Our images of God have a powerful influence on our behaviour, our self-identity and on how we relate to God and others.
AIM: To encourage participants to identify the images of God that have operated for them at different stages of their lives, and to reflect on the interplay between these and self-image, behaviour and inner awareness of God.
To enable participants to:
- be aware that they have a ‘gut’ image of God
- recognise their historical images of God and how these may have shaped their self-image and behaviour, and may have been dissonant with their inner ‘sense’ of God
- become aware that images of God reflect a gradual revelation
- experience the value of praying with some biblical images of God
- appreciate the ultimate inadequacy of all images of God.
Welcome and Stilling
Reflection Groups (Examen – Prayer of Awareness)
Images of God
Reflection on chairs
Choose one or two contrasting images of God, noting how our image of God changes
Gradual Revelation of God . . . Inadequacy of human language
Biblical Images of God
Led review of the evening
Try to identify images of God that have played a part in your life as you grew up, albeit subconsciously. Record these in your journal and ask yourself: Where did they come from? Where/how did you pick them up?
Choose two contrasting images, and then ask:
- What feelings did/do these images evoke?
- How did/do they impact on behaviour?
- How did they make you feel about yourself?
- What kind of relationship did they establish between you and God?
- What / who do you think ‘triggered’ these images?
- Which of the two images is ‘healthier’?
- Was either of the images ‘dissonant’ in any way with your inner sense of God?
- What can you conclude from this about the possible sources of our images and understanding of God . . . . and about the nature of those images?
- When you have time, try this with other images to trace the development of your relationship with God, and to identify people, for example, who may have been key to that development.
Our understanding of God, together with related images, was initially ‘given’ to us by the adults of our formative years, whether at home, in school, or within our faith tradition. At times this would have been through ‘teaching’, but more often it was something we ‘caught’ through our experience of adults who, after all, were our primary experience of authority, and God was certainly depicted as the Being with ultimate authority.
But our understanding of God shifted /changed as we journeyed through life, triggered by a variety of factors: people we encountered, life-experiences, and our awareness of what goes on in society and in the world. These were measured favourably or otherwise against our predominant image of God, by things we have read or heard, and, often most importantly, by an inner ‘sense’ of God, a sense that almost defies description, but which we try to capture in words.
Many people proceed to ‘give up God’, so to speak, when what they are told or experience from ‘God-people’ doesn’t match their inner sense. They frame their decision as ‘I don’t believe in God’, when often what they mean is, ‘I don’t believe in that God.’ It’s worthwhile to reflect on the words of one religious writer: “The God you don’t believe in doesn’t exist.”
The story of the development of our individual God-awareness mirrors what happened down through the millennia. Human beings learned about God gradually. Theologically this has been called gradual revelation – the gradual coming to awareness of the mystery we call God. The new images that expressed this gradual awareness had their roots in the life-experience of theistic communities.
As the understanding and images of God changed, so too did human behaviour, in both limiting and expanding ways. To take one example:
Within the Hebrew tradition, God was initially tribal. So, the people acknowledged only one God within the pantheon that they believed to exist.
The enemies of the tribe were enemies of their God, and both the tribe and God were duty-bound to kill enemies. This was the thinking down through the era of Abraham and his successors (1850 BCE onwards) until the time of Moses and Exodus
(c. 1200 BCE).
During the wanderings in the desert towards the Promised Land, the Hebrew tribe met and joined forces with other tribes, also seeking the security of a piece of land they could call their own. They formed a single nation, with the Hebrew God as the national God. The command ‘Thou shalt not kill’ now applied to all (12) tribes of the new nation.
Once settled in the Land, they became a Kingdom (c. 1000 BCE) and then an Empire. The scope of the command expanded to embrace all nationals and foreign residents who served the Kingdom, and all members of the Empire.
Around the 6th century BCE the people became aware that there was only one God, and so God was perceived as the God of all people. The command was appropriately expanded to embrace all people.
Until this point the approach of law and tradition concerning behaviour was to minimize harmful behaviour. But Jesus turned this on its head, giving positive commands: love your enemies; do good to those who hate you; forgive always; go the extra mile, etc. Jesus practiced and taught a pattern of behaviour that would be life-giving for all.
It would be wrong to suggest that the thinking of Jesus came out of the blue! No! It was embedded in his tradition. During the desert wanderings, for example, the experience of God was of one who was totally faithful, a covenant God who loved with a mother’s womb-love. In 6th century BCE the prophets proclaimed a God of justice and a God of mercy. These were not novel, but they came from the people’s own experience of God, and they invited corresponding behaviour. The late 6th century God was perceived as holy, and the invitation to the people was to become holy as God is holy. The late 5th century God was experienced not just as the God of the people, but as the God of each individual as well: individuals were no longer simply cogs in a big wheel.
