The December 17-19, 2010, issue of USA WEEKEND featured an article entitled “How Americans imagine God.” As if coming from a Hallmark card, it was subtitled, “Here’s a heartfelt gift we hope inspires you in this busy season.”
Count me uninspired.
The author, Cathy Lynn Grossman, explains that Americans were asked what they thought when they imagined God. She writes, “We received hundreds of e-mails, letters and online submissions. No two are the same, and each is intensely personal and deeply passionate.”
People from all sections of the country and from all walks of life responded, and though no two were the same, “one gleaming, common thread weaves throughout: For Americans today, God, quite simply, is love. Christians, Hindus, Jews and Buddhists alike describe a loving presence who offers a pathway to goodness, peace and brotherhood. Some imagine him, or her, as limitless energy; others, a force of nature as great as the ocean and as dear as a baby’s smile. Non-believers, about 5%, didn’t miss a chance to chime in with declarations that we can all be good without God.”
How do the folks view God? “A mother cradling a child, a heart afire with passion, the willingness to sacrifice for another’s benefit.” “He challenges me to do things that are beyond my logic, mainly helping others.” “Transparent, shapeless and genderless.” “Love, beauty, goodness, truth and compassion.” “Like me because she is me and I am her. She is something you feel within your soul.” “Standing above the clouds, one arm folded across his chest, the other resting on the folded arm with his hand on his chin. He is waiting for me to talk to him and when I do, He is so happy.” “A great loving Father who lets me climb into his lap.”
A pastor in Texas had the most biblical answer, drawing from Isaiah’s vision: “Sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple with angels praising Him saying Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty!” A professor at the Duke Divinity School gushed, “God does not erect borders of separation and distance. God busts open every barrier that would seal us in our aloneness.” A contemporary Christian songwriter opined, “A deep well of forgiveness; an endless outpouring of love; author of the universe and yet still involved in the smallest details of my life, past, present, and future.” A rabbi in Los Angeles maintained that God is “something that I cannot begin to imagine.” An actor waxed philosophical, “A kernel of positive electromagnetic power in each of us, a remnant of the origin of the universe that can occasionally flare up within us in the form of grace or inspiration, and which is inextinguishable.”
So what do you think when you think of God? We need to be careful here. John Calvin wrote in his Institutes of the Christian Religion that “the human mind is, so to speak, a perpetual forge of idols.” When I think about God, I don’t envision anything. I am content to consider his attributes. The imagination precedes the actual fashioning of an idol, and God does not take that lightly (Exodus 20:4-5).
Left to one’s mental creativity, there is no limit to the excesses to which one may go in imagining God, and such imagination, regardless how good it makes one feel, does not represent the true God. God has not left himself to our imaginations. Rather, he has revealed himself to us in the Scriptures, and that is sufficient. When Moses sought to see God, God revealed who he is: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Exodus 34:6–7). Meditate upon those verses for a little while. When you read the Scriptures, observe how God has revealed himself. You will not have to imagine. God has not left himself to our imaginations. He has revealed himself, and that is sufficient. Seeing God as the Bible reveals him will help us respond as Moses responded: “And Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth and worshiped” (Exodus 34:8).