I like to think I know something of God, that illusive force of love I spend my life running circles around. Not as much as I should, maybe, but I know something. I read the Bible and I pray, I interact with others that do the same, and I observe a world for traces of his touch. As much as has been written about him, I understand him best by looking at him through the lens of love and beauty. When in doubt, I assume the best, I assume the loveliest. But lurking, always, are doubts, and they shade my lens of love and beauty darker—from red to blood red, from blue to bruised purple. Sometimes I can’t see God in my relationships. Sometimes, I feel like we’re all pretending. God is a complex and changing figure in my mind. Whatever image I hold of him throughout my life, however, I continually come back to his table.
My image of God isn’t God, so to speak. My image of God is based on my own personal experience of scripture and life. My thoughts brood like a sulky poet, and, thank God, that’s not the case for everyone. Where I delve into dark corners, others walk into bright, open spaces. God might be cheery for some, powerful to others, and for others still, God may just be a villainous invention of the human mind. God is different to each of us the same way that people are. No one’s image of God is God.
I had an acquaintance a while back—we’ll call him Chuck—that one of my friends—Tony—loathed. Tony came to me in private once. “I can’t stand Chuck,” he told me, “I don’t even like being in the same room as him. I’ve tried being nice, but I find everything about him…repugnant. It’s been a struggle for me. I try to love everyone. He makes it hard to love him.”
I was taken aback by the revelation. I didn’t feel the same way at all. I thought Chuck was awkward, to be sure, but I also found myself enjoying his company from time to time. We had fun batting around opinions, and I was often taken aback by the quick vibrancy his thoughts had. This acquaintance was never a great friend, but still, I liked him far more than Tony did.
I also knew there was nothing I could do to change Tony’s mind. He knew Chuck just as well. The best I could do was encourage Tony to interact gracefully with him, but the chances of forming an affection for Chuck were slim. Their personalities were just so different.
What is striking, though, is how Tony and I understood a single person in entirely different ways. Tony saw Chuck as a pessimistic hedonist, while I saw him as a distinctive oddball. And that’s okay—as a populace, we all generally understand that not everyone is going to like everyone, or at least that we’re not going to understand everyone the same way. You can’t tell me there aren’t times when you see a couple and think to yourself, “man…talk about two terrible people ending up together.” Or, “yikes, did that woman marry a train wreck of a man or what.” In both cases, though, these people love each other, even if you don’t.
I mean, if somehow our minds all became a collective so that we saw everyone exactly the same, friendship, family, marriage, brothers, sisters, moms, dads—all of it would look a lot different. For instance, you would be able to see your father the way your mother does. No thanks.
We cannot, and should not strive towards seeing each other similarly. We can strive for loving everyone, but we will never love in the same way either (again, refer to the disturbing father/mother example).
Despite that, many Christian’s expectations are our collective views of God must look the same across the board. God’s nature is a hotly debated subject. He is peaceful, he is wrathful, he is judgmental, he is loving, he is real, he is fake, he is a hero, he is a villain. How is his peace manifest? How does he love? How does he judge? It would be easy if Christians could all just agree on who God is and how he acts, but we can’t. We haven’t for millennia. So we argue on, always discontent when someone else doesn’t see God as we do. It has been a thorn in Christianity’s foot, our persistence in trying to define God in some definitive way. We resent our parents image of God, they resented their parents image of God, and so on. It’s also a thorn in atheism’s foot, which attempts to do just the same. Experience of a being, any being, is relative.
Our images of God aren’t God, the same way that my image of Chuck isn’t Chuck. He is something separate from me entirely, and I will always see him differently than he sees his self, or then his family and friends see him. Every perspective is like a small square on a tapestry—to point to my own small square on it and say, “this is Chuck” is to do the entire tapestry a huge disservice. So it is with God.