Our Images Of God

Affect How We Relate To Prayer And Life

Other articles in these web pages consider how
God desires to relate personally with us.
Through spirituality we learn how to notice 
God's personal relationship and communication
by paying attention to our interior experiences .
These interior experiences are often the arena 
in which God's Spirit influences us.
We call them spiritual movements or affective movements. 
They happen in prayer and outside the times of prayer.
They are intermingled with our spontaneous thoughts, feelings and emotions. Ignatian spirituality calls them movements of Consolation(1) and Desolation.(2) In this article we deal with 
how our images of God can interfere with these spiritual movements
and hence can block God's attempt to relate to us personally. 

        There are various ways by which we block these affective and spiritual movements and render God's communication to us unfruitful. First we can pay no attention to these affective movements or we can refuse to take them seriously. Second we can prevent them not only by inattention and lack of reflection but also by filling our prayer with our own thoughts and monologues and fail to listen. Thirdly we may have beliefs and attitudes that interfere with God's communication; for example, "the only way I can experience God's love is to make myself lovable." Or we can filter God's attempt to communicate with us through false images. In the spiritual life false images interfere with our perception of God's communication.

        Perhaps we can understand this more readily if we consider what happens in human communication between two persons. First look at your own experience. Have you ever tried to convince someone that you were different than their fixed opinion of you? You can say words, point to proofs, really speak from your heart -- all to no avail! Or take another experience that I have often had. I am told about a person that I have never met and an image of that person has been communicated to me. Soon after I happen to meet that person; I find that the pre-given image really interferes with my own judgment about the newly-met person. The attitudes, the images we carry, affect our communication with each other. Part of the key to correct communication is respect. Respect for the uniqueness of the other so different from myself; respect for the way the other perceives life; respect for the other's mystery.

        Mystery enshrouds the deepest meaning of persons. Even those I love are mysteries to me. Often I am surprised by their unexpected remarks or behaviour; they do not fit the image I have of them. In other words, even on the level of interpersonal human relations, the categories or labels with which I use to think and judge do not exhaust the other's mystery.

        This is more true when it comes to God's communication. In fact the more I learn and get to know God, the more I discover that I do not know God. The Holy One is beyond all human ways of knowing. Aquinas made the point that everything that we say about God we have to deny about God who can only be known "analogously." (3) God is the Holy One, the Other; the one whose being transcends all human experiences. God is Mystery itself. At prayer we attempt to place ourselves in the position whereby God's mystery can touch our mystery.

        Often we try to reduce mystery to our own proportions. We do this by stereotyping the other in order to control and to manipulate. When this happens, the other is not free to communicate, feelings are filtered and twisted; noticing is prejudiced or prevented; communication is not received or mis-received. In a similar way, we prevent God from revealing God's word in our hearts through false images.

        Images affect our own responses because they influence our expectations. Take, for example, the person who has an image of a spiritual experience as a peak experience of conversion. He may have many spiritual experiences throughout the week which he cannot recognize because they do not fit his expectations. Another person may have an image of communication in marriage which leads her to expect that she and her spouse need to share on the deepest of levels before they have a good marriage. She has assumed the modern cultural view of romantic love and communication and, without question or thinking, she automatically uses this view as a criterion for a good marriage.

        The images we hold about ourselves have a way of influencing our own behaviour. I remember an event years ago when I had a small choir of seven people. At the end of one of the practice sessions I was as exhausted as if I had directed a choir of two thousand people. It was only later that I recognized a false image at work. It was as if I had been directing two thousand people because that was my image. This influenced my emotional life and my way of leading those seven people in song. It was my own "personal myth." Even to this day I notice how I complicate things and make jobs bigger than they really are.

        What is an image of God? It is an unreflected spontaneous attitude that influences my responses to God. Hence it an be a caricature, a stereotype, a hidden belief and it is influencing the stance I take when I am before God. It is intimately linked to my attitudes towards life and others. It is like a locked-in affective response. It is false to the extent that it differs from the true image of God revealed in Christ Jesus.

        Often persons trying to be open to God's communication in prayer are hampered by a false image which influences the way they listen to God.These false images are dependent on their own personal psychological and spiritual history. Think for example of a little girl who is constantly told, "Wait till your father comes home?" Imagine the image she would have of her own father and hence, by projection, of God the Father. Images differ with each person's uniqueness and they interfere in many different ways. Here is a list of some false images: arbitrary dictator; divine traffic cop; energy-force; chess player; santa clause; puppeteer; god of the gaps; miracle worker; sculptor; ferocious watchdog; divine trixter; clockmaker; security blanket; warden; designer; divine breast, amorphous barrier; tyrant etc.

