Recently I was asked if it was wrong to imagine God, during prayer, as a mature man – something like Michelangelo’s depiction of God on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel at the Vatican.
I said that it’s not wrong but while it is useful to have an image as we pray we mustn’t limit God to one stereotype. We are made in God’s image so it can be helpful to use that image in prayer. Through out the bible we are told that God loves us like a father loves his children. Through Jesus’ use of the word ‘Abba’ for God we not only get the sense of God as a father but one who is loving and approachable. Who welcomes us and guides us. We are also told that God loves us as a mother – whether a hen gathering her chicks under her wings or a mother nursing her child at the breast. As long as our own experience of being parented was a good one, visualising God in human form helps us to draw nearer in prayer and to trust both the love and the discipline.
However, if we allow our imaginations to limit God to human form we run the risk of creating God in our likeness and not worshipping God at all, Instead, we try to have him as a puppet to do our bidding or we make him completely irrelevant.
Many different metaphors are used for God in the bible to convey that he is far more than an imagined person. One of the most powerful is that of fire. Fire is both positive and negative – creating and life sustaining but also destroying and cleansing. This, too, is the God we approach in prayer. We pray for the life giving power of fire to burn in others and in our world, to sustain with heat and passion both ourselves and those we pray for, but we also know that he will burn away the dross in our lives – a necessary but painful experience.
God sent his son, Jesus, to be the image of the invisible God – to enable us to approach him with confidence and trust. But for prayer and a life of faith to be truly joyous and powerful we must acknowledge that our God is beyond our imagination. He can be trusted but not tamed. He calls us to grow into his image not shrink him into ours. As we come to know more of God and let him be beyond us he enables us to be more than we ever thought we could be, too.