“How do you picture God?”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked this question over the last few years…one of the benefits of attending a religiously affiliated university. One of the first times I was asked this question I was attending “Tapestry,” a spiritual formation retreat offered by CenterPeace. A lot of the retreat, in fact, focused on our pictures of God and our relationship with God, in some cases affirming and in other cases correcting those pictures.
Whenever I am asked about my picture of God, two things factor very heavily into my response. One of them comes as a result of the Tapestry retreat I attended three years ago. After the initial retreat, all of us worked through a year-long curriculum that included the reading of several books, among them Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son. On the cover of the book is Rembrandt’s painting of the same name, which inspired Nouwen to write the book. Something about the painting captured my attention and has stuck with me for the past three years.
If you look closely at the hands of the father, you’ll notice that one of them is more weather-worn and calloused (more stereotypically “masculine”) while the other is softer (more stereotypically “feminine”). Something as seemingly innocuous as the way Rembrandt rendered the hands of the father communicates some central truths about the God I have come to know throughout my life. It reminds me that God functions as a divine parent…as both mother and father. While God does have an aggressive side (see the Old Testament), we have a tendency to forget about the loving, nurturing side of God.
Besides that, the painting as a whole (as well as the story which inspired the painting) reminds me of something even greater. No matter how far away from home I wander, no matter how badly I screw up, God will be there waiting with open arms to welcome me home. I know that even while I’m “still a long way off,” I have a parent who will come running to meet me as I’m walking down the path.
There’s also a song I discovered about four years ago that immediately pops into my head when the “picture of God” question is asked. Music, more so than anything else in the world, changes my mood and expresses things that I struggle to put into words. “By Your Side” by Tenth Avenue North perfectly captures my picture of God in four minutes, though the song itself is sung from the perspective of Jesus. Personally, I have a hard time separating the Father and Son. What I see in one, I see in the other.
This song, better than almost any other song, communicates important truths about the God I know…the God that both amazes and completely confuses me. It reminds me that this almighty, all-knowing, all-powerful being stooped down to our level in the most vulnerable form imaginable, the very same form we all take when we enter the world, and endured an excruciating death simply because God loved us and wanted to be in a relationship with us. Whenever I stumble and fall, I’ll have someone there to catch me. This God…this infinite being that I will never completely understand…loves me in spite of and because of my flaws. The God I know, the one described in this song, is the God that will move mountains, traverse the wilderness, and overturn the entire world just to find one of His children to let them know they are loved.
The bridge of the song really drives this point home for me –
“‘Cause I, I love you
I want you to know
That I, I love you
I’ll never let you go.”
More than anything, my God is the very source and embodiment of love. No matter what happens in life, I know that the God I serve is there to hold me and hug me and tell me that everything will be okay because He is enough. It reminds me that I am not alone. This God wants a relationship with us…with me. No matter where I run, how badly I mess up, or if I completely turn my back, God will still be holding onto me. More than anything, the song reminds me that, even when I have trouble loving myself, I am loved.
Though I’ve known of God my entire life, I didn’t really come to know God until recently. Since then, I found a God who is intimately involved in our lives, or at least wants to be intimately involved. The omniscient, omnipotent, ever-present, almighty Lord of Hosts knows us inside and out. God is the one who knows every single hair on our heads…all 7 billion of us. God loves and cares for each one of us, even when we don’t acknowledge or accept it.
The point: God loves us unconditionally…no strings attached. There is absolutely nothing we can do to change that. Imagine how our perception of and relationship with God would change if we kept that in mind.
Imagine how our relationships with each other might change.
Food for thought.“37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
–Romans 8:37-39 (NRSV)