        As an example of the way in which a false image can affect a person, take a woman who has a false image of God as grand designer or architect. She cannot experience the presence of God in a personal way. God remains for her outside life looking down on his grand design. This design in the most perfect of all designs and therefore this person only can see herself as trying to fit into this design by hard work and super-efficiency, responsible to keep it going. God, on the outside, allows her to measure up and create herself according to the given design. This false image affects her self image in that she feels guilty because it is impossible to measure up; she feels like a spectator looking in rather then as a participant because she does not want to interfere with the already perfect design. This false image also affects her image of prayer which she looks at as duty. The message to be received in prayer is always fixed; prayer has nothing to do with experience. This in turn affects her expectations of a group or of a community because she expects everyone to interact in the most rational way. Saying what she thinks is more important than sharing what she feels. Decision-making is a question of being logical.

        A woman who has been institutionally oppressed and/or sexually abused will find it almost impossible to relate to God, who historically, through various institutions aided and sustained by an exclusive language, has been presented as male.

        Or take the man who has an image of God as a chess player. He really believes in God and that God is involved in his life. But there are conditions. Life for the chess player is a game in which one cannot be caught in order that he can keep all his options open. In this game he keeps telling himself how worthwhile he is. He spends enormous amounts of energy on romanticized large schemes to impress himself and others. There is always a bit of the con artist at work in his relationship to God and others and he can rationalize his way out of everything. His associates sometimes are dazzled by his explanations and often after their encounters with him do not know exactly what was being said. This person uses platitudes to keep himself going. Meanwhile God is kept away and can never lead him to a deeper encounter in truth.

        In the culture of the west, individuals experience themselves in separation and independent from other individuals. The affluence of our culture means that each person has one's own radio, television, computer, bedroom, bank account, etc. A consumer society fosters such individualism in order to create more needs and sell more goods. Consequently people of western culture, and those persons who are influenced by western capitalism, inevitably have an image of themselves and of God that is highly privatized and individualized . Spirituality and religion are received and perceived as concerned only with an individual's stance before one's personal saviour. As a result of this image, spirituality for many individuals is not so much concerned with an equal distribution of wealth but more one's salvation after one dies or with a private, non-social, personal union with God. This is so different from many of the images of God in the Old Testament where God is perceived as relating primarily to the community -- a people in solidarity one with another!

        In order to receive God's communication correctly in our own experience we have to be free from false images.(4) How does one recognize false images in oneself? First by raising the very question in one's own consciousness. Sometimes simply knowing that one could possess some false images is enough to get hold of the dynamic in one's relationship with God and with others. Often however God has to reveal this to us and all we can do is dispose ourselves in prayer. Hence the second way to recognize false images in oneself is through prayer upon those very scriptures that give a correct image of God. The third way is through the awareness examen particularly when we have an experience that something has gone wrong in one's relationships with another or in a group; at this point we should investigate, "I wonder whether there has been a false image here? What could it be? God help me to see what is going on."

        The correct image of God is Jesus in his historical humanity and in his risen humanity:

"Philip, whoever has seen me has seen the Father" Jn 14:9;
"Christ is the visible likeness of the invisible God" Col l:15.

        In the resurrection narratives of the gospels we have the true image of God. In these resurrections narratives Jesus, the manifestation of the invisible God, is seen as gentle and caring as in his appearance to Magdalen in John 20:11. You can hear the quality of tenderness in his tone of voice in verse l6, or in his question of verse 13. There is also here a quiet sense of humour which one can note in Jesus' relationship to Thomas and to the disciples on the Sea of Tiberias where he calls out, "Young men, haven't you caught anything?" Jn 21:5. This same sense of humour is present as he accompanies the two disciples on the way to Emmaus. Notice how he deals with Peter in John 21 - tenderness and truth combine in his, "Peter, do you love me?" Patience, protectiveness, caring, gentleness, nearness, faithfulness, adaptable, truthful, delicate, sense of humour - these are the words that capture the image of Jesus in the resurrection. The Christ is the true image of God and all the other images of God in the bible are correct and true only to the extent that they harmonize with the image of Jesus.(5)

        How then can one explain the many negative images of God that one seems to find in the bible? If the bible is true then isn't the image of God as wrathful, punishing, vengeful, harsh, correct too? And this question we must answer.

        The first answer involves the developmental approach that one finds in the bible. What you have in the bible is a record of the religious experience of the people of Israel as they understood it at the time they were putting it down in writing. A few examples here may help to illustrate this point.

        Nowhere throughout the earlier sections of the Old Testament does one find any belief in a life after death. Rather it is only as one is approaching New Testament times that a belief in an afterlife began to emerge. As well, in the earlier sections of the bible prosperity was always considered as being a sign of God's blessing; and suffering as being sign of God's punishment. It was only when the people of Israel began to mature and reflect upon their experience (for example, through the book of Job) that they began to question this supposition, namely, that suffering was not necessarily related to punishment because good and morally upright men were experienced as suffering. So too the people of Israel had to learn slowly over many generations what Yahweh was like. Christians believe that fullness of God's revelation came in Christ Jesus.

