Friday, November 2, 2012

Finding A God I Dismissed

by Ben Howard

Last night the young adult group at my church had a conversation about God. We talked about images of God, and how those images are at their essence analogies that ultimately fall short of who God is. We talked about the historical kataphatic and apophatic traditions that hold differing views on whether or not you can or cannot say anything about God at all.

One of the questions we worked through were the different images of God with an emphasis on the images we gravitate towards. Images of God as father, king, creator, mother, Lord were all mentioned. These are the typical responses. If you went to church you learned how to speak of God early and these were the kinds of things you learned.

As I thought about these images during the conversation it became clear to me that I'm much more comfortable with the regal images of God than I am with the personal or relational images. I'm far more comfortable with calling God king or Lord than I am with images like friend, father or mother.

These are all images that assume some distance from God, but it's not the distance that attracts me, it's the importance. I'm attracted by the breadth and power and authority of these images of God, and its a power and authority I don't attribute to an image of God as friend.

Even more, I'm drawn to the apophatic tradition which says that God is so big, so beyond comprehension that we can't say anything about God at all. In fact, when we try to encounter God the only thing we can do is be silent.

I'm drawn to these images of God and this version of God because they emphasize the power and awesomeness of God and allow me to experience and become familiar with humility. At the same time, it makes me feel like I'm a part of something much bigger.

However, as the conversation continued, I realized that I've been too quick to dismiss some of these relational images of God and that this dismissal has been to my detriment. See, I've always viewed this kind of God as friend thing as being a little schmaltzy and over the top. I think I was only familiar with this image being exploited into the Jesus-is-my-boyfriend language of evangelical teenage girls and proto-love song style worship music. It felt demeaning to God to make him into my friend.

But I think I overreacted. The helpful aspect of this God as friend or father or mother or brother image is that it allows us to connect to God. Prayer, for instance, becomes much easier when you view God as being close to you rather than being a king of a throne. It's dangerous to ask a king something, it's honest to ask your friend.

I've always had a hard time with that kind of personal, relational connection to God. I've always felt uncomfortable praying and talking to God. It's not a question of whether or not he's listening, it's a question of importance.

Let me tell you a story to explain. A few years ago I had a friend who was going through a lot of emotional and personal turmoil. We talked a lot and she shared her frustrations and problems with me on a regular basis. They were serious issues and weighty topics that required being taken seriously. Then I would share my problems, which were typically small relating to some crush I had or a minor frustration in my personal or work life.

My problems always felt less important and I always felt ridiculous talking about them. They didn't matter and when I let these small problems get to me it made me feel bad for letting such small things bother me when someone else close to me was dealing with such significant issues.

Thankfully, my friend was compassionate and always made me comfortable about feeling my own pain and problems. She would remind me that we weren't competing to see whose problems were worse. Even though her issues and frustrations were more serious, it was still okay to feel my feelings.

I want to be more comfortable with that in relationship to God. I want all of us to be more comfortable with that. It's still vitally important to remember the powerful and authoritative images and it's probably even more important to remember that God is bigger than any of these images and is even bigger than we can possibly imagine. However, we still need to remember the closeness of God.

One last point. I want you to notice where I came upon this insight. I wasn't in my room doing my personal devotional reading. I wasn't sitting alone at my house. I wasn't at a party with a bunch of people. I was with friends who I love and trust talking about things that matter deeply to us. I was being honest with them about things I apparently hadn't been honest with myself about. This is the necessity of intentional community. It allows us to love, be loved, and discover things that we would never have discovered otherwise.

Being alone is healthy, having fun with friends and strangers is healthy, but sometimes to learn the lessons that we need to learn, we need to spend some time with people we trust talking about things that make us uncomfortable. That's community. That's the church.


You can follow Ben on Twitter @BenHoward87 or email him at benjamin.howard87 [at]

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