the fruit of the Spirit is love…and love, when we begin to live in and through it, cultivates these other qualities. Love is like the first domino that falls, and when it does, it brings change to everything else.
God is love, and when we embrace this love, it creates the domino effect that produces all the other goodness that we long for in our lives: joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
How we see and understand God matters. If love isn’t the lens, then whatever that primary conception of God’s nature we may have will produce another sort of domino effect. Perhaps an argument be made that the bloody, painful history of religion is what it is because love hasn’t been the first domino to fall?
What could the world be like if we opened ourselves to this love?