Excerpt from Discovering Our Spiritual Identity

What is your picture of God?”

The question surprised me. I was sitting in the plainly furnished study of a close friend and mentor. Over the years his listening presence, at critical moments in my own pilgrimage, had been a gracious gift. In the previous thirty minutes I had sought to describe those patterns of behavior that were leaving me bedraggled in spirit, weary in body and withdrawn in relationship. When I had finished speaking, he remained silent for a while, almost as if he were listening to his own heart. Then came the surprising question.

At first the question seemed unrelated and irrelevant to the concerns I had expressed. What did my view of God have to do with crowded days, an over-scheduled appointment book and strenuous efforts to achieve and accomplish? Surely, I thought to myself, all that was needed was some practical counsel regarding time management and realistic goal setting. However, the question communicated my companion’s clear conviction that the way we live is profoundly shaped by our picture of God. William Temple, that great Anglican minister and spiritual leader, once rather provocatively observed that if people live with a wrong view of God, the more religious they become, the worse the consequences will be, and eventually it would be better for them to be atheists.

In each of our hearts and minds there is drawn our picture of God. Formed over the years through our interaction with parent figures, church representatives and our surrounding culture, it significantly influences the way we live our daily lives. Listening perceptively to the description of my drained condition, my friend had offered a spiritual diagnosis. My picture of God needed to be critically examined. There was a connection between my schedule, driven lifestyle and view of God.

For the first time in my life, I stopped to think about my image of God. Yes, I did feel that I needed to earn God’s grace. Yes, I did believe I had to achieve his affirmation. Yes, I did sense that God would withdraw his blessings if I did not measure up. Gradually it dawned on me that I had come to view God as a somewhat passive spectator, sitting in the balcony of my life, whose applause would only come in response to satisfactory performance. A dysfunctional picture of God, I was discovering, had expressed itself in a dysfunctional way of living.

When distortions creep into our picture of God, their negative effects reverberate throughout our lives. Consider some commonly held views of God, together with their usual consequences. Those who view God as an impersonal force tend toward a cold and vague relationship with him. Those who see God as a heavenly tyrant, intent on hammering anyone who wanders outside his laws, seldom abandon themselves with joy to the purposes of his kingdom. Those who imagine God to be a scrupulous bookkeeper, determined to maintain up-to-date accounts of every personal sin and shortcoming, rarely acknowledge their inner contradictions and struggles in his presence. Those who regard God as a divine candy machine (just say a prayer and you can get what you want) inevitably end up in disillusionment. Since, as author-philosopher Dallas Willard has pointed out, we live at the mercy of our ideas, we would be wise to reflect carefully on those that we have about God.

Our picture of God can be redrawn. It happened for Cardinal Basil Hume, archbishop of Westminster and well-known spiritual guide, and is illustrated in an amusing story he tells about himself. On a speaking tour of the United States, he shared how he had been raised by a good but severe mother. Constantly she would say to him, If I see you, my son, stealing an apple from my pantry, I’ll punish you.” Then she would add quickly, If you take an apple and I don’t see you, Almighty God will see you, and he will punish you”’ It doesn’t take much imagination to catch a glimpse of the harsh picture of God these words sketched in young Basil’s mind! As his Christian experience matured however, his picture of God gradually changed. Eventually he had come to realize, the cardinal testified, that God might have said to him, My son, why don’t you take two?”

God is a Boundless Mystery

James Houston writes:

Awe encourages us to think of God as a transcendent presence: someone outside and beyond our own small concerns and our own vulnerable lives. Awe opens us up to the possibility of living always on the brink of mystery. Awe helps us to be truly alive, fully open to new possibilities we had not envisaged before.1

This redrawing process begins in the scriptural affirmation that God is a boundless Mystery. This does not mean that he is a giant puzzle to be fathomed out. It simply means that there is no one else like him. When the word holy (meaning to be separate, to be different) is used to describe God, it indicates this sense of wholly otherness. Indeed, if ever we think that we have finally got God all worked out, then we can be sure that we are wrong. As a professor friend would keep reminding me in my know-it-all student days: Trevor, when you are in the presence of the real God you either shut up or fall on your face.”