        The second part of the answer deals with the phenomenon of projection. A disobedient child experiences one's loving father in a tyrannical way and projects upon him an image of his or her (the child's) alienation. The father may not have harmed his child in the slightest; perhaps he only reprimanded the child; perhaps only a look of disappointment; perhaps a little "time out" or some other punishment. But the interior experience of the child is one of separation, one of looking at the demands of the father as being cruel and punishing. I believe the negative images that one finds in the bible are true images of God -- but in reverse; they are the images which are projected upon God as the result of an alienated experience. Wrath, harshness, punishment indeed are the experience; but it is the experience of the people themselves as they are confronted by a harsh world and project it according to their understanding upon the Holy One who is considered responsible for everything. The so-called negative images that are in the bible are examples of how suffering, hurting and/or alienated people project their own alienation upon God.

-- Endnotes --

1. "I call it consolation when an interior movement is aroused in the soul, by which it is inflamed with love of its Creator and Lord, and as a consequence, can love no creature on the face of the earth for its won sake, but only in the Creator of them all. It is likewise consolation when one sheds tears that move to the love of God, whether it be because of sorrow for sins, or because of the sufferings of Christ our Lord, or for any other reason that is immediately directed to the praise and service of God. Finally, I call consolation every increase of faith, hope, and love, and all interior joy that invites and attracts to what is heavenly and to the salvation of one's soul by filling it with peace and quiet in its Creator and Lord." (Spiritual Exercises - #316 Guidelines For Discerning Spirits)

2. "I call desolation what is entirely the opposite of what is described in the third rule, as darkness of soul, turmoil of spirit, inclination to what is low and earthly, restlessness rising from many disturbances and temptations which lead to want of faith, want of hope, want of love. The soul is wholly slothful, tepid, sad, and separated, as it were, from its Creator and Lord. For just as consolation is the opposite of desolation, so the thoughts that spring from consolation are the opposite of those that spring from desolation." (Spiritual Exercises -- #317 Guidelines For Discerning Spirits)

3. Analogy is a comparison or an intuitive inference of a similarity of an actual or assumed relationship, in some way, between two things in order to go from the known to the unknown. For example, when we finally arrive at some understanding of a thing, we commonly say, "Oh, ... I see it now." We don't actually "see" but we are using an analogous way of speaking (in this case, a metaphor) based on sense perception. This particular comparison goes all the way back to Aristotle who wrote: "As sight is in the body, so understanding is in the soul, while each is disparate." Analogy is essential to human knowing because knowledge develops from the known to the unknown.

In literature, figures of speech such as metaphors, similes, allegories, parables, etc., are specific kinds of analogy.

In science, models and paradigms imply analogous ways of knowing; for example, the atomic structure understood as a galaxy within itself is one such model. On July 4, 1997, scientists began to send photographs from Mars from a vehicle that had just landed there. They knew how to do this even though the human race had only studied aspects of Mars through astronomy, physics, etc. By analogy with the physical laws operative on our own planet, they could recognize and extrapolate the similarities and differences of Mars from those of Earth. However, they had to assume the existence of some relationship with aspects of Earth which they already understood. To do this, they had to use an analogous way of thinking.

Theology and spirituality, based on the critical reflection on our religious experiences and those of others, such as those recorded in the bible, cannot develop without the use of analogy. It is suitable to speak of the "parenthood" of God because there is something about God's relationship towards us that is reflected in our own experience of parenthood. The bible itself uses such an analogy (Is 49:14; Ps 131).

4. Facilitators of spiritual groups should learn to recognize false images at work in dealing with others in a group setting. Take, for example, the group setting in which someone seems to be dominating the conversation. The fact that he/she needs to be talking over and over again may in fact be due to a false image of oneself as a bad person seeking the approval and strokes of the group. His/her image of God may be the image of a tyrant god who needs to be pleased by being told all the right things. The image of the group may be that he/she has to share everything that one experiences in order to get a good feeling. Such false images can interfere both with the interaction of a group and its decision-making process. A spiritual leader should be in touch with his/her own images and expectations that flow from these; then he/she can begin to detect these operating in others.

5. As Myrna M. Small wrote, "God did not give us a manual of instructions when God created human life on our planet. The revelation of the word of God through the bible came very late in the development of planet earth. What God did leave us was the image of the Christ!"

If you would like to do some research on how
images of God and prayer
affect our attitudes towards life, the world and our environment,
click here.


If you would like to do some research on how one's image of Jesus
affects one's attitudes and actions click each of these two articles:
1. The Message Of Jesus -- by Juan Mateos

2. Presenting Jesus of Nazareth -- by José I. González Faus
as well as articles from the following website:

click here

click here

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