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How Do You Picture God? (February 8, 2019)

From beginning to end, the Bible is the story of God. However, as I’ve written before, the Bible is not God’s story of God. Rather, the Bible is a library of how ancient Israel and the early Christian movement thought about God.

The question I want to ask today is “How did these two ancient communities picture God and God’s relationship to the world?”

It would be nice if there were a single simple answer. But there isn’t. The Bible imagines God in a number of different ways.

Most familiar to us is the personal imagery which the Bible uses to speak of God. These are “anthropomorphic images”, which means that they speak of God as being like a person: God is king, lord, father, mother, warrior, shepherd, creator, and potter.

The most familiar image to many Christians is that of “father”. Too often, however, we’ve taken this image of father literally, as if to say that God really is our father. But the sheer fact that there are so many different anthropomorphic images points to the fact that all of these images are metaphors. God is not literally our father, not literally a warrior, not literally a king or a shepherd. These are human ways of trying to speak about ineffable mystery.

No single image will do, because we believe that God is beyond the power of language to describe, and so we must use many different kinds of images to help us express our sense of who God is.

A second set of images compare God to something inanimate: God is a rock, a fortress, a shield, my hope, my trust, a strong refuge, my portion, the strength of my heart.

Again, these images can’t be taken literally. They speak of God in ways with which we can identify.

A third set of images compares God to animals, such as a mother bear or a ravening lion.

Many of these images suggest that God is “out there”. We imagine a God who created the universe a long time ago, and that creation is separate from God. Because God is mostly “out there”, that means that God is not “here”. To quote a familiar phrase, God is “our father” who is “in heaven”. God is away from us, watching over us from somewhere else. While God may be as close as a parent, God is nevertheless “in heaven”.

On the other hand, there are also some images which suggest that God is as close as our next breath. God is “right here” as well as more than right here. With these images, we picture God as an all–encompassing Spirit. God is not material; God has no physical form. Nevertheless God is present as a reality that surrounds us and everything around us.

Acts 17 describes God as the one “in whom we live and move and have our being”. God is not somewhere else, but all around us, like the air, like the force of love. Psalm 139 takes a similar approach. The Psalmist asks, “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?” The implied answer is “Nowhere.” The Psalmist continues by imagining a journey through the ancient three–storey universe: ascending into the heavens, descending into Sheol, and travelling to the furthest corners of the earth. The constant refrain is “You are there.”

Some of the meanings of the biblical words for spirit also suggest this same way of seeing God. In both Hebrew (“ruach”) and Greek (“pneuma”), the words which we translate as Spirit are exactly the same words which we translate as “wind” or “breath”. God is like wind, like breath.

Imagine what “wind” meant to ancient people. They did not think of it as a material reality, as molecules in motion. Rather, they experienced wind as a powerful, invisible force. You can feel its effects, but you can’t actually see the wind.

The same is true of breath. For the ancients, breath is an invisible life force within us. It was mysterious and unseen, yet always present. They would describe God as ruach and pneuma, because they experienced God to be like the wind that moves outside of us and the breath that moves inside of us. We are in God, even as God is also within us.

The fancy theological word for this is panentheism. The Greek roots of the word explain its meaning: pan (everything) en (in) theos (God). Everything is in God and God is in everything. We are in God. We live and move in God. God is not “out there”, but a presence all around us.

There is a tension between these ways of seeing God. Our natural tendency is to want to resolve that tension between these two ways of seeing God. But notice that the Bible never does. It allows both ways of experiencing God to stand side by side.

Why? Because these images and metaphors try to capture a sense of how we experience God. At the same time, the Bible is always very clear that we can never capture the whole of who God is. When we think we have done so, we have come up with nothing more than an idol.

So while we may use personal images when we speak to God, we also revel in the presence of a God who is not out there, but right here, a God in whom we live and move and have our being. God is close at hand, as close as our own breath.

In this way, the life of faith is not believing in a God who may or may not exist. The life of faith is a life of trust, entering into a relationship with the God is who is “right here”.

Rev. Yme Woensdregt