We are often uncomfortable and uneasy in the presence of mystery. We struggle to be involved with an ungraspable God. We feel safer when faith is confined within dogmatic formulations and tidy theories. Then we can tame God, bring him under control and manage his workings in our world. But these attempts to control and manage cost us dearly. Our sense of wonder is exiled, our faith begins suffocating from thick layers of dull familiarity and easy answers, and our lives are emptied of surprise.

In any true picture of God there will always be room for mystery. Acknowledging God in this way gets us to take off our shoes in his presence. We begin living on tiptoe. Our lives are touched with a renewed sense of awe.

God is Christlike

The bottom line of the Christian faith is the amazing claim that God has stepped into human history in the person of Jesus. In Jesus, God comes close and shows us his face. The boundless Mystery is not something vague and woolly, but Someone personal. Listen to Paul’s confident exclamation about Jesus in the midst of his carefully worded theological letter to the Colossians: he is the image of the invisible God… For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Colossians 1:1519).

If we want to get our picture of God clearer, we must look in the direction of Jesus. Through word and deed, dying and rising, Jesus introduces us to what God is really like. In a famous remark, Archbishop Michael Ramsey teases out the staggering implications of this claim: God is Christlike and in Him is no un-Christlikeness at all.“2 Dare we take this seriously? Every idea and assumption that we have about God must be measured against the person of Jesus. If they are contradicted by what we have come to know about God through Jesus, they need to be relinquished. If not, then they can safely be included in our God picture.

This is what letter-writer John does when he puts forward his picture of God for our consideration. In the opening sentences of his first letter he reminds his readers that he writes from the perspective of one who had known the company of Jesus firsthand. On this basis he concludes a few chapters later that God is love” (1 John 4:16). Notice that he does not say that God has love, but rather that God is love. This is the very essence of who the Holy One is: extravagantly, sacrificially, passionately loving. And since this is his essential nature, this is what God is always doing loving you and me.

Popular Catholic writer John Powell illustrates from nature the meaning of this truth for our lives. He suggests that we compare God’s love to the sun. It is the nature of the sun always to give off warmth and light. The sun always shines, always radiates its warmth and light. There is no way in which the sun can act against its essential nature. Nor is there any way in which we can stop it from shining. We can allow its light to fill our senses and make us warm; alternatively, we can separate ourselves from its rays by putting up an umbrella or going indoors. But whatever we may do, we know that the sun itself does not change.3 In the same way, the God whom we see in Jesus always loves. Like the shining sun, his love never ceases. We have the freedom to open ourselves to this love and be transformed by it, or we can separate ourselves from it. But we cannot stop him from sending out continuously the warm rays of his love. At the heart of the boundless Mystery there is a blazing love that has created us, searches for us every moment and desires to bring us, along with all creation, into wholeness.

Holy Experiment

I invite you to begin immediately. … Ponder your current image of God. Try to be as honest as you can. Do you believe that God wants to relate with you personally and individually? Do you feel that God is for or against you? When life goes wrong, do you assume that God is punishing you? As you reflect on these questions, note any negative components in your God picture. Can you remember where these came from? How do these negative components affect your relationship with God and your life in his service?

  1. James Houston. The Transforming Friendship (Elgin, Ill.: Lion, 1989), p. 216. ↩︎
  2. Quoted in John V. Taylor, The Christlike God (London: SCM Press, 1992), p. 100. ↩︎
  3. John Powell, The Christian Vision (Allen, Tex.: Tabor, 1984), p. 94. ↩︎

Taken from Discovering Our Spiritual Identity by Trevor Hudson. Copyright © 2010 by Trevor Hudson. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www​.ivpress​.com

Photo by Jr Korpa on Unsplash

Text First Published November 2010 · Last Featured on Renovare.org September 2023