We’re well aware of the revelation of God that came in Jesus, but Jesus was not the end of the revelation. The revelation continues as we discover more and more about human life, about the planet, about the cosmos, all of which we believe to have come from God. As our knowledge increases, so our behaviour should change. We believe, for example, that the planet and its resources are a gift for all people, and not just for those who have the means to access them. Contemporary science is showing us that the cosmos is a single living organism, each part intricately related to and affected by the other parts, even if these effects are not clearly and simultaneously visible. Behaviour must adapt to this new knowledge.
What’s fascinating about all of this is that it is already there in our scriptures . . . .and it is also there in the lives of many indigenous peoples. But, as we ’develop’, acquire knowledge and skills and learn the potential of both to serve our selfish interests, we forget the boundaries imposed by our common humanity within an interdependent universe and cosmos. Some, like the prophets, continue to have this awareness and call us to account. We thank God for these prophetic voices.
SHEPHERD (Psalm 23)
God is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
In meadow of green grass he lets me lie.
To the waters of repose he leads me;
there to revive my soul. God guides me by paths of truth…..
HEALER/CARER (1 Kings 19: 1-8)
… the angel of the Lord came back a second time to Elijah and touched him and said, ‘Get up and eat or the journey will be too long for you….’
STILL SMALL VOICE (1 Kings 19: 12-13)
After the fire there came the sound of a still small voice . . . . . and when Elijah heard this he covered his face with his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.
CREATOR (Job 38:4–39: 40; 42: 5-6)
Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? … when all the stars of the morning were singing with joy? Who pent up the sea behind closed doors when it leapt tumultuous out of the womb, when I wrapped it in a robe of mist …..
MERCIFUL, TENDER-HEARTED (Psalm 86: 15)
Lord God, you are always merciful and tender hearted, slow to anger, always loving, always loyal,…
GENEROUS (Mt 7:11)
How much more will your Father give good things to those who ask him.
MOTHER (Psalm 131)
O God … it is enough for me to keep my soul tranquil and quiet, like a child in its mother’s arms, as content as a child that has been weaned.
FATHER (Matt 3:16-17)
As soon as Jesus was baptized, he came up from the water…, and a voice spoke from heaven, This is my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on him’.
Matt 6: 9-13
Your Father knows what you need before you ask …. Pray like this: …Our Father in heaven, may your name be held holy……
COMPASSION (Luke 6:36)
Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate. Give and there will be gifts for you: a full measure, pressed down and running over will be poured into your lap.
If any one among you is a prophet,
I make myself known in a vision, or speak in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses: he is at home in my house; I speak with him face to face, plainly and not in riddles, and he sees the form of Yahweh (Numbers 12: 6-8)
Then the people saw the pillar of cloud stationed at the entrance of the Tent, all the people would rise and bow low, each at the door of his tent. And God would speak with Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend…. (Exodus 33: 10-11)
A PERSONAL WORD
I used to see myself as a child and God as my father. Now I see myself as an adult in whom God resides. I find God in other people and relate to God through concern for them and for creating a just world – which I view as God’s future reign.
I sense God as a clean brightness or radiant light, sheltering and protecting. Like a cloak around me.
I see myself as with God in whom we live and move and have our being, closer than breathing. It used to be a hierarchy. Now it is cooperation with God.
My images of God vary. Sometimes they are from nature, a shelter from the storm, a warm gentle sun, rain or parched earth.
Primarily I image God as woman, as mother. I also have some familiar images from childhood – God as tall evergreen tree, God as Rock, God as the Ocean bed, God as Fire. I am especially drawn to the I Am statements in John.
(From Kathleen Fischer: Women at the Well.)
We must not portray you in king’s robes,
you drifting mist that brought forth the morning.
Once again from the old paint boxes
we take the same gold for sceptre and crown
that has disguised you through the ages.
Piously we produce our images of you
‘til they stand around you like a thousand walls.
And when our hearts would simply open,
our fervent hands hide you.
– by R Maria Rilke: Book of Hours
Return to whatever stood out for you in the session. You might want to use some different biblical images of God for your prayer through the week and/or the poem God’s true Cloak by R Maria Rilke.
Read the following articles, notice what strikes you or stays with you.
· LINK: Article 1 – Inner Chaos and False Images of God by G. Hughes, Extract from God of Surprises;
· LINK: Article 2 – The Importance of Images of Jesus and God, by D. Lonsdale Extract from Eyes to See, Ears to Hear.
Read the reflection “A Personal Word by Kathleen Fischer” above. What might your personal version of this look like? If you feel drawn and have the time, write your own Personal Word.
Read through your journal for the past week. What has the week been like for you?
LINK: Music God, Beyond All Names By Bernadette Farrell